Day 38 – SSDGM and BYO Pizza

After my Aunt Jean passed away last year, my Uncle Harry decided to move back to Nebraska. He’s only been in town a few months, but he’s already making it home–throwing dinner parties, making fast friends and all of the local restaurants. My Grandpa Carl was a charmer, never knew a stranger. Throughout my childhood I lost count of the number of times my family would be out somewhere and Grandpa would run into some random person he knew from sometime somewhere, and they’d start joking and laughing as if they were lifelong friends who’d never spent a day apart.

Harry inherited his father’s charisma and exuberant zest for life. He’s fun and kindhearted and delightfully witty, and he’s just got this vibrant, positive energy that has a way of filling up a room.

One of the things my Uncle Harry loves to do the most is cook. He’s taking cooking classes here and there, but I think it’s more of his passion for food that has turned him into a regular amateur chef (though Uncle Harry’s every day cooking could outmatch at least half of the restaurants currently operating in Lincoln). And somehow, in the few short months since he rolled into town, he managed to talk the local restaurant Dino’s into making one of his favorite signature dishes–a gourmet pizza made with smoked salmon, goat cheese, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese–a pizza so good some of the staff did a taste test and started talking about how they’d like to get that pizza on the menu.

But the even crazier part was that tonight, Harry reserved us a couple tables, and had the Dino’s chefs make his recipe for us to have a family dinner together.

And damn, it was divine!

And as we wrapped up, H-man was getting restless so we grabbed one of Cadence’s markers and started practicing our letter tracing.

You know I could’t resist. #SSDGM

Day 26 – Time marches on

One of the interesting side effects of all the writing and the letter writing I’ve been doing the last few weeks is a clearer realization of just how easy it is to fall out of touch, how quickly time is passing. It hit me this week that Henry is just about the same age my youngest brothers Beau and Collin were when I reunited with my birthfamily and met them for the first time.

Blows my mind to think those little boys are in college now, that’s been more than 17 years since I stepped into their lives.

How things have changed! There have been a lot of twists and turns in the 17 years since, but the best part of the reunion has been building new relationships and watching my three different families slowly melt into one. I was having a conversation with some folks at work a few weeks ago, and they were intrigued by my very unique definition of “family,” as I explained that my family doesn’t just include my husband and kids and my closest biological and adoptive relatives, but all of the close friends and people in my life that I feel a deep, emotional, and somewhat inexplicable connection to. My family is the people I was born to, the people I was raised with, and all the people that I invest my time in and love deeply.

And it strikes me sometimes, as time keeps marching on, that I have been unimaginably blessed.

Day 19 – The family that you make

There was a time in my life when I avoided people, relationships of just about any kind. I’m an introvert by nature, but this was different. I didn’t trust people, and I was filled with so much self-loathing and self-doubt that I believed it was easier to just keep everyone at arm’s distance than to risk getting close and getting hurt.

During my years in therapy, one of the biggest challenges was for me to trust people, to let them in, because I had trouble matching up what other people saw in me with what I saw in myself. I had to spend a lot of time building up my own self-image, learn to love myself and let other people love me. One of the results was that I started to view relationships and human connection differently.

Letting people in. Trusting them. Connecting. Building relationships. Loving other humans. These things can be hard, but they are so worth it. They’re vital. They’re the reason we’re all bumping around on this blue-green planet in the first place. And the really beautiful thing that happens when you connect with other people is that just being in their presence, hearing their voices, spending an evening together sharing a meal sparks immeasurable joy.

Family is not bound by blood. Family is the people you choose to surround yourself with, the people you love and invest your time in. Stevie and I have loved ones spread all over the country–from New York to Arizona to Colorado and Washington state–and we do what we can to connect. We don’t do as much as we would like to, or have nearly enough time with all the people who mean the world to us. But sometimes there are moments like tonight, when we get a chance to spend an evening with some really beautiful souls. My home was full of love tonight, and my heart is too.

Day 10 – Like coming home

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my college days, partly because I spend my days working with college students and partly because I tend to start feeling a little sentimental every time Stevie and I have been away from New York too long and I start itching to spend time with the people I miss every moment of every single day since we left the east coast ten-and-a-half years ago.

