Monday, September 28, 2015

A Hard Leap Off a High Cliff: A #Wholemama Post

Dad, holding brand-new Audra. You can tell because flannel.

I don't know how to be a mother without my father.

Dad was one of the first to hold her that night in the hospital room. She is named for my paternal grandmother, and we had kept it a painstaking secret from almost everyone (except my mother, who I have never been able to keep secrets from).

I wanted it to be a surprise for Dad, and had tried to tell him a month or so earlier during a trip back to Illinois and yet it had never happened. So I needed him to be in the room just after Audra was born.

So in the hospital, when the nurses asked me what her name was, I turned my head to the open door to our hospital room and yelled, "Dad, would you come in, please?"

My father came back in from where much of the crowd of family members was lingering in the hall and stood nearby.

"Okay, I can tell you now," I said. "Her name is Audra Grace."

My father looked at my daughter and then at me, a little stricken at first. "Seriously?" He asked.

I said yes, yes seriously, this is my Audra Grace.

My father put his hand over his mouth and he briefly left the room to compose himself. Then he made phone calls.

He called my uncles and my aunt and my grandfather to let them know. I still hear, over a year later, what a wonderful choice of name it was. I tell them I knew, I knew before I knew she was a girl, I knew that if she was she would be Audra Grace.

I had a father standing behind me in my new identity as a mother right from the start. I don't know how to be a mother without him, without the calm and steady knowledge that he is there. Maybe he's 800 miles away, but there. Always there.

Now, he is so much further from me. It's a little hard to pick up a phone to call heaven, and essentially impossible to explain to my daughter why diesel is one of my favorite smells because it would be all over his clothes sometimes when he came home for dinner or how he could light up red with anger, it would flare, and then be gone. She'll never watch my dad and I argue good-naturedly about basically everything or see her grandfather's hands with dirt beneath his nails after a day out in the fields or see how well he cleaned up for church on Sunday morning. My grief isn't only at my own loss, but for a loss my daughter doesn't even know she has just endured.

She will not remember him like her older cousin does. She won't know what it means to ride the combine with Grandpa Randy or to have him say "Now settle down" if things get too rambunctious. She won't get to laugh with us about how Grandpa Randy just can't help but fall asleep in front of the TV in the evenings.

When I tell her about the patient man who withstood teenage rages and slammed doors and stomps up the stairs, she will have only photographs to picture those moments by. She will not listen to him remind me that I have only to wait a little bit before we're staring at those slammed doors, too.

I simply do not know how to be a mother without my father just a quick phone call or a long drive away.

I don't know how to parent without him on hand to grandparent.

Grief steals my best parenting from me right now; I catch myself staring off into space, barely aware of time, answering my daughter's babbles and burbles only belatedly. I fall asleep on the couch reading but can't sleep the minute I get into bed. It's all my willpower to move my legs when she wakes us up at 2 a.m. because she's awake and this isn't her crib and she needs someone to be there to tell her where she is.

I'm a muted version of myself as a mother right now. I have to tell myself that Jason can pick up the slack for the moment, while my brain fights hard to reconcile this new life with the one I was happily living right up until 10:17 in the morning on Saturday 19th, when I spoke to my brother and the white noise started in my head and it hasn't stopped since.

The last time my daughter saw my father was Sunday, August 9th, and I have to figure out how that could possibly be true. How it was exactly that I fell off a cliff and landed in a place where I do not have a father. How my daughter fell with me and no longer has one of her grandfathers, has lost one doting pair of arms to hold her, has lost one happy voice calling her name after a long separation. How it is she is so young that she doesn't even know the earth gave way beneath us and the place we live now may look the same, but it is utterly new.

I don't know how it is I can keep being a mother without a father standing behind me, how I can be a mother while mourning a loss that my mind is working so hard to reconcile.

I'm about half a mother and thirty percent a wife and whatever's left is a grieving daughter and I have to hope the bit that's still a mother is enough to see Audra through, for however long it takes for me to climb back up the cliff.

When I tell her stories about my dad, she will have only photographs to reference.

She will not get the option to turn and look at him and say, "Seriously, Grandpa?"

