Oh Happy Day(s)


The day Alex was born

Some people say that the day their child is born is the happiest day of their life. For me, I can honestly say that isn’t the case. The day Alex was born was the day that I found out just how little control I had over the life and death of my wife and the baby she was carrying. The day Alex was born—actually, days because it took 35 freaking hours—I stood helplessly watching the person I loved most, the person I’d chosen to hang my future on, labor to bring into the world a tiny person who seemed intent on not leaving her body. I could only stand there and try to help in my very limited way, such as holding her hand through the worst of the contractions, pushing her hair back from her face, telling her when it was absolutely time to give in and get the effing epidural god damn it, and offering weak sounds of reassurance as she looked up at me with absolute terror when the baby stayed stuck and the contractions slowed and began to come farther apart. There was literally nothing I could do but wait and hope—which, to be honest, are two things I’m not particularly accomplished at.

The second time around, with the twins, Kris’s labor was shorter and the epidural came just in time apparently, but the experience was almost as dizzying for me, the non-pregnant spouse. Kris had a late-term complication that could actually kill the babies if we didn’t induce early, so that was a tad stressful. Add to that the dream I’d had six weeks earlier that one of the babies came out not breathing, plus my flashbacks to the trauma of Alex’s birth, and my nerves were pretty much shot even before labor began. Kris pushed Ellie out easily in only a few minutes, but Sydney was a different matter. When she finally emerged pale and limp and not breathing, I was certain my nightmare was coming true. She recovered quickly and we were told there should be no lasting effects, but, yeah, definitely not the happiest day ever.


We were pretty happy, to be honest

People also say that their wedding day is the happiest day of their life. While this one I can get behind a little more, a wedding is still an event with an alarming ability to spin out of control. What if your partner gets cold feet and doesn’t show up (which happens in more movies and TV shows than anyone about to get married really needs to think about)? What if a family member gets drunk and makes a scene? In my case, I was too nervous beforehand for it to qualify as the happiest day, although it was definitely the happiest event of my life: all those people coming to Western Mass to celebrate us, to toast to our love and what we hoped would be a lasting commitment. And the dancing—you haven’t lived until you’ve seen your drunk college friends scream in unison with your new wife’s equally drunk cousins, “Oh Mickey you’re so fine you’re so fine you blow my mind yeah Mickey!”

Honestly, though, in my less than humble opinion, the best day of someone’s life most likely sneaks up on them, and maybe they realize it at the time and maybe they don’t. To my mind, the happiest day story goes something like this:

One Sunday morning five years after your first child is born, you wake up at a not ungodly hour to a perfectly quiet house and the faint sound of birds beginning their morning songs. You try to go back to sleep, but soon you give up and reach for the book on the bedside table. With light filtering through the narrow spaces in the blinds, you remember why reading is one of your very favorite things as you sink into the life of the book.

Eventually, though, as the sunlight intensifies and the birds begin to sing louder and the neighborhood starts to wake up, you’re brought back to your own existence by soft footsteps and a small face smiling at you over the edge of the bed.

“Can I come up?” the little person asks.

“Of course,” you say, smiling back.

You pat the space next to you and watch as the munchkin crawls up and snuggles under the covers, her tiny body warm against your side. Then, if you’re lucky, another small face appears, and then another. Soon you are sandwiched by small people and, if you’re especially lucky, a happy dog that lays at your feet, tail thumping lazily against the comforter on the bed that you and your wife picked out shortly after you got married. You chose a king because of your mutual dream of one day spending lazy Sunday mornings reading in bed and snuggling with your children and dogs.

And you realize that this. This right here. In this moment, you are so happy that your heart grows at least two sizes and tears prick your eyes and you hug your kids closer, kissing the tops of their tiny heads while they giggle up at you, so accustomed to your sappiness that it doesn’t faze them in the least. (It’s possible they even enjoy it.)

And because you are happy and because you know you are just so, so lucky to have even a single moment like this one, you gaze across the multiple tiny heads crowding your bed and look into the sleepy eyes of the woman you once watched in terror, afraid that your entire existence was about to come crashing down and that there was absolutely nothing you could do about any of it. But it didn’t. Instead, this woman you have known for decades and loved for so many years pushed through the pain and the fear and the anxiety to give you not just one beautiful, perfect child but three.

And you smile because you know that this is the happiest day of your life. You smile because if you’re lucky, there will be more mornings like this and your heart will just keep growing. You smile because you know that you are truly, especially lucky.



Posted in gay marriage, Non-Biological Motherhood, Parenting, Twins | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

10 Things to Know about Parenting Multiples

Or, How I Learned to Occasionally Dislike Parenting—Like, Really, Really Intensely

When Alex was a baby and Kris and I both worked part-time and got plenty of quality time with her, I remember reading a parenting post about how it’s okay to not enjoy some parts of parenting. I don’t remember the specific examples the blogger used, but they definitely involved trying to parent multiple small children capable of speaking, running, hitting, and kicking, but not of dealing with their own borderline psychotic toddler emotions.

Alex hadn’t learned to walk or talk yet at that point, and Kris’s RA was still responding to treatment. Life seemed so sweet for our family of three that I shook my head in pity for that poor mom who either lacked time management skills or perhaps had had children before she was really ready. Four years and two additional children later, I finally understand what that other mother was talking about. Thus I would like to publicly apologize for my smug forty-year-old self, and also to confirm as many have done before me that karma is, indeed, a bitch.

What follows is a list of realities about parenting multiple small children that Kris and I have learned since the twins were born. If you’re currently eating, you might want to wait until you’re done to read on. If you’re considering having a baby or a second child, you might want to avoid reading on at all. Just saying.

  1. There will be poop. Lots of poop. Perhaps literally a ton of poop if you have enough babies. Newborn poop will squirt out of your child’s butt at one in the morning, hit a nearby window, and proceed to drip slowly down the glass as you laugh hysterically. In her toddler years, your child will remove her diaper, look inside, and yell, “Oh no, there’s poop in it!” as she waves said diaper over her head. If you have a baby boy, he will also piss on you every chance he gets. But don’t worry. Urine is sterile!
  2. You will be sick all the time—all of you!—and not in the ways to which you might be accustomed. One day, your children’s eyes will decide to hock loogies. This is called pink eye. Look it up on the internet and then wish you hadn’t. You will wash your hands until they crack and bleed, but to no avail. One morning you will wake up and find that your eyes, too, are glued shut. You can hear your sick children crying but you can’t see them very well. Which, after all, might be a blessing.
  3. You will use up all your sick leave taking care of said children. When you inevitably succumb to the sickness of the month, you will use up your vacation leave. This unhealthy cycle ensures that you will be chronically short of vacation time at a point in your life when you need it the most.
  4. You will spend years of your life kneeling on the floor to help with socks and winter caps, tie shoe laces, zip jackets, and change diapers.
    4a. Parenting will destroy your body. In addition to being chronically short on sleep and chronically congested (there might be a cause-effect relationship between these two…), you may find that your knees, ankles, and back creak at odd moments and refuse to bend at all by the time your children are school-aged.
  5. You will find yourself repeating the same phrases, over and over and over and… Phrases like, “Don’t touch that!” “The tag goes in back.” “No, other foot. I said, other foot!” “Bring my shoes back—now.” “Put my sunglasses down.” “God damn it, [insert child’s name]!” And, “I’m sorry I got impatient with you.” Because when you repeat the same things over and over and the outcome still doesn’t change, you will become impatient. Unless you are a saint. And even then you will lose your patience.
    5a. You will buy lots of sunglasses, cell phone screen protectors, and furniture—because living with multiple small beings who lack impulse control will teach you to recognize the importance of not becoming overly attached to inanimate objects.
  6. Your young children will have no body shame. This is a wonderful thing, except when it extends to your body. Your mother’s helper is going to see you naked. So will your father-in-law. And your neighbors—on both sides. You will learn never to assume that just because you left the baby gate shut AND your bedroom door closed AND the window shades down doesn’t mean that this is still the state of affairs when you wander naked from the master bathroom after your second shower in six days. But don’t worry. Your neighbors are getting used to seeing you naked.
  7. Your young children will have a worse case of the wandering hands than any high school boyfriend ever. Try not to recoil too visibly, and recognize that these episodes present a perfect opportunity to teach your children about the sanctity of other people’s private body parts. Again and again and again… (See # 5 above on repeating yourself.)
  8. If a loved one dies, your young children will remind you of it constantly. For weeks. For months. For years. Just when you think you have moved past the pain, your children will ask to see photos of your loved one. You will comply because you understand that kids need help processing the big things in life. But still. You will cry, and it will hurt.
  9. Your own squeamishness with bodily fluids will fade after years of wiping your children’s butts. This will mostly be an improvement, except on the rare occasion in which you find yourself socializing with other adults. Then your tendency to tell stories regarding projectile poop (see # 1 above) will potentially lose you friends and influence. Not that you’ll care. You’ll be too giddy from your temporary freedom and the glass of wine you unwisely downed on an empty stomach to notice your friends and/or co-workers shying away from you. Fellow parents of small children will stick around, though, clutching their own hastily imbibed booze as they describe the color of the material that came spewing out of their own children’s orifices just the other night.
  10. The accepted way to end one of these lists is to offer up a sentimental “And yet, parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever love!” But I’m sorry. I was up three times last night with assorted small, whiny beings, and right now I just want to post this and veg out with DVRed episodes of Downton Abbey or possibly the 2015 World Cup finals.

