Harry Potter Birthday Magic – Chapter Two

So, as mentioned in Chapter One, when the kiddos finished up with Quidditch, we still had half of the party to go. What followed was the activity I’d spent the most time planning (and the part that Ella knew the least about, so she could still be surprised): Potions.
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After rather exhaustively searching the internet, I’d decided on six different experiments for the kids to complete. Everything was assigned a Harry Potter-ish name (white vinegar was Phoenix Tears, Basilisk Venom was blue dish soap, etc.) and the experiments were typed up, step-by-step (as part of the spell books). The ingredients and tools were set out, science-lab style, and the kiddos got to work.

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One of the tables, from above, ready to go…

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They were divided into two groups (mostly for crowd control) and we went through the experiments together, to ensure that the steps were followed exactly (in order for some of them to work properly, they had to be completed just so).

We started with “Exploding Filibusters” (combine vinegar and baking soda in a small container with a cap; shake vigorously; stand back) because I knew it would grab their attention. (I knew this because when I’d tried the experiment myself, the top exploded so violently off the vial, it hit the kitchen ceiling. That woke me up, let me tell you.) The kids had similar results; they were hooked!
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Spider Expulsion” and “Unicorn Milk Diffusion” – both involving dish soap as repellents – were met mostly with success… although if you’re going to do an experiment that calls for food coloring, I don’t recommend that you use the super-thick, “good” stuff you might have purchased when you fancied yourself a budding Cake Boss. Globs of food coloring are swell for fondant but not so swell for Potions. Trust me on this.
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HPparty36See above: large blobs of food coloring in the milk. Don’t do this.

For “Effervescent Elixir,” each kiddo had his/her own “cauldron” in which to mix their potion, with explicit instructions to follow – including placing their cauldron on a tray and giving some space.
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As the solutions frothed and bubbled deliciously, Ella and her pals understood why it was wise to keep their distance.
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The penultimate experiment – “Mandrake Restorative Draught” – was quick and fun, with some “magic” color changes occurring at its finish.HPparty43

We ended with the experiment I knew would be the most sensational, if only because it involved flame. I called it “Incendiated Basilisk Skin” and made up some story about defeating a basilisk with fire; they ate it up (not literally. That would have been a problem). If you try this one at home, be aware that you really only need a *tiny* bit of rubbing alcohol… anything else might, say, burn for over an hour in your kitchen (which will make you grateful that you tried the experiment in advance, but also annoyed because FIRE and KITCHEN are bad).
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When at last the fires had died out, leaving the basilisk “shells” in their wake, we took the kids to the backyard for their final activity: Defense Against The Dark Arts. Nick and Chris worked up a tale involving spells and charms, then sent them off to duel with their newly-acquired weapons: cans of silly string.

This was Nick’s idea, and it was brilliant. Although Ella and her guests had thoroughly enjoyed the Potions class, they’d had to focus and follow precise instructions for a good 45 minutes – so they were thrilled to have the opportunity to run themselves ragged.

And use silly string. ‘Cause that’s always a hit.
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While they went bananas in the yard, Sarah and I took the opportunity to put away the Potions lab, rinse out their cauldrons (which were party favors), and get the dining room Great Hall set up for the end-of-term feast. When, at last, the yard resembled a Jackson Pollock creation (and the kids ran out of string), we called them inside to begin the feast.

HPparty48After looking up faux castle wall backdrops, I decided – as with the Platform 9 3/4 brick wall – to just make one myself. I found grey shower curtains at the Dollar Store (sweet!) and felt pretty good about my genius design… until I began to actually hang the curtains in the dining room and the paint flaked off, piece by piece, piling up on the floor.
Turns out? Shower curtains don’t only repel water; they also repel paint. 

At least it looked kinda cool.

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Some additional feast food and drinks…

Ella had requested angel food cake as her birthday goodie (yum!). She also requested it entirely plain (um…). I was able to convince her to have one entirely plain cake (see above: the ridiculously-named “Meringue Gateau”) and one whipped-cream-frosted cake (with strawberries on the side).

As mentioned in the first post, Sarah was in charge of the cake-frosting, with instructions to make the lettering look like Harry’s 11th birthday cake from the Sorcerer’s Stone movie.HPparty49
Making Hagrid proud!

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Following the feast, we invited everyone to  fill up at Honeydukes Sweet Shop.HPparty51

Each kiddo got to take home an awesome butterbeer that Sarah and Chris had driven up from Westchester…HPparty52

… as well as an assortment of Muggle candy, all named after Wizarding sweets.HPparty53
From left: Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum (gum balls), Chocolate Frogs (made with a frog mold and chocolate discs), Pepper Imps (big, chalk-y peppermint candies), Chocoballs (malted chocolate balls), Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, Toothflossing Stringmints (coils of red and black licorice), and Acid Pops (lollypops dipped in Pop Rocks).

HPparty54The Acid Pops were a cool idea, but the execution – dipping the lollies in water, then pressing them into the Pop Rocks – left a lot to be desired… Sarah helped out as best she could…

Before everyone departed – wands, spellbooks, cauldrons, butterbeer, and candy in hand (or bag) – we made sure to get a couple of photos by the (crumbling, peeling…) Great Hall backdrop.

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Yes, it was a nutty six days leading up to the party. But I would do it all again to see our wonderfully Harry-obsessed eleven year-old feel – for a couple of hours – like she was maybe, just a little bit, at Hogwarts with her friends. Giving her that magical experience was really our birthday present to her; seeing her celebrating, wizard-style, with her friends was so very worth it.