Things may look the same to her, but I will know that things are just a little bit faded.

Today's post is my ninth while participating in the #Wholemama linkup. This week's theme was "leap". The linkup is not yet active, but I will link to the official post on Erika Shirk's blog Overflow once it is.My other posts as part of the linkup or just inspired by the theme are Motherhood on PurposeOn Reading and PeaceI Lay You Down to Sleep, My LoveWhen It Rains... CelebrateParenting is SillyAnything But OrdinarySpacePrayer, and A Supermom is a Sleep-Deprived Mom.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Life, Interrupted

So, I've been gone for a few days. Normally the reason for these lapses in regular blogging are due to life just getting busy, or sometimes they are due to my legendary inability to keep a secret (such as when I went nearly a month without a post while in the early stages of my pregnancy).

This reason is different, and so much worse.

My father died on Saturday.

He had a massive heart attack, and they tell us he could have been standing in the ER next to a defibrillator and we would still have lost him. It is the only way my father could have gone. His constant energy would not have handled the forced invalidity that comes with serious illness. He'd have climbed the walls. We'd have been pulling him off the combine every morning no matter what his diagnosis was.

He would never have allowed this perfect harvest weather to go to waste.

I tell myself this 'it is the best way he could have gone' story to attempt to feel some kind of comfort, but if I am honest it doesn't really help, because after I finish that sentence my father is still gone.

I'm not sure how to not be angry right now, but there isn't anyone to be angry at, or anything to be angry for, really. Or at least not a single thing I can change.

I wrote the following words to be read by my brother-in-law on my behalf at Dad's funeral today:

My family is not good at I-love-yous. We save them up for entrances, we might say them over the phone if it’s been a while. Often, you only hear us say “I love you” when a member of the family leaves.

My brother tells me my father is gone and I realize I can barely hear him. He and I are trying to talk through a tunnel in which someone has stolen all our air. We are trying to breathe unsaid I-love-yous, and they are so much heavier than oxygen.

My father wasn’t much for hugs, the kind of thing other families sometimes take for granted. We just aren’t “huggers”, and we never have been.

My father said I love you other ways.

He said I love you with the smell of diesel and black dirt on his clothes when he sat down to dinner at six o’clock sharp. With acres to go before he could quit for the night, he’d still take time to sit down and eat and listen to us tell him everything we had done that day. While he ate, we three would talk over each other in a rush to be the one to tell all the good stories first. Bryan would maybe sneak his green vegetables onto my plate when he thought no one was looking. Dad would finish up by doing the dishes and be back in the field before seven. Some nights we’d be in bed before he made it back home for the night, but even if he didn’t say it, we felt “I love you” following us up the stairs.

My father said “I love you” when he carried sleepy little girls upstairs to bed. He said it twenty years later when he walked us down the aisle. He was asked who gave us away - once by Tony Billingsley (who you may have noticed Dad was pretty fond of) and once by my brother-in-law (Dad was pretty fond of him, too). He said, “Your mother and I”. He was always so happy to deliver that line.

He said I love you every time he climbed into a combine or bottle-fed a calf born in the middle of the night. He was proud of us at every high school graduation, and nervously helped us carry our belongings into our dorm rooms in college. Every Thanksgiving basketball game with his brothers, every barn cat that came racing to his call – these are just other variations on the phrase.

He said I love you when he held his newborn babies in his arms, when we each fell head over heels for him the moment we met his eyes. He said it in his smile when he first saw Delainey Jane, and in the way he held his hand up to his face when he heard my daughter’s name was Audra Grace. He said I-love-you when he stood proud to watch his Texas transplant son marry the most wonderful woman underneath a clear blue sky.

His I-love-yous live in the many well-read Bibles weighing down his bookshelves and the Christmas gifts of flannel shirts he never wore until he’d owned them at least a year. He said I-love-you every Sunday sitting in the pews, to the God he served and to the congregation, too.

