When I Grow Up

Although I’ve been going to the lake since I was an infant – with Nick joining me for the past 20+ years and the girls spending virtually half of their summers there – last Sunday we did something for the very first time: we spent the day and night there, all by ourselves. No extended family. No friends. No Phoofsy.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been… anticipating? dreading?… the anniversary of her unexpected passing a year ago this past weekend until I found myself reliving each day last year. Today was when we gave Gram the last-ever lake book… A year ago today, we played The Lake Game and she challenged Ella so she wouldn’t lose a chip… This was the day we spent the night in the hospital… And so on, right up to the phone call from the nurse telling me that, shockingly, Phoofsy was gone.
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Phoofsy giving Ella the business while playing The Lake Game last Memorial Day.

I’ve gotten in the habit of checking the On This Day function on Facebook as part of my daily morning media roundup. I love the memories (especially posts where the girls said something particularly amusing), but that week leading up to the day we lost Phoofsy was really hard. My status updates were so… normal… giving no hint that my world was about come crashing down. How was it possible? How did we not know?

Then, finally, came the post where I shared that Phoofsy was gone – a memory that probably should have been miserable and unsettling. Instead, reading through friends’ comments (most had never even met my grandma), I was consoled and made whole. Comment upon comment expressed sadness not only for our family’s loss, but their own personal sadness that Phoofsy was gone – because she had such an influence on them, simply through my photos and stories.

“I’m heartbroken.”
“I loved it every time you posted a story about her!”
“She seemed like the most incredible lady!”
“The time you posted the picture of her on the scooter made my horrible day so much better.”
“I feel like I knew her.”
“Thank you for sharing her with us.”
“I was in love with Phoofsy from here.”

A good half dozen people said: “I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up.”

Who could blame them? A strong, smart, independent lady who was always game for anything, was an amazingly good sport, had a fierce sense of humor, and kept an active Facebook account at the age of almost-95? Yes, please! I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, too.

She wasn’t perfect, of course. I mean, no one is, and Phoofsy definitely had her flaws… But she was crazy about me and Nick and Ella and Annie and told us so whenever she got the chance. That’s a pretty awesome thing, to be loved and to know it.

Often, when we told the girls we were headed over to Phoofsy’s apartment, they would groan and drag their feet (usually literally). “Do we HAVE to?” And every time I would tell them that yes, we have to. Not out of obligation, but because that’s what you do when you love someone: you show up. You’re there for dinner and to take them to the store when they can’t drive themselves. You check on them when they’re sick, bringing soup and crackers. You accompany them to events you’d never otherwise attend, simply because they asked. You call to say “hi” when you’re out of town. You show up.

(Okay, usually I just said, “Yes, we have to. Because she’s my grandma and your great-grandma and nothing gives her greater joy than seeing you. She probably won’t be around much longer, so we need to spend time with her while we can.”)

I’m so freakin’ glad I dragged them over.
And you know what? They’re glad now, too. Funny how that works.

Three days before Phoofsy died, I got a call at midnight saying she’d been taken to the hospital. As I hung up the phone, I groused to Nick. “Damn it. Grandma’s in the hospital again. But the doctors just told her they think this is nothing; I don’t even know why she’s bothering to go in.”

Nick asked if I wanted to go.
My first reply? “No. I don’t want to go. It’s midnight, for God’s sake, and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do anyway and I’m sure she’ll be released soon but if she’s not I can check in on her in the morning.”

Nick was quiet. We let my words just hang there for a moment.

“Shit. I need to go, don’t I?”
“Yeah. I think you do. Or I can… but one of us needs to go.”

Thirty seconds later, I was reaching for my shoes.

I spent the rest of the night with my grandma, navigating several areas of the ER and finally settling her into a private room on another floor. In between being seen by medical professionals and being taken away for tests, we talked; we used her iPad; we browsed magazines and looked at old photos. The entire time, she kept insisting that I should go home – “But it’s so late! You’ll be so tired! This is silly!” – and I kept insisting that I would stay until I was sure she was settled.

At last, around breakfast time, I was convinced that it was okay to leave. Before I did, she reached over and squeezed my arm. “Thank you so much for staying. I love you a lot, you know.” I told her that I knew.