I mean, yes, of course I adore my children. Did you read the list? The only thing that would allow someone with an overly sensitive olfactory sense AND a tendency toward vomiting to withstand the rigors of parenting three children under the age of four is, obviously, copious amounts of prescription dru—I mean, copious amounts of unconditional love. While I won’t commence listing their numerous virtues, I will share a recent photo of my three lovelies on a good day.

For now, good night and good luck, as Kris and I used to say to each other every night before turning out the lights. To be honest, we still sometimes do.


Two out of three smiling and looking = good enough

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Listening Comprehension

Last weekend, Kris and I took the kids for a walk around the neighborhood after being stuck inside for nearly a week with viral conjunctivitis. That’s right, pink eye. Or, as I like to say, “Conjunctivitis: when your eyes decide to start hocking loogies.” Naturally, we were thrilled to finally escape our 1100 square-foot home and the attendant horror of caring for two toddlers and a preschooler whose eyes had developed a disturbing tendency to become glued shut at varying times of the day and night, all while our own eyes were leaking copious amounts of, well, snot.

It was a lovely afternoon, sunny but cool which led to a forest fog, as I like to call it. The setting sun slanted through the trees and haze beautifully, and I snapped picture after picture on my phone, hoping at least one would turn out. My parents gave Alex her first camera for Christmas, so she brought it along, snapping shots along the way, too.


Hallelujah–no more pink eye! Even the angels wept…

After a nice, slow stroll through the woods and back up the street, we were almost home when our new neighbor appeared in his driveway. Our friend who owns the house in question had recently texted to let us know a middle-aged couple would be renting it out through the winter and spring.

“Hello,” I called out, waving as he neared the top of the driveway. “Welcome to the neighborhood.”

Smiling, he crossed the street to chat, and soon Kris and I had introduced ourselves and the kids and pointed out our house. He and his wife had just moved out from Chicago, and when we mentioned that we were transplanted Midwesterners, he told us about the years he had lived in Portage, a suburb of Kalamazoo.

The conversation seemed to be going well when he asked how long we had lived in our house.

“Ten years,” I told him. “We bought it when we moved out from Massachusetts.”


Like mother like daughter. Except for all the pink.

At this, he tilted his head and looked between us, clearly trying to work something out. “I see. Are you two related, then?”

I stared at him. We had spoken of the kids and the house as “ours” and mentioned moving cross-country together a decade previously. Did he need me to draw a map?

“No,” I said, staring at him a little harder than was probably necessary. “We’re not related. We’re married.”

“We’re married,” Kris echoed for effect, her gaze just as unyielding.

“Oh. Oh,” he said, and faltered a little.

A car approached just then, saving the moment, and all three of the adults made sure that all three children were safely on the side of our sidewalk-less road. Then the conversation resumed, social miscue seemingly forgotten.

Other things like this happen frequently. Medical staff ask which one of us is the mother, as do complete strangers, store employees, and the parents of our kids’ friends. Wait staff routinely seem unaware that we’re a couple even when we’re out to eat together on a Saturday night, all dressed up, just the two of us.

What do I mean they’re unaware? Well, when we went out to dinner a couple of months ago to mark our fifteen-year anniversary, the server who showed us to our table asked us if we wanted separate checks. When I told him we were married and that his question was, frankly, offensive, he backtracked and claimed that he asked all “groups” the same question.


Fifteen years later…

Right. Totally believable.

After the new-neighbor incident, Kris asked me, “How long do you think it’ll be before the kids start getting upset when people say things like that in front of them?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “They’re growing up with it, so in some ways it’s becoming normalized for them to see our relationship questioned, the same way it’s normal for them to have two moms.”

It didn’t occur to either of us that they might not notice the interaction. Our kids, like most, are sponges. For example, the other day Kris and I were talking about the possible make-up of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) roster for next month’s Olympic qualifying tournament. (Yes, that is exactly the kind of thing we like to talk about while watching the NFL on divisional championship Sundays.) I had just read an article that said only 16 members of the 23-member World Cup roster were available for the Olympics, so naturally we felt compelled to name the missing players.

“Four retired, right?” Kris asked.

“Right.” And we listed them together: “Wambach, Cheney, Boxx, and Chalupny.”

“Plus,” she added, “Amy Rodriguez is pregnant.”

“And Christie Rampone is injured.”

“That leaves one more.” We looked at each other, brows furrowed. “Wait, who else is missing?”

As we stared at each other, mentally scrolling through the 2015 World Cup roster, a small voice piped up. “Megan Rapinoe!” Alex called out, not even looking up from her grilled cheese sandwich.

Of course, Rapinoe, one of our hometown favorites. Kris and I had blocked out her knee injury because neither of us wanted to accept that she wouldn’t be back on the pitch anytime soon. We looked at each other, our eyes aglow with pride—“as if Alex had just won a spelling bee,” Kris would later say.

I glanced at Alex, smiling. “You’re exactly right. And do you know why Rapinoe isn’t playing right now?”

Our four-year-old nodded. “Because she’s injured.”

Kris and I exchanged another glowy smile, eyes practically brimming with tears.

“That’s our girl,” I said. Because she could only be ours.


Still celebrating the 2015 World Cup win at our house…

The thing is, our kids can identify by sight various members of the USWNT, even the ones who don’t have the same names they do. (Which, I might add, was a complete coincidence. Really.) However, when President Obama recently popped up on our television screen, the girls said, “Who’s that guy?”

Yeah, maybe that’s something we should work on—in a non-Olympic, non-World Cup year, of course. Then again, it is an election year. If our kids think we like to curse at soccer and football refs, just wait until they observe what happens during a Republican debate. On second thought, maybe we’d better hold off on that one. Last thing we want is to hear our girls running around preschool and play group cheerfully dropping the “F” bomb.

Other evidence they listen more than we probably give them credit for? The whole family’s recent brush with pink eye necessitated, naturally, a visit to the pediatrician. The next day, Kris reported that the girls ran a doctor’s clinic in the living room with Alex serving as the doctor and all of their dolls and other creatures doing time as her patients.

In her white doctor’s coat, Alex apparently asked Ellie and Sydney, the “parents” in this scenario (god help their “children”), detailed questions: “Did you notice any eye gunk in Piggy’s eyes, Sydney?”


Toddler doctor in the house

“Um, no.”

“Have you noticed any ear infection in Lily, Ellie?”


“Should we take her temperature?”


“I’m going to look in her eyes and listen to her heart.”


At one point, Alex asked Ellie, “What’s wrong with Pink Baby?”

“It’s her heart,” Ellie answered solemnly.

“What’s wrong with her heart?”

“It’s broken.”

“That’s okay, Ellie,” Alex said, and reached for her toy stethoscope. “Don’t worry. We can fix it.”

I know, right? So sweet, our girls.

Alex, it turns out, is not only a skilled cardiologist and pediatrician. When Ellie brought out yet another patient, a stuffed yellow lab she’d named Torrey after my parents’ lab who died last year, Alex started in with the usual pediatric questions: “Have you noticed eye gunk? Does she have an ear infection?”

But Ellie stopped her. “Actually, Alex, she’s really a dog.”

“Well, that’s okay, Ellie,” Alex said again, shifting pretend gears with ease. “I’m a vet, too.”

That’s our girl. They’re all our girls, actually. Actually—gee, wonder where they picked up that word?


