Her Bravery

I distinctly remember the day my mom first showed me her bravery.

We were in my parent’s Chevy Celebrity. I think I was five. The corduroy seats itched the back of my knees, so I kept tugging on my skirt hem. I played with the hand-crank on the window, turning it up and down repeatedly. Each time it was down, warm air seeped inside and got stuck in my nose. And despite the floor being out of reach, I kicked my feet back and forth trying to touch my toes against the carpet.

We were car-dancing to Madonna when my mom gasped and slammed on her brakes. Our heads flew forward then slammed against the seats with a thud. I stopped kicking and car-dancing. Stopped playing with the window. Stopped breathing for the shortest moment.

Everything stood still as our eyes connected in the rear-view mirror. There, I saw concern and love, then determination and strength. All before she blinked.

“Oh, God!” she shouted. I exhaled and the world rotated again. “That car hit the little girl so hard she…” her voice trailed off. I heard the clicking and clacking of the car going into park and her seatbelt being unbuckled, then the slapping of the belt raveling up.

She climbed out of her seat, slammed her door, and stopped in front of my window. “You stay here,” she said, using her voice that meant business. Perseverance filled each line on her face in a way that I had never seen before.

I gulped down a breath bubble and scratched the corduroy seat to feel the fibers under my nails. I nodded yes.

“I mean it, Danielle,” she said.

“Okay, Mommy,” I whispered to her, but she was already jogging away.

I craned my head up to peek out the window and the smell of exhaust fumes overwhelmed me. It was a busy street that felt close to home, but I couldn’t tell which one it was. I saw my mom approach a girl lying face down on the pavement. She wasn’t much bigger than me. And behind the girl was a car. Its windshield was caved in and shards of glass glittered against the street. I looked away, afraid and unsure of what was happening.

Time isn’t the same when you are a child, so I don’t know how long I sat there avoiding the scene out of my window, but it felt like hours. I heard sirens and voices just beyond our car. I saw the flashing lights, but I couldn’t bear to lift my head and watch.

Eventually everything slowed. No more sirens, lights, or commotion.

My mom opened her door, sat back down in the driver’s seat, and cradled her head in her hands. “I couldn’t save her,” she wept. “I couldn’t save the little girl’s life.”

 

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Adulting in the Digital Age

I have no clue what I’m doing.

Not with parenting. Not with cooking and cleaning. Not with social media. Not with putting on my own damn lipstick. No effing clue.

I mean, I’m sure if you looked at my Pinterest page, you would think that I’m this insanely organized person with perfectly planned kid parties, amazing eye makeup, color-coded closets, and healthy home-cooked meals seven days a week. If you looked at my Facebook and Instagram pages, you would find my kids’ happy faces on vacations, playing family games, and going out to eat wearing clean, matching clothes. I look like I know what I’m doing.

But let’s be honest, Pinterest is a place where dreams of healthy, easy recipes, DIY refinished cabinets, labeled spice racks in alphabetical order, and picture frames hung with precision on a pristine gallery wall are born, then immediately murdered. We’ve all “pinned now, to read later”. Right? Only for me, most laters never come to fruition. They just hang out on my cyber pin board collecting digital dust.

Here are some fun facts: I usually have a full-blown anxiety attack that lasts for weeks every time one of my children has a birthday coming up. It ends only when the party is winding down and people are filing out of my house. Pinterest has amplified that anxiety. Fun fact two: my closets are a disaster, with boots piled in one corner, and clothes that have been pushed and smushed in the other. I have so many of those gross metal hangers from the dry cleaner, but I never remember to take them back so they hang there, taunting me with their rigid ugliness. Three: I try to cook. Sometimes it’s edible, and sometimes we end up ordering Chinese. Four: I don’t have time to paint my 1990s oak cabinets, so I am secretly praying for them to eventually be vintage and cool. Five: most of my photos are floating in cyberspace, or getting dusty in a box, instead of being displayed.

And those moments of perfection posted on Facebook and Instagram? Fake!

When my children are in that moment right before chaos, where they both appear to be civilized, I document it. I #hashtag it. I share it. When we make a dinner that actually looks delectable, I post it for all of Instagram to see. But why? Do I want to make someone jealous of my moment? Have I been programmed by social media to broadcast my life across the web, sharing only the moments that make me look like I actually have my shit together? I don’t know, maybe it’s a little of both.