After Phoofsy died, the attending physician called me at home. Among other things, she told me that my grandma thought I was fantastic, and that it was the girls and me who helped keep her going all these years. I’d never met this doctor; her comments were based solely on whatever my grandma had told her about me.

So yes, Gram. I knew.

I am so grateful for the time we had here in Rochester with Phoofsy – for every stuffy dinner, every comment about how our house was too small, every grumble about how apples cost too much. Yeah, sometimes it wasn’t exactly convenient… but we – Nick, the girls, and I – got to be a part of such a tremendous story. We got to witness, firsthand, what it meant to grab life with both hands and hang on for the ride, to always be up for something new, to be a true friend. People would tell my grandma that it was lucky (for her) that we lived nearby; truly, we were the lucky ones.

I don’t think I understood how integral she was to our lake experience, though, until we found ourselves there without her last summer. Even when our extended family was in town, the house just felt… off. Incomplete. To quote my aunt, being there alone made Phoofsy’s absence all the more pronounced. No one yelling down to the kids to wear their lifejackets properly… No sound effects coming from her iPad as she played online bridge well into the night… No one sitting in her favorite blue chair. Just empty.

It hurt. A lot.
So we made a point of never staying at the house alone.
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Crazy sky, Memorial Day weekend 2016.

I missed it, though. A well-loved home should be… well, loved. It’s practically illegal to not have someone enjoying it – empty chair and all. And so, this spring, I made up my mind that we would try. We would go down more often; we would stay overnight. It might be lonely and strange, but we love it there, so we would try.

My cousin, Andrew, and his girlfriend had been visiting the lake in the week leading up to Memorial Day. I’d thought they were staying through until Monday, but they left at lunchtime on Sunday instead. At first, Nick and I considered inviting friends to join us; staying there alone seemed too sad, especially over Memorial Day, a holiday we always spent with Phoofsy.

But then I decided – out loud – that we would do it. Just the four of us. The house is here and we are here and it’s not the same, but we need to try to find a new normal. The moment I said it, I had this instant realization that this might be how my grandma felt about the lake after my grandfather died almost nine years ago.
But she kept going. She made new memories. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I’m sure she dreaded going to the lake without him. But she did it. She hung on for the ride.
I decided to hold on, too.
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Going for a ride… with Jitter.

~~~~~~~~

We had a delightful Memorial Day weekend. We grilled. We went in the boat. We played The Lake Game for hours – literally – and laughed until our sides hurt. No, it wasn’t the same without her… but it felt good. Right. True. I even sat in Phoofsy’s beloved blue chair – and instead of feeling lonely, I felt comforted.

If I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, now’s as good a time to start as any.

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Giving Me Grief

It was the squash soup that did it.

I thought I remembered how to make it – we’ve had it as an appetizer for the past five Thanksgivings – but I wanted to be sure. The recipe, however, was nowhere to be found.

I lost my shit.

Not just a little sniffle, but a full-on, body-heaving, gasping-for-air sob fest. ‘Cause this wasn’t just any recipe; it was one that Bill had given me years ago, his favorite. After it became a favorite of mine, I shared it with my grandma and it became a favorite of hers, too — so much so that, when we put together a video for Bill’s 68th birthday, my grandma’s well-wishes included thanking him for “that wonderful squash soup recipe.”

On Thanksgiving eve, everything came crashing down. The build-up of weeks of fear and sadness, the longing and the heartache. When Nick was, understandably, a bit taken aback to find me in hysterics over a missing recipe (“You can just email Mary! I’m sure she has a copy!”), I found myself explaining that although I knew I could, I didn’t want to… because I wanted none of this to be happening. I wanted Bill to still be here to call him for the recipe. I wanted my grandma to still be here to call her for the recipe. And, by God, I wanted her to still be here for Thanksgiving. The very thought of celebrating without her, of allowing these holidays to pass without sharing them, was more than I felt I could take.

I miss my grandma so damned much.

~~~

About a month ago, I had one of those Ah-Ha moments. Nick, the girls, and I were hanging out and Annie was telling a story… and I suddenly realized that, although I’d been standing there, smiling and nodding and probably even laughing, I hadn’t really heard a word that she’d said. It was as though I’d been floating above her, above all of them, detached — there, but not there.