My father’s I-love-yous are the whisper-soft rattle of dried-out September cornrows. They are him pointing out the red-wing blackbirds picking at new seeds sown in spring. They are the times he drove all three of us to school in the rain, or when he drove me trick-or-treating the year it snowed so hard it was too cold for me to walk. They lived in his flat-foot tread downstairs, in the way he didn’t hesitate to run across a busy street to help a hurting stranger. They live in the way his head would raise when he heard the scanner start up and he would say, “That’s McLean.” Away in seconds went my volunteer firefighter father to help the injured or to battle flames. I-love-yous live in every moment spent with his family and his friends.

I am not reading this to you. If I tried I would buckle under the weight of everything I will never get the chance to say. I would wager almost anything for one more ten minute phone call.

My father is a man of God and God has come to meet him. I think he and God already had an understanding of each other; after all, it’s God who says His I-love-yous through salvation.

We are left with his T-shirts and coveralls, worn flannels and those folded-up blue jeans.

We are left with I-love-yous we say through our goodbyes.  

We sing for him today, and even while we’re listening to these lines, I still feel like he’ll walk in any moment, shake his head and ask, politely, if we could stop making such a fuss.

My mother, my brother, my sister and I will do what we have been doing since Saturday morning; we will wait for his truck to pull into the drive. We’ll catch ourselves waiting. We’ll make a weak joke and we might even laugh as we recall why we are struggling to breathe. Then… then we’ll wait a little bit longer.

Dad, we will always be waiting for you. We must try to comfort ourselves with knowing that you are waiting for us, too.

We hold all our unsaid I-love-yous in our hearts and hollow bones while your mother greets you at the door with, “Randy VanHoorn, welcome Home.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Happiest Man in the World Works at McDonald's

A couple of weeks ago, I was running late-ish for work and wasn't hungry to start with and so I kind of just dashed out the door. Jason took over daycare dropoff duties, and I was on my way.

Except that, about two-thirds of the way to work, my persistent slightly-nauseous postsickness not-hungry turned into "my stomach is an empty chasm that threatens to eat my bones, my inner organs, and possibly the bones of the lady in the car in front of me if I don't eat in one minute or less" in about thirty-five seconds.

Not super far from my workplace is a McDonald's, so I sort of shrugged to myself and pulled in to go through the drive-thru.

I sat at the speaker for a moment before a man's voice came on the line, booming and bright:

"Good morning and welcome to McDonald's! What can I do to make your day wonderful this fine morning?"

I sat there with my mouth slightly open for a second, bowled over the faceless enthusiasm assaulting me this early. Prior to my first cup of coffee, I am essentially a shaved Yeti; I'm squinty and communicate primarily in growls and angry faces, but at least I'm not actively attacking people in the Arctic.

"Um. I... I'll have an Egg White Delight meal with a large coffee, please. Three creams, two sugars."

"Fantastic! That'll be (whatever the total was)! Please have your card ready at the very first window!"

Well, this guy is clearly on drugs, I thought to myself as I pulled forwards.

Greeting me at the first window was The Happiest Man in the World.

The Happiest Man in the World looks to be approximately in his sixties. He's got steely gray hair and is tall, but not unusually so, and fairly slim. His eyes are probably blue - in any case, they were light-colored enough to be a little startling. He wore his uniform like a badge of honor. The smile on his face was nothing short of euphoric, and he took my debit card as though I had just gifted him a puppy for Christmas.

"How's your day going this morning?" He asked me, all but bouncing on his toes. Sunlight seemed to be shining out around him like a halo somehow from inside the dark little window that employees have been known to call 'the Box'.

I've never had anyone working in 'the Box' speak to me with anything less than a monotone before.

"It's... going," I replied, trying to suppress the homicidal parts of me that tend to boil up when the sun isn't all the way up yet. He was just being friendly. It wasn't like he could somehow know that I don't become fully human until 1030.

Because I am Midwestern (and we are unfailingly polite no matter what), I was unable to stop myself from following that with, "How are you?"

You don't need to answer, it's just a formality. You really don't need to-

"Great! I've been given another wonderful day from the Lord to spend counting my blessings!"


I had asked, hadn't I?

"You may be the happiest person I have ever met," I replied, half expecting to see a bluebird alight upon his shoulders and burst into song.