What if I shared the real life things my family does instead. Like when my kids hit each other or pull on each other’s hair: #sisterlylove. Or when my oldest refuses to eat and my youngest chucks her chicken across the room: #dinnerfun. Or maybe when we barely make it to the bus for the hundredth time #mamaislosinghershitagain.

Being so involved on social media makes my brain hurt. The real honest to God’s truth is that most people don’t care what my kids did today. Most people don’t care what ideas I have saved on Pinterest. And most don’t care what I’m eating for dinner.

It’s okay. I understand. The feeling is pretty mutual. So why, then, do I put it all out there? Why do I pretend like I live in a dollhouse where everything is made of cupcakes and my hair doesn’t move, whenever I go online?

Being a mess is okay!

My kids don’t care that I have three unorganized junk drawers and a constant stream of clothes folded in baskets we have to dig through. And they would rather have their parties at Chuckie Cheese instead of at home under duress. And they definitely prefer to eat pasta every single night of the week, than some homemade Paleo/21 Day Fix friendly meal I pinned for my own waistline.

They want me to close my phone and open my eyes, to make mistakes and problem-solve without parenting ques from Facebook. They want me to be real and present. They want my mess.

So maybe it’s time share and pin less. Maybe it’s time to unplug a little more, and stop worrying about the Joneses, the Facebookers, and the Pinners, so I can connect with the people in my small corner of this big world.

Once I have that down, then maybe I can figure out lipstick.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

The Cancer Chase

Cancer.

Everything about that word makes the bile in my belly rise and the hair follicles on my arms pucker in fear.

Cancer.

Saying or even thinking the word gives me shivers. The difference between the hard and soft ‘c’ sounds make the word sound like a scaly boa constrictor slithering its way around my chest. I’m suffocating from it.

No drinks with sucralose or aspartame.No furniture made with formaldehyde.No more chicken nuggets or hot dogs.Only eat organic fruits and vegetables.No household cleaners.No alcohol.No smoking.No microwaved popcorn.No artificial dyes.Stay out of the sun.Stay away from pollution.

The list of carcinogens, or cancer causing materials, is endless, and if I let myself think about everything I would need to avoid to avoid cancer, I probably wouldn’t ever leave my house.

Complications from cancer have killed strangers, acquaintances, friends, friends of friends, parents of friends, grandparents of friends, and family.

My grandma.

My mom.

My aunt.

It’s everywhere, tightening its grip on my lungs each time I exhale.

Since my mom passed away, I’ve had constant irrational fears that death by cancer will be my unfortunate, inevitable demise. I believe that I will end up just like her: in hospice on a morphine drip for my last days of life. I’m sure that the disease is already lying dormant in some unsuspecting corner of my body – ready to strike and steal everything I love away when I least expect it.

It’s not death that has had me looking over my shoulder in fear. I think the older we get, the more we come to understand that death, like birth, is a part of the cycle. We all must endure it at some point. But the pain, surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation that come with cancer – sometimes lasting for years – have given me the kind of nightmares where I scream myself awake. Nightmares that leave me in sweats with labored breath and a heart pounding through my chest.

And the drugs given to help cancer make me cringe, too. They wreak havoc on your insides, making your organs burn like they are on fire, and cease to function properly. Chemotherapy and radiation can kill your healthy, happy cells along with the sick ones and slowly take you from the life you love.

What happens if It catches up to me? Am I next? Am I strong enough to endure whatever torturous medicines I’m prescribed? Who would protect and provide for my girls and my husband if I were to get sick? Am I destined to die from the disease that keeps stealing the women in my family?

I now realize that these are questions I can’t answer.

The older I get, the more lives I’ve had to watch slip between the cracks of my fragile fingers from this disease. But I’ve decided not to coil away from that monster anymore. Instead, I’m going to look it in the eye, with my fists clenched so hard my fingernails bury themselves deep into the fatty part of my palms, and I’ll acknowledge the possibility of cancer, just like the possibility of no cancer. I’ll let the fear slide off my back instead of continuing to encircle me.

I can’t let cancer control my thoughts anymore.

