That Thing Called Fear

 

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(My lame attempt at drawing.)

When you experience the tumultuous waves of grief that crest over your head and wipe you out over and over again, you learn to either sink or swim. Eventually, when your survival no longer feels like a daily struggle, you will find yourself with enough time and space to pause for a second and wonder to yourself: what have I been most upset about? What was the worst part of it?

Do I miss him?

Was it the end of the marriage? ‘Til death do we part.

Being a single mom?

Perhaps it’s the loneliness.

Or going to work without him, having to hear somebody new’s voice through the drywall that separated our classrooms.

It could have been the difficulty of managing our busy household on my own, unpacking lunch boxes and preparing dinner and helping with homework and giving showers and dressing kids for bed and making sure they all floss and read before lights out and then-collapse in exhaustion. Every night. By myself. It is all one can do to not succumb to the monotony, intensity, and tediousness of this role.

Maybe I’m most upset about having to figure out the finances where he left off, or becoming the person in the house who has to put out the trash cans on Sunday nights, or how I have to kill my own spiders now.

I am upset about not having that one person who was supposed to be in my corner 24/7.

And then there’s the part about not having a father for my children. He was the only other person who loved our children the way I do.

But in reality, it’s probably all of the above. Some more than others. The intensity ebbs and flows depending on the day.

Here’s the thing: there is something else causing the pain besides being lonely and having to do the carpool rounds on my own. It’s also the reason why grief eventually subsides.  

Fear.

When I analyze my feelings, it was fear that fueled the other emotions.

Three kids on my own. I don’t think I need to explain the fear in that scenario. There was also financial fears. Logistical fears. Emotional fears. Responsibility fears. If I mess this up–it’s all on me.

Marriage can be a cushion for our fears. Being an adult involves taking on a lot of responsibilities that are scary at times. But, with a partner, we can at least share those fears, and that will lessen our anxiety. We can figure out which person is better at handling what the other partner doesn’t like, and in that way the division of labor is done in a way that helps to assuage our fears and worries, even in the smallest ways. There is something about being on a team that feels reassuring–to know that you are not alone and have somebody to share the burden and experience with.

In widowhood and single motherhood, there is no safety net. There is nobody to double check the numbers or remind you to schedule an appointment or to comfort you in the moments of your despair. There is nobody to help put the kids to sleep or sit next to you during the parent-teacher conference while the teacher complains about your child and you feel like the biggest failure. There is nobody to hold your hand through scary medical situations, or to handle emergencies that might feel overwhelming. There is nobody to bounce ideas off of. There is nobody to run the errands you don’t want to do, or make the phone calls you want to avoid. There is nobody to take over parental duties when you lose your shit because the youngest child dumped his food all over the floor that you just cleaned and you feel like you’re on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s always just you.

I learned about fear in the worst way the moment I found Kenneth on the living room floor and dialed 9-1-1 with my trembling hands.

I felt the fear paralyze me in the ER as I stood over his dead body and a hospital worker entered the room and gently handed me a list of options.

Options.

As in, the options for body disposal.

I remember thinking: are you kidding?

I wasn’t prepared for that moment. Why wasn’t I prepared? We had conversations about cremation and buying a niche in the same cemetery where his parents were inurned. We talked about death more than most couples I know. But we never visualized that moment when one of us might be in the ER standing over the other person’s body while our babies slept at home, and how one of us would have to take that list of crematory options and pick one, and then go home and figure out how to host a funeral and remember to pump breast milk for the baby and keep breathing amidst the ruination of our family as we knew it. We never talked about the possibility of one of us raising our young family completely on their own.

I am doing it, somehow. But what stands out the most from that early period of grief was the bone-crushing fear that continuously hung over my head like a dark cloud. What if I chose wrong? What if I screwed everything up? What if, what if, what if?

Fear is not an emotion specific to big tragic events. We learn it early, and in appropriate doses our fears are perfectly normal and healthy.

Fear the hot pan.

Fear walking out into the street.

Fear not doing your homework and failing a class.

Fear cheating on your spouse.

There is a place for fear.

I have a recurring nightmare. I’ve had it throughout my adult life. It usually begins with me waking up at my parents’ house and realizing that although I am a grown woman, for whatever financial reason, I have to live with my parents. Sometimes the dreams involve my children. Sometimes the dreams have my husband living with my parents too. But the scariest part of the dream is the feeling of hopelessness that I have–this belief that there is no way out. I am stuck there, under their roof, with no means of leaving.

No offense to my parents, but my independence is what I treasure the most in this world. I fear not having it. My subconscious apparently worries about it too with these crazy dreams.

When I was a teenager and a young adult, my fears were not making friends. Not being the right size. Not having cool enough clothes. Not being smart enough. I worried about getting my period in a class where the teacher didn’t allow hall passes. I feared getting raped. Not going to the college of my choice. Not being pretty. Not graduating. Not moving out. Not getting married. Never having children.

In motherhood, I fear that I am messing up my children. I worry about raising wild kids whose creativity and penchant for marching to the beat of their own drums will not lead them to viable careers. I worry they will get sick. I worry that I could have done more for them. I worry about all the stupid small decisions in parenthood, like should they do after school tutoring or are they eating too much sugar? I worry that I will fail them because I am a single mother and their father is dead.  

As a woman, I’ve worried about my dress size. I worry that my midsection is too big and my thighs too wide. I’ve worried about my unruly hair and the creases appearing on my face. I worry about skin cancer and other types of cancer and whether or not my heart will explode like my husband’s. I fear for this country. I fear for the environment. I fear for all of the jobs my children will have to hold in their lifetimes just to survive. I worry that I will never fall in love again. I worry about getting older and less desirable as a woman. I still fear getting raped. I fear running out of money. I fear the next thing that will break and I will have to figure it out. I fear not being taken seriously as a woman. I fear being sexualized in society. I fear for my daughter and other people’s daughters.

What I’ve learned about fear is that it can consume us, driving us into a state of paralysis that consumes our thoughts in an unhealthy way. Inaction is exactly the conditions fear needs to grow bigger and stronger in our minds. Fear can only continue to exist when you do nothing about it.

In the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that fear will eventually subside in widowhood. That’s because over time, you are forced to take action, and each bit of action is an empowering process that will help you conquer those initial fears.

Pick a crematory.

Arrangements with the mortuary.

Clear out his closet.

Make financial decisions.

Pay bills with one income.

Take care of children on your own.

Show up to Donuts with Dad with no dad.

Be there for your children even when you feel weak.

Survive awkward and painful social encounters as you get used to this new version of yourself.

Learn to advocate for yourself.

Be awkward some more.

Cry.

Change all of the diapers.

Take care of the washer, dryer, and stove that all break in one year.

Get through the first holidays and birthdays without him.

Rinse, and repeat.

Slowly, your fears will erode, because as long as you are moving forward and taking action–no matter how big or small–fear can not continue to grow inside of you. Each bit of action makes the fear shrink, until one day you realize it is no longer there. 

Dale Carnegie said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it.”

One thing that has helped me deal with my fears is to figure out what the next small step needs to be. Nothing big. Just the next little thing I can do toward progress.  I have the tendency to overwhelm myself with everything I think I have to do right in that moment. The truth is, you almost never have to do EVERYTHING in one moment. Slow and steady wins the day.

When you are feeling paralyzed by fear, ask yourself: what is the next best thing I need to do?

What can you do?

What can’t you do?

You need to be clear about each of these questions in order to know what the next step is.

One of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama is the following: If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”

It helps to know if there is something you can do about a problem. If there is, then do it.  

Another observation I have made about fear is that it is often the anticipation of something that hurts us the most, not the actual thing. First, we need to remember that this anticipation will pass. You will give the speech you dreaded, and then you will feel better. You will have that dreaded meeting, and then you will feel better. Being mindful of the fact that feelings don’t last forever is huge. We get bogged down in all the terrible scenarios that might happen instead of focusing on what we can do to prevent those situations from occurring. Another way to conquer our anticipation anxiety is to do the hard work to prevent a terrible situation.

Scared about giving a speech? Practice.

Scared about taking a test? Study.

Scared about failing a class? Do the work. Communicate with your teacher.

Scared that your writing sucks? Put it out there anyway. Maybe it sucks. Keep writing.