I suddenly felt guilty for how strongly I cling to my I'm-Not-a-Morning-Person mantra. The kind of cynicism I was regarding him with? It wasn't fair. It's not his fault he's happy in the morning and I am basically the Cranky Seamonster from the depths of Angry Ocean.

All he did was be happy at me. He deserved better than what I had to give back.

"I just work with what God gives me," He replied, paused for a moment, and continued, "But then, don't we all?"

He handed me back my card and receipt, with no less bouncy cheer than when he began.

"You have a wonderful day, ma'am! Go and be blessed."

So... I went.

I think maybe I was even a little bit blessed.

I definitely felt more cheerful pulling into the parking lot, after all.

Maybe I'll be a morning person today, too, I thought, feeling suddenly a new sense of commitment.

Then I grunted amicably at the guys who get to work in the building next to us before I do and went inside to sit in blissful, total silence until I had finished my coffee.

Baby steps, people.

Usually I don't even acknowledge the guys who work at the building next door.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

An Ode to My New(ish) Car

We bought you on a Sunday; we were running out of time 
The rental car had to be returned, we had a little less than a day.
It was your green that caught my attention; not a seafoam or a lime
Something they call 'kiwi', (although no fruit looks that way)
You weren't the newest car in the lot
You were basically the car everyone else forgot
But you are my car, even so
And it's to you I write this ode.

You'll never hold four carseats and you can't turn on a dime
You keep telling me the liftgate's ajar, no matter what I say
You're far too conspicuous for me to use you in a crime
(Then again, that's why I have those alibis, anyway)
The shiniest car? That you are not.
Still, you are the car that we bought.
And there is one reason I wrote you this ode 
(trust me, it's not that you have Sirius radio)
It's because you are so very green and that will never change
I also love you because there's no tree on your face.

 (I know that that's two reasons - I must beg your mercy
I wrote this whole poem with a toddler on me)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Midwest Wrong Numbers Are the Best Wrong Numbers

The other day while sitting on the couch reading, my phone vibrated. I checked and saw I had a new text message from a number I didn't recognize. The area code was my home state, the area code my own phone number still uses.

I get texts from time to time - usually some new version of telemarketing, letting me know via text that I have ONLY FOUR MORE DAYS TO CLAIM MY FREE CRUISE VACATION. Sometimes the words are heavily misspelled. Once, the text writer called me "Kathy". There is no easier way to make me annoyed than to call me Kathy.

My name is not Kathy.

In any case, I get a text notification from a number I don't know.

I shrug, pick the phone up, and check the message. This is what I read:

Yo P*, this is D*. Glad that your back in school and cleaned up man, that was a smart move. Im still in town & I do however still take bars & opies from time to time

was wondering if your old connects would still be good?

My understanding of drugs and drug use comes primarily from Law & Order episodes, a couple of Serious Topic Movies, and knowing a few druggies back in high school. It took me several moments of staring blankly at the phone before I realized that 'bars' didn't mean, like, going to bars to drink, but that it meant barbiturates, a word I've only even read four times in my life.

Now, I don't do drugs, don't live in Illinois any longer, and I wouldn't even know what to do with "opies" if you gave them to me. An Opie to me is a little Ron Howard on a black & white TV show I watched with my dad. But the guy seemed nice enough, all supportive of his friend going back to school and whatnot. He probably deserved a reply.

So I typed back:

Sorry, you have the wrong number.

I went back to reading, but then my phone vibrated again less than a minute later. So I checked it.

Could of sworn I had the right number. Whoops. Who is this?

He seemed nervous, I decided based entirely on how fast the reply came in. I decided to be as reassuring as possible.

So I answered him with the first thing I would want to know if I were him.

Well, I can tell you I am definitely not a cop.

This time, the silence stretched out. I was able to get two pages more into my book before he texted me back. I picked it up to check. This is what he had sent:



I could basically see his sweaty palms through the phone.

Perhaps my insistence, granted entirely without context and seemingly at random, was not as reassuring as I thought it was.

I felt bad, and went ahead and let him know I'm just some random lady who moved out of state, I don't know anyone to buy drugs from, again totally not a cop.