It’s hard to explain the connection I feel to this place without sounding overly nostalgic, but I always feel the need to try. I guess that’s just the writer in me–unable to deny that urge to try and put the giant surge of emotions down on paper and arrange the words in a way that might explain the way this place calls to me and why I remain so firmly tethered to the people we met and the connections I made there.

Going to college was my first step (a giant 1,500-mile step) away from my family and out on my own, and with that heady rush of newfound freedom and adventure came an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt and isolation. Yet the first time I ever stepped foot on Concordia’s campus, I got the distinct feeling that I was coming home.

The families we come from are our default. They teach us how to love, how to fight, how to forgive. They give us our first sense of the world–its beauty and its chaos. The families we leave when we set out on our own will always be with us. They will always be part of us. But it’s the families we create for ourselves that truly reflect who we are and give shape to who we will become. The people we connect with, the people we return to and invest our time in are the people who reflect the very best of who we are, the very best of who we hope to be.

People matter. Connections matter. Kindness matters. Honesty matters. Love matters.

Everything else is just noise.

Happy Easter

Spending Easter with my favorite people in the whole world. It doesn’t get better than this…

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It is what it is

I’ve completely fallen off the wagon with this post-a-day 365 Project, but with all the shit hitting the proverbial fan in my life lately, I don’t even feel the need to apologize for my sudden absence. But now that the dust has begun to settle and I feel like maybe I’m breaking above the surface for a breath of air, it’s finally time for me to sit down, sort it out, and write it down.

It’s time to let it in, and let it go.

With every big event in life, the hardest days are the ones that follow, where you’re faced with the seemingly impossible task of trying to find your new normal.

And that’s just it. You have to find a new normal. Because when it comes to the big things like births and deaths and moves and career changes, you can’t ever go back to the way things were before. Not really. Maybe you can get close if you’re lucky, but that certainly isn’t the norm. After the big things, most of us find ourselves hit with a steep learning curve as we try to settle in and right the ship and navigate the new and unfamiliar waters.

When we lost Stevie’s mom, Diane, in 2012, we tried to find our new normal, but I’m not sure that we ever really succeeded. Maybe it was losing her so suddenly, or maybe it was losing a woman we loved with such a big personality–either way, her death threw us quickly and completely off balance. The house on Yale Avenue was always too quiet. The birthday and holiday cards stopped arriving with predictable regularity. And the worried phone calls stopped coming when I would miss a day or two of my blog.

When we learned that Stevie’s dad, Richie, had been taken to the ER in December, we were thrown off balance again. And when the cancer diagnosis came a few days later, our lives were torn apart. Stevie flew to New York. I flew with Henry to San Diego for a work event. And Cadence spent the week at my parents’ apartment while we did our best to try and hold it together.

Stevie and I flew back home on February 12, both of us emotionally and physically exhausted. He’d been surviving on 2 hours of sleep as he and his siblings tried to wade through mountains of paperwork and prepare themselves for what was to come, and he returned to Lincoln completely drained and fighting off a cold and a stomach bug that knocked him on his ass for the next four days. I’d been surviving on 2 hours sleep trying to balance all my work obligations, a teething 6-month-old waking every hour all…night…long, and the nagging guilt of not having enough hours in the day to support my husband or check in on my daughter who was back home trying desperately to hold onto some semblance of a routine while her parents were running from coast to coast like lunatics.

We prayed that we might get a short break, a few days reprieve before we had to face what we knew was coming. We’d planned a family birthday party for Cadence. It was always one of our favorite gatherings of the year with local family and a few friends coming over to the house for some good food, homemade ice cream cake, and time spent making Cadence feel special. We knew we would be planning another trip east after the party, but then Miss C started running a fever, and we watched her energy and her incessant chatter fading as her temperature climbed.

Thursday, February 18 – I was in the rocking chair feeding Henry when we got the call. It was early, still dark. My eyes were half-closed when Stevie came in the room to tell me Richie was gone.

Everything from that moment until this one is a bit of a blur.

Stevie and I hit auto-pilot and started moving. Cadence’s fever was on Day 3, holding steady at 103.9, so we made her an appointment to see the doctor, and made arrangements for her to stay behind with my parents while we headed to New York. I had to lay my body on top of her to hold her down so the nurse could swab her throat for strep, only to have the test come back negative.