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Thank You For Not Being Afraid – Part 2

I said Part 1 of this two-part post was going to focus on the good, and yet all I did was talk about nearly dying from hypothermia in the Smoky Mountains; failing at mountaineering in the Grand Tetons; and risking life and lungs in the New River Gorge. I’m getting there, though. The experience I’m about to relate also took place on a mountainside, only this time, it involved Alex, my oldest daughter.

If you’ve watched the Corona video, you probably noticed the incredible scenery that Corona and I routinely traversed during her lifetime:


Corona and me – Skyline Divide, 2009

One of my favorite pastimes in the world is hiking, and Western Washington offers endless opportunities to visit remote mountain meadows, glacial-fed lakes, and vast snow fields. Sometimes I think I must have been a dog in my last life, given how much I enjoy the type of outdoor activities the average dog does. Part of the reason I wanted to settle here was to raise children who would share my love of the outdoors. And sure enough, from the first couple of weeks she was born, I have packed Alex along on my assorted Pacific Northwestern adventures.

I know I’m saying “me” and “I” a lot, and not “we.” There’s a reason for that. Kris’s rheumatoid arthritis was diagnosed in 2006, and while she was able to bike and swim up until her pregnancy with the twins (2013), running and hiking fell by the wayside a little earlier. And honestly, hiking was always more my thing than Kris’s. Back in Massachusetts, as a college coach of two or three sports (depending on the year), she worked pretty much every Saturday during the academic year. I took to loading Corona in my truck and driving around New England exploring assorted trails. From the Appalachian Trail in Vermont and the wilds of Mount Greylock to the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail and the Holyoke Range just down the road from our house in Western Massachusetts, I went hiking or snowshoeing on my own with Corona most weekends, and trail running most mornings. When we moved here, Kris became a gym manager, which meant a lot of weekend hours and events. The routine I’d developed with Corona stuck, only now we were exploring trails in the Cascade Mountains.

Alex, Corona, and me January 2012

Alex, Corona, and me – January 2012

By the time Alex came along, Corona was ten and beginning to slow down. My early explorations with Alex were local—woods and parks within an hour of our house, mostly. But in the back of my mind, I was planning on bigger hikes sooner rather than later. Then the twins joined the family, Kris’s arthritis worsened, and Corona and Maggie officially reached elderly dog status all pretty much at the same time. Until very recently, our household has been narrowly focused on day-to-day survival, with bodily needs (mostly those of others) occupying the forefront of my mind when I’m not at work—sleeping, eating, bathing, dressing, diapers, and potty training. There hasn’t been much room for anything else, not even exercise (or blogging, obviously). The only travel we’ve done has been local—Portland, Vancouver, the Olympic Peninsula, and the San Juan Islands. In our old life, we flew pretty regularly to different parts of the country or even the world. But in our new life where many days seem to bring some sort of crisis, real or imagined, we are home-bound in a way I’ve never experienced.

One of the challenges in a marriage where one partner is struggling with a chronic disease is learning how to balance needs. Kris used to run more than I did. We played indoor soccer together in Massachusetts and the early days in Washington, and we went running together until both of our bodies made it known that we damn well better not try to run the way we had throughout our twenties and thirties. But in the last couple of months since our new rescue dog, Leila, came to live with us, I’ve been running or hiking with her almost every morning, and I’m getting fit again. The same isn’t true for Kris; we don’t know at this point if it ever will be. So we’re trying to figure out how our new life is going to work—the one where I’m able to hike and run and so are our kids, but she isn’t.

With old dogs and tiny children, I went years without venturing into the mountains for a real hike. A couple of times I bundled Alex up and took her up to Mt. Baker with Corona, but she was too little to do much but pick up rocks:


Artist Point – September 2012

This year, though, she was finally big enough to go a couple of miles, possibly more. With that in mind, I was determined to take advantage of the brief mountain hiking season. August was going to be my month for exploring, since it’s the perfect time to hike the Cascades and, besides, I have it off each year. But then Maggie got sick in July and died, and I didn’t have the heart, frankly, to do much of anything. Besides, this August we needed to transition the twins into toddler beds and Alex into a twin bed, and probably due in part to the lack of sleep that process engendered I got sick for the last two weeks of the month.

September rolled around and I still hadn’t gone for a hike. Then one Saturday I woke up to bright sunshine and thought, “This is it. This may be my only chance.”

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not known for my filter. Or any degree of subtlety. So as I rose that morning, instead of discussing my longstanding feelings of cabin fever with Kris, I simply announced, “I’m taking Alex to Skyline Divide today, and that’s final.”

Kris wasn’t thrilled with the idea (or it’s possible it was my delivery that caused her reluctance), but her father was visiting and my parents live in the area now, so for the first time ever I didn’t feel guilty about leaving her and the twins behind. Alex was thrilled at the idea of spending an entire day in the mountains, just the two of us, which made me even more determined to seize the day. I knew it was hard for Kris to watch us bustling around getting ready to take off on an adventure she couldn’t begin to share, but she swallowed her disappointment and made Alex’s lunch while I rushed around collecting hiking gear.

Soon Alex, Leila, and I were in my car on our way to the mountains. I was so excited. For the first time since Maggie’s diagnosis, I felt a glimmer of happiness sparking inside. Alex’s happiness was obvious and contagious, and we talked and sang as we drove through the late summer sunshine.

Glacier Ranger Station

Glacier Ranger Station

Before setting out on the Forest Service road that would lead us to the trail head, we stopped at the Glacier Public Service Center. Skyline Divide would be crowded, a ranger told us, but the dirt road should be fine as long as we took it slow. Reassured, I buckled Alex back into her booster seat and set off for nearby Forest Service road #39.

The lower part of the road was fine—a few potholes, but nothing major. We made good time and continued our cheerful conversation as we went. But then, about four miles in, the road began to switchback up a mountainside, and that’s when the fear set in. I hadn’t driven the road since 2009. And, more to the point, not since I became a parent. As the angle of the climb increased, so did the number of ruts. The drop at the edge of the road grew increasingly intense—without any sort of rail or natural barrier, one wrong move would send the car off into space. Two thousand feet of space, to be precise. I drove slowly, barely breathing as I fixated on the fact that the mechanic who had fixed an erroneous engine light a few weeks earlier on my Escape had commented on my soft brakes.

“You really should get those fixed,” he’d said.

“I will,” I’d replied. And I’d meant to. I just hadn’t found the time yet.

I mentioned I’m not good with water. The other thing I’m terrified of? Heights. Add together bad brakes, a difficult road, and the precipitous drop at the road’s edge, and I was almost hyperventilating as I drove us slowly up the mountainside.

The view from the road

The (precipitous) view from the road

And then, nine miles in, I turned a curve and hit a washboard stretch that sent my car nearly sideways on the narrow road. For once we weren’t near a major drop, given the switchback curve we’d just completed, but I knew we would be soon. Suddenly all I could think was how we would still have to come back down this road later, if by some miracle we actually made it to the top.

Why was I risking our lives, again? The view from the top was amazing, but so were plenty of other places in the area that didn’t require ascending a long, dangerous road. Why had I insisted on bringing Alex and Leila with me to a hike I hadn’t done in years? What was I trying to prove? Why couldn’t I just accept that the mountain traversing part of my life might be over, or at least temporarily on hold?

I let the car drift to a crawl and looked at Alex in the rear view mirror. “Hey, bud,” I said, “the road is getting really bad and we still have four more miles to go. I don’t know if we’re going to make it to the trail, sweetie.”

“No, Mimi,” she said immediately. “We’re almost there. We can’t turn around now.”

“But kiddo, I’m not sure this is such a good idea. This road is really dangerous.”

“Just go slow,” she said reasonably. “The ranger said it would be okay if you just go slow. We can’t turn around, Mimi. I really, really want to go hiking.” As I wavered, she moved in for the kill. “It’ll be okay. Pleeease?”

“Oh, all right,” I said, and drove on, my knuckles white.

And she was right. We went slowly, and we were okay. The trail head was packed, and we had to create a parking spot for ourselves just past the trail head. But we had made it. For now, everything was good.

Skyline Divide trail head

Skyline Divide trail head

At the trail head, we shouldered our packs and started hiking. The trail, like the road, was steeper than I’d remembered. Within a half mile, Alex was ready to turn around and head home. So I slung both of our backpacks across my front and carried her on my back for a tenth of a mile or so at a time. It took us two hours to go two miles, but in the end we made it. And as we walked out of the trees and onto the ridge, I knew why I had brought Alex to Skyline Divide. The view was incredible, but so was the sense of accomplishment at hiking on our own feet up to what felt like the top of the world. We had struggled and stretched ourselves out of our individual and mutual comfort zones, and here we were about to take a snack break with Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, and the Twin Sister mountains to keep us company. We had done it, and the pride I felt both for my daughter and myself at achieving the literally lofty goal I’d set for us even before she was born made me feel like I was floating.