Plus also we had leftover candy and butterbeer.
I’m calling it a win.

~~~~~~~~

I bought customizable labels for the Potions at this neat Etsy shop.
I found ideas – and the sign – for the Potions class herehere, and here.
The Honedukes and Defense Against the Dark Arts signs were from here.

 

 

 

 

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Harry Potter Birthday Magic – Chapter One

In mid-November, Ella made up her mind: she wanted a Harry Potter birthday party (obvs). Because she had her heart set on a handful of friends attending, she sent an email to the invitees offering up several possibilities, hoping that most could make it on at least one of the offerings. Miraculously, everyone was available on exactly one of the possible dates…

… which, of course, happened to be six days from when she sent the email.
So we had six days to prepare for Ella’s Harry Potter birthday party – her ELEVENTH birthday, no less (the age when Hogwarts letters arrive). Six days to leave our Muggle lives behind and create something magical.

No pressure!

Given that this was November and not summer break (when we have usually held birthday parties), those six days were already jam-packed with Regular Life. Still, I was not about to let Life get in the way of giving Ella the Harry Potter birthday party that I she had always dreamed of.

It was crazy, but I won’t even pretend to complain. ‘Cause, let’s be real: I loved it.

The very afternoon Ella received the go ahead on her party date, she set to work designing the invitations.HPparty1
Using her quill pen and ink (duh), she dutifully wrote out Hogwarts letters for each friend.

HPparty2These took FOREVER, but she was determined…

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Official Hogwarts wax seal!

Next, the invitations had to be delivered… But Muggle mail would not do. They would arrive by owl.HPparty4
Ella convinced her sister and next door BFF to create owl balloons for her — which we then dropped off at the invitees’ houses.

For the next six days, we gathered supplies, scoured the internet, decided on menus and games and activities and take-home goodies, made decorations, created spell-books, designed an “order” of events, and got very little sleep. It was kind of incredible.
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After strategizing how the Quidditch match should go, Ella was in charge of spraypainting the hoops.

In addition to Ella, I had the invaluable assistance of my BFF, Sarah, who – last minute – was bringing her family (including her sons, J and Z — some of my girls’ best buds) to visit for the weekend, meaning they’d be here for the party. Sarah listened patiently to my incessant rambling about activities, decorations, and food. She found butterbeer at a local grocery store and had her husband, Chris, drive it up from Westchester. She insisted that, not only would she help get everything set up on Saturday morning – she was excited about helping set everything up.

Sarah gets me and my craziness and joins me in the crazy.

She also made me promise her I wouldn’t get too carried away.
Sarah knows me very, very well.

The morning of the party, we sent the kids off with Nick and Chris so we could prepare. Sarah instinctively knew where things should go and how they should look; I just had to tell her what was next. She’d arrange an activity, text me a photo (so I wouldn’t have to stop what I was doing to check things out… but also because she knew that I’d eventually want photos of everything. THIS IS A GOOD FRIEND), and then move onto the next thing. She talked me down from the ledge at least twice and convinced me that it was okay to let go of certain expectations (the candles hanging from the Great Hall ceiling were just not happening; I saved them for Ella’s actual birthday). She even frosted Ella’s birthday cake – a task I would have entrusted to approximately two other people in the universe (and one of them is not Nick).

In short, the party could not have happened without Sarah. (Nick and Chris, were tremendous helpers, too… but it was Sarah who really made it work.) When it was all said and done, Sarah was also the one who made me promise that I would blog about it. It’s taken me 3.5 months, but I’m finally keeping my promise.

—————

NOW PRESENTING:  Ella’s Harry Potter Party (part one)!

Naturally, when the guests arrived, they had to go through Platform 9 3/4 to get to Diagon Alley.
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I researched pre-made faux brick “walls” – like theater sets – but they wound up being so expensive, I decided to “just” sponge-paint an old curtain.
Turns out you don’t “just” sponge-paint an old curtain, but whatever. It worked… eventually.

As the guests came in, they were invited to drop off donations for our local Humane Society at Eeylops Owl Emporium.
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They could also flush their way to the Ministry of Magic, should they choose…
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Other Diagon Alley decorations included some recognizable Harry Potter posters – with the kids’ photos replacing Harry and Sirius Black.

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Designing these cracked me up maybe a little too much…

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I hadn’t been sure where I wanted the posters; Sarah quickly hung them above the fireplace, which was where we’d planned on taking photos, which turned out to be perfect. (Notice also the three extra Quidditch rings for dramatic effect.)
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Traveling by fireplace? You’ll need floo powder, obviously…

Ella wanted to start out with the standard Diagon Alley activities: wand-getting, wizard robe-trying-on, and procuring school supplies at Flouish and Blotts. After asking for her guests’ wand color preferences at school in the days preceding the party, Ella dutifully cut, sanded, and painted wands for everyone – and then attached labels with their lengths. Nick dramatically doled out the wands, making sure they “chose” correctly, and then the kids finished them off with hot glue and paint.HPparty11You can vaguely see the descriptions attached to each wand…

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In the end, the Ollivander’s decorating table was more detailed than this, but we were so busy helping the kids navigate Diagon Alley, no one got a photo…

While some students visited Ollivander’s, others stopped by Flourish and Blotts to grab their spell-books. (These were more than just decorations; we used them throughout the party.)
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The cover of the book, as it looked on the computer…

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Z and Annie showing off their wands and spell-books. And their semi-evil looks.

We didn’t have enough time (or resources) to procure everyone a robe, so we set up a try-on station at Madame Malkin’s and invited kiddos to take photos with their costumes.HPparty15

 

They took posing – individually, in pairs, groups, you name it.
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Annie, in her Gryffindor robes, looking appropriately brave and clever…

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Z, in his Slytherin robes, looking appropriately naughty and bold.

Ella and her buddies were in on the action, too.
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Group shot!HPparty20

Once everyone was sufficiently outfitted for Hogwarts, they took their places in the Great Hall (no Hogwarts Express, pity) for the Sorting ceremony.
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I’m not sure that Hogwarts used plastic, gold Dollar Store tablecloths, but at least our scuffed wooden benches are authentic…

The best part of Sorting was that the hat actually talked. Well, to be more precise, Chris talked… into a cell phone (from a different part of the house)… that was dialed into a cell phone we’d placed in the tip of the hat. I’d theatrically announce each kid as loudly as possible (so Chris would hear me) as s/he put on the hat.”AND NOW, WE WILL FIND OUT WHICH HOUSE MISS ELEANOR WILL BE IN!” Chris would then – using a British accent and rhyming couplets (no joke) – “sort” the kids, which we would hear coming from the hat… as though it were talking.

It was kind of insane. And also kind of epic.HPparty22
Fingers crossed for Gryffindor (she was a Hufflepuff instead)…

Once everyone was sorted, the activities could officially begin! First up: attending a History of Magic review/study session, which took place in the Gryffindor common room. Naturally, they had to give the portrait of the Fat Lady the password to enter…
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Ella designed the study/review game herself. Step one: close your eyes and reach into a bowl containing strips of paper, on which were the names of different Harry Potter characters. Step two: lick (!) and adhere the paper to your forehead. Step three: face the other kiddos and, based on their clues, guess the character attached to your forehead.

I created the paper strips so Ella could play, too.
The game itself? Pretty freakin’ hilarious.HPparty23
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Trying to get J to guess that he was the Fat Lady had everyone in hysterics.

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No term at Hogwarts would be complete without a Quidditch match! After much consideration on how to tackle this imaginary sport, we went for simple: if the Snitch (aka gold-painted golfball) made it through all three hoops and landed in a cup without knocking it over, your team got a point.HPparty26HPparty27

Turns out, landing a (heavy) golfball into a (light) Solo cup is actually kind of challenging, which made it more fun. The kids played House against House, round robin-style, until we had a winner. HPparty28

Score!

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By this point, the party was only halfway over.
There was still Potions…HPparty40HPparty44

… Defense Against the Dark Arts…HPparty46

… the end-of-term feast…HPparty48a

… and a trip to Honeydukes…HPparty53

… but that will have to wait until the next chapter.

(CLIFFHANGER, I know.)

 