In that moment, when I snapped back into focus, I realized what this drifting detachment must be:
Depression.

The same faceless but ruthless enemy I’d battled in 2009, the one who’d been trying to claw its way back into my life ever since but who I’d successfully held at bay… was back. Upon further reflection, I became aware that I’d been feeling this way for months – since the beginning of the summer, really. (I suppose that losing so many people – Angel, my grandma, and Sara – in such a short period of time can do that to a person.)

It explained why summer had been “just right” instead of too fast or too slow or too anything: in reality, I’d distanced myself from summer entirely, so it was… fine. It explained why, despite the countless amazing things in my life that should have had me walking around with an “I’m All That And A Bag Of Chips (Preferably Doritos)” sign — traveling, family weddings, healthy children, my 40th birthday (holla!), the gloriously decluttered house — I still didn’t feel joyful.

Happy at times? Sure. Grateful? Hell yes. But genuine elation, something better than merely happy? Nope. If my emotions had been charted in one of those line graphs, the line would have remained remarkably flat.

As soon as the lightbulb turned on, I was relieved; I’ve battled this a-hole before. Let’s do this. And then I was pissed. For years now I’ve been preaching about how important it is to be open about depression — and I didn’t recognize that I, myself, was depressed?? WTF? Plus also, I was mad as hell that all of these great things were happening and I wasn’t able to fully enjoy them. DEPRESSION, YOU SUCK.

I’d been going with that assumption for a few weeks – that I was facing another bout of depression – when my Facebook timeline linked me to a blog post I’d written after Bill’s death. At the time, I’d felt kind of insane — soaring highs and crashing lows — until my therapist informed me that it wasn’t insanity; it was grief. All of the highs and lows, the near-obsessive drive to do and keep busy, were actually part of what fancy-pants psychology folks call Manic Defense.

I was protecting myself from my own grief by trying to be wildly active, then falling down when the sadness caught up with me.

Upon reading the post, it occurred to me that maybe I’m not depressed because I’m mourning those who are no longer here. Maybe I’m simply mourning and just having a helluva time with it.

I asked my therapist about it the next time we met, saying that I wanted to write about The Return Of My Depression — that I feel it’s really important to do so, that I think it’s critical that we reach out and let others know they’re not alone — but that I also thought it was pertinent that I be honest and identify things correctly. Is this depression or is it grief??