Alex, me, Leila, and an unknown canine friend

Alex, me, Leila, and an unknown canine friend – Skyline Divide, 2015

“I’m so proud of you,” I kept telling her as we hung out on the ridge, as we hiked back down, as we drove down the road that wasn’t, as it turned out, nearly as scary it had seemed on the way up. “I’m so proud of you, and I love sharing this with you. This is the best hike ever.”

There’s a lesson here, of course. Fearful situations are everywhere, particularly when we open ourselves to love. If we let it, fear can keep us from experiencing great highs—and great lows, too. Sometimes all we need is a little push to keep going even when the brakes are soft and the road is bad and there’s a precipitous cliff waiting to swallow us up. Or, say, a hole in a river that can suck someone under and spit them out TWO MILES downstream. (Clearly, I’m still not over that one.)

John Muir said it much more eloquently (and, just maybe, more subtly): “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. [P]etty discomforts… are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains. Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness.”

And from the same work: “As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.” Amen.

I’ll leave you with a video compilation of one of my top five days ever. And given that watching the 2015 World Cup final match live in Vancouver is another one of my top five days, you know I’m serious.

Thank you, Alex, for not being afraid.


Posted in Family, Hiking, Illness, Parenting, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Thank You For Not Being Afraid – Part 1

When I began this post weeks ago, Paris hadn’t happened, Chicago hadn’t happened, WWU hadn’t happened, San Bernardino hadn’t happened. I started writing this post because while things in our family have been difficult recently, I am consciously trying not to let the difficulty outweigh the goodness Kris and the girls and I are fortunate enough to share on a daily basis.

But then all of these tragedies began cascading across the planet, some closer to my heart than others, and I stopped writing this post, unable to escape the guilty sense that I should be better able to handle my “first world problems.” Other people were facing terror, violence, and permanent loss, and here I was struggling with not enough sleep, with the chaos of parenting multiples, with my wife’s physical decline, with “having” to spend 35 hours a week at a good day job with excellent benefits instead of being able to write all day every day.

Peace for Paris by Jean Jullien

Peace for Paris by Jean Jullien

Driving our kids to lunch a couple of weeks ago, nearly in tears over the news of yet another mass shooting, Kris and I reminded each other how lucky we are: Our girls are healthy, we have a warm house and clothes, and we don’t have to worry about where our next meal will come from. As we sometimes joke, it pays to be disabled—assuming you’ve worked hard for a decade and a half like Kris did and paid into the system for every one of those fifteen years. Thanks to our Social Security safety net, the loss of Kris’s work income doesn’t mean we have to worry about losing our home. Our marriage is now recognized by the state and federal authorities, so as long as I have a job with good medical benefits, her medication is mostly covered. Which is huge for us—the current treatment costs $15,000 every six months, whether it’s effective or not.

And, unfortunately, the latest round isn’t much more effective than previous treatments. In the past two years, Kris has cycled through three “promising” treatments for her RA, and each has failed. That is the largest single reason I’ve found it more and more difficult to convince my brain that the good moments in our daily lives overshadow the less-than-good ones. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is partly to blame. Chronic illness can lead to chronic stress in both the affected person and family members. Stress in return adversely impacts learning and memory, immune function, and emotional resilience. I’m doing what I can to fight the crush of cortisol—physical activity, meditation, laughter, talk therapy, and acupuncture are all excellent methods to combat stress—but I am not always able to escape my body chemistry. Or the press of world events.

I’m not alone in that failure, obviously. Something Omid Safi, a columnist for the On Being project, wrote shortly after the Paris attacks resonated with me:

“The poem that I turned to was yet again from the amazing Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire:


later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

“Everywhere, everywhere. Everybody hurts. It hurts everywhere.”

Later in the same post, Safi wrote, “In the afternoon I took my children out for a long, slow walk in the woods. We took time to reflect on the trees, the light, the fallen leaves. In the midst of grief, there is still time to hold a friend’s hand, to hold a beloved in the heart, and go for a gentle stroll.”

That is the impulse I felt when I began writing this post—to write about those moments in the woods, in the sunlight, when I held a loved one’s hand and we reflected on the beauty of the physical world many of us are fortunate enough to still be able to walk through, despite our individual and collective fear.

So here you go. Part one of my focus-on-the-good (or at least, try-to-distract-myself-from-the-bad) post.


Family outdoor time, circa 1975

When I was a kid, my parents would bundle my sister and me into the VW bus or, later, the Ford station wagon, and off we would go on summer camping and hiking adventures. These trips were often weeks-long, as my parents’ teaching/ education jobs came with definite vacation perks. From our central U.S. location we traveled far afield to explore the Northeast, the Southeast, the West, and even the Northwest, with the longest adventure of all a five-week road trip to Alaska the summer before I started eighth grade. Frankly, I can’t imagine five weeks confined in a Ford Escort wagon with two bickering teenagers, but I bow to my parents’ bravery, if not their wisdom.

The summer I turned nine, my dad invited me on an overnight backpacking trip in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. While my sister and mother visited my grandparents in Chattanooga, Tennessee, my dad and I packed up the station wagon and headed out on our own to Cades Cove, an isolated valley near the North Carolina border. Along the way we stopped at a rural gas station where I bought a green and white snapback with the picture of a fish and the words, “Gone fishin’!”

I truly wish I had a photo of my (tomboy) self in that trucker hat to share. Given that I barely took it off for the next year, I’m pretty sure there must be some photo evidence somewhere. But I was a kid pre-digital photography, so this backpacking gem from the following summer’s Wyoming adventure will have to suffice:

Dad & me in Grand Teton NP, 1981

Dad & me in Grand Teton NP, 1981

When we reached Cades Cove, we set out along the Appalachian Trail. Our intended destination was an overnight shelter at Russell Field, not far from another shelter where my father had stayed the previous summer with a couple of teacher friends. The hike to the shelter was just over five miles, with an average elevation gain of 460 feet per mile. In other words, the trail was steep. And rocky. And I was still eight. Not a particularly large eight-year-old, either.

Russell Field Trail by Brian Stansberry

Russell Field Trail (PC: Brian Stansberry)

Since we’d driven in from Chattanooga that day, we didn’t get started until mid-day. By late afternoon along the heavily treed mountain trail, the light had started to fade. By then my father was carrying his pack and mine, both filled to the gills with dinner, breakfast, cooking supplies, sleeping bags, extra shoes, and clothes. We were climbing, climbing, and my dad was getting more and more nervous at the lack of signage on the trail. And then it began to rain. Not a hard rain, just a spattering of drops that managed to find their way through the heavy canopy above us.

My dad stopped walking. “It’s been a while since we saw a trail marker.”

I stopped, too. “Not that long.”

“I don’t know,” he said, looking up the trail and then back in the direction we had come. “It’s getting dark, and now it’s raining, too. If we’re lost, we need to go back. And if we’re going to turn back, we need to do it now.”

I shook my head. “No way. We don’t have to go back, Dad. We’re not lost. Let’s keep going. It can’t be far now.”

Years later he told me he would have turned back if not for me, and we very well might have become lost in the dark, rainy forest. But my confidence in his navigation skills gave him the push he needed to slog onward and upward, still carrying both of our packs. In a short time we were rewarded with an elusive white Appalachian Trail marker, and a little while after that we picked up the scent of wood smoke. We weren’t lost, after all. Around a bend and across a small field lay the Russell Field shelter.

Russell Field Shelter; PC Brian Stansberry

Russell Field Shelter (PC: Brian Stansberry)

Soon we were ducking under a plastic sheet into the stone shelter that had three walls, a massive fireplace, and two rows of sleeping platforms. Three people were already in the shelter, thus the wood smoke scent. We hadn’t even introduced ourselves yet when one of the trio, a woman, turned away from the fire and said, “Wait, I know you.” I assumed she was talking to my father, but her eyes were on me as she said, “You’re Kate Christie, aren’t you?”

Floored does not describe the feeling adequately. We were on a remote mountain six hundred miles from Kalamazoo, and yet the people we ended up sharing the shelter with that night were not only from Kalamazoo, but one of them was a teacher in the Suzuki violin program I had joined a couple of years earlier. What are the odds, right? As an adult, I’ve had a few other coincidental encounters—running into a pair of former college classmates at a Tube station in North London, and seeing the same college friend in Midtown Manhattan twice in two different locations. But somehow, randomly stumbling across acquaintances in the middle of a busy city is less shocking than entering an Adirondack-style shelter in the middle of nowhere and discovering someone who knows your name.