~~~~~

I found several of the party signs here and here.

We saw the Quidditch idea here.

 

 

 

A Lesson in Living

Last Saturday, I lost a longtime friend to cancer.
It is something I’m absolutely not okay with.

Sara was funny. She was witty. She was an incredibly talented artist and craft-person, sewing and knitting and taking photos with the best of them. She even owned a lovely boutique that sold fabulous goodies. Sara loved to bake, to play games, and to play music. She spoke often of her faith in God and Jesus – certainly after her diagnosis, but before, too. She was creative and clever and generous and devoted.
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The girls wearing the Easter outfits Sara made for them, circa 2009. 
Ella’s skirt was super-cute – she and Annie saved it for dress-up long after it had become too small for wearing otherwise – but it was the dress Sara created for Annie (complete with apron — an apron!!) that absolutely stole my heart. 

Sara was diagnosed five short months ago. She fought valiantly and hard, remaining hopeful that she would be able to beat this cruel and unpredictable disease. She came home for hospice just two weeks before she died.
She was only thirty-nine.

Sara and I met on the same December 2004 Moms message board where I met Sarah, Karen, and Jenifer; we’ve been friends for nearly eleven years. Her three children are young – the youngest is a December ’04 kiddo, like my Ella. Just imagining them trying to navigate this world without their mama makes my heart hurt. Cancer is so effing mean.

Like so many friendships, Sara’s and my relationship did not take a linear path: meet, become pals, happily ever after, the end. Although we met in person, joining together with other December ’04 friends in Atlantic City for a rather, um, epic long weekend, the bulk of our communications were online. Because we weren’t accustomed to seeing one another face to face, it was all too easy for months to go by without getting in touch.

The first time that I sent Sara a Christmas card and didn’t receive one back from her (we’d been exchanging them for years), I assumed that she and her family hadn’t done cards that year. By the second year, I didn’t know if they weren’t sending cards, period, or if she simply wasn’t interested in sending one to me anymore, for whatever reason. I sent a card anyway, happily imagining her opening it. This went on for a few more years until I heard through the grapevine that Sara had moved; thus, the time came when I copied her address label in my Excel spreadsheet from the “current” list to the “no longer” list. I didn’t really want to, but if she wasn’t even receiving the cards, it seemed silly to continue sending them. Our communications essentially ceased.

And then, lo and behold, I received a Facebook friend request from Sara this past December! It had been several years since we’d been in contact and I’ll admit I was wary to accept her request. Would it feel strained? Weird? Too much water under the bridge? In the end, I decided that I didn’t care about the water; I cared about the bridge.
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Sara and me on our Atlantic City trip, 2006.

We kept in touch on Facebook, commenting on one another’s photos or status updates. I loved seeing how her kids had grown in the years since we’d last talked, loved seeing what Sara was up to. When she was diagnosed in the spring, the years of not keeping up with one another seemed to disappear. All that mattered was that my friend was sick and needed support, love, encouragement, and prayers.

It’s easy to see what’s really important when things become really hard. Funny, that.

So often folks are hit with a crisis or a tragedy, people are quick to quip, “Live each day as though it were your last!” I get it: don’t put off your dreams until later because who knows if that time will come, live with joy, tell people you love them, don’t wait to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do because it may be too late.

That’s well and good, really it is. But I’m not terribly interested in living each day as though it were my last. If I thought that I’d be gone tomorrow, I sure as heck wouldn’t spend today doing the laundry. I’d be buying airplane tickets – first class, baby! – to visit family and friends, pulling the girls out of school, and making sure to drink my weight in Starbucks salted caramel mochas.

And as for regrets? Well, I just don’t see how it’s possible to live without them. If I were to bite the dust next week, I’d be bummed as heck that I never took up the cello or visited the Great Wall of China. I’d be devastated to think I’d miss Ella and Annie growing up. I’d be super annoyed that I didn’t get to see the new Star Wars that’s coming out in December, and I’d definitely regret having spent this morning working out instead of watching the first few episodes of Modern Family.

Alas, living like it all could end in a moment simply isn’t practical. Neglecting the laundry would result in a nasty situation pretty fast. First class tickets would destroy our savings. As much as I do want to learn to play the cello and visit the Great Wall – I absolutely plan to do both, someday – and it might seem tempting to say, “Screw it! Carpe Diem! I’m taking lessons and booking a trip to China next month!”, it doesn’t always work that way. Not every dream is meant to be realized at the same time.

Sara’s death – and our friendship – taught me something much simpler. It’s not that you need to live every day as though it were your last, but rather that you should live openly, wholly, with the good and the bad and everything in between.
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Sara also made the silkies that Annie so cherishes. She was devoted to them at age one… and still now, at almost-nine. I love that this little bit of Sara’s goodness is still bringing such happiness into our house.

The thing is, living openly can be really freakin’ hard. It’s easier not to reach out. It’s easier not to forgive. It’s easier to assume that you’re right rather than trying to see things from another person’s perspective. It’s easier to let past hurts get in the way of present joys. It’s easier to keep difficult times to yourself rather than sharing them with others.

But being privy to Sara’s battle with cancer – as weird or hard to believe as it sounds – was such a gift. She shared her treatment plans and hospital stays with us, her diagnoses and aches and pains, her optimism that she would beat this, her hope and her deep faith. Instead of it being depressing and overwhelming, it was tremendously healing and connecting; I felt like I was with her, even though we were hundreds of miles apart. Her honesty and vulnerability were compelling and beautiful. I thought of and prayed for her all the time, but also gained a perspective and sense of awareness of my own life and priorities that might not otherwise have been present had Sara not allowed herself to be open with all of us.