After listening, my therapist gently assured me that I’m grieving, not Depressed. She then mused that I should write the post anyway – because depression and grief can feel remarkably similar and we, as a people, are terrible at dealing with both.
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Last Christmas, my grandma insisted that we make some pinecone wreath she’d seen in a catalog. It nearly did me in, but we succeeded. The wreath is now hanging in our front hall. 

~~~

So that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m putting this out there because we are awful at handling all of this messy feelings crap, especially if it makes us sad. When someone dies, we’re expected – we often expect ourselves – to “get over it,” to reach this magical place, cross some invisible line where, finally, we will feel better. All of the steps have successfully been taken! The grieving was done! It is now in a box over there and we are moving forward! Hurrah!

Staying with someone in extended grief is absurdly uncomfortable. It’s been, what? Three months already? Six? A year? And you’re still sad? Ugh. No one wants to live in that world, so we avoid it. We don’t ask questions. We don’t talk. We don’t share, because no one wants to hear it.

(I’m hardly immune. Two weeks ago, I was at the Y and noticed, from behind, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I remembered that she’d just lost her mother and the very first thought that ran through my head was: I need to go the other way to avoid her so we don’t have to talk about that. BECAUSE TALKING ABOUT GRIEF IS SHITTY. Thankfully, I got ahold of myself and deliberately sought her out to give her a hug… BUT SERIOUSLY. I SUCK AT THIS.)

Likewise with depression. Some people don’t get it at all (“What do you mean you feel depressed? But you seem so happy”). Still others do get it, at least to some degree, but they want it to fit into a tidy parcel that’s easily defined and overcome. Have you tried medication? Talk therapy? Exercise? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you making time with friends? Are you eating well? Are you getting outside? GREAT! You have officially treated your depression! All better now!!

Don’t get me wrong – all of those are important and can be keys to fighting depression – but becoming un-depressed isn’t that simple. Those gross, sad, blah, detached, scary feelings can persist for months or years, even with consistent treatment. But does anyone want to hear that you’re still feeling low three months down the line? Nope. Not so much.

Depression and grief are terrible. Among their worst faults is that they cause us to feel isolated. People tell you to reach out, to not keep it inside – but ironically, we often are isolated – because no one likes talking about depression and grief. No one likes hearing about it. We like to fix things; when someone isn’t “better,” when they’re still sad, it’s a total turn-off. No, thanks.

I’m really sick of it. I’m sick of not wanting to mention that I’m afraid of Christmas – afraid to put up the decorations that I inherited after my grandma died, afraid to trim the tree without her, afraid of looking over on Christmas morning and not seeing her sound asleep on the couch amid all the hubbub – because I don’t want to weird people out. I’m tired of us not talking about depression because it makes people feel uncomfortable. I’m tired of avoidance being the first thing that comes to mind when I run into a friend who’s grieving.

Please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying; if anyone is an Eeyore all the damn time, it’s a real drain. Even your bestest friends don’t want to hear the unhappy, negative stuff every minute of the day. But depression and grief don’t always fit into neat packages. They can’t necessarily be “fixed” no matter how much time has passed or what steps a person has taken – and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the person who’s still upset.

Grief and depression are normal parts of life – normal parts of living. Certainly, I work to compartmentalize my sadness – mostly because it can be annoying to be sad when I’m doing something happy – but it’s still there, commingled with the rest of things. It is fully possible to be missing someone so much, it physically hurts while also – at the very same time – absolutely reveling in the wonder of the present. Mourning and celebration. Depression and joy. Crappiness and awesome. They coexist together.

Negating or ignoring – or, worse, shaming – the bad parts doesn’t make them go away. It just makes them seem lonelier, which is really stupid because we’re all in this together.

So I’m going to try to be less worried about how other people feel when they hear I’m missing still my grandma. ‘Cause I miss her like crazy, and that’s okay. I’m also going to try to not be so uncomfortable around people who are depressed or grieving – or, at the very least, to still be there for and with someone even in my discomfort. I want my girls to know that my missing their Phoofsy doesn’t take away from my being ridiculously excited to decorate the tree with them; I want to show them that sadness isn’t something to be afraid of.

I just have to work on believing it myself.

~~~

As for the soup? After some sleuthing, I found an old email – hidden in the depths of my computer – that contained a copy. It was delicious.
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Click on it to see it in its glory. You’re welcome.

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.

In Kind

Nick cannot hold onto gifts to save his soul. Once he’s purchased something – a birthday present, a Christmas package, a trinket from the airport – he has to give it to the intended recipient absolutely as soon as possible or his hair will fall out or something similarly dire. He’s just too excited; holding onto items for future giving is not going to happen.

It took me a few years to understand that his last-minute shopping wasn’t necessarily because he forgot about the upcoming event or because he didn’t put any thought into what he was purchasing. Okay, sometimes he forgets and needs to pick something up at the eleventh hour (thank God for Amazon Prime), but other times, it’s very purposeful because he knows he will simply burst with the anticipation of giving the gift.

I, on the other hand, tend to shop year-round for birthdays and Christmas. If I see something that is just right for a friend or my sisters-in-law or whoever, I’ll buy it – even if it’s July – and tuck it away until the “official” day arrives. This baffles Nick as much as his habits baffle me. Let’s just say that there have been a lot of compromises over the last two decades.

A few years back, we selected a hat for Bill (my father-in-law) on one of our family trips. I intended to hold onto it until Father’s Day – a bird in the hand, after all. Nick wanted to ship it off to Minnesota right then and there, just because. We argued. Nick won. He sent his dad the hat, which Bill happily wore. We lost Bill not too long after that, and I was damned glad that we’d mailed him the darned hat – just because.

For the last seven or so Christmases, I have made my grandma, Phoofsy, photo books containing pictures from the previous summer at the lake. Phoofsy adored photographs – she had them all over her apartment and the lake house – and just loved the photo books. She took them with her to the lake each summer and, whenever family visited, you could find someone poring over the many volumes, reliving another year’s memories.