The rest of the camping experience was uneventful, except that I was wearing overalls (and a snapback—I know, right?) and I didn’t quite manage to get the straps out of the way when I went outside that night by myself to pee in the woods. Suffice it to say, I stood with my back to the fire for longer than I might otherwise have done that night, glad for the darkness to hide my embarrassment. The next morning, we said goodbye to our fellow Kalamazooans and headed back down the trail to Cades Cove. By evening, we were in Chattanooga sharing stories of our adventure with the rest of the family, and my dad was shaking his head at the fact that he had been ready to quit and I was the one who insisted we keep going.

The thing is, I hadn’t known to be afraid. If I had had the knowledge he did, I might have agreed with his conservative assessment and we might never have made it to Russell Field. A year later, we were in Wyoming preparing to rappel down a rock face in Grand Teton National Park, and I came face to face with a portion of the fear he must have felt that day when it appeared he might have gotten lost in the Smoky Mountains with his eight-year-old daughter. Just before it was my turn to step backward into nothingness, I looked up at the Exum mountain guide who had taken us out for a day of family mountaineering, and I said, “The rope won’t break, right? I can’t die doing this, right?”


Me, about to step into nothingness

I was just looking for a little encouragement to allay my fear. But the guide, whose ten-year-old son was along as his assistant, looked me in the eye and said, “Well, sure it could break. The harness could fail or you could slip and fall. But it’s only twenty-five feet. You would be badly hurt, but you probably wouldn’t die.”

As I digested the guide’s less than reassuring answer, I stood frozen for what felt like an eternity while everyone encouraged me to step backward down the rock face. Finally I shook my head. “I can’t do it. I don’t want to rappel.”

The guide shrugged and untied me, unimpressed but also apparently unsurprised. Girls, I imagined he was thinking as he instructed his son to take me down the trail around the back of the rock face. Humiliated, I followed the mountain goat-like boy. And you know, I don’t think I’ve ever quite gotten over the shame of backing out of the culminating moment of our mountaineering lessons. My parents and even my older sister assured me they didn’t think any less of me, but I thought less of myself for giving in to fear.

That feeling of failure in the face of fear was not something that faded easily, either. Fifteen years later, now in my early twenties, I went on a river rafting trip with some friends to the New River Gorge in West Virginia. It was my first such trip, so I didn’t realize what three class V and five class IV rapids combined with a river running high at nine feet above normal meant. Not until we hit a giant hole in the first class V rapid sideways and the raft flipped and I ended up under it did I realize that river rafting was dangerous. Like, seriously, death-defyingly dangerous.


Fortunately, during the bus ride to the river the guides had told us what to do if we ended up under the raft. As soon as my life jacket sucked me to the surface, I turned my body over in the water so that I was face up with my feet pointing up to the sky (or where I assumed the sky was, anyway), and then I pulled myself along the bottom of the raft to the nearest edge. The raft was briefly stuck in the hole in the middle of the river being pummeled by the current, but I was lucky enough to pull myself out where I could be rescued with relative ease. It just so happened that a bunch of Ohio State football players—gag—were in the convoy behind us. I had barely popped out from under the raft when a giant dude lifted me out of the water by my life jacket and tossed me easily into the bottom of his boat.

My other raft-mates were similarly dispatched within a minute or two. We were saved—except that we still had the rest of the river run to complete: ten more miles of raging whitewater, including multiple class IV and V rapids.


Once the football players rescued us and the guides recovered our raft and guided it into an eddy, we gathered on shore to regroup. As the guides discussed the best strategy for the rest of the run, I was unable to focus on much other than the fear pulsing through my brain. I mean, I was UNDER the boat. I was under the BOAT, for f@$%’s sake. I shivered and my knee jumped spasmodically as I mentally rehearsed the words demanding to escape my lips: “No effing way am I getting back in that boat! I am walking back to the bus! Just point me at the road or trail, because I am out of here!”

During the brief pause between decision and declaration, I would like to say that I pictured the Exum guide shrugging at just another girl too scared to step backwards off a mountainside. But I didn’t. I sat there reliving the moment the raft flipped, stranding me under the surface of a river I had (I now realized) been foolish to challenge. The thing is, I’m not a strong swimmer. I don’t like to put my face underwater, like, at all. Inevitably, even in the relative safety of a swimming pool, I take a breath at the wrong moment and end up coughing chlorinated water and snot everywhere. The New River is about as far from the calm of a swimming pool as you can get. After being tossed into the “hole” in the middle of the river and then riding the crest back up and flying out of the upturned raft down, down into the river where the raft crashed on top of me, blocking out the sun—how would I, poor swimmer and generally water-wary woman that I am, ever find the courage to take up my rented paddle again?

Fortunately, though, I did pause, which gave the girl next to me—a friend of a friend whose name I don’t remember but whose shrill voice I can still hear—the chance to declare, tears welling in her eyes, “I can’t get back in that boat. I can’t do it! I won’t! I would rather walk back! You can’t make me get back in!”

The entire group looked at her, me included. Hearing my own fearful thoughts come out of her mouth and hang heavy in the warm air made me realize suddenly that I absolutely did not want to be that woman. I wanted to be strong and brave and courageous. And even if I wasn’t, I was damn well going to pretend to everyone else that I was. Chickening out wasn’t an option. The only option was to keep going and hope that everything would turn out all right.

Oh my effing god, I thought. I have to get back in the raft.


“It’ll be okay,” I said to the woman who was somehow even more scared than I was. “We’ll be okay.”

And we were. The guide company quickly reshuffled and gave us a new guide, someone who had been down the river more than twice (!), and a football coach added some weight and heft to our already underweight, under-heft boat. (As a Michigander, I can honestly say that that afternoon on the New River was the only time I’ve ever been happy to see anyone from the Ohio State football team.) I gritted my teeth and clamped down on the shriek of terror trying to work its way out of my mouth, and I tried not to let on how scared I was as we set off down the river. The experienced guide made the rest of the trip seem easy, and by the end we were all disappointed that the adventure was over. Except maybe the woman who had wanted to quit. She was supposed to stay overnight at the campground with the rest of us, but she and her sister got in their car and headed home to Michigan as soon as the bus dropped us off at the rafting company’s base.

That night around the campfire we were informed that the spot on the river where we flipped kills a couple of people every year. The hole we tipped into has a channel that has the potential to suck a person under and spit them out TWO MILES downriver. If I had known that at the time, it would have been like the Exum guide saying to me, “Yeah, you could totally die.” I’m not sure I would have gotten back in the boat, to be honest, even with my fellow chickenshit passenger’s example. But I didn’t know yet about the death trap we’d narrowly escaped, and so I got back in the raft and faced my fear, and everything really did turn out all right. My friends and I were minor celebrities that night—“Dudes, you totally could have died! Did you know your guide had only been down that section of the river TWICE before? It’s a miracle you survived!”—and we felt fully and completely alive the way you do only after facing down possible death and, yes, the deepest of fears.

This post is ridiculously long, so I am going to pause it here. The second part is its own separate post. But for now, I’ll leave you with an awesome video (with an even awesomer soundtrack) that will you give some idea of the conditions on the river the day my friends and I blithely set out on our little rafting adventure.


Posted in Family, Illness, Parenting | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

More Platitudes, Anyone?

The other day, I went for a walk around campus and found myself at the foot of my favorite tree, a centuries-old Giant Sequoia. I sat down in the cradle of its roots, my back against its rugged bark, and I looked up into its reddish-brown and green canopy. What is it about trees that is so restful, reassuring? Maybe it’s that they have no choice but to be patient, to maintain perspective as people, animals, the wind, even the seasons pass them by. Usually when I commune with a tree I can let my own frenetic humanity go, to some extent. But that day I couldn’t seem to absorb the tree’s peace. Instead I felt tears threatening.


I don’t do limbo very well. Then again, many people don’t, I would imagine. Unfortunately, I seem to find myself in that position a lot. Right now at work a new quarter has just begun and I’m in the middle of a position reclassification inquiry. At home, we’re waiting to see if Kris’s newest medication will be effective. If it isn’t, it’ll be the third clinical fail in two and a half years. But it wasn’t just those things pressing down on me as I sat under the tree. It was losing Maggie, our dog. It’s been almost three months since the tumor in her heart made itself known and more than two months since she died, and yet some days I still dissolve in tears at the thought of losing her. She is gone and has been for some time now, but I still haven’t fully adjusted.