Through Sara, I learned that not only is it okay to ask for help or to ask people to send you good wishes, it’s lovely and wonderful. Every time she updated her Facebook status, even when she was relaying bad news or saying she was in pain, Sara managed to put a positive and humorous spin on things. I couldn’t help but feel hope – mingled deeply with devastation and helplessness, yes, but still hope – when I read her posts. How amazing is that!

And to think I might have missed out on all of it if I’d been too afraid to accept her friend request.

As I mentioned recently, I know there are times when we all need to curl inward rather than open up. We need to protect ourselves, to heal, to recharge, and that’s okay. I’m so thankful, however, that through Sara, I discovered how powerful it can be to take a leap of faith and go forward with something that is uncertain or scary, how freeing it can feel to open your heart again.

I’m so very sad that Sara is gone – sad for me, sad for the hundreds of people who were able to attend her funeral and who miss her terribly, sad for her family, and most of all, sad for her husband and their children. No child should have to grow up without their mama. It simply isn’t right.

But I’m so deeply grateful for Sara – for her sense of humor, for her intelligence, for her kindness, her ingenuity, her cleverness, her faith, her enthusiasm, her friendship. I’m so grateful that she showed me the beauty of vulnerability, and for everything she taught me about grace, forgiveness, second chances, and always looking for the silver lining.

Thank you, my friend. Godspeed.
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Beautiful photo of Sara taken from her public obituary page.

It’s not CAN’T-cún… It’s CANcún*

This – 2015 – is a fairly big year for Nick and me: it’s the year we both turn forty. Upon realizing this several years back (yes, we had to realize it; getting older is rough, y’all), we decided that our upcoming forty-ness would be the perfect excuse to embark on an adults-only vacation – ideally with a bunch of other friends who were also 1975ers (or close enough).

After nearly four years of planning, in mid-July we found ourselves at an all-inclusive resort north of Cancún*, a spot chosen both for its geographic middle-ness (for friends from both coasts) and its ability to serve our needs perfectly.

* the joke in the title was made by one of my BFF’s husbands. It is awesome.

Want to just lounge by the pools and beach all day, every day? That was do-able.
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 The pool area was pretty much fabulous.  IMG_3961
Those chairs? Yup. IN the water.

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And beyond the infinity pool… the ocean. Not too shabby.

We – eleven of us in total, some of our closest friends and some delightful friends of friends who became our buddies, too – all spent ample time by both of these bodies of water. Yes, they were bath-water warm… but the air temperature hovered over 100* (without accounting for humidity), so they were still refreshing.

Want to relax in your hotel room in air-conditioned splendor and take in the view? We could accommodate that.
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The rooms were really quite lovely. And air-conditioned. Very, very air-conditioned.
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The ocean was SO RIDICULOUSLY TURQUOISE BLUE.IMG_3979
Hazy morning shortly after sunrise… It was already at least 93*.

Want to trek 2.5 hours inland through the jungle (no, I mean that literally; except for the developed areas, which are not large, the Yucatán Peninsula is essentially all jungle, with vegetation so thick and lush, you’d be hard pressed to physically fit between the trees) and visit one of the most incredible archeological, astronomical, and architectural displays imaginable? We could make that happen.
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This is what we saw as we crossed from the Gulf of Mexico over onto the Yucatán Peninsula, on which Cancún is located. That green stuff? JUNGLE. Real, live jungle.
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Helllooooo, Chichen Itza. 
In other news, the Mayan people were SERIOUSLY BADASS and WICKED SMART, yo.IMG_1475
Very sadly, you are no longer allowed to hike up the steps to the top.
So we posed (with Ryan, one of our best buds from college) in front instead.IMG_3890
Also? The Mayan people were serious about their ballgames.
As seen in this etching/carving (found on the side walls of the “ball court”), the warrior/player has a blade in one hand and the DECAPITATED HEAD of the captain of the WINNING TEAM in his other hand.IMG_3892a
Why, you ask, did the VICTORIOUS captain lose his head (as depicted above – look closely and you’ll see the kneeling warrior [one knee on the ground, the other bent] with his  missing head)? Because such an “honor,” after playing so well on the field, resulted in his immediately becoming a god and joining the other Mayan gods before him. Immortality and eternal praise? Not a bad prize, eh?!

Want to cool off after trudging around historic Mayan sites in the 105* Mexican sun by jumping into a cavernous sinkhole that’s more than 150′ deep? That could be arranged.
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This is the Ik-Kil cenote. It is crazy cool, both literally and figuratively.IMG_1515
I was too chicken to jump from the raised platform (up the stairs to the right; Ryan and my friend, Sarah, took that plunge), but I did jump in from the lower platform. After wandering around in the blazing jungle sun, it felt positively heavenly.

Want to take in some local sites and cuisine? That was do-able.
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Purchased at a roadside taco stand on the way to our resort.
When I say that I want to eat like the locals, I mean it.
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A gloriously colorful side street just off the main drag on Isla Mujeres, an island just across from Cancún.
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On the ferry to Isla Mujeres…

Want to just relax and never leave the resort, preferring instead to savor the all-you-can-eat food and endless alcoholic beverages? That was very, very do-able. IMG_1516
The ocean was very, very warm.IMG_1687
There are iguanas EVERYWHERE.IMG_3936
The pool complex at our hotel was right perty at night.IMG_1573
My mom sent me with these napkins to share with everyone. They were awesome.
CELEBRATE TURNING 40, DAMN IT!

Want to just soak in the splendor of the local colors, all of which are, somehow, more vibrant and vivid and awe-inspiring that anywhere else I’ve seen? We had that COVERED.IMG_1569
Do you SEE how insanely turquoise this water is??
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Regular old Cancún sunset, nbd.
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Purple and pink palm trees during the same sunset. Again, no biggie. They’re used to it.

Want to get a special little souvenir for your children and take photos of it all over the island? Have at it.
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 This is Itza, taking a dip in the ocean.IMG_1554
 She also enjoyed being poolside.IMG_1553
An evening sunset wasn’t so bad, either.

Most importantly, want the opportunity to get together with friends – some of whom you were meeting for the first time, some you hadn’t seen in years, and two of whom included some of your very best, closest friends on the planet… but who had never met one another before? And then maybe revel in the true deliciousness of having days and DAYS to hang out together and eat together and drink together and lounge together and talk together and drink together and sing together (karaoke, poolside guitar, and a cappella; we took the resort by storm, y’all) and relax together and drink together? (Yes, I know I said that three times. I do try for accuracy.) 