This past Christmas, however, I didn’t make Phoofsy a book. You see, I’d already gotten her several gifts – ones I was quite pleased with, that I was sure she’d really like – and I figured, “Eh, why go overboard. I can make her a photo book for her birthday.” Naturally, because I had presented one to her each preceding Christmas, my grandma was eagerly awaiting the 2014 Lake Book and made it quite clear (as only she could) that she was bummed out that she didn’t receive one. I felt awful and vowed to create one in time for Valentine’s Day. And then Easter. And then Mother’s Day.

By mid-May, I felt annoyed enough with myself that I spent several very late nights on Shutterfly designing Phoofsy’s book and, when it was finally finished, ordering it with expedited shipping. It arrived the day before we were to head to the lake for Memorial Day weekend.

I almost didn’t pack it. Phoofsy’s birthday was only a month away and it would make a lovely 95th birthday present. But, for whatever reason, I changed my mind, brought it with us, and gave it to her the first night we were at the house. She spent a good half hour looking it over with Ella and Annie and I caught her intently going through the pages at least twice over the next few days. We came home on Memorial Day; that very night, she went to the hospital. Three days later, and oh so unexpectedly, she was gone.
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Going through the book with the girls.

I cannot even express how grateful and happy and relieved I am that I didn’t hold onto that blasted book until her birthday.

I guess that’s the thing with giving, with kindness: it’s pretty much always a good idea, and you pretty much always feel better afterward. Sometimes, it can be a tangible gesture like volunteering at a homeless shelter. Other times, it’s Random Acts of Christmas Kindness. Or maybe it’s donating money to important causes. Whatever the case, whenever I’ve purposefully set out to give, to extend kindness, I’ve never regretted it.

The smallest acts of kindness are often the hardest. Telling someone that I like their outfit seems so simple, no? Just say it? But when the time comes to actually extend the compliment, I freeze up like that dream where you’re naked onstage (is that just me?) and all you can do is open and close your mouth like a fish. I imagine that the person will respond poorly or I’ll be embarrassed or – I don’t know – a gazillion other things. I worry that I’ll regret reaching out and being kind. Christmas will come and there will be no presents because I will have already given them away.

I’m selfish, though, and I like how I feel after I do something nice, so I’ve been trying to just say it, already… “That mumu is such a great color!” or “I love your mohawk!” And, hey – you know what? No regret. None at all! Just happiness, which is really pretty cool.

So it goes with all of the other small kindnesses, the ones that are the hardest to do. “Liking” someone’s Facebook status even though they didn’t say hi at the mall. Sending Christmas cards to people who don’t send them to us, year after year. Inviting someone to lunch even though I wasn’t included in the last get-together. Reaching out to former friends who had pulled away from my life.

Never once have I wished I’d been less kind. Kindness always feels good.

This isn’t to say that I’m some Mother Teresa. Have no fear – I can be a real jackass (just ask my children), and there are many, many moments when I choose not to give, not to extend goodwill to others. And, to be fair, there are times when extra sweetness is not only unnecessary but potentially damaging. When someone has deeply hurt you, it’s okay to pull back instead of reaching out. When you’re completely overwhelmed, it’s all right to avoid complimenting strangers at Starbucks. My daughters will not receive their birthday presents the moment that I purchase them because sometimes, waiting is okay. There is a never-ending list of needy and worthy organizations and causes and we cannot give to them all. It just isn’t possible. We have lines to draw.

All I’m saying is that when I have reached out, when I have donated, when I have told a friend I was happy her kid made the cut (while mine did not), when I have told someone I’m so sorry about the loss of their mother instead of staying silent, I’ve never wished I hadn’t.
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This photo really has nothing to do with anything, but I wanted to put another picture in and the girls had already pre-approved this one, so… Yay! First day!

Life is really damned uncertain. In the past two months alone, I have had friends move from Rochester, move to Rochester, lose their beloved pets, lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose their parents, and battle cancer. There have been ridiculously wonderful things, too – that’s how it goes with life, the joys and the horrors – but everything can change so fast. It’s tempting (and sometimes necessary) to hole up, to self-protect, to shut out. I need to treat myself well before I can do almost anything else.