Scared that your husband will leave you? Do everything you can, and then accept that you can’t control other people and plan your next steps accordingly.

Scared of raising kids on your own? Constantly look for ways to be more organized and efficient. There is always something else to try (I am constantly working on this).

Part of dealing with fear is letting go of the desire to control the outcome. Instead of focusing your attention on what might happen, you instead shift your energy to focus on what you can do right now, and you actually do it. The “doing it” part is essential. You must take action, even in the scariest moments that make you want to pee your pants. Do not sit in your soiled pants! Take action. Take action. Take action.

There are a variety of things that I do to help myself figure out what step I need to take. I journal a lot. Make lists. Write out plans. Sketch out ideas. I write family goals and individual goals. I review the goals. I brainstorm ideas. Over and over and over again. I chart habits. I read a lot. I try to learn new things as much as I can. My goal is to constantly find ways that I can live better. I run–I get some of my best ideas from running. Listen to podcasts. Have conversations with interesting people. Go to bed early and try again in the morning. These have all worked.

But guess what? We are human. So fear will pop up again. And then you just have to squash it back down with the mighty hammer of you taking action.

One day you will realize that these small steps were your journey, not your destruction.

 

I Don’t Need Mother’s Day

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I knew since I was a small child that I wanted to have children. My sister and I played with dolls regularly. I had a penchant for Cabbage Patch Dolls, and one of the highlights of my youth was my aunt taking me to the Cabbage Patch hospital at Hobby City so my dolls could get their check-ups. I babysat a lot. Like, a LOT, starting when I was 12-years-old. At 20 I could single-handedly take care of four kids by myself for several nights. I would load them all into the Suburban and take them out to eat at Olive Garden, take them to the park, to the movies, and make sure they were all fed, bathed, and tucked into bed with a story and brushed teeth before lights out. Almost like a real soccer mom (I even kept diapers and one of those waterproof soccer mom blankets in my trunk). I’ve always loved children. It’s funny to me that my daughter doesn’t like dolls and is so awkward around babies, because I was the type of girl who begged to hold them. There was never any question in my mind; I knew I would be a mother, and I knew I would be a good mother.

I was raised to believe that children are something you have when you get married. But I worried that I wouldn’t find anyone. In my early twenties, I (prematurely) started thinking about what I would do if I never found a husband. It always felt like a distinct possibility, so I figured out what I would do just in case: I’d adopt a kid from Cambodia like Angelina Jolie did. I even looked up international adoption agencies online. I wasn’t going to miss the motherhood boat no matter what life threw at me. That much I knew with certainty.

Instead of the adopted Cambodian kid, fate ended up giving me 3 half Japanese children, all from my own uterus. Life is strange like that. Just when you think you know what will happen next, an unexpected plot twist happens and suddenly you are living a story that you never imagined in a million years.

And yet, part of my worst fears did come true: I’d be a mother alone.

I am a mother, alone.

When my husband unexpectedly passed away and left me a single mother of a 6-year-old, 3-year-old, and 13-month-old, I lost a part of my motherhood identity that I had come to believe was my world–my everything.

Married mother of 3.

Single mother of 3.

Those are two very different realities.

If I never found someone to marry, I would have adopted ONE Cambodian kid. I wouldn’t have willingly chosen to become a single mother of three. I’m not that crazy.

I think it’s safe to say that the supermajority of people do not grow up and declare an intention of being the old woman who lives in a shoe full of kids. It’s not exactly a dream-come-true.

I felt resentment toward my children in the early days of grief. I had several people tell me to my face that it would probably be impossible for me to find someone else with all of the kids I had. I mean, I wouldn’t even want to date me with three kids. Still, it felt painful to be thrust into a reality that was not of my own creation and to feel exiled yo a life devoid of adult companionship. It felt so patently unfair to do everything I was supposed to do and still get dealt this raw hand by the universe.

I spent a lot of time feeling resentful toward the universe. Toward my dead husband. Myself. Toward everyone else who didn’t have to deal with dead husbands. How could I be so stupid to procreate with a man who would die early? It must have been my fault, I thought. It had to be somebody’s fault. How could I get so screwed over in life?

It took a lot of reflection to assuage my angst over being a single mother.

I had to remember why I wanted children to begin with.

I had a realization: these are most likely the only children I will have (unless of course cupid ambushes me and knocks me over the head).

I waited my entire life to have these children, and they were each so very wanted and planned.

This is their childhoods.

Their precious, fleeting childhoods.

Now.

Their round faces and pudgy tummies and baby talk and lisps and penchant for stuffed animals and the childhood wonder in their expressions and the silly questions that they ask–all of it only lasts for a fleeting moment in the grand scheme of life.

I can’t waste any time bemoaning what I can’t change. The fact remained: I was still a mother. Their mother. This was, by my own girlhood definitions, my dream-come-true.

Yes, it’s more difficult as a single mother. It’s tedious and lonely and sometimes scary, but it’s doable. I’m making it happen. It’s not perfect and it can be messy and stressful and sometimes it feels like an insurmountable challenge that I am failing at, but we’re doing it. And we’re all mostly happy and fulfilled. That’s not guaranteed to anyone, single or married.

I had to embrace a redefinition of what my motherhood looked like. I had to let go of expectations and realize our new life would not look like our previous one–and that was okay. It wasn’t less than. Maybe it could even be better in ways that we have yet to experience or realize.

Despite how much my children can drive me crazy (I am outnumbered, after all), they are so fun and loving. Each child is uniquely their own person, and in them I see traces of their father, and parts of myself. They are my late husband’s ultimate living legacy, and I cherish that I get to continue to have a piece of him through our children.

I don’t need to celebrate Mother’s Day on one particular day. My kids show me every single day how much they love me, and on a daily basis I am struck by how much I love them, and in complete awe of the people they are becoming.

Plus, despite being a single mother, I don’t need the day off. The sitter usually comes on Sunday, but I told her she didn’t have to come this week so she could spend it with her mother.

One thing I learned when I became a single mother is that it is of the utmost importance to intentionally work on your identity, separate from motherhood. This is vital for your survival and mental health.

I do not live for my children.

That may not sound very motherly to you, but I don’t believe in sacrificing my identity for other human beings–that applies to both men and offspring.

I believe in loving my children and doing the best possible job as a mother. I believe in creating opportunities for them and exposing them to a wide variety of experiences. I devote my resources to them. I have a personal rule of not being out of the house after school and missing bedtime more than two days in a row. Flossing their teeth, reading with them, and taking them on adventures are all daily priorities. In other words, I am highly invested in spending copious amounts of quality time with my children and they have always been a priority.

Not wanting to live for your children isn’t the same as not wanting to be a good mother.

It’s just that I believe I can be a better mother if I take care of myself. I don’t think motherhood is synonymous with extinguishing our own personal goals and hopes and dreams.

I don’t believe I have to make a choice between me and them. I think a mother can take good care of both herself and her family.

I believe in living alongside of my children. Not for them. They don’t exist because I sacrificed myself at the altar of motherhood and let them drain my blood. We are all happier and stronger when our individual needs are addressed–we’re a team. They are my teammates in life. I am not just their team mom. There’s a difference.

In marriage, it’s easy to lose yourself to motherhood. Dani Shapiro quoted Donald Hall in her memoir Hourglass. Donald Hall said the following about his marriage: “We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked a a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.”

My children was one of our “third things” in my marriage. Teaching and politics were probably the other ones. But our children were our #1 thing, for sure. When I met Kenneth, he had a 3-year-old son. A big part of our relationship developed around parenting his son. Driving up north every other weekend for visitations. Going to court over custody. Dealing with his difficult ex. Raising a child with behavioral needs. Taking care of that child–his swim class, Cub Scouts, homework, and all of that. In essence, we started our relationship in the throes of parenthood. Our relationship didn’t know a time when there were no children around.

So what happens when your family–your children–are linked to your marriage identity?

That was my problem when I became a widow. How do I continue motherhood with the same enthusiasm, knowing that it was once a joint “third thing” with my husband, and now having to keep it going on my own. It’s like playing a baseball game without any teammates. How could I be the pitcher, catcher, play all the bases, outfield, and bat? Impossible. And who would be next to me to admire our great work? Or cry alongside of me. Vent. Be joyful. Who would experience the full spectrum of parenting with me? There was no replacement for my husband. When he died, I realized there was nobody who could love our children the way he did.