It’s time to breathe.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

A Lesson in Speaking Up and Saying Sorry

The neighborhood I grew up in doesn’t look quite like it used to when I was young. Sure, the tiny bungalows and ranches of blues, yellows, whites and brick continue to sit close to the sidewalk with cement slab driveways and manicured lawns framing each one. Mature trees anchor the street firmly in its blue-collar place. And, even today, I could set my watch by the freight trains chugging along two streets over. But it has changed in other ways.

Most noticeably, the neighbors inside the houses seem farther apart. The kids I played with as a child moved out long before I finished high school, and now they have moved on, making families of their own. The houses have changed hands to an older generation who care less about connecting with one another and more about their own to-do lists.

On any given day when I was growing up, a herd of neighborhood kids would congregate in front of my house to play hide-and-seek, red rover and tag. 

I remember one day, in particular, where we were all taking turns with the jump rope and skip-it.

“I dare you to jump rope from the top of the steps,” I said to Douglas, my next-door neighbor. Before the words even finished running out of my mouth, I regretted saying them.

“Yeah, I double dare you!” my step-sister, Steph, exclaimed.

With a wobbly voice, he accepted. I kept my mouth shut and held one end of the jump rope while my stepsister held the other.

We swung the rope around, making it soar up towards the sky. The first couple of times it came down, towards his feet, he cleared it – no problem. But then on the third or fourth time, something happened. I couldn’t tell if he tripped, or maybe lost his footing against the step, but before I could stop it, he fell backwards onto the concrete. It happened in slow motion. First he was midair, face contorting and arms flailing, then he was slamming against the ground beneath him.

Douglas’ head hit the jagged corner of the bottom step, with a loud thunk. Blood started gushing onto the concrete. His face turned chalky as he opened his mouth into a strange shape and screamed. Razor blades scraped against my ears. My feet weighed ten thousand pounds, but somehow I managed to pick them up, one after another. I ran to find my mom.

I thought he would be broken forever.

Another neighbor, Josh, ran over my driveway and through the next front lawn to find Douglas’ parents.

When the adults met back at my steps, harsh words were shouted and all fingers kept pointing to me and my step-sister. My face was hotter than the blood in front of me, and knew I was responsible. I should have spoken up, but I didn’t.

“It was my idea,” I said, accepting the blame.

Douglas was rushed to the hospital and I was sent to my room where I buried my face against the coolness of my favorite pink pillow. I tried to bury my regret, too, but it kept welling back up through my eyes, streaming down my face in hot spurts.

I wanted to hide there forever, but my mom didn’t let me. After my step-sister went home, she took me to the dollar store. She loaned me four quarters and a dime to buy a toy for Douglas as an apology. I picked out a bag of green toy soldiers because soldiers were strong, and so was my friend.

When we got back home, she made me knock on his door, present in hand. A red-faced Douglas answered with his parents at his side.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he responded.

“Are you okay?” I asked sheepishly.

“I got stitches,” he said, pointing to a freshly shaved spot on his head, sewn up with thick black thread. Looking at it made my belly feel like I just went down the first hill of a roller coaster at Cedar Point.

New tears burned the corners of my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I said, handing him the bag of plastic army men as an olive branch.

“Cool,” he shrugged. “Wanna play with them?”

I looked up to my mom and she nodded, nudging me into the house. Douglas ripped open the bag and the little plastic soldiers spilled onto the wooden floor. We played with them while our parents drank fizzy cans of R.C Cola and mended the wound festering between them. When I looked up, my mom smiled, letting me know that everything was going to work itself out.

Though many things in my neighborhood have changed over the last thirty years, the bloodstain on my stepdad’s front step remains. It has faded only slightly with time.

Each time I see it, it reminds me to speak up, say sorry, and take care of my friends and neighbors.

***

Right now, more than ever, I need my mom to reassure me with that smile that everything will, again, work itself out.

I tried. I tried to speak up. To do my part, but it wasn’t enough. That roller coaster feeling in my belly won’t go away this time. I keep worrying about what the future holds for my girls, my neighbors, my friends.

Will more blood spill, because we didn’t speak loud enough? What can I do now?

Little plastic soldiers won’t work this time.

