The messy best we can

I’ve never grieved before. Not like this.

I don’t know how to do it.

I don’t know where to start; I don’t know where it ends. We had so little warning. And this road map? It’s full of unnamed roads, dead ends.

We lost Alex in August. It happened so fast. My mother-in-law became sick, then rapidly sicker, and it was only weeks before we were forced to stare at the horrible truth: we had days together, not weeks. Not months. Certainly not years . . . the ones we’d planned to fill with kids’ dance recitals, long conversations, puzzles. Unbroken stretches of beach. Hot tea and cocoa at midnight. Sunshine.

It’s been inky-dark for six weeks now.

Grief has been a strange and unwelcome bedfellow. I’ve never lost someone so close to me—someone loved so dearly by everyone . . . especially my father-in-law, husband, children, and me.

We had no idea she was sick.

She had no idea she was sick.

When we finally heard it—cancer, after months of wrong and incomplete diagnoses, non-answers for her pain—I felt my stomach fall to my summer-scuffed toes. It was late June. And it was in her bones.

I cried for days. In the shower. On my lunch breaks. In my office. And I yelled. I punched my steering wheel alone in my car, after dropping my kids at summer camp, where I wouldn’t alarm my own shell-shocked husband. I stood in the kitchen and stirred pots of boxed mac and cheese with a spoon in one hand, crumpled tissues in the other. I dried my face each time my children ran in, sucking down the panic rising in my chest.

She was gone in just five weeks.

I’ve had time—so much time, really—to think about what made her so special. And the truth is that I couldn’t appreciate so much of what made her an outstanding mother until I became one myself. From the moment Oliver came crashing into the world, upending everything we knew and then some, I had her standing sentry—guiding us, laughing with us, crying with us. And cooking for us. Alex’s love language was gifts, and meals were part of her thoughtfulness. When all else failed (as it sometimes did), she fed us.

Nothing in my brain computes this loss. I’ve fretted endlessly about how to help my husband and children while feeling mired in despair myself. The kids—now 7 and 5—say little, afraid to set off more tears. I do let them see my grief, as all the experts share, but in slivers; I let them cry with me, encouraging them to share. We talk about the good times. We look at pictures.

There’s just so much I want to remember.

Remember her generosity. Her big laugh. Her way of making everyone feel comfortable and important in her presence. The genuine love she had for her family and friends—all of them. The way she took ordinary days and infused them with creativity, patience, and fun.

And she was all about action. I think of the time she painted our bedroom closet. When she rode with me to Spencer’s surgery (plus the realization that I, his wife, would be the one now receiving the surgeon’s call). The time she took the 3 a.m. feeding so Spence and I could sleep, giving us our first unbroken stretch of rest since Oliver came home from the NICU.

We loved all of the same things . . . and the same man. And Alex never seemed to question my presence at the side of her beloved only son. Now the mother of two dear children myself, I have a new appreciation for how hard that could have been.

Alex saw me at my absolute best and my frightening worst. And she never begrudged me any of it. She could absorb my pain, particularly the fear and exhaustion of new parenthood, without taking it personally. Even 360 miles away, Alex was never a guest in our home; she and my father-in-law are part of our home. Hearing her slippered feet on the stairs and whispered bedtime stories was a balm for my soul, too. I breathed easier, slept easier, when she was here.

I’d say I don’t know what we’re going to do without her, but I do: what we must. We’re going to keep moving. Appreciating the little things. Digging deep to feel grateful for the time we had with her—the love she inspired, and the love that continues still.

We’re going to do the messy best we can.

Childhood’s tiny treasures


I didn’t expect to love holding marker caps, or the tops of acorns, or the shiny foil of an opened Hershey Kiss.

My life is full of tiny things, unexpected bits and baubles — little treasures collected by my children and tucked into pockets, both theirs and mine. I find them in the pants pockets and stacked on chairs.

Oliver, my wild bird, is a collector of sparkly things. He likes pawing through my jewelry box to unearth my college ring: a thick band with a ruby at its center. It’s engraved with my initials and graduation year, though my thirty-something eyes don’t find the tiny letters as easily these days. I’ve caught Ollie many times trying to squirrel it away. I keep little from them, but I don’t want that ring to disappear like so many marbles and buttons before it.