That was the most do-able — and the very best — thing of all.

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Nine of the eleven of us, post cenote-jumping and Chichen Itza exploring. We were very, very hot and very, very ready for a beverage (or several) back at the hotel, but also very, very excited to have seen such an incredible historical site. Plus also the van was air-conditioned.

I think this turning-forty thing may not be so bad. I’ve got several more months to go, but in the meantime, we are already on our way to forming the oldest group in the next Pitch Perfect movie. And I have some delicious Mexican chocolates to keep me company until then, too.IMG_1657
With two of my very bestest friends, Sarah and Kiki – who had never met one another before this trip – and their excellent, harmonic husbands.

 

Friends are Good

Three weeks ago, I left on a trip from New York to California. Normally, I wouldn’t ditch my kids less than 48 hours into summer break – but this was different. I needed to go.

As I’ve mentioned before, when I was pregnant with Ella, I joined an online community for mothers with December 2004 babies. A couple dozen of us became fast, genuine friends and have remained in touch for over ten years. These days, we communicate – as a group – mostly through Facebook. We’ve also met in person: whole-family gatherings, moms-only getaways, one or two friends getting together here or there. Plus, we text and email and send cards and talk on the phone and all that jazz.

Simply put, they’re some of the best, truest, most wonderful friends I have, despite rarely being face to face.

Since we have known each other, one of our friends, Sarah, has been uniquely inspiring. She and her husband adopted a medically fragile boy, Angel, when he was three years old; he was five when our December ’04 babies were born, so for the entirety of our friendship, we have followed Angel’s journey. In (very) brief, he was born extremely prematurely and, subsequently, had most of his small intestines removed when he was only weeks old, making him dependent on TPN (a form of IV nutrition). TPN gave him needed nutrients but caused his liver to fail. As a result, Angel had two multi-organ transplants — the first when he was eight and the second (because, like many gut-area transplant recipients, his transplanted organs went into rejection) when he was twelve.11138167_891123404281480_8905777230879185759_n
This photo – of Angel clowning around with his mom and dad – was taken on the day of his second transplant. It is shared with Sarah’s generous and loving permission.
(You can learn more about Angel on his Facebook page. It’s so worth a look – and a ‘like,’ if you’re on Facebook. Sarah posts not-infrequently and her writing is beautiful, insightful, informative, thought-provoking, and generally wonderful — as is Angel’s story. Check it out, for real.)

This would have been wildly difficult enough, but even more crazily, following his second transplant, Angel also battled not one but two bouts of PTLD (Posttransplant Lymphoproliferative Disease), a rare form of cancer that can occur in transplant patients. He faced chemo. He underwent radiation. His family and his remarkable team of doctors — transplant, oncology, neurology, pediatrics, you name it — worked to find a treatment balance that would fight the cancer and protect his organs, all the while preserving the quality of life that Angel wanted.

As for Angel? He wanted to fight. And so he did. He fought. He battled. He persevered, no matter what the obstacles; and always, somehow, incredibly, came through not only stable but smiling. Laughing. Joking, always joking! The word “miracle” is tossed around fairly lightly, but the number of times Angel faced seemingly impossible scenarios and emerged victorious is nothing short of miraculous in the truest sense of the word.

For the past ten-plus years, and especially since the summer of 2008 when Angel underwent his first transplant, we December ’04 mommies tried to rally around Sarah, Angel, and their family. We sent care packages. We made t-shirts and organized fundraisers. We joined the Facebook page that had been created to chronicle Angel’s journey and shared Team Angel status updates often and loudly. We let Sarah know that our private Facebook space was a place where she could come to talk, to vent, to cry, and that we would always be there for her, no matter what.
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The girls and me in our Team Angel gear in 2008…306020_338032399590586_696390150_n
… and again in 2012.

But then… the unimaginable happened. This past January, just a month after Angel’s 15th birthday, he went in for a very risky but, to Angel – who so wanted to fight – absolutely necessary surgery to assess the damage to his liver… and did not survive.

Our friend – our dear, beautiful, inspiring, uplifting, funny, kind, intelligent, delightful Sarah – lost her son. Her Angel. Vivacious, impish, silly, strong, determined, courageous, joyful, imaginative, happy Angel. He is gone. It’s been six months now and I’m crying as I write this.

As a parent, there is no greater fear than losing one of my children. I cannot even imagine it, let alone consider how I would manage to go on without them; it is simply unthinkable. But Sarah does not have a choice; the unthinkable has happened and she must go on, must figure out how to navigate this world without her son.

When Angel’s condition began to decline in the last weeks of his life, Nick told me, “If he doesn’t make it, I know you need to be there for Sarah. Don’t even question it – just book the ticket and go.” It was never up for debate. Sarah is one of my dearest friends. She is experiencing the greatest tragedy a parent could incur. I love her; I needed to be there to support there. Because that’s just what love does.

Originally, I’d planned to go to California for Angel’s memorial… but, in a burst of wisdom that could only come from Sarah, we – the December ’04 mommies – were told: Come, if you’d like. If you feel you need to be here for his memorial, by all means, please come. But if you’re coming for me – if you’re coming to be with me – then I would like to ask that you choose another time to visit because I know I’ll be so busy and distracted during his memorial weekend, I’ll hardly have the chance to even give you a hug.

And so, seeing the sensibility of Sarah’s request (plus also, let’s be honest, two tickets to California might be… a lot…), two other friends and I picked a weekend when we would come out — no kids, no husbands, just us — for four days to visit Sarah and simply be. Which is how I found myself leaving my children and flying across the country less than 48 hours after Ella and Annie began their summer break.
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Our first California meal… At In and Out, naturally.
Yep, I ordered my fries Animal Style. They were DELICIOUS.

We came from all over the USA – me from New York, Karen from Texas, Jenifer from Tennessee – and landed at LAX, having not seen one another in person in over eight years. At first, we were so stunned to be in one another’s presence, we were almost too giddy to do much of anything but hug each other and stare (Sarah would occasionally reach over and “pet” my arm, saying, “I just can’t believe you’re really here!”). Los Angeles is not kind to those who want to take things slowly, however, so we soon found ourselves grocery shopping (we know how to live it UP, folks), grabbing dinner at In and Out (a novelty for those of us who don’t have the iconic burger joints just around the corner), and heading up the Pacific Coast Highway to a house on the beach.
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Who knew it was so dang foggy this close to L.A.?!IMG_1114
I nearly made Jen drive off the road when I saw this rock formation and began yelling at her about how terrific it was.