That’s when my resentment festered, and I had to work it out. I did a lot of journaling. Writing. Reflection. Thinking. Crying. Processing. Frustration, anger, joy–everything. I had to get it all out of my system before I could begin to reimagine the rest of my life as a mother.

I had to go back to that little girl who wanted children ever since she cradled her Cabbage Patch dolls. I had to remember why I wanted to be a mother–a love of children, a penchant for nurturing others, and a desire to make a difference in young lives.

As I revisioned who I was as a mother, I have adopted intentionality about carving out a life for myself and still being a “good” mother.

I wasn’t a priority when I was married. It was just the family–one unit. Almost everything went to the children, and whatever crumbs of my energy that were leftover went to my husband. There was nothing left for me.

But as a single mother, this was not sustainable. I knew I’d go crazy.

I began to set regular hours for the sitter to come to my house. In theory I can do anything with the standing commitment I have with myself 2-3 days a week, but in reality I usually go work at Starbucks or play tennis. Nothing wild. But it’s always what I want to do.

I bought myself a fun car.

I write buckets lists and make goals and allow myself to daydream about what I want my future to look like.

I re-did my bedroom and banned the kids from bringing their toys and junk in there. It’s my room now, intentional space for me.

I try to exercise regularly. I find that it centers me and makes me feel good both physically and mentally.

I journal. I read.

I took up playing tennis despite never having played it before. It’s sad that most adult women playing tennis for fun are, how should we say, on the end of the life spectrum when the children are grown? The sad part is that all of the younger women are probably entrenched in the tediousness of motherhood. That stage in your life when you devote all of your energy to the children and spouse. Your hobbies include watching your kids take swim lessons and driving the minivan full of kids to storytime at the library once a week and packing well-balanced lunches in between helping the kids with their homework and feeding and changing them. Oh yeah, and get the laundry folded before it sits on the couch for a week.

I have contempt when I see this now, because I recognize myself in that self-sacrifice. I used to be that woman. I used to think that this self-sacrifice was the hallmark of good motherhood. Now I think it’s foolishness.

I began to ask myself: am I working hard to raise good kids just so they can get married and have kids and no longer foster their interests and talents? To just throw it away to domesticity? Did my parents raise me to just be a slave to other people?

Don’t get me wrong. I think cooking dinner and cleaning my house is a form of a self-care. I can’t pursue all of my other interests and goals if things are a mess at home. A balance must be struck.

But there is no balance when you allow yourself to be a slave to other people, even when those other people share your DNA.

You know what I can’t stand?

The “I don’t have time” excuse.
I don’t have time.

Ha.

Lamest excuse ever.

YOU HAVE TIME.

Sometimes you have to be creative, and sometimes you have to make the conscious decision that your life is important too. Your children benefit when their parent is happy and fulfilled. I don’t want to claim to know what fulfills other people, but wiping asses and packing lunches isn’t a source of personal fulfillment. I do it out of love for my family, but it is not what defines me.

Our schedule reflects our priorities.

It’s not that you “don’t have time.”

It’s that you haven’t made yourself a priority.

I go running with a double stroller and a third kid riding his bike alongside of me. There are ways to make it happen.

It’s stressful. It doesn’t always work. I get frustrated and stressed out. But I’m here as the widowed mother of three to say it can happen. You can find time. You can make it work.

And it’s good for you as a mother.

It is all of this hard work–of redefining who I am and making a conscious effort to separate it from my motherhood–that makes me not feel compelled to do anything special for myself on Mother’s Day.

I’ve been taking care of myself as a mother, and I’m at a comfortable place. That’s the best present ever.

Mother’s Day shouldn’t just be one day a year that we give mothers flowers and pancakes and Hallmark cards.

We should be more focused on supporting mothers in the challenging endeavor of carving out lives that are authentically their own. Not as housekeepers. Not as babysitters.

Mothers need your support in the workplace. They deserve equal pay. They need to not be punished for having children in the way of getting passed over for promotions, being denied leadership positions, and being constrained by strict hours that are not conducive to raising children. Mothers have so many wonderful skills to offer the world, but they also have responsibilities at home. How can we support mothers to make them be able to do both–women with interests and goals and careers AND mothers– instead of choosing one over the other?

Let’s figure out how to make childcare more affordable.

Let’s figure out how to make healthcare more affordable. Giving birth shouldn’t break the bank.

Let’s allow women to determine what happens to their bodies, and give them the opportunity to plan their families. Motherhood is already difficult–but it’s especially bone-crushingly difficult when we have to become mothers in circumstances that we do not want, with a lack of resources.

That’s the kind of stuff I’d like to see mothers get from society. Pancakes are good, but most of us moms are already struggling to lose the baby weight, so let’s give them something that will make them feel good about themselves: independence and self-determination. Respect. Support.

Let’s treat mothers as women with their own unique interests and goals that don’t involve babbling about pee pee and poo poo. Women who have things that they enjoy that don’t involve buying diaper bags or nursing bras. Interests that go beyond being the resident housekeeper in the family

Motherhood is such an important part of who we are, but it isn’t who we are.

I’m not just a woman.

I’m not just a teacher.

I’m not just a daughter.

I’m not just a sister.

I’m not just an American.

I’m not just a mother.

Human beings are never that simplistic. We don’t have to choose this or that. We can be all of the above.

Although being a mother will have been one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had, and one in which I am honored to serve and pledge to do my very best, it is just one aspect of who I am.

I look forward to living and growing alongside of Ethan, Eloise, and Peter Jack. They are everything I have ever wanted in my life, and I am so lucky to be their mother. I will die a happy woman knowing that I got to bring them into the world and nurture and support the people they continue to become.

Anniversary Table for Four

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Saturday May 12th would have been my anniversary. Wedding anniversaries after death are tricky. Do they still exist? What do they mean?

It feels odd to treat them like an ordinary day. They seem to deserve more notice than that.

Kenneth and I got married on my grandparents’ anniversary, 64 years after they were married. My grandparents’ were married just shy of 60 years. I thought it was good luck to pick that date.

Turns out, there’s probably no such thing as good luck dates. Especially in the case of my luck, which basically sucks.

We fell into the habit of treating our anniversary like a family anniversary–the day that our family officially began. Sort of. I mean, from a legal perspective, anyway. Kenneth and I were together for 2 years before that. That’s the thing about dates. They are often arbitrary.

When Kenneth died two weeks before our 7th wedding anniversary, I decided to continue the tradition of celebrating the inception of our family, in lieu of being able to go on a romantic date with my husband. The only other option was the ignore the date, and that didn’t feel right. So off we went–me and my three kids–to dinner at a table for four.

I remember teasing Kenneth in the months before his death. “Our 7-year itch is coming. Will we last?”

“What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously.

I smirked. “You know what they say. You better watch out. We may not make it past seven years.”

He got mad and told me not to say that. He didn’t think it was funny.

In hindsight, it wasn’t funny.

We didn’t last.

We never even made it to our 7-year itch, not because of divorce, but were instead thwarted by an exploding aorta.

Marriage is such a complicated thing. We enter it with blinders on. We have all of these preconceived notions and expectations about it. Sometimes we are young when we make the commitment. We almost never account for the changes that we will individually experience over time. While we inevitably change, our marriage either changes along with us, or we outgrow it.

I suspect we all face these challenges to varying degrees at some point(s) in our marriages. Some of us survive the growing pains. Some of us don’t. Some of us never have to find out because one of us drops dead first.

I don’t have the answers. The only thing I can offer is perspective about what happens when your spouse passes away and you are left in the solitude of marital reflection. I also have the privilege of having records–both my journals and my late husband’s–upon which I have pored over in my quest to examine what kind of a life we had together.