I know that the last blog I posted was about losing Corona, and I’m sorry about that. I drafted a post on the SCOTUS decision at the end of June, but we were too busy watching the World Cup for me to spend much time on it. And then Maggie got sick and writing pretty much got tossed out the window. What follows is my account of losing Maggie this summer, so if you’ve had enough talk of dying pets on my blog, you probably won’t want to read on. Just skim through the pictures, or, you know, come back another day. Fingers crossed my next post will be of a less weighty nature.

Anyway, it all started the week after the US Women’s National Team won the World Cup. Talk about a roller coaster—Kris, my parents, my best friends from Seattle and I bought tickets last minute and drove up to Vancouver, BC, for the final. Four goals for the USA in the first sixteen minutes left us and the rest of the distinctly partisan crowd in shock. Happy, thrilled shock. Out of the eight or nine World Cup games I’ve attended (mostly women’s but a couple of men’s too), I had never witnessed such a rout. The crowd was lovely, though: female dominated and family friendly. The men in the crowd around us were soccer dads, gay men, and metrosexual Vancouverites. In other words, a surprisingly pro-women crowd for an international sporting event. Everyone around us was happy, happy, and we were full of joy as we watched the best women’s team I’ve ever witnessed (sorry, ‘99ers!) win a well-deserved world championship—at last.

World Cup Finals crowd

Happy day – the World Cup Finals in Vancouver

That was Sunday, and for the next few days I floated through regular life, still on a World Cup high. Still on a high, too, from the Supreme Court decision two weeks earlier that had legalized gay marriage across the land. Three days after the USWNT won the World Cup, I walked Maggie through our forest as I did every morning before work, watching her nose through the ferns smelling every interesting scent the neighborhood dogs had left. I stood at the edge of a clearing not far from our house looking up at the sunlit morning sky, and I could feel happiness both inside and around me. I was just plainly, fully happy.

We finished our walk and ate breakfast with the kids, and then I got ready for work. Just before I left for the day, Maggie came and leaned against me. And then I realized—she could barely stand. Something was seriously wrong with our elderly canine companion. Had her auto-immune anemia come back? Or was it something else?

Instead of going to work, I carried Maggie out to my car and took her to the vet, where I waited a while with her to see our vet, and then waited some more for an off-site cardiologist to evaluate the chest x-ray. Glad for once that I am small, I stayed with my girl in the procedure room in a crate stuffed with blankets and hot water bottles to keep her core temperature from dropping. Finally our vet returned. As soon as I saw her face, I knew it was bad. She told me that Maggie’s heart cavity was filling up with blood, a situation likely caused by a tumor in her heart. An ultrasound machine was required for the procedure that might save her life, but the nearest facility that could take her was an hour away.

Within minutes I was carrying Maggie out to the car and bundling her, blanket, water bottles, and all, into her travel crate. As I drove to the emergency hospital, I remembered that morning in the woods when Maggie and I walked happily along enjoying the summer morning. And then I remembered my dream from the previous night. In it, Corona had come to visit us. She had come in through the open front door, greeted us happily, stayed a few minutes to visit, and then she had herded Maggie out the front door, down the steps, and into the forest that borders our front yard. When I woke up, I thought what a nice dream it was, that Corona had come to visit. But as I sped down the freeway to the emergency hospital, all I could think was that Corona had come to get Maggie, to lead her away to whatever was next. Maggie, I understood, was dying.

The emergency vet confirmed the diagnosis and performed the procedure, and Maggie stabilized. The next afternoon a cardiologist confirmed a large tumor had infiltrated the right ventricle. Our sweet girl could die at any moment, or she might stick around for a few weeks. No one could say for sure how much time she had left.

As I drove her home from the hospital, I wept uncontrollably. Not my little Maggie. She wasn’t even fourteen yet. I’d been sure we would have her a little while longer. And yet, she’d begun to pull away the year before, a few weeks before Corona died. Instead of draping herself across our laps, she’d taken to avoiding physical contact. Kris and I had discussed the possibility that Maggie was ill with our vet, but tests hadn’t turned up anything. Now I understood—she had been sick all this time.

Maggie & Me

Home from the hospital

I didn’t go to work the next day, the Friday before a planned, week-long vacation. Kris’s family was about to converge on us in for a reunion in the San Juan Islands. With Maggie so ill, though, I couldn’t bear to abandon her to a dog sitter. For the next week, I split my time between the island and home, with more time spent at home. My parents, who had just moved to Washington State to be near the grand kids, watched Maggie when I couldn’t be there. That way, she was never alone.

The time simultaneously crawled and flew. Maggie got stronger every day after her surgery, and she and I spent some good quality time together. There was more snuggling than she had allowed in the past year, plentiful kisses, and even some nice woods time. I started to think that maybe she would beat the odds; maybe she would stick around for months rather than weeks. One evening on the ferry back from the island, I looked up into the darkening sky and caught my breath. Above the water, a feathery cloud stretched midway between island and mainland. I recognized it immediately: The shape resembled Corona’s head and body in alert, waiting mode. Here was the universe again, reminding me that the letting go was coming whether I was ready for it or not.


Corona and her cloud doppelganger

The vacation week passed and I went back to work, hoping that Maggie would hang in a little longer. I have August off each year, and August was only a couple of weeks away. But then it happened. The Saturday morning after our vacation, I heard the click of Maggie’s toenails in the hallway and the clink of her happy tail against the metal child safety gate at our bedroom door, just like usual. Alex had crawled into our bed a little while earlier to snuggle. I extricated myself, lifted Maggie onto the bed, and went back to reading my iPad, my feet gently curled against her warm, curved back.

I don’t remember every detail of what came next. I do remember that I got up to get the twins and we all snuggled a little longer. But nature called, and soon I was nudging Maggie, trying to convince her that it was time to take our morning walk. Reluctantly she uncurled, and I lifted her off the bed. She landed with a groan, and it gave me pause. But then, she was dying. Of course she would groan here and there.

I do remember that it had poured during the night, and that the earth looked and smelled wonderfully clean and fresh after the much-needed rain. I took Maggie down to the end of the driveway to do her thing, but my timing was off—some neighbors pulled up in their car and stopped briefly to chat. Maggie alerted, but she didn’t so much pull as lean away from me, tightening the leash. I tugged her gently, and after a few tries she followed me back up the driveway. She didn’t seem to want to go up the deck stairs and inside, but after a couple of gentle tugs she seemed to sigh and acquiesce.

On the deck I used a towel to dry her feet, and she wagged her tail sweetly as I bent on my knees beside her. She withstood the cleaning process patiently, and then I let her in the house. I told Kris that I was going to bring in the garbage bins and that she should wait a few minutes to feed Maggie. Then I headed outside.

When I returned to the house, Maggie was lying on her dog bed in the living room, a pretty typical spot for her. I washed my hands and then went to check on her again. She was still stretched out on her side, but her breathing was all wrong. I sat down on the floor beside her, concerned. She looked like she couldn’t get a full breath of air. Her eyes were narrowed, and she grimaced with each shuddering breath.

“Kris,” I said, “come in here!”

“Just a minute,” she said from the kitchen, where she was getting the kids into their breakfast chairs.

“I think Maggie’s dying. Come now or you could miss it.”

So she came and sat on the couch above us while I sat on the floor beside Maggie, our vet’s words from an earlier visit ringing in my head: The worst that could happen would be that Maggie dies at home. And that is exactly what she did. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t long, either. She stopped breathing after a few long, labored minutes, and then her body kept twitching and shaking as her brain slowly shut down. I was relieved for her that she didn’t have to go anywhere, that she could be at home, but I was also disturbed that this painful, messy process was happening in our living room. Alex came in once, but we sent her away without seeing Maggie in her death throes. I’m glad we did. I wouldn’t want her last memory of Maggie to be of those harrowing moments.

After it was over, the kids said their goodbyes and I carried Maggie out to the car one last time. Kris and I arranged her on her dog bed in the back of the van and then I drove to the vet’s office, crying and wanting to turn back every inch of the way. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t have just happened. Maybe I’d walked her too far. I shouldn’t have forced her off the bed and outside at precisely the moment the neighbors would pass us and alarm Maggie. Maybe we should have had her put down. It was my fault she had died a difficult death, without sedatives to ease her journey.

