On a Learning Curve

Life may not be easy, but it's always an adventure.


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February 24

It comes every year at the same time: February 24. It’s a bittersweet day. This year it marks 13 years since I became a mother. It’s my boys’ birthday. Seth and Owen would turn 13 this year if they were still with us. Teenagers! That would make me the mother of two teenagers! (That must explain why I’m starting to sprout grey hair.)

But they aren’t here to celebrate with us this year or any year. Instead we have a tradition of sending them helium balloons. We write birthday greetings on the balloons and then–this is very environmentally unfriendly–we release them outside. We stand and watch the wind carry them off until they are too far for us to see any longer. Today was no exception. The girls wrote elaborate messages in Sharpie and then let their birthday wishes fly.

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My babies didn’t live long enough for others to get to know them, but I knew them and loved every day we shared together: 23 weeks and 5 days. Ryan loved them, too, though he only held them once. The girls have come to know and love their brothers through asking an endless number of questions, most of which start with the words “What if….”

While we were in Norfolk last weekend, we stopped by the cemetery. The boys are buried together in the same row with their sister Lucy. The girls see nothing strange about cemeteries and understand the rules of a visit: Don’t step on markers and don’t move any of the graveside mementos that other parents have left.

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H loves the sister she has yet to meet.

My eyes stayed mostly dry today–most likely because of the scar tissue on my heart. Instead, my heart has been heavy for another friend whose brother is losing his battle with leukemia. I’ve been missing someone else, too. Today is the birthday of a man who was like a second father to me and a substitute grandfather to my girls. I know that today Uncle Bill celebrated his birthday with Seth and Owen.

While those who loved Bill and Seth and Owen are feeling a little more lonely today, we look forward to the time when we’ll see them again. Whether my eyes are clear or clouded over with tears, I celebrate that there will come a day when my tears will be no more.

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When the Hamster Greets You at the Door…

Something is amiss when a hamster is waiting to greet  you at the door. That’s a dog’s job, and we don’t have a dog; however, 5 ounces of black and white hamster greeted us yesterday when we arrived home from a visit to the grandparents. Apparently Pepper had escaped from her cage while we were away this weekend, and apparently she likes S–or misses her regular feedings–enough to wait for her rescue.

Pepper bears a surprising resemblance to this tapir but weighs considerably less.

Pepper’s markings are quite similar to this tapir, but she weighs considerably less and does not spray urine when she is upset.

The girls and I spent the weekend with my parents in Norfolk. It was so nice to spend time with them last weekend that we decided to do it again, but this time we drove and they hosted. On Saturday afternoon, we visited the Virginia Zoo.

These guys also escaped from their cage. They followed me home, too.

These guys also escaped from their cage. They followed me home, too.

The zoo has changed considerably from when I was a little girl; however, we wandered through Asia, Africa, Australia, and North America in a little less than two hours.

Here are 2 of my favorite orangutans.

Here are 2 of my favorite orangutans.

A visit to see the animals is always a good way to spend a sunny afternoon–especially when you’re anticipating 4+ hours in the car with three girls who can never sync their bladders.

Everyone loves the adorable meerkats.

Everyone loves the adorable meerkats.

Wandering around at a relaxed pace is also a nice way to work out the kinks after an 8-mile run. Yesterday was my first good run of the week. By good, I mean it was the first run where I didn’t think about quitting and walking home every quarter of a mile. This week I learned that 1 hilly, slushy trail run + 1 session of intervals + 1 workout heavy on lunges and squats + donating 1 pint of blood = 0 motivation x 2 tired, achy legs.

As nice as it is to spend time with my parents and practice man-to-man defense with the girls, it’s good also to be back home in my own bed. The sun is shining, the temperature is stuck over 60°, and Ryan just called from afar. Life feels pretty nice today.

Don't you want to run  out and get a red panda of your own?!

Don’t you want to run out and get a red panda of your own?!


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Frozen Heart, Frozen Feet

I don’t like being muddy. Or being wet and muddy. Or being wet, muddy, cold, and sore. But those are the adjectives that described me after Saturday’s Frozen Heart 50k.

Here’s a picture of me and my dad before we set off on our first-ever trail run. Note that we are not muddy or wet. See how happy we are? It’s important to acknowledge how we always set off optimistically. You see, this is the fourth race we’ve run together in the past 12 months; only one of those races was warm and sunny.

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Here’s another smiley picture for you. We’ve reached the 5-mile aid station, and we’re foolishly thinking that the worst parts of the run are behind us. Why am I lifting my vest? We had to prove that we had paid actual money to be on the trail and weren’t just regular crazy people out for a snowy, muddy jog in the middle of a rocky, root-y nature path around St. Mary’s Lake.