Once Kenneth asked me why I never read his journals anymore. When our relationship was new, I practically shoved a microscope up his ass and inspected all aspects of his existence. I sucked his soul dry, taking anything and everything I could squeeze out of him. I looked through his journals that he kept on his computer, and I found the Mead notebooks he liked to write in. I went through his closets. Found old emails. Text messages. Boxes of old papers shoved behind a vacuum cleaner that he rarely used in that wretched studio apartment he lived in when we first met. Everything. I learned about his crushes. Saw pictures of the ex-girlfriend posed in the same hallway I stood in, and asked him questions about what he saw in her. Back when the novelty of our love still caused the butterflies to flutter in my stomach, I was hungry to know more about him, as if it somehow mattered in figuring out how our lives fit together. I wanted to excavate the layers of his life. The child version of him. His teenage self. Young adult Kenneth. The new teacher Kenneth. His life when he had a son with the woman who posed in the hallway–the nasty email exchanges they had about custody and medical bills.

And then over time there was nothing more to know. I had looked under every rock. Heard every story. I could predict what he would say before he opened his mouth. I knew all of his habits. His passwords were my passwords. I had seen him go to the bathroom in front of me a zillion times. We shared our daily commute to work, cooked dinner together every night, and I could easily look up his internet browser history if I wanted to–but I no longer had any interest. If anything, there were many times that I didn’t want in, but rather wanted out.

We want what we don’t have.

When he was alive, I wanted my freedom. I wanted a better husband. One that listened to me and understood my desires. I wanted everything that existed beyond the borders of my world. I had an insatiable appetite for more. There was always something more to want.

When he was dead, I wanted him back. I would even take that version of him who left his dirty socks on the floor and had piles of clutter everywhere he went. I wanted anything he wrote down. I wanted videos of him speaking and felt paranoid that I would forget his voice. I wanted any crumb of a memory or connection, desperate to hold on to him as his existence slipped away from me like the sand we try to hold in our hands.

Suddenly I had many unanswered questions to ask him even though I once thought I knew everything about him. I didn’t know everything, it was just that the novelty wore off, and I somehow forgot he was still there.

Something about unavailability makes a human frantic. Like when you were a child and your mom was on the phone or in the bathroom and you suddenly needed to say something to her. Or you are somewhere without water and you start to feel the narrowing of your parched throat, convinced you might die of dehydration if you don’t drink water RIGHT NOW. The more you think about what you don’t have, the more you need it.

During our marriage, Kenneth had become one of those post-it notes that you stick onto your computer screen as a reminder of something that needs your attention. You scribble something important on it with the grand plan of making it a priority, but over time your eyes become accustomed to seeing the bright yellow square, and the effect is that you somehow stop seeing it. It blends in with everything else in the room. You just pass right by, paying it no attention. When you do happen to notice, the post-it feels a little burdensome–like it’s one more thing you haven’t dealt with but probably should have, and now it feels encumbering and you grow resentful.

That was my husband: this important thing right in front of me, but I couldn’t see it.

There were a lot of complaints in both my journals and in his. Some of them valid complaints. Sometimes vicious complaints about the other person. A lot of it was one-sided angry drivel. When I first started reading them, I felt angry. I wondered if it was actually a good thing that I wasn’t married anymore. It’s a terrible thought to have when the other person is dead–the father of your children.

I wondered if our lives had really been that horrible. Had we spent the last 9 years hating each other? The journal entries seemed to indicate this, and yet I had memories that contradicted that version of our life together. It seemed more nuanced than what our angsty journal entries indicated.

I knew there had been good times. Our trip to Paris, strolling through the Jardin des Plantes. Jogging through our neighborhood in the evenings, talking so much that the 25 minutes passed quickly, motivating each other. The night before he died, sitting out on the patio after the kids went to sleep, brainstorming the details of our upcoming trip to Berlin and then falling asleep in between the sentences we exchanged in bed.

There were good times. I wasn’t crazy.

We just apparently forgot to write them down. How stupid that we spend more time on what goes wrong in our lives, and less time nurturing what went right.

I turned to photographic evidence for more proof that I wasn’t losing my mind.

Us on the fairy tale ride at Legoland, smiling for the camera. Our daughter, Eloise, sitting next to him in the front row. The baby on my lap, and our firstborn next to me. Smiling. Happy.

Us in front of General Sherman in Sequoia National Park. We were wearing our goofy camp shirts. Peter Jack is in the baby carrier, pressed against my chest. Kenneth had Eloise on his back. We smiled big while our friend took the obligatory photo. We had no idea that this would be our last camping trip together as a family of five.

Us on the day we got married at the courthouse. Later, we met our families at a restaurant. There is a photograph of all of us, me wearing Kenneth’s black suit jacket over my white sundress. His dad was in the picture; we gave him a ride home. His dad is gone now. Kenneth is gone.

Us in front of Picasso’s apartment in Montmartre. The kids eating gelato that dribbles out of their mouths.

Us on the beach, taking our last family picture. Everyone wears color-coordinated clothes and we all amazingly are looking at the camera and smiling at the same time. This is the picture that went on the funeral announcements. It got shared online as people spread the horrible news: Kenneth Shimogawa, Dead at 52.

When Kenneth and I started dating, I began a tradition of making a scrapbook or photo album for our anniversary. It includes photographs of our year together. I have stuck to that tradition. It is fascinating to look at these albums and be reminded of the good memories–the ones that seem to be forgotten when we’re busy dwelling on the negative. Our journals recorded our hate, but our albums reveal an alternate reality. A few days ago the kids and I received our album in the mail for year #9. We flipped through the pages together, lingering over the photos and recalling the many things we managed to pack into a year of living.

“We had a great year, didn’t we?” I said to them. I often feel like I’m not doing enough. Sometimes my days are plagued with feelings of falling short and failing as a mother. But in the big picture, it looks like we’re doing okay. Better than okay.

It’s funny–we really do get to choose what our mind focuses on. Our albums always remind me that there is so much more than the small moments we get stuck in.

Recently I read an article about a mother who lost her son, entitled “I’m Not Done Being Your Mom.” The author wrote, “being your mom is one of the best things in my life, and it always will be.” It resonated.

I’m not done being Kenneth’s wife. I don’t think I ever will be. And being his wife was one of the best things that happened to me, despite all the bullshit that often made me want to run away and/or write about him in my journal. Despite the gnarliest moments of our marriage, I would do it again. I’m the person I am today because of him, and we have these fun and sweet children together. It was all worth it.

Being his wife was a bittersweet honor that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

This Saturday, the kids and I will reserve a table for 4 and commemorate the beginning of our family, and celebrate the love that we will continue to grow in ways that we probably can’t envision yet.

Happy Anniversary, Kenneth. Forever yours. XOXO.

Life Levels the Playing Field

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The van door slid open and Ethan paused before stepping into the vehicle. “Today I learned I’m not popular,” he announced, and then chucked his backpack past his younger brother’s feet and onto the floor with a thump.

I was a few minutes late picking him up from Japanese school. Not enough to really even be considered late, but enough to make me feel guilty and stressed tenfold when I spotted him in the distance, sitting alone on a bench. He had his bright yellow Pikachu backpack strapped onto his back and his shoulders were rounded in defeat.

Crap.

When he approached our van I noticed the furrowed brows and the disappointment pooling inside of his wet eyes.

I held my breath, expecting a bad behavior report. He was probably talking in class again. He was always talking.

“What happened?”

He shut the door and squeezed into the last row of the van. As he buckled his seat belt, I heard him mumble something that sounded like, “I’m not passing to the next grade.”

My heart raced. WHAT? He received a good report card a month ago. He had great attendance. Yeah, he could probably study more. But…but…but…not pass? That’s it. I’m failing as a parent. I suck at this job. I’m terrible. Terrible. I’m the worst mother in the world for not helping my kid pass Japanese class. I am raising out-of-control children. I am failing as a mother.

“No,” he snapped. “I found out today that I’m NOT POPULAR.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Oh thank goodness. He’s not popular! He’s still passing Japanese class…phew! I felt the tension in my body immediately melt away. I wasn’t such a terrible mother after all. He wasn’t a terrible student. Crisis averted.

“It’s serious,” Ethan said. “They all voted and I didn’t get chosen.”

Wait, what were we talking about? I asked him to go back to the beginning of the story. Voted for what? Who? Why?

Apparently his teacher had the class vote to determine who the three best behaved students were, and he said he never got chosen. No votes. Not a single one.

“Who cares if they don’t think you’re the best behaved,” I said. Maybe not the best thing for a teacher to say, you know, down-playing the benefits of behaving in class. But really, who cares?

“I never get picked,” he bemoaned. “They never vote for me. I’m NOT popular.”