As my therapist would say, though, I’m just not that important. And as our vet pointed out shortly before Maggie died, we can’t control life or death. Our sweet girl had a tumor in her heart and that’s what killed her, not the fact that we ran into our neighbors during our morning walk. But just like with Corona, I am left with guilt. I wasn’t home enough in the last couple of years. I spent too much energy on the kids and ignored Maggie, my first baby. I spent too much time building my studio office and not enough time paying attention to her. I failed her.

The first twenty-four hours of grieving were hard, made more so by the fact that I couldn’t seem to fend off the same doubt and self-recrimination that had leveled me after Corona died. But there was one bright spot. When I awoke at four a.m. the morning after Maggie left us, the last minutes of her life—the jumbled images that had made it nearly impossible to fall asleep the night before—immediately started replaying in my head again. I couldn’t stop them no matter what I tried: deep breathing, meditation, worry about work, family, health. Finally I took my iPad out to the living room couch, turned my back to the spot where Maggie had taken her last breaths, and tried to read myself back to sleep.

I dozed fitfully until, at last, I fell deeply asleep. Then, in the room where Maggie had died, I dreamed. Only it felt completely real. I was certain that I really was walking into the kitchen, certain that Kris was in fact standing at the sink. I opened my mouth to say how much I missed Maggie when all at once I realized she was there, too, standing at Kris’s feet like she always did waiting for a piece of food to drop from above.

“Oh my god,” I cried, and ran over to her. “She’s here! Maggie, you’re really here!”

“Where?” Kris looked around, confused.

“Right here,” I said, and reached down to rub her fur. It was just the same as ever, and she was warm and, I realized when she turned toward me with a doggy grin, YOUNG. She looked like she had when she was five or six, more pink and brown than gray and white. After nosing around the kitchen floor like normal, she trotted with me into the living room, and we played a little with toys from her young dog days, resting occasionally on a comforter that the dogs had loved to snuggle on back in Massachusetts. We were together for an indeterminate time, and then I sat down on the couch. She jumped up beside me and climbed onto my lap the way she always used to do, back before she grew deaf and skittish, back before Corona died. She claimed me the way she always had, and I wrapped my arms around her and held her as tightly as I always had. She leaned her head on my left shoulder, just above my heart.

“I love you, Maggie,” I murmured.

Then it was like I was outside myself, watching this last embrace from across the room. And I heard a voice, maybe mine, probably mine, say, “I will always love this dog, and I will always hold this dog in my heart.”

I knew in that moment that Maggie had come back to me in my dreams because she didn’t want our last minutes together to be so fraught. She wanted to snuggle, which was her favorite form of bonding before she got sick, and she wanted me to remember her as she had been—healthy and happy—the majority of our nearly fourteen years together.

Maggie in her prime

Maggie in her prime

And then I woke up.

I was alone in the living room again, summer morning sunlight beginning to filter through the windows, and I could hear the girls and Kris beginning to stir. The previous day came back to me, but when the movie of Maggie’s final minutes inevitably began to play in my mind, it didn’t last long. Soon a stronger track overrode it—the image of Maggie all pink and smiley and snuggly, and the voice intoning the power of our connection. And I, in turn, smiled, thinking of her younger self. Her true self? At least the self I had known and loved the longest.

At the beginning of my novel, Flight, the narrator ruminates on the temporary nature of life: “[T]he human body is made up mostly of water that is replaced on a monthly basis, while many other human cells have a life cycle measured only in days or months. Our bodies are constantly changing, evolving, shedding bits and pieces of who we once were. We couldn’t remain the same person from year to year, decade to decade, even if we wanted to.”

This biological reality means that in a few months, I won’t have any cells left in my body that came into direct physical contact with Maggie’s cells. And her body? Well, her body is gone but still with us. Like Corona, we had her cremated. And like Corona, her ashes currently reside on the bookshelf in the living room.

M&C urns

My parents’ dog, Torrey, died at the end of January, exactly midway between Corona and Maggie. The three dogs met when Torrey was ten months, Maggie nine months, and Corona almost three years old. Over the years, the three dogs became good buddies. In fact, we often said that Torrey was Maggie’s only dog friend because of our otherwise sweet girl’s dog-reactive tendencies.

Dogs July 2002

Torrey was named after a valley in Wyoming where she lived much of her life. A few months after her death, my folks sprinkled her ashes into Torrey Creek, which eventually feeds into Torrey Lake. I was envious that they had the perfect spot to lay her remains to rest when Corona had died months earlier and I still couldn’t imagine where to spread her ashes. When Maggie died, I realized why: Their ashes should be together, just as they were in life.

I’ll end this post with a video I made to remember Maggie as she lived, not as she died. This is the short version; just like with Corona, I made an original that’s close to twenty minutes long, but I’ll spare the readers of this blog.

Maggie Moodle, Magster, Maggie Moo, we miss you. But we know how lucky we were to have you in our lives. You brought us so much joy, and you made us happy for so many years.

Love you baby dog. Goodbye for now my sweet, sweet girl.

Posted in Family, Illness, Soccer | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Purpose of Life is to Enjoy Every Moment–and Other Annoying Platitudes

Last night, as on most winter evenings, I had a hankering for a cup of tea, so I reached into the cupboard and pulled out a bag of Yogi’s Lemon Ginger. I am a tea person, and Yogi tea blends make me happy–in spite of the fact that each tea bag bears an “inspirational” tag. As my cuppa brewed, I steeled myself and read the latest quote:

"The Purpose of Life is to Enjoy Every Moment"

“The purpose of life…” Right. Thanks, tea tag writer.

This is the same company who apparently doesn’t see any irony in printing, “Be happy so long as breath is in you” on a tag for medicinal tea aimed at cold sufferers. People who, incidentally, are probably not having the best experience with the whole breathing thing when they reach for this tea. No one is happy at all times, anyway, nor are we equipped to enjoy every moment of every day. Parroting such unrealistic expectations demonstrates not only a lack of genuine wisdom but also a dearth of empathy for those who are ill or grieving, and looking for the comfort that only a cup of herbal tea can provide.

Which brings me to the point of this post: why, exactly, I’ve been AWOL, off the grid, missing in blogging action recently. For the past eleven months, to be precise. It isn’t that I haven’t thought about blogging. It’s that blog writers are expected to cultivate this slick, witty, amusing tone, and I haven’t had the heart lately. To write well about Deep Thoughts and Life Issues, I have always needed a decent chunk of processing time. So while I have thought about blogging since my last post, something has stopped me. Perhaps I simply haven’t been ready to talk about certain aspects of my–our–life until now.

Quite a lead-in, eh? As you can probably tell, it was a rough 2014 for our family. First off, we lost Corona, our older dog, in July. She’d been declining for quite a while, but the end came suddenly, and even though Kris and I had agreed in advance not to take heroic measures for an old dog who was clearly not long for this world, we still struggled with the decision to have her put down. We finally decided to let her go gracefully rather than put her through abdominal surgery at age 15, and I know in my head that it was the right decision. My heart has taken longer to catch up, which is why I’ve been reluctant to write about losing her.

Guilt is apparently a common reaction to a loved one’s death, at least according to the World Wide Web and my therapist. But no matter how guilty I feel about the end, or about the fact that I asked my dad to walk Corona so that I could get to work earlier on what turned out to be the last morning of her life, it doesn’t bring her back. It also doesn’t change the fact that we had a great run with her, and she with us. When I called to share the news of Corona’s passing with the woman who rescued her from the wilds of Pennsylvania, she said, “You and Kris were Corona’s therapy.” A young stray initially hostile to people (men in particular) and addicted to running away, Corona became during her thirteen and a half years with us the perfect off-leash family dog.

During her first decade with Kris and me, Corona was one of only two babies vying for our attention. Back in Western Massachusetts, I worked from home on a flexible schedule. Most weekday mornings I would take Corona up to Mt. Tom or Mt. Holyoke, and we would run the trails in all kinds of seasons and weather—through the falling leaves, through falling snow, through falling rain, through air that was so humid you could practically feel it falling, too. In our prime, she and I swished through autumn leaves in picturesque New England, ran up moss-bedecked mountains in the Pacific Northwest, hiked snow-covered trails in the Rockies and the Cascades, swam in the Great Lakes and Puget Sound, and chased all sorts of critters across all sorts of landscapes. She visited 25+ states during her life with us, and spent much of her time where she loved it most—outdoors. I recently compiled a slideshow of some of my favorite photos of her, and I had such fun remembering the amazing places we visited together.