And after that… we talked. And talked. And talked. We would go to bed around midnight and were awake by 8:00, leaving us 16 hours of time to fill… and I would bet, in all seriousness, that we talked for 15 of those 16 hours for three straight days.

Before the trip, I’d have said that communicating on a near-daily basis with these women for ten years would mean that we might not have a lot of ground to cover, discussion-wise. I would have been dead wrong. We talked about our families. We talked about our daily lives (somehow, after all these years, we’d never simply asked one another what a “typical day” looks like). Given that the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality was released on the Friday of our get-away, we held intense and fantastic discussions on gay marriage and religion.
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Sarah had warned us that the beach we’d be visiting – Oxnard – was in a sort of industrial area and, despite being a near-L.A. locale, wasn’t really known for its touristy vistas…IMG_3323
I beg to differ.

As we planned our long weekend, we all said that we’d be perfectly content to simply stay at the beach house, relax, and chat. While we did exactly that for at least half of our time together, we also managed to get ourselves out and about. We had an awesome lunch with another December ’04 friend. We walked around Ventura and sang Taylor Swift songs at a public piano.
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That’d be me, Dana – our fabulous and gorgeous friend who joined us for part of Friday – Jen, Karen, and Sarah.
Yes, I left my own sunglasses at the beach house so I borrowed a pair belonging to Sarah’s (very stylish) six year-old daughter.
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Well. Alrighty then.
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When you’re given a direct order, there really isn’t a choice but to comply.

We visited a favorite doughnut shop and ogled doughnuts the size of dinner plates. We shopped and explored. We attempted to get into the Johnny Cash music festival but turned back when we learned that admission was $35 a head. (True story: while browsing in a Ventura tourist shop, I was asked by the saleswoman if we were local or visiting. When I said that we were visiting, she then asked me if we were in town just for fun or for the Johnny Cash festival. We hadn’t even known about the festival, but this struck me as so absurd, I found myself unable to respond in anything but the affirmative. “We do all love Johnny Cash!” I lied straight to her face. Then I began to panic because I could think of exactly three Johnny Cash songs off the top of my head and basically everything I know about him comes from the movie Walk The Line. Thankfully, Jen, Sarah, and Karen had my back – true friends don’t blow your baldfaced lies – and we got away undiscovered.)
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The doughnuts on the left are normal-sized, meaning the glazed in the upper right is on freakin’ steroids.

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Sarah and me trying wetsuits on for size in a different touristy shop.

And, of course, we visited the beach.
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Obligatory beach selfie, as taken by Jen.

We rented – and watched – a movie  (McFarland, USA — it’s really good; go see it), ate at a Thai restaurant, baked brownies, and made sweet tea (Jen did, anyway; a good Tennessee girl needs to bring the sweet tea, y’all!). The rest of the time? We talked. Sarah and I gabbed while we waited for Jen’s plane to land. Jen and I talked for the entire two hour drive up the PCH. Karen and I talked on the second-story veranda outside our bedrooms the moment we awoke on our first morning together and again, over wine, while Sarah and Jen went to rent the movie.

And the four of us talked – in the living room, in the master bedroom, around the kitchen table, on the beach, in the car, as we strolled around Ventura and contemplated scaling the chain link fence that kept us from attending the Johnny Cash festival (as true fans, we felt we should at least make an effort to be there). We talked about lighthearted things… vaccines, gun control, abortion, gay marriage – again and again – God and heaven and the Bible… Plus also our kids, our husbands, our high school teachers, our boobs, our mistakes and successes, our dreams and fears, our self-sabatoging traits (as a life coach, Karen had some pretty excellent advice on this front), Harry Potter, makeup, tiny hands, and how we dispose of eggshells when we’re done with them.

On Saturday – our final night together – I interrupted Sarah mid-sentence to tell everyone to look outside (having grown accustomed to my ADHD over the course of the previous two days, they were gracious about my blurting-out). From within the living room, I could see that the sky had grown a vibrant shade of pink; it seemed that a gorgeous sunset was just around the corner. Without a word of protest, we all headed outside – I grabbed my camera but neglected to take a sweater or even put on my shoes – to see for ourselves. As we entered the street just beyond the beach house, I audibly gasped as this greeted me:
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Sarah just laughed, however, literally pulling me onward and explaining that if I thought that was something, I really should see what would be happening on the beach.

She was right.
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These pictures don’t begin to do it justice; it was, hands down, the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen, molten gold and melting rainbows. As we stepped onto the sand, I actually began to cry – happily – at its splendor. For twenty minutes or so, all we did was stare and marvel – at the sight before us, at ten years of friendship, at being together.

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Sarah took my camera from me and snapped these while we watched.ca sunset5
It was actually really chilly – see how my southern friends are all bundled up? – so I regretted my sweater omission pretty quickly.

Eventually, the colors began to fade into the night… and we were all chilled to the bone… so we wandered back to the house, filled with a sense of awe.
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It’s hard to take a properly lit selfie when the lighting is so crazy, yo.

We’d planned to watch another movie but soon found ourselves – wait for it – talking, still having so much to say and hear and so little time to do it. We’d been mentioning Angel all weekend long – he naturally found his way into our conversations – but Saturday night, it was different. Sarah began to really talk about her boy, sharing stories and memories – some we’d heard before and some that were new to us – answering our questions, and telling us about when she and her family had to say goodbye to him.

Even when I already knew a particular story, when I’d read it on the Team Angel Facebook page or when Sarah had shared it on our December ’04 page, it felt entirely new hearing it from Sarah herself. Her inflection, her cadence, her facial expressions… The look – the one that only a mama can get when she talks about her child – that she wore when she told us about him… I thought I knew his story, knew her heart, but hearing it directly from Sarah, sitting beside her on the couch looking at photos of her beloved son, made for some of the most intensely beautiful moments I’ve ever been privileged to witness. That she trusted us enough to share him with us in this way was beyond humbling.

I have never experienced anything quite like it.
Jenifer and Karen and I had wanted – had needed, from our very cores – to be there with Sarah, to hug her, to laugh with her, to cry with her, to just listen and listen and listen. It was, for all of us, as profound an evening as we’ve ever had. It was why we’d come. Love and connection and friendship, pure and simple.

Sarah kept telling us how she just could not believe – even though we were there – that we would come all this way for her. We kept telling her that there was no other possibility; we loved her and she needed us, so we came. What none of us could have anticipated was how profoundly the weekend would change us all – give us hope and fill us up.