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Coincidentally, my race number is significant. Saturday was my dad’s 65th birthday and the reason for our adventure race. He wanted to celebrate his milestone birthday with a race on his actual birthday, and we chose the Frozen Heart 50k since it was cheap, close to my home, and offered three distance options. My sister was supposed to join us, but 20 inches of snow was blanketing her street.

There are no more pictures of us running on Saturday, and I was too exhausted to remember to take pictures later in the day. By the time we hit Mile 8, someone wanted to quit. Someone else pointed out that there was no use quitting since we’d still have to walk the rest of the trail back to the finish. When we finally finished one lap, we were covered in mud from our knees to our toes. Our hands were frozen since we’d both dipped our gloves in pools of mud, our socks were full of mud, and our toes looked like frozen grapes. We opted to run just one loop, which brought our total distance to 10.76 miles in just over 2 hours.

We averaged a 12-minute pace. In retrospect, we could have shaved 2 minutes off our finish time if we hadn’t stopped at the aid station. We also could have run up every single hill, too. Someone kept falling in the last few miles; that really slowed us down as well. Then there’s the debate over running straight through the puddles as opposed to zigzagging and running around them off-trail.

The important thing is we finished together. It was impossible to run side-by-side since much of the course required moving in single-file fashion, but we accomplished our goal. Will we ever run another trail race? Probably not. Was it the best way to celebrate a milestone birthday? Well, that’s debatable, too. Was it a good way to feel 65 years old? According to my dad, it was, but I don’t think he meant this in a positive way. Did we make some great memories? Absolutely. Happy 65th, Daddy!

Editor’s Note: Want to see the rest of the course? Follow this link to a fellow trail runner’s blog post on Saturday’s run. Check out all the yummy food and nice volunteers. I forgot to mention them in my original post. (I think I got sidetracked by the lactic acid in my calves, glutes, and quads.)


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Lessons Learned This Week

It snowed again in Maryland. You would have thought from the news coverage that it has never, ever snowed before in the history of Maryland. Phew. We survived the five inches of snow that were immediately follow by rain and sleet. The thermometer hit 50° today, and now our yard looks like it is covered in melted white Slurpee. Ick.

This was another learning week for me. Here are my Top 7, in no particular order of importance:

1. I am loved. My parents sent me a bouquet of red roses as an early Valentine’s gift. My mother-in-law sent me chocolate bars. (The kids don’t know about the chocolate, and they don’t read my blog.) And my sweet husband sent a gorgeous arrangement of yellow lilies.

A fun flower arrangement and my 3 Valentines

A fun flower arrangement and my 3 Valentines

2. I need to hold newborn babies more often. I delivered dinner to friends who recently welcomed the arrival of healthy twin girls. The babies are still in that scrunched-up stage where they just want to snuggle and make sweet little noises. I was in heaven for 20 minutes on Wednesday, and all of my stress magically melted away. (This is not to say that I want a newborn baby of my own.)

3. I need an attitude adjustment when I start feeling sorry for myself. The  snow was ridiculously wet and heavy yesterday, and I struggled to clear half of the driveway. The snow plow skipped our street, and I almost gave in to a rather bad attitude. Until I realized that no one owes me anything. There are much worse jobs than shoveling snow.

4. Other people are facing much harder challenges than I am. (See #3 above.) Several friends and acquaintances are fighting cancer, waiting for test results, or dealing with difficult situations. This realization is an instant attitude changer.

5. Sometimes you need to take a snow day. We didn’t take one yesterday, and lessons dragged. Children were grumpy. The teacher was grumpy. Children were unmotivated; too late the teacher loosed them. Today students and teacher struck a deal: no new work for math, language arts, or history. Instead we made up the music lesson that we forgot to do yesterday; G wrote the paragraph that she didn’t write earlier this week; everyone worked on Awana assignments; and H counted and categorized birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count while S and G wrote expository paragraphs.

My snow squirrel and S's version of Olaf

My snow squirrel and S’s version of Olaf

6. Night terrors stink. Period. That’s about all I can say on the subject.

7. Sometimes children are smarter than we think. H is becoming an excellent birder. I have the hardest time figuring out exactly which brown finches are eating from our feeder. Yesterday we were stumped by four little brown finches. H insisted that the females were purple finches. This morning a male purple finch arrived and confirmed H’s diagnosis. I was impressed!

Tomorrow brings more adventure. In honor of my dad’s 65th birthday, we’re heading out on a 10-mile trail race that promises to be snowy, slushy, muddy, and full of adventure. I’ll save the details for my next post.