“Why do you go to Japanese school? Why do you spend your Saturdays there?”

“To learn Japanese.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m going to be a robot scientist and do business in Tokyo.”

“Right. And someday you won’t even think about these kids who voted on useless titles like ‘best behaved.’ I don’t hang out with anyone from elementary school. Not a single person.” I glanced in the rear-view mirror to see if my impassioned speech was sticking, but he looked unconvinced.

Maybe I was being too blase about this social predicament of his. Certainly I remembered what it felt like to be unpopular. Heck, I still had moments in my adult life when I was reminded of the social pecking order. I definitely remembered what it was like as a kid to feel self-conscious about everything, and how difficult it was to coexist with peers in the fishbowl of school. At 36-years-old I have just barely gotten over the self-conscious paranoia.

It actually wasn’t until I woke up one morning to a dead husband when I realized none of the things I worried about mattered in the grand scheme of life. Everything had been in my head.

Now I wished that I could transfer this realization to my children without them having to waste painful years of their own lives trying to reach the same conclusion the hard way. I want to hand them a road map to the spring of confidence that exists within them so they can access it before the weight of the world crushes their self-esteem. I want them to always feel like they are enough. I want my children to feel empowered to make their own decisions with confidence, and for them to understand that nobody has the right to tell them who they should or shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, these are lessons and realizations that usually come with experience. You have to grow into these truths through trial and error. You have to get your feelings hurt. Cry. Feel rejected. I can tell the kids not to touch the hot pan, but for most people, they have to touch it for themselves and feel the burn before learning not to do it again. For some people, they might need to get burned several times before they figure it out.

I wasn’t convincing Ethan with my pep talk. At least not in that moment.

I had been noticing signs of my first born’s increasing awareness about social situations. He began to measure the success of a day by his peer interactions. Who he hung out with. What was said. Where so-and-so sat. How the class stared at him when the teacher called out his name. So much of his mood had become intertwined with these encounters.

I remembered those days. I hated them. As a mother, I want my children to understand that those days don’t define us. Those people and those feelings are distorted images inside of our heads, kind of like looking into those fun house mirrors at a carnival and seeing twisted versions of yourself. Not real.

I don’t know what I was more concerned about–the fact that my son had a terrible day, or the fact that I’ve somehow become one of those old adults who espouse useless pearls of wisdom that do not apply in young social circles.

I’ve turned into my dad.

Oh my goodness. That’s it. I’m done. I’m one of “those” adults. I’ve become a obsolete voice box.

I could hear my dad’s infamous lines in my head, the ones me and my siblings would make fun of whenever he said them.

“You have the rest of your life to get there.”

“You never know the burden other people carry.”

“We’re the family that doesn’t waste anything.”

Shudder. The loathed old person telling the young what to do.

Unwilling to give up on my mission to help Ethan realize the mirage in his head for what it was, I brought up the subject the next day when I was jogging. I pushed the double stroller with two kids inside, and Ethan rode his bike next to me.

“Ethan,” I said, in between breaths. “Remember when we worked the bake sale at the Hanamatsuri festival?”

“Yes.”

“Remember when I got super excited about seeing that girl from high school?”

He remembered.

I was selling brownies and cookies with Ethan under the shade of an E-Z Up when I spotted her in the distance pushing a stroller. I did a double-take, hardly believing my eyes that somebody from my childhood would be at my temple as an adult. Sure enough, it was her. I elbowed Ethan and pointed her out, completely forgetting about my brownie-buying-customers for a few seconds. I literally stared in disbelief that the time had finally come.

One of the most popular girls from high school. I remembered how she had a Barbie doll body. Or did she?

“Our eyes and brains trick us when we’re younger,” I said.

He waited for clarification.

“I thought there was no way I could compete with her.” My former classmate had bleached blonde hair, popular boyfriends and her own phone line. She was a cheerleader. I was a nerd.

I had to explain the phone line significance. You know, back in the old days we didn’t have cell phones, so having your own phone line in your bedroom was a big deal.

“When I saw her at the festival, I didn’t feel so beneath her anymore. She’s not cooler than I am. Life leveled the playing field.” It felt therapeutic just to hear myself say those words out loud.

In short: the nerds catch up. They always do. And we all experience our own share of personal shit. None of us will escape it. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.

Life leveled the playing field.

My big revelation out of all of this. I know experiencing the loss of my husband helped expedite this level of self-consciousness.

Carlos Castaneda said that “a warrior must focus his attention on the link between himself and his death…he must let each of his acts be his last battle on earth. Only under those conditions will his acts have their rightful power.”

As we age, we get closer to our own death. We experience the death of our loved ones. We begin to understand mortality in a way that escapes the young.

Except Ethan has a dead father. Having a dead father can be an emotional ball and chain, or it can be the motivation and the impetus to do great things.

All of the stupid noise in between our birth and death must get filtered out.

That is the greatest challenge: deciphering what is just noise, and what we should actually listen to.

I don’t spend a lot of time begrudging others for not having a dead husband like me. I didn’t even feel jealous when I saw my former Barbie classmate with her husband and young family strolling around the same festival I would have been at with my husband if he had been alive. I wasn’t jealous because I know all too well that life will level the playing field. We all have our highs and lows. We all start at different places, with different privilege and different experiences.

But the end is the same for all of us.

We are all going to die.

And because of this, I have to live in a way that makes the best out of what I have, and I have to worry about creating my personal niche in the peaks and valleys that I dwell in–a niche that will be uniquely my own. No apologies. This is the only thing that matters.

We are all running out of time.

Two Years Gone

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This Friday will be 730 days without Kenneth. His deathaversary. Thursday night will mark the last time, two years ago, that I had a conversation with him. The last time he tucked his three children into bed and kissed their foreheads goodnight before turning off their bedroom lights. The last time we were a family of five.

Two years ago on Friday, we became a family of four.

Two years feels as fast as the blink of an eye and as slow as an eternity all at the same time.

There’s not much to say at this point. The sadness has lessened and most of my fears have become manageable, but the missing is as intense as ever, and the void he left in our lives has given no indication of shrinking.

I am prepared, however, to spend the rest of my life feeling this way. These are all livable problems in the grand scheme of life, and I don’t believe you can get through this kind of loss without being forever changed anyway. There is no baseline for me to return to, so I’ll just accept what I have and count my blessings that the damage wasn’t worse. It could always be worse.

It has taken two years to feel the numbness of grief subside, and for the signs of new life to poke through a thawing winter ground like tender seedlings stretching toward a life-giving sun. There is hope for new beginnings. Life continues to march on, with or without us. I choose to be a part of the procession.

I set my children up with projects to do with their classmates this Friday as a way for them to honor the day of their father’s death. I realized that I planned nothing for myself.

Last year I wrote a “2nd Year Ass-Kicking Plan” in a desperate attempt to make the next year better than the first. There were parts of that first year that I don’t remember, as if I suffered from on-again, off-again amnesia in the fog of grief. The first year of gnarled, thorny grief was messy and almost unbearable. That’s why I decided to write a detailed bucket list of sorts to embrace the promise of the second year. It was my way of being more intentional about not drowning in my pain.

As I am about to enter the third year, I don’t feel the need to make a plan. I don’t feel like I need motivation to get past an insurmountable challenge. I’m already desensitized to the flames of hell, obviously, since I survived raising toddlers as a single mother. (By the way, I currently have no toddlers living under my roof. Hallelujah!)

In my mind, if I could make it through two years of raising three young children on my own in one (tattered) piece, then surely I can survive anything–even a zombie apocalypse should there be a need. ANYTHING. After repeating to myself “only up from here” over and over again, I’ve started to feel like one of those survivalists who can get dropped in the middle of an inhospitable terrain and somehow I will be able to survive–anywhere–even if it requires drinking my own pee and licking a yak carcass for protein. I can handle it.

Last year on the anniversary of Kenneth’s death, I wrote him a letter. I planned a butterfly release and a gathering at my house. We did an American Heart Association fundraiser. I felt the urge to do something big. One year felt momentous. One year still stung with the lingering rawness of new grief.

This year I don’t feel that urge, and I’m not in pain. That feels amazing to me.