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… or maybe it doesn’t stay at the beach…

We continued to talk about everything under the sun (or the moon, by that point) well into the night, only going to bed because we were simply exhausted. All too soon, Karen, Jen, and I were winding our way back down the Pacific Coast Highway, hardly pausing for breath for the entirety of the two hour journey.
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What we did not do, however, was say goodbye; Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, we said we’d see one another soon. And you know what? We meant it.

Yes, friendships can be cultivated – can blossom and bloom and thrive – from afar. I’ve done it, and will continue to do it, many times over. But there is something magical about physically being with the people you adore – being able to give real hugs instead of virtual ones, being able to rest your head on someone’s shoulder as you double over in hysterics, being able to look into someone’s eyes as they tell you about their precious son.

I probably won’t be seeing these ladies on the sidelines of soccer games or swim meets. I won’t run into them at Wegmans. We can’t get together for coffee. But it is something mighty incredible, indeed, to know that if I needed them, they’d show up. In the meantime, texts and Facebook will have to suffice…

Although there is a Johnny Cash Festival coming up in Arkansas on August 1st. Road trip, anyone?
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Turns out the invisibility cloak isn’t as much fun as I’d thought

I’ve been wanting – needing, actually – to write this post for some time. It’s been on my mind for weeks, but I haven’t figured out just what I want (or need) to say. I still haven’t, but I’m going for it anyway. Bear with me, please.

I knew that it would be really hard when Bill died. That’s a completely ridiculous statement, of course, because – duh – it’s always really hard when you lose someone you love. But I knew it would be more than emotionally hard; specifically, I knew it would be difficult being the spouse of someone who’s lost a parent.

‘Cause, y’all, this is not easy. It’s not easy answering your kids’ questions about death. It’s really not easy helping them navigate their own grief, when they can’t always verbalize their thoughts and feelings. You wind up second-guessing their meltdowns and seemingly unusual behaviors and wondering, Is this because Grandpa Bill died? Is it because of their new, crazy schedule? Is it simply because they’re being little schmucks? If you’re just being a schmuck, there’s an app for that. If you’re exhausted, we can re-work things so you get more sleep. But if this is Grandpa Bill-related, we can skip the time-out and go straight to the hugs. Shepherding kids through grief is complicated and scary and really damn stressful.

It’s also not easy being a supportive wife. Nick is so deeply sad, more sad than I can fully grasp, and I so want to help him… But there’s so little I can do. He’s working through his grief in his own way, and as much as I want to crawl in there beside him, I just can’t; it’s not my grief. It is a tremendously awful, peculiar feeling, watching and knowing that someone you love so very much is suffering, and you can’t fix it, you can’t take away their sadness. It’s a strange and anxiety-riddled spot, this spouse-of-someone-who-lost-a-parent place.

I know that just being here, both literally and emotionally, is perhaps what Nick needs the most (that, and someone with whom to not eat anything for five days, for the love). And I’m trying, very hard. I’d read that one of the best things a spouse can do when their partner is grieving so freshly is to take over most of the household chores, and so I’m trying to do that, too. I’m still doing what I used to, of course – getting the girls off to school, emptying the garbages, making most of the meals, doing the laundry, paying the bills – but I’ve been actively taking on chores that Nick and I used to share, from mowing the lawn to feeding the dogs. Perhaps surprisingly (given that I have a tendency to sometimes, um, keep score of who does what around the house; I know… not my finest quality…), I don’t mind any of this. I absolutely get it; the little things are just too much. And if I can’t help Nick actually feel less sad, at least I can let the dogs out before bed. There’s a comfort in that.

But that doesn’t make it easy. Running a household (for lack of a better term) is trying under good circumstances, when you’ve just gotten home from work and have dinner to make and homework to supervise and dogs to feed and floors to be vacuumed and laundry to be put away and emails to be written and books to be read and lunch boxes to be packed and fights to break up. It’s especially trying when you’re doing all of that and trying to help your children and your husband in the wake of losing their grandfather and their dad. I don’t mean to say that it’s harder being the spouse of someone who lost a parent than it is being the person whose parent died. Not at all. I’m not comparing. I’m simply saying that this spouse role is really tough.

It’s downright paralyzing when you, yourself, are grieving deeply, too.

There have been many, many times when I’ve wanted to curl up in bed and sob it out… but I just can’t. The girls need to get to school. Groceries need to be purchased. Dogs need to go to the vet. Life is going on, and when it’s up to me to see that we dot our Is and cross our Ts, plus actually shower every once in a while, there’s time to burst into tears while mowing the lawn and time to cry after reading emails that had long been forgotten, but there just isn’t time to fall apart.

Man, though… there have been times when I wanted to. I miss Bill fiercely.

Lest I give the wrong impression, Nick, for his part, has been fantastic. He knows that this has been hard for me, this balance of grieving and being there for him and the girls and making sure that the house-stuff functions as it should. We’ve talked many times, and he has done his damndest to support me. He knows that I’m sad, too.

But the thing is… No one else seemed to realize it. Whenever Bill’s death would come up in conversation, people would – rightly – jump in and ask how Nick was handling things. They’d maybe ask about the girls. They would offer their condolences. But very few people asked how I was handling things.

True story: people showed me more support and empathy when we lost Madison than when we lost Bill. Now, for sure, Maddy was tremendous, and I was heartbroken to see her go. But losing our dog wasn’t exactly in the same league as losing Bill.

In fact, not only did people not acknowledge that Bill’s death was hard for me, too, they purposely minimized it. When I saw the doctor for my bronchitis, he – very kindly – warned me that I was more susceptible to illness because of the stress in our lives. Then he said (and I quote, for real), “Even if it’s only your father-in-law, you’re still feeling that stress, so you need to take care of yourself.”

Even if it’s only my father-in-law.

Clearly, losing one’s spouse’s parent doesn’t even register on the list of things to feel sad about; who on earth would feel sorrow at the loss of a parent-in-law?? Which means that there’s not a whole lot of support offered to those in my position. We become invisible – necessary, helpful, but invisible. And yet, in reality, this has been the most difficult, most raw, most heartbreaking experience of my life. I cannot do this without support. I cannot do it without grieving.