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A Productive Week

Much to G’s disappointment, another polar vortex did not descend upon us this week. My snow-crazy child even lamented that other nearby counties got an ice storm, but we didn’t. I pointed out that we still had electricity, heat, and hot water. 11-year-olds just don’t care about these things!

Instead no lessons were canceled for bad weather, no one had any appointments, and we accomplished quite a bit of schoolwork. I thought I’d post photographic proof that we’ve been learning and creating this week.

In history, we’ve reached the 1400s and are trying to make sense of all the Richards, Edwards, and Henrys. We created our own banners for the Yorks and the Lancasters, and all three girls collaborated on a pop-out card of the Tower of London. H was only allowed to create the landscaping, and S and G fought over how many horses and guards were needed. Overall, it was a good way to learn some British history.

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Q: Where did Richard III hide King Edward V and his brother?

S used her artistic abilities to enhance her study of E.B. White’s classic Charlotte’s Web. The supplies were simple: Sculpey, an empty Nuun box, some leftover Easter grass, and acrylic paint. Templeton the Rat is almost as big as Wilbur, but S insisted on hiding him in the crate. Charlotte is in the upper left-hand corner.

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Next we took a break from conducting a science experiment to create an anatomy review game. The girls are still arguing about the name of the game and all the specific rules of play, but they drew and laminated this game board themselves. S and H created the game pieces–out of more Sculpey–and G is trying to figure out how to turn the red and white blood cells into wild cards.

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Not pictured are the question cards that they wrote for the 8 different systems that we have studied so far this year. (Bonus points awarded to astute readers who can correctly identify the above organs.) The object is to collect one card of each color and reach the brain first.

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H and I also finished our winter nature study. The recent snow was well-timed for our unit on weather, birds, animals, music, and art. Today we made some bird feeders. Pine cones, peanut butter, and sunflower seeds were all it took.

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H was optimistic about the birds’ chances of eating the three treats that we hung along the side yard. She’s only 6, but I knew better. This little guy was happily munching his way through cone #1 when we returned from art lessons today.

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At least the bird feeder is squirrel-proof.

P.S. For those wondering, Ryan is safe, busy, and hard at work.


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7 Things

February can be a tough month for me. I became a mother in February 2001. My twin sons Seth and Owen were born on February 24, more than three months before their due date. Seth Michael lived less than one day, and Owen Patrick lived almost two days. As soon as I turn the calendar page to February, I think of my boys.

In the 13 years that have passed, we’ve added three thriving girls to our family, but we’ve also buried another daughter whose life ended before it began. My heart has healed, but I am forever changed—in ways too numerous to describe in this post.

Today I thought I would share 7 things not to do or say after someone you know loses a child. All of these suggestions are from personal experience, and my purpose is not to chastise or shame. I just want others to think before they say or do something that may further wound someone who is already broken.

  1. Show up unannounced with pictures of your baby who died. I was speechless when this happened to me, especially since I only casually knew this woman and didn’t know she recently had lost a child. I literally walked out of the room and refused to return until my husband and mother escorted her from the house.
  2. Monopolize the conversation with details about your loss. This isn’t about you, even if you’ve had a similar experience. Be quiet. Listen. Let your friend grieve. It is okay if you don’t know what to say. It is even better if you just say, “I am so very sorry.”
  3. Use phrases like, “My womb became a tomb.” Do not use conversation with a grieving mother as your own personal therapy session. Make an appointment with a licensed counselor or psychologist. Do not attempt to transfer your guilt, grief, or irrational beliefs to anyone else.
  4. Ignore what happened. Pretend that everything is normal. Because if you wait long enough, your friend will get over her loss and you won’t feel so uncomfortable. Right? Wrong.
  5. Say, “If there’s anything you need, just call me.” People who say this have the best of intentions but often don’t realize that it may just be too hard for a grieving parent to do this. Also, who calls someone to say, “Would you please bring my family a meal tomorrow night? We eat low-carb; my husband hates mushrooms and nuts; and I despise mayonnaise”? Really?
  6. Ask questions about insurance coverage. Especially if you’re pregnant and trying to figure what Tricare (or your insurance company) covers.  This happened to me at a spouses’ get-together not long after my first loss. I was trying so hard to get through the day without crying, and I just wanted to have a normal outing. Some gracious friends redirected the conversation; however, this is why insurance companies have customer service representatives, Web sites, and 800-phone numbers! Show some sensitivity!
  7. Fill in awkward gaps in conversation.  Don’t say, “Well, at least your baby is in a better place and isn’t suffering anymore.” While that may be true, that baby’s mother and father are suffering, and your attempt to make sense of the unthinkable isn’t necessary. And please don’t say, “At least you have other children.” Yes, that may be true, but one child isn’t a substitute for another.