We will do a quiet trip to the cemetery with Kenneth’s family. Not quite swept under the rug, but not quite celebrated. Something small, just between us.

After two years, it just is.

I’m not sad or happy or angry or content about any of it. I’m just working with what I have, doing the next best thing I need to do.

Devoid of emotion: yay!

A lot better than writhing on the ground in agony. I’ll take it.

Kenneth missed turning 53 and 54. This October he would have turned 55. To us he will always be 52 years old with a head full of thick jet-black hair and wearing his True Religion jeans. Ripped at the knees, of course. Forever young.

In the past two years, Kenneth missed Ethan’s 7th and 8th birthdays.

Eloise’s 4th and 5th.

Peter Jack’s 2nd and 3rd.

Kenneth will never know what I will look like past the age of 34. He won’t ever know the person I have evolved into, or the person I will continue to become with each passing year. Our relationship and identity as a couple will forever stay frozen in the year 2016.

He has missed our annual camping trips with our friends. Christmas and the 4th of July, weekend excursions to Costco, annual family photos, and the lazy days at home doing laundry and pulling weeds in the garden. He has missed putting out the trash cans on Sunday nights, our Tuesday morning staff meetings, and watching our children learn to swim.

He never heard Peter Jack talk, and he never saw our youngest child climb or jump or run. He died when Petey had just barely learned how to toddle.

He never saw our kids graduate from kindergarten. He will never see them graduate from college or get married.

He never even saw our children learn to read a book.

Kenneth has missed almost all of the micro moments of the childhoods that will shape our children’s identities.

And yet somehow he was always there too.

He’s there in the way Ethan gets excited by something new, and in Ethan’s expression of outrage after discovering that Flint’s water supply is contaminated. Kenneth is in the quirky self-determination of Ellie and in her sweet tenderness toward others. He’s in Petey’s eyes, the way they share the same shoulders and scowl, and how Peter marches to the beat of his own drum. It feels like Kenneth is always around and never around. It’s an unexplainable phenomenon–carrying someone inside of you, with no tangible signs of their existence.

Kenneth died 15 days before our 7th wedding anniversary. In a few weeks we would have celebrated our 9th year of marriage. Instead, the children and I will have dinner together and acknowledge the beginning of our family. Not very romantic, but still a reason to commemorate.

I miss Kenneth terribly. His presence. His brain. His ideas, his passion, his heart. The way he told me how beautiful I was, and how he made sure I regularly got flowers and little treats and how he emailed or texted articles for me to read and we would talk about politics. I miss the weird things he would say, like the time I frustrated him and he said, “You’re just like Gary Mitchell! You weren’t like this when I married you.” I had no clue what he meant nor did I know who Gary was until he explained the Star Trek reference, and that the character kept getting smarter and unmanageable to be around. Kenneth was the eternal nerd.

Sure, there are things I don’t miss. Things that are better left unsaid. But despite those things, I still mostly miss him and the life that we used to have together.

It’s more complicated than that, though.

You see, although I wouldn’t have chosen this life, I don’t exactly hate it anymore. I feel like I’m a better version of myself, and I wouldn’t want to go back to that person I used to be. Maybe it’s the Gary Mitchell thing. I enjoy certain things about life with more depth than I used to appreciate. My priorities have shifted. My perspective has been completely altered, and I really like all of these changes about myself. I wish it didn’t take my husband’s aorta to explode to get to this point, but such is the nature of life.

I came across this quote by Shraddha, and I thought it was perfectly true: your wound is probably not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility.

A thousand times, YES!

I take that responsibility quite seriously. As such, I do have a personal goal as I enter my 3rd year of grief.

I want to be more intentional about the kind of mother my children will remember.

At Ethan’s Open House last week, I read a poem that he wrote. Part of it said:

I worry about my family.
I cry about my mom.

When I read it, I was both touched and sad. Touched that he thinks of me often and that his love for me is endless. Sad that he gets sad about me. Sad that my little boy has to worry about the family. While I think a certain degree of consciousness about real life is important for children, I don’t want the heaviness of the world to rest on his shoulders just yet. More importantly, I care a lot about their childhood experiences and the role that I play in it.

I want my kids to have creative, idyllic childhoods with healthy doses of reality and responsibility.

I don’t want them to remember a sad and angry mom. I want them to remember how happy I was being a part of their lives and watching them grow, and how happy I was to live my own life too. I want them to remember a mom who laughed a lot, said yes to new adventures, pursued her own passions, was patient, loving and kind.

I want my kids to remember me and think, “Wow, Mom should have been a wreck when we were little, but she was nothing but fun and loving to us.” I want to leave that kind of legacy behind.

Here’s to Year 3: loving life, loving my family and friends, loving the ones who have already departed, loving the ones who have yet to come into our lives, loving the knowledge that there is so much more to do and experience in our precious lives. Loving the ability to continue making choices. We have choices about how we respond in even the worst of times.

It goes without saying how much we love and miss Kenneth. I’ve done the best I could have in these circumstances, in his absence. I will strive to do better and improve as a person: for myself, the kids, and of course always for him.

The Toil of Our Love

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Drop-offs. Pick-ups. The floss police. Never-ending appointments: physical therapy, haircuts, eye exam, dentist, pediatrician. School events. Make sure kids are picked up on time. Swim classes. Provide well-balanced meals. Check homework. Work on subtraction. Sign paperwork. Practice reading with Ellie while making sure Peter doesn’t burn down the house and Ethan does his Japanese homework and dinner doesn’t boil over on the stove and the dog gets fed. Bath time. Bedtime tantrums. One more cup of water. Cleaning up spills. Bathroom reminders. Weekend excursions. Play. Time for new shoes. Need to buy groceries. Laundry. Always laundry. Go, go, go.

The constant toiling of parenthood, exacerbated by only parenting. In between the blood, sweat, and tears there is happiness and a sense of purpose that makes it all worthwhile, but sometimes it’s difficult to ascertain in the thick of the toiling.

Marriage had its own share of tediousness. Listening to another human being. Understanding. Not understanding. Forgiving. Picking up socks. Making dinner. Companionship. Bickering. Never running out of things to talk about. Housekeeper. Scheduler. Idea-generator. Master of expectations and wallower in simmering resentment. Dreamer. Negotiator. Compromiser. Tugger and puller. Sharer of space and time and resources in an ongoing and delicate balancing act. Juggler extraordinaire.

In widowhood, more toiling. Funeral planner. Memory-keep-aliver. Taking flowers to the cemetery. Aching. Crying. Bone-crushing pain. Emptiness. Missing. Doing the job of two parents; doing all of it with a perpetual feeling of being left behind, alone. Must move on and act as if nothing happened while the world keeps spinning. Pretend to be normal and enjoy living a life that did not go as planned. And yet, despite all of the toiling, there is a deep love that has grown for him, for me, for our kids, and for the entire universe. Sometimes that feels confusing.

For some reason I expected adulthood to be the cruise control stage of life, but it has been anything but.

I rushed to pick-up Ethan after school on a typical day. Sometimes I have to arrange childcare as part of the complicated matrix of managing our busy schedule. But on this day I am there to get him, which is what I prefer to do. It’s why I had children–to be involved in their lives. Not being able to do these stereotypical parenting tasks is often a source of my despair, especially when those limitations have to do with my single parent situation. I still struggle with accepting the fact that I can’t be everywhere at the same time, and that I can’t be the same kind of mother I once was.

I waited in the hot sun near the gate while students walked out into their afternoon freedom. Several parents waited by the curb and a long line of cars clogged the one-way parking lot in front of the school. Ethan’s class was often one of the last to be released. I spotted him with his head in the clouds, the blue and orange shark backpack flapping against his back. He had his heavy lunchbox draped over one shoulder–I reminded him all of the time to no avail that he should put it in his backpack–and the weight of it gave him a lopsided lumber in his steps.

Seeing Ethan at the end of the school day feels just as precious as the days when I visited him in the NICU during his first two months of life. For 53 days I pumped breast milk every 1-3 hours around the clock and made the trip to the hospital morning and night. I methodically tracked ounces and minutes. I spent hours with his scrawny body pressed against my chest,tubes dangling off of him, and I didn’t dare move until a nurse wanted him back inside of his incubator. The toil and heartache of that experience was tempered only by the joy of being his mother and the sacred bond that immediately bound us together for the rest of our lives. I started motherhood having to ask permission to hold my child and was relegated to being practically a mere visitor during his stay in the NICU, but I was his mother in the only way that I could have been, which was to do the parental toiling that I was permitted to do. Each time I entered his room and peered into his isolette, I felt my breath catch in my throat, and I knew that he was worth it.