But how was I supposed to grieve – while keeping our lives humming along – if no one even recognized that I could be grieving? How could they possibly offer strength and encouragement when it didn’t even occur them that I might need it, because it’s “only” my father-in-law? And how on earth was I supposed to explain that I needed it? It’s not really common practice to enter a room or a gathering of friends and gamely announce, “Hey, y’all. Rough waters. I need help.”  I debated pinning a button to my shirt that said, “I’m really sad because I lost someone important to me. Even if you don’t realize that he was important to me, he was. So I’m sad.” But that didn’t feel quite right.

To be clear, I was not wanting people to emphatically throw their arms around me and forget about Nick. He absolutely, justly, deserves and needs people’s support, sympathy, words of love, prayers, shoulders to cry on, proffered glasses of whiskey, and whatever else they would like to give. I have never wanted Nick to be unnoticed, nor for me and my desires to trump his. And, sure, if you want to get technical about it, I’ll grant you that he possibly deserves those things “more” than I do. Like I said, he’s experiencing a kind of sadness that I cannot truly comprehend. I am not comparing me to him.

But I’m still awfully damn sad, and I needed support.

That was what this post was originally going to be about – about my explaining why this was so hard for me, saying that no one gets that I’m upset, too, and to please acknowledge that this really, really sucks. But then two things happened: I wrote about Bill, and I spent some time with a wonderful friend. And now, this post is about something else. Or it’s about to be. Hang on.

Although I’ve been talking to, and seeking support from, friends and family on the phone and online, it just wasn’t enough, and my therapist strongly encouraged me to chat with someone face to face. I knew just the person – a new-ish but already very dear friend – and we tried for weeks to find a night to go out, but our schedules just didn’t mesh. At last, ten days ago, the stars aligned and we grabbed dinner at a local restaurant… and something changed.

She listened – really listened – to everything I had to say. About how stressful it was running the house, about how worried I was for the girls and for Nick, about how very sad I was about Bill but how no one even acknowledged that I could be sad, and I didn’t know what to do. She offered advice. She commiserated. But, most of all, she listened, and I felt heard – and , for the first time since Bill’s death, I felt un-crazy for being so sad. I felt supported. And I felt so very much better, like maybe I can make it through this after all.

Thank god for awesome friends.
And delicious Greek food the night before a five day juice cleanse.

Right around that time, I decided to write about Bill – because, even if no one understood that he could be that important to me, he was that important to me, and I just needed to say it. So I did. And, really… saying it made all the difference. That may be a cliché, but it’s true. Talking about Bill was so freeing, so good; writing let me get it out. As friends began reading the post, I – finally! – felt heard. People got it – no button-pinning necessary.

While I appreciated the catharsis, I didn’t expect to learn something in return. As friends commented about the post on Facebook, however, I came to understand how truly rare Bill’s and my relationship was, and how very, very lucky I am. Apparently, most people truly don’t mourn the loss of their parents-in-law the way that I am. They have a different kind of relationship with their in-laws, and when they die, profound sadness is – according to them – pretty unusual.

I guess, because I loved Bill so deeply, I couldn’t quite understand why people didn’t offer me an, “I’m so sorry, Emily” or “But how are you doing?” Now, I know differently. Now, when someone learns that I’ve lost my father-in-law and they don’t acknowledge that it’s my loss, too, I know it’s not because they don’t care (unless they’re just, like, jerks), but because they don’t know. I no longer become hurt or frustrated; instead, I try to count my blessings. I am reminded of how exceptionally fortunate I was to have loved Bill as I did, and to have been loved by him in return, and I am profoundly grateful. Gratitude is a pretty powerful thing.

So… if I’m all good, then why write this at all? Well, because I’m not all good. Yes, I no longer feel so alone, but this grief thing is still a load of crap. Even though not everyone understands having a fantastic relationship with one’s in-laws, everyone, on some level, can understand grief. And it’s just absurd to be putting constraints on grief based on preconceived notions of how someone should feel, or how close someone was “supposed” to be to the deceased. It’s high time we stopped doing it.

When my BFF Kiki lost her dad in the spring of 2006, there was absolutely no doubt that my mom, my stepdad, Nick and I would attend his funeral. John was very special to me; I’d known him my whole life, and his death hit me hard. Moreover, he was my oldest, awesomest friend’s father. She wanted me there, and I wanted to be there – for me as well as for her. No questions asked.

That is, until I returned to my classroom (after having called in a sub) and had to explain my absence. I’d already used up my personal days for the year, so taking a day “just because” wasn’t acceptable. I suppose I could have lied and said I was sick, but that was, you know, wrong, so I applied for a bereavement day instead. A couple of weeks later, I was contacted by the HR department to clarify my relationship to the deceased. You see, “best friend’s father who I have known my whole life and loved dearly” just didn’t cut it.

On the other hand, if John had been my parent, or my parent-in-law, or my cousin or my uncle, that would have been fine… even if he and I had hardly spoken over the years and I was taking the day off because I’d heard the food at the reception would kick butt. I puzzled over the form for the longest time, becoming more and more annoyed and angry with each passing minute. Who were they to determine what relationships were special enough to warrant “needing” a bereavement day? Who were they to tell me who I should, and shouldn’t, grieve? Who are we, as a society, to be doing the same?

I call bull.
Grief is grief. It is not something to be quantified or compared, but is our own, and only we know how deeply it affects us. Whether someone lost a spouse or a child or a third cousin once-removed or a childhood babysitter, grief is painful and it is real. People who are grieving deserve respect and support.

In the end, I decided that my sadness was real, and so was my relationship to John… or, should I say, “Uncle John.” Bereavement day granted.

And so this is why I decided to write this post: to propose three things. First, if you are grieving, please talk to someone. Whether that’s in person or via email or snail mail or in a blog entry that the entire world can read, talk. Get it out. Say something. Say anything. That, alone, can be so very therapeutic.

Secondly, if you learn that someone has recently experienced the death of a family member or friend, ask how they are. Don’t put constraints on their grief. Don’t assume that, because they lost a parent, they’re wallowing in sorrow and can hardly get out of bed. Don’t assume, because it’s “only” an in-law or an uncle or a 95 year-old great-grandparent who’d “lived a long, happy life,” that the person isn’t enormously sad. Don’t assume, period. Instead, ask. A simple, “How are you doing?” opens the door for the person to spill their soul to you or mutter, “Fine, thanks,” but at least it allows them to determine how they’re doing, rather than you doing it for them.

And finally, after you do ask how someone is doing, listen. Really listen. Let them talk – or not – and be there while they do. Let them know that you hear them, that they’re not alone, that you support and love them, that this sucks, but you’re there. Listen.

By doing so, we can all become a little less invisible. And, with time, a little bit better.