Photo courtesy of  Tim Marshall/Stocksnap.io

For a Friend in Need:

Hello there, Beautiful.

Yes, I’m talking to you. The mom who’s down on yourself because life has once again knocked the wind from your lungs.

Maybe you lost your job, you wish you could lose ten pounds or your baby has been colicky all day. Maybe you are behind on your rent, your dog ran away, or you are fighting with your best friend.

Big or small, it doesn’t matter. You’ll get through it, I promise. Whatever it is.

Remember that you aren’t alone in this. And when you look in the mirror, try not to be so hard on yourself. Try to see the same beauty that the rest of the world sees in you.

Those sprouting grey hairs are not a sign that you are getting older, but rather a sign of the wonderful life you’ve already been fortunate to live. The smile lines and crow’s feet aren’t ugly wrinkles sprawling across your once-buoyant skin, but proof of all the laughter you’ve shared.

The crooked smile on your face is one of a kind, so don’t despise it. Show it off whenever you can. People will gravitate towards you because of it.

Maybe you think your boobs are too big. Or too small. Or too something. It doesn’t matter. They are just boobs. None are perfect, trust me. Not even the manufactured ones.

And maybe the person you see in the mirror doesn’t look as thin or muscular or young as she did ten years ago. But ten years ago was before your kids, or your awesome desk job, or your amazing husband who can cook a perfect medium steak and potato. If you want to lose the weight, fine, but don’t call yourself names because of the extra pounds. You are still you. And you deserve better.

Learn to embrace every imperfection you have, because they are like pieces of art. You are a piece of art.

And don’t worry so much. Trust me, that sink full of dishes, piling laundry and sticky floor aren’t signs of a dirty house, but instead of a family busy with dance classes, football games, visits to the playground, or maybe just frequent trips to the grocery store.  It’s okay to let it go from time to time. It’s okay to breathe.

Stop worrying about what the neighbors have or what’s on Facebook. That can drag you down further. Instead, focus on yourself and the loved ones around you. They are the only ones who matter. They can heal your heart, whatever happens to be troubling it.

You don’t have to be the perfect chauffer, cheerleader, chef, coach, comedian, daughter, doctor, gardener, mediator, mom, teacher, ventriloquist, veterinarian, and whoever else.

It’s absolutely fine to just be. So just be and see where that gets you.

Despite what society tells us, it’s okay to be imperfect. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to scream into your pillow that life isn’t fair. It’s okay to stumble and even to fail. But what isn’t okay is giving up. You can’t throw in the towel over a bad day, week, month, or even year.

Never give up on yourself.

So today when you look in the mirror, straighten your shoulders and love the person staring back at you. You deserve that much.

Remind yourself that you are beautiful and completely worthy. Promise yourself that you’ve got this. Take it one day, one step, one breath at a time, if that’s what you need. You’ll get there in due time.

Trust me, because I believe in you.

Photo courtesy of Jairo Alzate/Unsplash

Why Target Moms Are My Tribe

Hey you, Mom in the yoga pants with her hair pulled back in the perfect messy bun, baby strapped securely to your chest in her Ergo while you sip your PSL. You’re perusing those clearance racks because you needed to get out of the house. That’s me, too.

“How can I help you, Ma’am?” the Target employee smiles.

“Hi, I’ll have a tall caramel macchiato with a double shot.”

“Coming right up,” she says. I hand her my REDcard to save 5%.

And what about you, Mom speeding through the aisles at record pace with two kids holding on to the back of the cart for dear life, because you’re late for a birthday party and forgot to buy the damned gift? Last weekend I forgot the wrapping paper. I know the struggle.

“Have a good day, Ma’am,” she says, handing me my coffee.

And there’s you, soon-to-be Mom. You and your hubs are planning the baby shower and maybe, just maybe, you’ve gone a little crazy with that scanner.  But the baby really does need a brand new Kitchen Aid mixer. How else will you make him all those delicious treats? I understand.

“Mama!” my youngest cries out. I hand her a toy to keep her busy.

Then there’s you, newly-minted Mom with your brand new baby. Overly protective Dad is pushing the Peg-Perego and putting the fear of God into anyone who steps within a two-foot radius of your bundle. He wanted to stay home and shelter the kid, but you needed a new t-shirt that said something trendy about working out, even though you haven’t worked out in more than a year. “It will be motivation,” you tell him. Besides, the baby needs to get used to Target because she’ll be here at least twice a week for the rest of her life.