I felt the same way about the 2 lb. 15 oz. preemie as I do about the 8-year-old with jet black hair and a freckled nose.

Ethan saw me waiting for him and greeted me with a toothy smile. I could always tell by his expression whether it was a good or bad day.

On that day it was somewhere in the middle.

We walked to the car and ran through the important details: what did he learn, who did he play with, what his favorite moments were. So-and-so wanted to play handball instead of rock-hunting at recess, and that upset him. He also had to pull a card for talking during music class, but he informed me that it was outrageous that they force a scientist to sing and play instruments against his will.

At the car Ethan rifled through his lunchbox and declared how ravagingly hungry he was, wanting to know how much longer until dinner. We still had to pick up his siblings. He found half of his leftover sandwich and devoured it. Maybe he was right and I was wrong about keeping his lunchbox out of the backpack.

I made small talk with him on the drive to the preschool, but the other half of my mind was preoccupied running through the dozens of tasks I would have to do before bedtime. Calculating. Pondering. Worrying. Sometimes dreading. Sometimes anticipating.

Second stop: round-up two youngest children. Ellie wanted to go back to her class to find an obscure toy that she was certain she brought to school that morning. Petey strayed into the other direction, wandering into a forbidden classroom. I collected water bottles and bento boxes and breakfast containers and backpacks and graded assignments that the teacher handed over to me just in case I had time to pore over the details of the worksheets. Petey decided he was ready to go and began to exit the building, but Ellie still wasn’t ready and my urging to “hurry up” stressed her out. She frantically dug through her cubby in search of the toy in question, pulling out a hairbrush, a pink stuffed walrus-mermaid, coloring pencils, extra shirts, bracelets, lipstick, and an Easter hat. Still no toy. I questioned the collection of junk, reaching in to get a better look, but she swatted my hand away and shoved the box back into the cubby in a huff. Time to leave, she decided. No time for Mom to go through her things.

It is almost always like herding cats. Although seeing their faces when I picked them up was my favorite part of the day, getting them into the car and buckled up was my least favorite thing to do.

I opened the double-locked gate to the parking lot in what must have looked like a strange yoga move: one hand reaching over the top to unlatch the gate, and a knee pushing up the handle to swing it open while balancing the junk in my arms.

The kids noticed the pink geraniums that they liked to pick and made a move toward them and away from the gate. I managed to grab Petey by the collar and redirected everyone back toward our parked van in one swift move. After wrestling limbs into car seat straps, we were on our way home.

Home-sweet-home: a place where countless other tasks awaited my time and energy, or lack thereof. Unpacking the van and washing dishes and preparing dinner and then cleaning up and on and on and on.

The toiling. Oh, the toiling.

It never ends.

And yet I decided a long time ago that the greatest love we can experience is the kind made in the tedious day-to-day toiling.

It often seems like we define our lives and relationships by the big, happy moments. The wedding date. The birth. Special vacations. A new job. A new house. Birthdays.

But I believe that our lives are made in the small and mundane. This, I would argue, is the hidden and unappreciated beauty of being alive.

I don’t really think about the big moments when I remember my late husband. The majority of my memories are not about the day we got married, or the day we became parents, or the day we became homeowners. When I think about Kenneth I remember the toiling, only it doesn’t feel like toiling anymore. The commutes to work. Prepping lunch and breakfast next to each other in the crowded kitchen, every morning at the crack of dawn. Home Depot for house projects. Nagging him to use his Google calendar to keep appointments straight. Stressing out about leaving the house on time, dropping kids off, getting to work. The things I once complained about and disliked now feel as nostalgic and warm as the parts of our lives that were indisputably wonderful.

How can that be?

Once my husband asked his father to recall how hard it was to raise children. My husband, at the time deep in the trenches of a household with a baby and a young child, wanted to commiserate with his father. He was hoping to connect over mutual stories of fatherhood, but he didn’t get the response that he anticipated. His dad, a Japanese version of Mr. Spock, just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn’t remember. He told my husband you don’t remember the bad parts of life. You only remember the good.

We both wondered at the time: how could that be? Parenting is so hard. We would surely remember this.

I remember the ordinary Tuesday night when we sipped our drinks on the patio after the kids went to sleep. I can see the pile of dishes that he hadn’t done yet. I can imagine Kenneth watching a Netflix documentary while cutting up fruits and vegetables for his juices while I was asleep on the other side of the house. He’d tie up the trash bag and make sure it was thrown away outside before he himself went to bed, and then he would be up and moving around before I even opened my eyes in the morning.

Well, typically.

I also remember the ordinary Wednesday morning when I woke up to him dying. But those are the details that I don’t like to linger on.

The details of how our story ended.

I learned a lot about endings. They aren’t as important as you think. As a writer, it is known that the ending should have an impact, but no good story has a saggy middle. The middle has to be solid. After all, the middle is the majority of our story.

It’s the toiling middle that our hearts will return to over and over again, not the dramatic endings. Not even the romantic beginnings. The middle is where we did most of our living. When I miss my late husband, it’s the middle that I miss being in with him. The toiling.

I miss Kenneth calling me from the grocery store for the 50th time to ask which spice to buy, even though I wrote it down for him and he bought it many times before. He would ask where to find it, what aisle specifically, and wanted to know what color it was again. I would be in the middle of child-wrangling and cooking and snap at him to go find a store worker and stop calling me because goddammit he should know what cumin is by now.

Today all of that seems cute. Just a sweet reminder of his absent-mindedness rather than an irritation about his lack of common sense.

I don’t linger on the ugly details of marriage. The arguments. The flaws. The regrets and resentment and frustration. None of it matters in death. It’s not like we get to re-do any of it.

I remember the selfie I took in front of our first Christmas tree back when we lived in the tiny studio apartment by the beach. I remember buying corn nuts at the gas station on the road trip we took before kids, and I remember which Subway was his favorite to stop at, and I point it out to the children when we pass through years later. I remember finding a parking spot at Legoland and pushing strollers and waiting in lines and stopping to help the toddler use the potty. I remember watching our children play in the dinosaur sandbox, and then making eye contact with my husband across the play area in that knowing way that signaled it was time to go. I remember packing the family back into the van and making the long drive home, talking as the kids slept, and then having to carry sleeping bodies to warm beds. I vaguely remember that I was exhausted and drained and maybe there was one too many tantrums at Legoland that day, but in my memories it is all sweetness.

My father-in-law was right. You only remember good things. The bad gets smoothed over with time. Or maybe time and mortality make us realize that the good always comes with the bad, and we would choose to do it all over and over again just to taste the sweetness of the fleeting joy we once had.

Funny how the tedious toiling was actually the glue that held together the experiences that we carry inside of us–the beautiful memories that keep us connected to even those who are no longer with us.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers that “love cannot exist without suffering. In fact, suffering is the ground on which love is born.” He argued that “love is a practice and unless you know what suffering is, you are not motivated to practice compassion, love, and understanding.”

The toiling. It is not for naught. It is the practice of love.

Our greatest love stories are stitched together with our toiling. Eating dinner together, wiping butts, reading one more bedtime story, listening to bad-day stories, commutes, brushing teeth next to each other, falling asleep in between sentences, grocery shopping, the kiss before bedtime. Toiling and joy. You can’t have one without the other. Love is both, not either/or.

For my kids: I hope they remember that I was there for them and showed up as much as I could. We ate dinner together and I was the one who mostly tucked them into bed at night and did their homework with them and created experiences for them and washed their clothes and listened to their stories. I hope my children know they were not just the product of a great love story, but that they were my greatest love story.

About the Donuts

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I parked my red Miata on the street, in front of the 6th grade garden. Ethan wanted to ride to school with the top down. He was looking for a distraction. We climbed out of the car and I got his backpack from the trunk. I noticed the trepidation in his expression when I helped him loop the straps over his shoulders.