But I also need to remember that kindness feels awesome – so, really, being kind is one of the best things I can do for me. And then I can give more to other folks, which feels super, so then I feel better. And I give more.

A kindness circle. How very 1970s.

This week, with school back in session, I’ve had a little time to get to things I didn’t do in the summer. While cleaning out a cupboard, I found some Harry Potter pencils that I purchased for the girls ages ago but never gave them because there wasn’t a specific reason to.

I think I’ll have them waiting on the counter when Ella and Annie arrive home. Maybe they’ll make doing homework just a bit more fun.

 

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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To Say Hello

My grandma (Phoofsy to Ella and Annie and many others) – always said that life was worth living so long as you were having fun. A little less than two weeks ago, unexpectedly and suddenly and to our stunned shock and heartbreak, Phoofsy stopped having fun.

You guys. I just… It’s simply not okay.

Living so near her these past eight years was one of the reasons that moving to Rochester was such a fantastic decision. My grandma was our guidepost, our touchstone, our sounding board and cheerleader, our adventure buddy, and our constant partner for dinner, games, and talking. We have never lived here without her and, honestly, I feel as though we’ve been cut adrift; Nick and I hadn’t realized how much she grounded us and made us whole.

I miss her so much, I cannot begin to put it into words.
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We have spent every Easter with Phoofsy since we moved here.
This year was no different.

Losing Phoofsy has been difficult for Ella and Annie as well. Sadly, they are quite familiar with loss (most importantly, their Grandpa Bill, and to a much lesser extent – although fresh on their minds – our Madison), but never before have they had to say goodbye to someone who was an integral part of our daily lives, someone whose presence would be noticeably absent at soccer games, swim meets, birthdays, evenings beside the fireplace, Sunday brunch, Wednesday nights, and every day in between.

This is an active, different kind of grieving, for all of us.
Not better. Not worse. Not harder or easier. Just different.

My mom and stepdad drove up to the lake the day after my grandma passed away and immediately got to the business of sorting through Phoofsy’s affairs (and providing lots of hugs and memories and laughs); we loved getting the chance to see them, even under these circumstances. As our little family foursome was driving back from the lake last weekend – the first-ever we’d spent there without my grandma – the conversation naturally turned toward Phoofsy.
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Playing The Lake Game on Memorial Day, my grandma was absolutely tickled that she managed to successfully flip her cup. We were absolutely tickled, too.

Things began simply enough, sharing stories and memories, but soon moved onto more metaphysical, abstract thinking. It started with Nick telling them that he was comforted by the idea that, one minute, Phoofsy was here and healthy, the next there was some brief confusion, and the very next, she was seeing Great‘s face as he said to her, “What took you so long?”

Annie and Ella were intrigued by this and wanted to hash things out, so we kept talking. “Where do you think Phoofsy is right now?” “If there’s heaven, do you stay the same age as you are when you die?” “Can people who have already died leave ‘messages’ for those of us who are still here?” 

As they discussed their conceptions of heaven, Nick and I grew more and more entranced. The girls’ ideas were absolutely fascinating and far more interesting and nuanced than anything I’ve imagined in my nearly-forty years. In fact, their thoughts were so lovely, so simultaneously comforting and thought-provoking, I asked if I could share them with you.
They graciously agreed.
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Chuckling that her poker hand was better than Ella’s.
Even when you’re 84 years older than your great-granddaughter, victory is sweet. 

—————-

“In heaven, you can be any age you want, and you can change that age whenever you like. So, if you had a really great time when you were twelve, you get to be twelve. Then, if you want to feel what it was like to be fifty again, you can be fifty for a while. Oh! And the person you’re with – like, if Phoofsy is with Great – can be another age, too. ‘Cause you know how Great was 86 when he died but Phoofsy was almost 95? That might not be fair, for her to be older, just ’cause she got to live longer. They might want to be the same age again – so they can be, together.”

(I don’t know what age I want to be yet, but that sounds pretty much like the best idea ever.)