The final message he sent was:

So sorry, swear this is the number he gave me. I won't bother you again. Glad your not a cop! had me there for a sec. You have a great day, m'am.

I stared at the phone for a couple more minutes, trying to figure out if I had really just been ma'am'd by a guy looking to buy drugs.

It's true, you guys.

Midwestern people know how to be unfailingly polite in any situation imaginable.

*names and then initials changed to protect the random guy who texted me and also his ex-drug-addict friend, because nobody's attempt to get clean and go back to school should be ruined by a blogger telling funny stories about her life.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Motherhood on Purpose: A #Wholemama Post

"Did you always know you wanted to have kids?"

A friend of mine asked me that one day, and was sincerely surprised when I answered yes.

It's true, though.

I wasn't much for playing 'house', I tattooed half my hand-me-down Barbies, stole my mom's craft paint to paint designs on particularly interesting rocks I found in the alley behind our house, went 'fishing' for dead leaves in mud puddles in the dead of winter, couldn't be bothered to comb the hair of any dolls I happened to own, all the 'dolls' I played with generally ended up being the terrible villains in the grand story of my herd of plastic toy horses, routinely 'forgot' to put gloves on in the winter, and avoided babies whenever possible for most of my childhood and adolescence.

I can see why it might be confusing.

They tell us women are hard-wired for nurturing.

All the plants I've ever murdered through benign neglect, from the aloe vera plant in college that was supposedly going to be resistant to my variation of forgetfulness, through the basil I planted at work this spring... they'd all argue otherwise. They'd argue that "nurturing" is not something in my bones, or at least if it is, it's buried so deeply into the marrow that it can't find its way out.

They tell us we are the ones meant to stay home and do the cleaning and the cooking and the... whatever, I always stop listening by then. I don't know what comes after that.

My dusty bookshelves, smattering of books half-, partially- or completely un-read scattered on every conceivable surface, mugs half-full of tea I routinely set down and forget until an hour later, unpainted kitchen walls, and unhung baby clothing... might argue otherwise.

I'm good at cooking, though - so I've got that much going for stereotypes.

For all that my housekeeping skills were atrophied long before they could even develop and the amount of plants I've kept alive for longer than six months rests in the single digits... I knew I would be a mother before I knew much else.

Still, it surprises people when I tell them that.

I had a list of things I would do with my life by the time I turned 32. I wrote it down when I was seventeen in one of the few journals I kept, journals whose pages are otherwise filled with terrible poetry written primarily about a perfectly happy, supportive, loving high school relationship that nonetheless melted down spectacularly, as high school relationships are wont to do.

In between the early poems about how cool his blue hair was and the later dramatic gnashing of teeth that took place after the second, final breakup, I had written this list.

(Don't date writers in high school, by the way - we are impossible to have amicable breakups with. Amicable breakups don't make good stories.)

Five things I intended to accomplish by the age of 32 (as written by a seventeen year old me):

1. Get married
2. Have either 3 or 4 babies
3. Become a famous novelist
4. Buy a house
5. Live in the country

Obviously, most of this list just isn't going to happen by the end of my timeline. I'll be thirty two in three years. But I did get married, I do own a house, and we do have a baby. 2.25 out of five ain't bad, right?

I am told often we married young. That may be true - I was 22 and still fighting to graduate college and we took what we had saved up and got married and threw everybody a party to celebrate. In my mind, we would start having babies two years after that. Maybe three.

It took seven years.

Two years in grinding poverty in the little college town we lived in, right down to a lot of spaghetti and black bean and rice dinners there towards the end, when the clock counted down to a cross-country move I wasn't entirely prepared for. Another two years in a one-bedroom apartment saving every dime up for a down payment on a house. One year getting our ducks in a row to pay the fifty million hospital bills that come after even the healthiest pregnancies. And then nine months to carry her.

In the six years between my wedding day and the day I met my baby, there was never a doubt of my mind that becoming a mother was going to happen. Before we even made our vows, Jason and I had already talked at length about what we would do if we couldn't have biological kids for whatever reason. We had walked through a thousand scenarios.