We booked a flight, rented a car, and spent the day rotating laundry and re-packing all the clothes we’d just taken out of our suitcases. By 5:45 a.m. Friday morning, we were in the air and heading east.

Stevie’s sister, Michele, already had most of the arrangements made by the time we landed in Westchester. We made the drive to Long Island, our hearts as heavy as the clouds that pressed down on the city skyline.

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The food began to arrive shortly after we did–giant deli sandwiches and sides, trays of pasta and pastries, bottles of wine and Richie’s favorite Budweiser–all sent by the friends and neighbors who love Richie as much as we do, and who know exactly how big of a hole his death left us to fill.

I wasn’t prepared to walk into that wake. I’m not sure there was even anything Stevie could have said that would have made it any easier. All I could think about was how it had only been a few months since our last visit, exactly 133 days since we hugged Richie goodbye after blowing into town for Henry’s jet-set baptism.

Somehow, I kept thinking if I closed my eyes and wished hard enough, I could wake up in my own bed and find that it had all been just one, long, bad dream.

We headed back to the house for a few hours and more food between the wakes. The house was full, and still felt empty. I happened to glance at my phone as we were gathering our things to return to the funeral home for the evening wake. There was one text from my Mom.

Please give me a call.

And my heart dropped straight out of my chest.

I could hear Cadence coughing in the background when Mom answered, a deep cough, unrelenting.

“Honey, if I lose you, it’s because we’re getting in the elevator. I don’t want to alarm you, but Dad and I are taking Cadence to the ER. Her fever went up and she can’t stop coughing. She just doesn’t look right…her eyes…and we’re worried.”

I started to answer, but the line went dead.

I cried all the way back to the funeral home, as Stevie and I talked it out, trying to calm each other’s frazzled nerves and convince ourselves that everything was going to be ok.

It was an hour before a call came through from the hospital, asking for our consent to treat. And then a call from Mom. She didn’t know anything yet. They were waiting for the doctor, and she would call back as soon as she knew anything. It took three nurses to hold our little girl down for a flu test, but somehow the screaming and the crying helped ease her cough long enough for her to talk to her daddy and I on the phone. She told me she was scared and she missed us, but it was ok because they gave her a gown with the Looney Tunes characters on it and promised her a popsicle. The wake was ending and we were gathering our things to head back to the house when we finally got the news.

Swine flu. I didn’t even know that shit was around anymore!

But thankfully no pneumonia, and Miss C was heading back to Grandma and Papa’s house for the night to try and get some sleep.

We managed to get some too, just a little, and then it was time to get up and head to the church and say our goodbyes.

We buried Richie on a Tuesday, in the rain and the cold and the wind that cut straight through to the bone.

And now that Richie is gone, we are facing the same impossible task–trying to find our new normal.

We spent a week talking and reminiscing and sharing our favorite stories about all the things we will miss the most. Like the way Richie always had a white towel tucked in his back pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow, or the old wood-paneled Buick station wagon he drove. Or the way he would always make sure we got all of our favorite foods during our trips back home–egg bagels, sandwiches from Idlehour Deli, chocolate coconut donuts from Dunkin Donuts, and a huge steaming plate of zuppa de pesce from Mamma Lombardi’s. We spent a week in the house, waiting to hear him walking down the hallway, or waking to find him sitting in his swivel chair in the living room, hot cup of coffee in his hand, gazing out the window at the neighborhood below, just as he and Diane did every morning.

That’s the thing about loss and grief, isn’t it? You never really go back to normal. Instead, you spend the rest of your days with this gaping hole in your life. Time can dull the edges, but nothing can ever really fill that void, and so you wake every day working your way toward your new normal, gaining on it, but never really managing to hold it tightly in your hands before it slips away again.

And here we are now. We’re home. Our bags have been unpacked, and the last loads of laundry are spinning in the dryer. We’re slowly cleaning off our DVR. Stevie is back in the office, and I’ve got an undetermined amount of free time and family time ahead of me thanks to my unexpected unemployment.

Looks like we’re being pushed headlong into our new normal with a whole bunch of changes and uncertainty, and yet, somehow, Stevie and I are both okay with it. Somehow, for the first time in a long time, it feels like everything is going to be fine.

It is what it is. That’s what Richie would say. And you know, he was one of those guys who was always right.

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