“I think, in heaven, you can live out a dream while you’re awake. Like, you know how when you wake up after you’ve had an awesome dream and you suddenly realize it was just a dream and you’re so sad? Well, in heaven, you actually get to do the dream while you’re awake – you never have to miss anything! So Phoofsy and Great and Grandpa Bill can live out all of their dreams, for real – not just dreaming – every single day.”

(OMG THAT IS AWESOME.)

“But it’s okay to sometimes miss things. I think people in heaven might sometimes be sad. I mean, they’re mostly happy – it’s heaven after all, and they can see their friends and they can travel all around the world and have those dreams – but I think there’s a little sadness… Because life has sadness. We have to have some sadness to appreciate the happiness. Without a little, tiny bit of sadness, heaven wouldn’t be real.”

(Appreciation and perspective, even in heaven. Very cool.)

“When you’re in heaven, if you get to travel all around the world and be any age you want, I want to be a baby for a little while.” 

(Interject our incredulity. A baby?? But wouldn’t that be… boring?)

“Well, that’s the thing. We think it would be boring right now because we can’t see inside a baby’s mind and we don’t remember what it was like to be a baby. But if I could be a baby, but have my regular mind, I could see what life was like when I was a baby and actually remember it.”

(Scratch what I said before. THAT may be the best idea ever.)

“And I know that, once people are dead, they’re gone and all that. But I think they’re still with us, too — not just in our hearts, though, like people say. I think – and I know this is kind of weird – but I think that people can come and visit for a while. You can’t see them, you can’t feel them, you don’t even know they’re there… But they are. Maybe they walk with you to school. Maybe they sit next to you at dinner. Maybe they ride beside you in the car. Then, suddenly, you have a good memory of that person and it makes you feel better… and it’s because they were right there with you for just a little bit, visiting. Not all creepy like a ghost! Just a good feeling, because they came to say hello.”

—————
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Mother’s Day 2015

Ella and Annie don’t talk too much about being sad, but I know that Phoofsy is on their minds. Every day since she died, both girls, of their own accord, have made absolutely certain to keep something of hers with them; Ella now carries her books in one of Phoofsy’s old purses; Annie wears her hats around the house. Hardly a day has gone by when they haven’t worn one of her necklaces to school even though, normally, necklaces aren’t their thing.

Every time I see them toting her bags, donning her jewelry, adorned in her hats… a fleeting, glowing smile crosses my heart.

And I have no doubt Phoofsy has come to say hello.
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Right here waiting

Four-ish years ago, Annie developed a peculiar – and very difficult to describe – game that she called “Mark Off.” The premise was simple enough: Annie would ask a variety of questions, quiz-show style, to the game’s participants, who would then receive points for correct answers and be “marked off” for incorrect ones. (The consequence of the “mark off” was never properly explained, but it turned out not to matter anyway.) For proper effect, she stood on the piano bench (to be taller and more important, one would assume) and wielded a microphone to make things game-show-official.

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No piano bench, but you get the general idea.

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Actually, the game was a lot more frenetic – kind of like this.

Easy, right? Except, see, the issue was that the “correct” answers were entirely arbitrary, with points being awarded at random (a la “Whose Line Is It Anyway”) and “mark offs” being declared even we were sure we’d gotten things right.

To wit:

“Okay. The game is starting! What color is my hair?”

“Brown!”

“Yes! A point for you! {scribbling in notebook} What is Mommy’s first name?”

“Emily!”

“WRONG. MARK OFF!” {angry flourish in notebook}

“But Mommy’s first name IS Emily!”

“That’s another point gone for you! Mark off again!” {frenetic checkmark-ing}

“I don’t understand how this game works.”

“What is my friend Jenny’s favorite snack?”

“What? How could we possibly know the answer to that?” 

“MARK OFF!” {yet another angry checkmark}

“Is it cheese?”

“No! You get two points!” {cheerful tally mark added}

After a while, the questions themselves didn’t even make sense, and the “mark off”s becomes even more frequent (and hilarious).

“If a dog could fly, would it eat mangoes?”

“No, because they don’t smell like fish.”

“Yes! Ten points for you!” {ten meticulous tally marks scribbled on her paper}

“Do you like chocolate or vanilla ice cream?”

“Vanilla.”