While I bristle at the idea that men and women are meant to do anything at all, that our purpose is anything more than what we choose for it to be, I knew I wanted children before I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Our purposes are entirely individual. A friend of mine is a nuclear engineer, owner of what is rapidly turning into a pile of energetic Australian shepherds, a giant house, a cat who rules them all... and if you ask her about babies, she'll point at the aforementioned pile of dogs and reply, "We're good. Also, ew." Another friend is a high school special ed teacher with more degrees than I have pairs of shoes, cares for a Great Dane who originally came to her with a limited lifespan and who has blossomed with her careful attention and outlived all the projections she was given... and considers the concept of adoption, from time to time. Another friend has two children under three, bookshelves taller than my husband lining the halls, a complex garden, and should probably have her own cooking show.

If you asked any of us what our 'purpose' is, odds are we would all have provided different answers.

Mine was never to stay at home. You might think it'd give me more time to clean, and I would probably hurt myself laughing at the idea that more time at home would do anything other than get me to think up more reasons to visit Starbucks. The dust on the bookshelves would grow just the same.

Mine is not to keep the home and garden. All those plants would still die without Jason remembering to water them first. I'd definitely remember to make soup. We'd live in a dusty hovel with dead things everywhere around us, but we'd definitely have soup.

The cabin fever would set in within two weeks or so. I'd end up digging a tunnel out of my house with a spoon just to escape and find a job somewhere.

I'd be on the side of the highway wearing yoga pants and an old T-shirt holding up signs that say "Will Work for Personal Fulfillment Outside My House".

I would happily tell you, though, that my purpose was almost certainly always going to be to be a mother. Having children and being a mother are two entirely separate things. One happens by a certain kind of biology or medical help or a signature on adoption papers. Becoming a mother is what you set yourself to afterwards, what happens when you and that child regard each other at last.

Ask me what my purpose is in this life and I'll probably tell you a few different things; to read all the books ever written about the bubonic plague, to drink every single type of pumpkin beer known to man, to test out just how much coffee can be in my system before my eyelid starts to twitch. I might answer that my purpose is to be the hypochondriac constantly checking her symptoms on WebMD, to be a writer, to be a Christian, to build my life with Jason day by day and year by year until we turn into those ancient married couples that annoy everyone by finishing each other's sentences and being sappy without apology.

I was meant to be someone's mother who reads books, a writer who fights to scrape ten minutes to write a blog post at the end of the day after the baby's in bed, a working mom who found the right daycare, half of a marriage and half of this parenting team, a mom who used to sing her newborn to sleep with "Father Abraham" because I forgot all the childrens' songs I used to know except for those I learned at VBS...

Woven in and around all of the things I am and have been and am meant to be in the future is this motherhood thing.

I bristle when told what I have to do, what I'm supposed to do - no one outside of me can tell me what kind of person I am supposed to be. That sense of purpose never came from other people, and the second you try to demand I must be a certain way I will fight with all my breath to make sure you understand that I don't operate according to anyone's demands. My sense of purpose is inside of me.

It's a purpose that came into sharp relief when Audra and I looked each other in the eyes for the first time, when her very dark eyes held mine for what felt like forever and like a milisecond and no time at all.

I don't know if I was meant to be a mother. It's a choice I made, one I knew I wanted to make from a young age.

Maybe not a mother. But the moment I met her I knew. She is inevitably mine and I am irrevocably hers.

So maybe I cannot say my purpose was to be a mother... but I was always meant, from my own first breath, to be her mother.

The best one I can be.

The best way I know how.

Even if it means that one day she has to explain to her friends why her mother has so many books on cult religions and infectious diseases.

Whole Mama

Today's post is my eighth while participating in the #WholeMama linkup. You can find the linkup for this week's theme, "Purpose", on Erika Shirk's blog Overflow. More information on what #WholeMama is all about can be found here. My other posts as part of the linkup or just inspired by the theme are On Reading and PeaceI Lay You Down to Sleep, My LoveWhen It Rains... CelebrateParenting is SillyAnything But OrdinarySpacePrayer, and A Supermom is a Sleep-Deprived Mom.