A potbellied father wearing a “Junk Man” work shirt passed by us, trailing behind his pack of kids. Another family followed close behind. And then another. And another. The event had started 10 minutes before; the rat race was underway.

“Are you okay?” I asked as we walked to the multipurpose room.

“I feel pressure,” Ethan said. “There are a lot of dads in there.”

“Try not to.”

I knew, however, that there was nothing I could say that would erase the fact that we were going to Donuts with Dad, without his dad. “Try not to” were the kind of words I hated when people lobbed advice at me. Advice they never had to practice themselves.

There was a small line at the entrance. I was the only mom, until a family with both the mom and the dad came a few spots behind us in line. Inside, there were few seats available at the cafeteria-style tables and benches. It was a sea of children and fathers, with the occasional grandfather, and a few moms. Very few moms, except for the PTA volunteers.

As I waited to hand the lady at the check-in table our $5, I noticed dads and sons getting pulled over to take a photo in front of a backdrop. Nobody would ask to take our picture that day. I felt a little resentful handing over my money to the PTA that insisted on perpetuating these outdated events. I wanted to ask the woman why they haven’t considered Donuts with a Loved One instead of Donuts with Dad. Something more inclusive. I seriously doubted that a catchy name with alliteration was the reason behind events like these.

Maybe it was stupid to expect them to make an exception to their traditions for people like us. People like us–my son with the dead dad and me–we’d just have to be included with the little asterisk on the bottom of the flyer, the one next to the small print that read “or bring another special adult.” Almost as if people like us were an afterthought.

We got our donuts and I suggested to Ethan that we sit outside, where there was plenty of seating available and it was already warm and sunny at 7AM. Ethan spotted a friend and his father, and we sat at their table. We tried not to look awkward at an event for fathers when clearly we did not bring one with us.

“I don’t know what I’m more offended by,” I told Ethan, trying to make small talk to distract him. “The dad part, or the fact that they think donuts are a great thing to serve for breakfast.” I then proceeded to pull up an article on my phone that I recently read. It was about how Americans eat more than the daily recommended sugar intake at breakfast alone. Basically, we keep eating dessert for breakfast. Ethan read it with concern.

One of Ethan’s friends saw us and promptly abandoned his dad to come sit with us. I offered to move so we could all sit together, but the boy declined, saying he didn’t want to sit with his dad.

The boys chatted and picked at their donuts and also called out the names of their classmates who they spotted at other tables. They seemed to be unofficially keeping track of who was in attendance from their class.

“The anticipation is the worst part,” I said quietly to Ethan, leaning toward him. “It’s always worse thinking about it before it happens. This isn’t so bad, is it?”

“No,” Ethan agreed. There was no more trepidation in his expression. He seemed to be enjoying himself, sitting between me and his friend. The boys built a donut tower and giggled over jelly that oozed out from the middle, which they decided looked like vomit.

When Ethan was in preschool, Kenneth accompanied him to the Teddy Bear Picnic. I remember feeling jealous that Kenneth got to go and I was stuck at work. But Kenneth really wanted to attend. Ethan came home after school that day talking about his new teddy bear and about how his Daddy walked to the park with his class, so proud that Kenneth was there. Kenneth had an older son from a previous relationship who lived 8 hours away. It was a contentious situation that resulted in him missing out on all of the small ways one gets to be a father to a child, like going to these events. It was a source of pain for him, and it made him more determined to enjoy Ethan’s childhood.

Kenneth would have never dreamed in a million years that he would miss Donuts with Dad with an 8-year-old Ethan.

And I would have never dreamed that I would be a single mother trying to fill in for an absent dad. It’s like living in an alternate reality, a world I sometimes still don’t recognize.

Everyone tells you it’s no big deal, this Donuts with Dad thing. Just go with him, mom and son, they say. Moms can go too. There will be like 1 mom for every 100 people there but that’s not a big deal. Just don’t care what other people think.

Unless it’s your son.

Unless it’s your heart.

The day before Donuts with Dad, I stood with Ethan before school started in his classroom line. A little girl approached him, smiling, and said, “Ethan, you can’t go to Donuts with Dad. Your dad is DEAD.”

I watched Ethan’s face crumple, and then immediately offered an explanation to her about how I was going to represent his father, and that yes, Ethan would indeed be there.

She didn’t say it in a taunting way. It was more of a think-out-loud faux pas. But it still hurt my little boy.

Nothing I could ever say would make it better. This was something that couldn’t be fixed. The truth was, Ethan wouldn’t be going to Donuts with Dad. He’d be going to donuts with his single mother because his dad is campfire ashes. There is no way to forget the brutal details. We are all very aware of the circumstances, but to hear it said out loud was salt in the wounds.

In hindsight, I should have explained to the little girl that her words hurt Ethan, rather than trying to justify how we would be at the event. But I didn’t think of it at the time. Sometimes I still get paralyzed by the pain of seeing my little boy hurt.

Almost two years out, I’m getting used to this alternate life trajectory. At my age it’s easier to be different than the masses. I can get through social situations as the only person without a husband and not care as much these days. Not so for an 8-year-old. He has started to become self-conscious about being the only kid without a dad in our social circles. His reality is more difficult, because he has to spend the rest of his life, through his formative years, without a father. He will be reminded of fathers everywhere he goes. After bringing home the Donuts with Dad flyer, he told me several times that he kept seeing “all of these dads.” Dads everywhere. Reminders of what he doesn’t have. Somehow he must figure out how to desensitize himself to these triggers. Preferably sooner rather than later, but this is something an individual must come to terms with on their own.

I watched Ethan fret over the donuts days before it happened. I watched him go through a few days in a silent, simmering mood. I had just finished season 3 of Doctor Foster on Netflix, and there is a teenage son on the show who has anger and emotional problems because of his parents’ strife. Suddenly I was stricken with the thought of my future Ethan in a man-like body having angry outbursts and letting “this” affect him. My perfect, happy Ethan possibly devolving into a person with demons that will threaten to darken his once-sunny disposition. When he was born premature and spent two months in the NICU, Ethan was often the last baby who the nurses would feed because he never cried. He has always been that way–happy and content and undemanding. He is a naturally grateful, loving child. I feel so spoiled that this gentle, deep soul made me a mother.

The thought of that changing about him disturbed me.

No.

No way. That was not something I could allow.

I realized then that my job was not to make him get through the loss of his father, but to help him understand the choices he still had, to help him figure out how to live in a world that has not gone as planned. A world that has scrambled the natural order of life, robbing him of a father at a young age. A life where he will not have what many others still have. I must help him accept a different trajectory, and prepare him for the many future detours he will encounter. These are the ways that he will become resilient. My job is not to make him forget or to take away his pain. My job is to help him cope with pain.

Ethan also has to learn to live in a world that forces labels and stereotypes on us. He has to become comfortable with being different. Normal families have a dad to take to Donuts with Dad. Ethan does not have a dad. Therefore, is he not normal? This is difficult for even me to internalize. But this is something he must be able to do.

He must be able to own his stories, tell his stories, and have an unwavering belief that he is still writing his story even when everything goes wrong. He has to believe that he can survive any plot twist. My Ethan has to embrace the idea that the only thing normal about this world is that all of us will have our share of pain and loss. None of us will escape it.

He has to refuse having normal defined for him. I want him to be able to define his own normal, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. It has to be done on his own. When it comes to this, it’s him against the world. There is no hiding from it.

The reality is that grief is a lonely exile. Nobody else knows exactly how you are feeling. You can’t rely on people to be there; comfort comes and goes. Help comes and goes. Nobody can live your life, therefore they can never fully understand your circumstances.

But you have to be able to fully understand your own life. Maybe not fully understand why things happen, but understand what you have to do to live an intentional life no matter what happens.

As we were driving to swim class the next day, Ethan and I reflected about the Donuts with Dad experience, and then about our lives in general. We started talking about our upcoming trip.

By the end of this summer, and since Kenneth died, we will have gone to: Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Australia, and Israel.

That’s pretty damn good.

“The weird thing is, life has actually gotten better,” Ethan said. “It’s not supposed to get better if Daddy died.”

“It’s not better. It’s just different.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “It has been bad and good.”

We talked about how tragedy can change us. How we might end up being better people than we would have been before the tragedy. Then we decided that there are things in life that can be good and bad. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It’s often both.

And that’s where we left it.