“Diapers are on sale!” I say, tossing some Huggies into the cart.

And you, who’s already opened the economy-sized package of individually-wrapped Market Pantry raisins to keep your toddler from screaming while you load your cart with crap you don’t need, but also can’t live without. Like those really pretty Threshold curtains you’ve been eyeing that are now on Cartwheel. Even though none of your windows need treatments, you may need them one day and you can’t pass up such a good deal. And you found a mediocre red blend on clearance, so you grabbed that to drink after the kiddos are tucked in and you’re watching American Horror Story on your DVR. I’ve been there. So many times.

Then there’s you, who’s finally out of the house without children. You have the look of crazy in your eyes because you are free. What do you do? You come to Target sans babies. You shop at your own speed with your child-free red cart. You’re buying nothing but underwear and applesauce.

I look in my cart. “Diapers, wine and fancy hand soap,” I say out loud.

And you. The one with a kid having a nuclear meltdown in front of the cashier (who amazingly still has a smile stuck to her face), because he can’t have those Legos. Damn, I’m sorry. Last week mine was screaming over a new pony.

“I know I’m forgetting something,” I say to my toddler.

Finally, there’s you, the Coupon Queen. You are in front of me paying for a cute Merona fall jacket. It’s on sale, plus on Cartwheel. And you have a coupon. You pay just $2.27, look back at me and wink.

I see you, I get you and I AM you.

One definition of tribe says that a tribe is “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”

It’s human nature to seek out places and people that make us feel safe and welcome. It starts with cliques and sports in school, then moves to nightclubs in our twenties and finally department stores in our thirties. When I go to Target, a sense of calm washes over me. I can count on Target like an old friend who greets me warmly with fresh coffee, no matter what time I get to her house, or how I look. No matter the city or state, Target is always the same and I get exactly the kind of quality experience I was expecting to get. So to all you moms doing your thing at Target, I get it. Because I’m there too. You are part of my tribe. The cute little dog is our friendly leader and the Target employees are our pseudo babysitters while we pick out our cheap wine.

“Crap. Dog food. I forgot the dog food,” I shrug my shoulders, because I know I’ll be back.

target-2
So until tomorrow, when I see you again. We’ll meet under the big red bullseye and sip our Starbucks while we shop.

How I Would Like To Remember My Mom

I let the warm grains of sand sift between my fingers and float toward the ocean with the breeze. I’ve never been here, but I know this place well from her stories. I close my eyes and listen to the rhythmic white noise of water colliding with the beach. Filling my lungs with air, I notice the brininess. No wonder she loved it here.

I open my eyes and shade them with the palm of my sweaty hand, watching as the dancing specks of sea glass disappear against the ocean. I imagine each is a moment she lost to cancer. What would today look like with her beside me, if sickness hadn’t taken her so swiftly?

Despite the heat, my arm hair rises like hundreds of tiny waves and blood crashes against my veins. I know she’s been here before, because she’s told me. But I can also feel it.

Maybe she’s here with me now. A cream-colored shell slowly washes up to shore and stops before my feet.  I bend to retrieve it, examine its smooth edges, and toss it in the pink bucket with the others.

Maybe that same sand now floating off to sea once sat beneath her brown legs. I picture her feet stretched out in front of her while she rests under the brazen sun. She’s laughing with friends and casually sipping a rum and Coke (not Pepsi) over ice. Maybe she walked along this very stretch of beach to collect shells as souvenirs, like me.

Beach Mom

I imagine her happy, healthy, and young.

A friend once told me that the beach ends where the ocean starts, but that line isn’t distinct.  There are still bits of water on the sand and bits of sand throughout the ocean.  Maybe that’s life. Maybe our beginning and end are not as abrupt as we think. Maybe there are still bits of her here.

I dust the sand from my hands and blow her a kiss good-bye.

That’s how I’d like to remember her. On a warm beach with a beaming smile and sand beneath her feet.

Before cancer.

Before pain.

Before I lost her.

Photo courtesy of Jakob Owens