Right after she died, though, I couldn’t sleep for a while, and then I couldn’t get interested in going hiking without her. More than a month later, I finally asked Alex if she wanted to go for a walk at a local park I’d only rarely visited without Corona. Alex said yes, so we piled into the car and set off, the back of my Escape conspicuously empty. All I could think about was the night I’d rushed Corona to the emergency vet clinic and, hours later, returned home without her. Driving my car hadn’t felt the same since.

And then serendipity waved her wand: Alex and I found a stray dog on our way to the park. When I couldn’t reach anyone on either of the numbers listed on her collar, I invited her along on our walk, and she hopped into the back of my car, an unexpected participant in our adventure. It was a beautiful summer day, and the young dog reminded me so much of Corona she could have been related. Just like Corona, this sweet-natured dog loved being outdoors and disliked walking on a leash. Alex and I enjoyed her company, and near the end of the walk, her owner got in touch. We dropped her off with her family, who said they were glad she’d gotten out and about on such a lovely day.


Mischa the wonder dog

It was like Corona was with you after all, a friend said when I told her the story. And it was. Of course, she’s with us all the time in small ways—I see her in the woods, trotting ahead of me and Alex on our way to the “fishing hole” in our neighborhood; I picture her in the back of my car, nose out the window as I run down to the market to pick up a gallon of milk; I see her swimming in the lake each time we take the loop trail, coughing whenever she accidentally inhales too much water; and I imagine her sleeping in the living room at night, watching over us. The first two weeks after she died, I couldn’t feel her anywhere. But then I got the call to bring her ashes home, and as soon as I placed the urn on top of the book shelf, I felt better. It was like she was home with us for good. And now, seven months later, it’s finally getting easier to think of her without crying.

Onward and… Well, Onward

Alex's first day of school

First day of school game face

The past year hasn’t all been rough, of course. In September, Alex started preschool, so we posted First Day of School EVER! photos on Facebook, and were excited to do so in an unabashedly sentimental, completely non-ironic way. Sorry, fellow Gen-Xers. That’s just how we roll. She also had her first soccer clinic over the summer, and naturally, she was a star—once I could convince her to relinquish her grip on my shirt/hand/knee. She had her first gymnastics class, too, in which she was really just ADHD every Saturday morning from 10 to 11am for a month, and then another month of Saturday swim lessons. She’s even sleeping most nights in her own bed without complaint! Admittedly we’re still bribing her with treats, and she still comes into our room to snuggle in the mornings, but fortunately, it’s getting light pretty late these days… For Alex, it’s been a year of milestones.

Eleven months constitutes exactly half of the twins’ lives at this point, so as you can imagine, the change in that time has been explosive. Language, motor skills, communication, understanding–they’ve grown exponentially in all of these areas. Although not at the same pace. One of the things I haven’t written about publicly is the developmental challenges we’ve faced with one of the twins. I’m not sure I even want to name which twin, for reasons of privacy. And yet, it’s not like we think needing some extra help (her and us) is something to be ashamed of. She’s our daughter, and she is who she is, and we love her. It’s just that the internet is forever, and she can’t tell me if it’s okay or not to disclose her personal information.

Let me just say, then, that we noticed some issues with one of the twins about two months in. After discussing our options with our awesome pediatrician, we enrolled said twin in a local early childhood development program. We currently have a coach who comes to the house every few weeks to help us identify issues and solutions related to our daughter’s mild developmental delays and her continued difficulties processing certain types of stimuli. It’s been a really encouraging experience. Kris and I feel like we’re being proactive and trying to help our child be the strongest, happiest, healthiest person she can be, and yet her issues are not extreme, so we feel a tad guilty using the resources being offered to us. Still, I don’t think we would have done it differently in hindsight. Watching our girl become more comfortable and engaged in the world, more sure of herself and confident in her ability to learn new things has brought some hope and inspiration to us in the face of other challenges.

The twins

Ellie & Sydney

In addition to Corona’s death, Kris’s health has been a major hurdle to our ability to Enjoy Every Moment. For some reason, her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) decided to amp way the heck up while she was off her meds during her pregnancy with the twins. We thought once she went back on Enbrel that her RA would go back to normal—i.e., moderately destructive rather than all evil and sh#%—but that, alas, has not been the case. Her doctors declared Enbrel a clinical fail a year ago, and then, just for fun, they took her off ALL medication for six weeks last spring to try to get her “healthy” enough to try a new biologic drug. Surprisingly, being without medication other than Aleve and Tylenol while a severe rheumatologic disease ravages your joints turned out to be pretty awful. So much so that we joke now that it’s a good day when Kris can dress herself.

“That’s not funny,” you may be thinking to yourself, or even saying out loud right about now. But pain and fear only get worse if you let them get you down. (Take that, Yogi tea tag writers.) My Minnesota wife has been trying to teach me this lesson by example for years now, but it hasn’t quite taken. I still whine more than I should about not having time to write, and I know I feel sorry for her and for the kids and for myself more than I probably ought to. She, on the other hand, has borne up impressively. I’m good in a sudden emergency. In a crisis that requires quick thinking and decisive action, I’m your woman. But for the long, drawn-out pain of an acute, chronic disease, my money’s on Kris.


Adorable sisters

The kids are a two-sided coin—on the one hand, they provide us with joy and unconditional love, with a reason to get up every day and keep pushing forward. But on the other, it’s exhausting to parent three kids under the age of four even without an illness like Kris’s. Thank God for the kids, we say as they prance around us during Family Dance Party, or when they run giggling between us, hugging and kissing each of us in turn. But then on one of the late nights/early mornings when not one, not two, but all three are wailing away in their separate beds, I do not feel even remotely thankful. Some nights I leap out of bed, ignited with a rage that I’m sure served some adaptive purpose in my Scots ancestors, back when it might have been advantageous to awaken instantly from a deep sleep ready to do battle. Other nights, I mutter things that are best left unwritten. As Kris and I have come to agree, what is said in the middle of the night stays in the middle of the night.

And then I get up in the morning and go to work, every day Monday through Friday, and I try to stay awake and I try to care about web pages and college students and alumni newsletters. But it’s not easy. This time will pass, I know, probably too quickly. I am conscious of my daughters growing rapidly, and I don’t want to feel relief for every milestone they reach because it means they are headed inexorably toward independence. I think that’s one of the hardest things about Kris’s illness—not always being able to enjoy our children’s early years because somehow, I am currently the only truly able-bodied adult in the family.

“Some day you’ll remember these days fondly,” one of my co-workers told me the other day.

Tears pricked my eyes, because I knew he was wrong. I won’t look back on these days fondly at all, and that’s the sad truth.

Doh, there I go again, pausing to think about our situation instead of pushing onward and upward. To be a writer requires self-awareness, the deliberate act of looking inward. And yet, to survive where Kris and I are right now requires constant movement. If I stop, I’m afraid I will fall and I won’t be able to get up. Lucky for us, our families have really stepped up. So has the university where I work. FMLA is a good thing for our family, thanks in no small part to the 2013 Supreme Court decision that found DOMA to be unconstitutional. My bosses also let me go down to an eleven-month appointment, which means I got to take all of August off and a few extra days at Christmas. Unpaid, but that’s okay. Kris applied for Social Security Disability last spring so that we could have help paying for a college student to come to the house when I’m at work, and SSD was granted at the end of last summer. At least her illness isn’t sending us spiraling into debt, which a lot of people both in the US and elsewhere experience. For that, we are grateful. We are so lucky, we tell each other regularly. Could be worse. Because, of course, it could.

So that’s my last ten or eleven months in a nutshell. Moments of joy, a heart overflowing with love, a spirit rising at times but mostly struggling not to fall. We lost Corona, which we always knew would happen, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Kris is strong, but in constant pain, and one of the twins still struggles occasionally with life in a chaotic world. Things are difficult–and yet not all the time. The cliché says that the hard times make the good times seem even better. I’m not sure I always agree, but I have hope. After many years of therapy, I know that distraction is an antidote to pain and fear (ahem, tea taggers). And so I will keep writing fiction and spending time with my family and working. I will continue to go for walks in the rain with Maggie, our remaining elderly canine companion. I will try to slow down and appreciate my children, though probably not in the middle of the difficult nights. And I will hold out hope that stem cell research will be allowed to flourish in our nation sooner rather than later.

But that’s a subject for another blog post. In the meantime, I leave you with this slideshow of some of our silver-lining moments of 2014. Happy 2015…

Posted in Family, Illness, Parenting | Tagged , | 6 Comments