“MARK OFF!!” {disappointed head shake and a final checkmark}

I’m not doing it justice here, because it was really one of those things you had to witness, but it was epic. We played battled our way through with Grandpa Bill and GranMary (they were visiting at the time), and by the time the game had (mercifully) ended, every one of us was in stitches. Since then, Mark Off has become something of a family legend, evoked whenever we need a quick chuckle or want to marvel at just how nutty our second born really is.

I know there are folks out there who are like, Good God, with the taking of a million photos and the saving of stuff, already. Dozens of drawings from the kids, ticket stubs, old notebooks… Who needs all this crap?? 

I am decidedly not one of these people. While I’m not a hoarder or anything (ask my kids, who look on with absolute horror as I flip through the contents of their take-home folders each day and unceremoniously dump almost everything in the recycling bin), I do save every card, every photo (as I’ve mentioned before), and enough odd scraps of paper and drawings to create my own landfill. They don’t just rot, though – part of why I save them is that I periodically go through them, and the memories make me feel damn good.

Ever since the Mark Off days, I have regretted that I didn’t think to go and pull out a camera and video Annie in action. It all was happening so fast, and we were laughing so freakin’ hard, I didn’t even consider pulling myself away (plus, it was such an organic moment, running for a camera might have broken the spell). But – especially considering that I really can’t do it justice by describing it, and also because each of our memories of the event is fading slightly – I’ve really been bummed that we have absolutely no record of it. I’d assumed that our recollections would have to be good enough.

A few weeks ago, I happened upon a long-forgotten notebook in my bedroom, one that had once been a combination diary/to-do book but that had been commandeered by my young’uns for drawing and writing and coloring and generally making sure that I understood that “my” notebook was no longer “mine” at all.

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These are fairly typical entries.
I’m not sure why Nick has such thick legs, nor why my thigh is coming out of my stomach at a perpendicular angle, but whatever. 

After flipping through the pages, I came upon the following and it caused me to – yes, literally (for real) – gasp aloud:

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It’s a conversation between Ella and Bill, written in January 2010 (I did a lot of sleuthing through the other drawings to deduce the exact timing; Columbo, that’s me). The left side – Ella’s message – reads: “Thank you for visiting.” (Or, more precisely, THAK YOU FOR V ISITIN… but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She had only just turned five, people.)

The right side containing Bill’s response is a bit harder to see, so allow me to provide a close-up:

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Grandpa Bill
Ella and Annie – Thank you for letting us stay with you and for a wonderful time.

Beneath that is a drawing of a sun (I think?), a rectangle with squiggly lines, an I Love You heart from Ella, and an adorably small I Love You Too heart from Bill.

Which, in and of itself, was enough to make me gasp – a heretofore unknown conversation with Grandpa Bill? His handwriting, his sentiments, the memories of him and his wonderful relationship with the girls… And it just fell into my lap?

Amazing.

But when I looked more closely, I realized that this was even more amazing than I’d originally thought, because that drawing in the middle of the page? That’s not just a box with squiggles… Take a look for yourself:
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Scribble… OFF
Scribble… OFF

Yep, in his thank-you note to Ella, Bill included his own illustration of one of the best parts of their visit – Annie’s legendary game of Mark Off.

For the past four years, we’d all thought that there was no “proof” that Mark Off had ever even existed, as though it were a figment of our imagination. Now, there’s not only evidence that it happened – there’s evidence from Bill, in an adorable note written to his granddaughter. It had been waiting there for us all along; we just had to find it.

Tomorrow is Bill’s birthday; he would be seventy-one. Last year at this time, we were embarking on our hilariously catastrophic visit to Minnesota to celebrate his 70th. This year, the timing is just right for GranMary to come for a visit, so we will happily be spending the weekend with her (and dragging her to soccer celebrations and movies and heaven knows what else; thank God she’s a great sport!) – perhaps celebrating, but more likely simply wishing and remembering.

Whatever we decide to do, I know that the memory of Bill will be right there with us – we just have to find him. But that shouldn’t be too hard; he’s always waiting for us, all along.

gp visit26
Photo taken during the infamous gameshow visit.
Why is Annie barefoot and Ella wearing Valentine’s socks? MARK OFF!