“Mommy, when I’m five, I can have your college ring?” Oliver will ask. Five is going to be a big year for Oliver; it’s the age he’ll be driving the minivan and chopping vegetables himself, too.

Hadley is also getting in on the act. She loves to carry around LEGO people, one she’s even dubbed “Mommy,” and has a collection of plastic “Sesame Street” characters in the cupholder of her car seat. I find Goldfish tucked away, presumably for later, and round game pieces hidden in the trunk of a tricycle.

She and Ollie build their nests — one busted piece of jewelry at a time.

Marker caps are new. Hadley loves to draw: bold lines and dots like pattering raindrops on cloudy white paper. She will make the smallest movement with a pen, adding a pink swoosh here or a yellow circle there. She hands each lid to me as she works, careful not to get ink on her tiny fingers.

I’m cautious with the lids, waiting with uncharacteristic patience as she draws. We don’t want to the markers to dry out, I gently say.

And Hadley smiles, nods, adds more dots to her scene. She trusts that these, too, will be safe.



Just a little post for Mom

Great Falls in 2011

Visiting Great Falls in 2011

Some of my earliest memories of Mom are wrapped around Sunday afternoons. Always a working woman, Mom has always devoted the weekends — usually Sundays — to getting her wardrobe ready for the week. When I think of those early days, I remember the smell of spray starch and the slow hiss of the iron gliding over fabric; I think of the low laugh track of a television show as I stood nearby, gazing longingly at Mom’s jewelry.

We called it “The Necklace Game” — and it was less a game and more of a, well, a shameless chance to admire her baubles. At 3 or 4, I was ham-fisted and clumsy in the way all young children are — and I can still see the thick tangles of necklaces hanging from a jewelry rack on my parents’ dresser. I tried to pull them apart, to separate them, but they were stuck. Inextricably tied together.

Like Mom and me. When my younger sister was born, we were a happy family of four. I’d hope that most of us would declare that we love our parents, without hesitation, but I also feel fortunate to like them, too. As Katie and I have gotten older, their roles may have shifted more to friend than parent — but I still look to Mom and Dad for advice, comfort and support.

That’s just the way it goes.

My mom is an excellent photographer, a tireless (but tired!) worker, a loyal friend. She’s organized, collected and calm in nearly every situation, and I’ve learned so much about having a backbone from her. She’s the precious collector of our family’s stories, the historian who has preserved so many memories for all of us — and she would do anything for her family. Anything. And we’d do anything for her!

We don’t say it often enough, so I’ll shout it from the digital rooftops: we love you, Mom! Happy Mother’s Day weekend. Can’t wait to celebrate with you!

And to all the mothers reading, whether your children are here or in your heart, thanks for being outstanding. Love and hugs!

P.S. Thank you all so, so very much for your packing tips on yesterday’s post. They were all incredibly helpful, and I felt relieved — and inspired! — enough to actually start tackling different corners last night. We made some good progress, and I’m very thankful for your encouragement!

A moment of illumination

My mother is a collector of quotes. A strong believer in the soothing power of knowledge, Mom has always turned to books when confronted with any problem, issue, question. In her strong mind, there is nothing that can’t be cured with the assistance of a well-written tome. She seeks their wisdom like a sapling to light, always straining to grow and become more.

Like me, Mom loves calendars — and has a page-a-day version on her desk, one of many that have helped her greet the day over the years. This year’s is a collection of quotes encouraging us to “believe in ourselves.” Whenever Mom finds one she thinks will inspire my sister or me, she tucks them in places for us to find. Digging around in my purse on many occasions, I’ve run fingernail-first into a slip of paper with Mom’s careful script in the margin.

Mom collects these scraps of wisdom — and then shares them with me. The one above, from writer Elizabeth Hardwick, landed in my palm with another message from my mother: “For Megan and her book blog.” And I read it and I read it, nodding all the while, thinking about the places books have taken me. The scenes through which I have traveled, and the people I’ve met. The way books have comforted me, boosted me, helped me become more than what I am: a 26-year-old writer in the suburbs, fumbling her way through a world that often seems both familiar and foreign.

I feel like I’m never going to stop learning and growing — and I can only hope that the wonderful stories that have provided the backdrop to my brightest and darkest days will always be here, ready to lend a moment of illumination. Ready to inspire and teach and encourage.

Just like my mom, who has believed in me for so long. And a woman I believe in with all my heart.