 

So what should you do when a friend or acquaintance is in this situation? It’s simple, really. Here are 7 suggestions.

  1. Call before you visit. Do not bring your personal memento box. Do not bring books about infertility or others’ experiences. Save those for later. When she asks.
  2. Listen when your friend wants to talk. Keep her company. Pray for her. Give her a hug. You don’t always need to use words.
  3. Don’t share your own experiences until later. Spare the gory or graphic details.
  4. Continue to invite and include your friend. Don’t give up if she doesn’t accept the first or second invitation.
  5. Don’t wait for your friend to call you. Insist on bringing a meal. Ask if there are food allergies or preferences. Ask which day is best. Even better, bring something that can be frozen or consumed at a later date; use disposable containers.
  6. Show some sensitivity, even if you have to put a piece of tape over your mouth. If you are pregnant or have a newborn, realize that she doesn’t hate you or your baby; however, she may feel awkward around you. Don’t take it personally.
  7. Sit and listen if she wants to talk. If she doesn’t or can’t, make her a cup of tea. Buy her a fancy $5 latte from Starbucks. Suggest that you take a walk together.

 

Readers, what about you? What are your dos and don’ts after the loss of a child or loved one? Leave a comment if you can improve on my suggestions!


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Turning a Corner

We’ve made it to Day 28 of this deployment, and as my title suggests, we’ve turned a corner. Life seems to have settled into a manageable routine for the girls and for me. Of course, I had a little lots of help last week. My dad spent nearly four days with us, and that seems to have made a huge difference in my outlook and the girls’ behavior.

Last Monday, I had my semi-annual homeschooling review. Our county schedules reviews at the local public libraries, and I usually bring the girls with me. Last school year, two of the girls decided to have their very first fistfight during my review. Can I just say that it was one of my most embarrassing moments as a mom? I had just finished explaining that G was singing in our church choir–because that fulfills a music requirement–when H rushed over to tell me that G punched S. Let’s just say that I needed a few minutes to find different time-out spots for the girls before I could continue the review. This week I went to my review solo, and it was so relaxing not to be interrupted by a child asking questions or contradicting one of my statements.

On Tuesday, we prepared for Round 2 of snow and sub-freezing temperatures. And Wednesday did not disappoint: four more inches of snow arrived! As has become our snow day routine, we complete math and language arts and then head outside for P.E. (i.e. sledding). My dad and I shoveled snow instead of sledding. While I managed to shovel out one neighbor’s driveway, he shoveled two driveways. He’s an overachiever.

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Wednesday evening brought H’s biggest meltdown of the week. On the previous day, she had a long sob over the fact that both pairs of favorite leggings were in the washing machine at the same time, and then she remembered that her daddy was gone, and it took a long time to stop her tears. But on Wednesday, she discovered that her two big sisters had destroyed her only Barbie doll. By destroyed, I mean that S tattooed a skull and crossbones (in Sharpie) on Barbie’s thigh. G finished her off by removing every. last. piece. of. her. hair. No kidding. Somehow my dad and I managed not to laugh or crack a smile while G cleaned up the bathroom and I doled out the appropriate punishment.

G can also use her powers for good. Here she is demonstrating her snow tunnel!

G can also use her powers for good. Here she is demonstrating her snow tunnel!

By Friday, life seemed to be approaching normal. We worked through the morning without taking a break to play outside, and we ventured out for afternoon art lessons.

Today was not-so-exciting. Dragging three children along for an oil change is nobody’s idea of Saturday fun. Nor is grocery shopping. On the plus side, one of my neighbors kept an eye on the girls while I managed an 8-mile training run. I’ve decided to celebrate my next birthday–and new age group–by running the Iron Girl Half Marathon in Columbia, MD, so it’s time to hit the road again. And yes, we did visit our local Target so that H could pick out a replacement for the maimed Barbie. As she stood in the Barbie aisle pondering the many choices, G kept telling me that Barbies were ridiculously expensive and that she didn’t want to spend all of her money. As I calmly explained to her, I hope this is the first and last Barbie she ever buys for her sister.

And that brings us to 28 days. 4 weeks. A full lunar month. I think we’re going to survive.

[Note: I’m not being callous or self-centered when I omit my husband from our family’s activities. I can’t give details on his location, and I’ve learned not to ask how he spends his days. In good time, he’ll share what he can. For now, I simply pray that he does his job well and returns home healthy and whole.]