Well, who’d-a-thought?

Last weekend found us hosting yet another family holiday at our house. A couple of years ago, I swore I would never do it again. I did do it again, but not without a lot of stress beforehand and resentment afterwards. And last weekend, we were doing it yet again. I decided not to get crazy about certain things this time around.

Our family gatherings are supposed to be a group effort. The host family always tends to incur the largest share of the expense, cooking the main course, and purchasing beverages and incidentals like condiments and such. Other family members are supposed to contribute side dishes or desserts. Since my parents have stopped being able to do it, my sister and I take turns hosting the family gatherings.

I’ve attempted to orchestrate a nice meal in years past, and this was often met with a lack of commitment from some other family members as to their food contributions, if any. Seems some people don’t take well to suggestions as to what they might contribute. There was that Christmas when one family member showed up with spouse, a bunch of kids, and a 12 pack of Pepsi. (I’m not still bitter! Really.)

This time, I chose to let go. I decided to cook what I was cooking, and if everyone else showed up with pickles, cheese and crackers, then so be it. At least we would all be together. Who knows how much longer we’ll have the luxury of all of us together. I also decided to use flattery when trying to determine who was bringing what. I told one brother that I remembered he made a mean pecan pie. And would he consider baking something for our Easter brunch? I asked the other brother if he was bringing his famous quiches again and he said he might, but if not, something equally tasty.

I’ve come to realize that all those times I allowed myself to stress out over whether others were cooperating with my plans for the family gathering, I was only punishing myself. No one else was tying themselves in knots over whether or not the meal would be well coordinated, or if everyone was contributing equally. Just me.

I decided not to get crazy this time over things like the carpet needing a good cleaning. (There are a few family members who don’t bother to remove their shoes anyway. And food was bound to get spilled.) I refused to worry about whether Mark had really dusted the family room to my satisfaction. Brad and Kacey were home for the holiday weekend and the whole family pitched in with cleaning, shopping and setting up our little house to somehow seat and serve twenty-one people.

I was so relaxed that I happily left the house to go bowling in our league on Saturday night. And I bowled the biggest game of my life!

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Yeah, that was fun!

I woke up early on Easter morning to take care of the finishing touches. When family started showing up, I was blown away. The 12-pack of Pepsi brother brought two big pans of sweet rolls, two coffee cakes, two homemade pecan pies, and a homemade turtle cheesecake. And the quiche brother brought, instead of quiche, two huge, homemade breakfast pizzas. All this accompanied our traditional Easter egg bake, ham, polish sausage, specialty breads, hard-boiled eggs and fresh fruit. We were not lacking for things to eat!

I’d also let myself off the hook with dishes. I’ve spent too much time on previous holidays, in the kitchen with my sister, washing the good china and silver while everyone else gets to kick back and visit with my parents. I bought party plates this year. Instead of washing china, we just threw ’em away. And no one cared.

Dad led a nice Easter prayer before we ate, and I was rather enjoying it, until I heard him add, “… and Lord, may we each reach out to another family member today. Someone maybe we don’t feel so close to or happy with…” I know my Dad had a good point, but … My siblings and I looked around at each other. We think we were getting scolded via the Easter prayer. It wasn’t necessary. We all played nice and Easter brunch was a great success.

I think the biggest reward, for me, came from the 12-pack of Pepsi brother, the one with whom I’ve experienced some incredible lows the past few years. It was early evening, and I was just settling down after being on the move all day long. I was exhausted and had curled up in my favorite living room chair and was channel surfing when I heard my phone buzz. It was a text message from the brother to both my sister and me.

2015-04-05bI was speechless. I think that’s all I ever wanted. To be thanked. If my brothers never host a family holiday, I don’t care. I would just like to feel a little bit appreciated when I do. And with this message, I did.

The Last Spring Break

It’s the last day of what is likely to be the last spring break we acknowledge in our family.

Kacey got a part-time job after Christmas, working for a retailer in the mall near her college. It’s limited her ability to come home any weekend she likes, but it’s been good for her to earn a little spending money. She’s doing very well there and has been praised by her supervisors for her ability to learn quickly and her good work ethic. One might assume that means she’d be scheduled to work as often as her class schedule allows. So I was grateful when she told me she had a stretch of free days during spring break and that she’d be coming home for a few days. As it turned out, she was able to stay for the better part of the week.

It’s always a treat to come home from work to find my daughter waiting here for me, with stories to tell and a willingness to help pull something together that resembles dinner. It’s wonderful to have her at the table with us at meal time! She’s a natural optimist and always brings laughter and fun to the household. I took a day off at her request, so we could have lunch together on Wednesday and she could help me spend some of my money at the new mall which she hadn’t yet had a chance to visit. We had a gorgeous, unseasonably warm day for walking around the outdoor outlet mall. And she came home with some new fashions and footwear to add to her wardrobe.

There is a pile of home improvement tasks to tackle that Mark and I have lately committed to addressing. And Kacey even helped get us started on one of them. The upstairs bedrooms need new carpet and one of them needs to be repainted. We’ll soon be giving some of the “kid” furniture to a niece and her husband who are buying their first home. Then we can begin the chores of ripping out carpet and replacing it, and then the dreaded painting!

Of course, Kacey was highly motivated to help us get the ball rolling on the great bedroom clean-out. She moved her belongings from the smallest bedroom she’s occupied for nearly twenty years to the bigger bedroom which has been serving as the spare bedroom since Brad moved out of the house. We emptied closets, moved beds back and forth, and got rid of stuff! You can’t imagine the amount of stuff that was packed into that littlest bedroom of Kacey’s! We filled up several bags which were later delivered to the Goodwill and there was plenty more which took up a good amount of space in the trash barrel.

I was a little sad to see some things go. There were toys that just a few years ago I had tucked up onto a high shelf in Kacey’s closet. Keepsakes, I’d thought. But with a few more years between, I’ve come to the realization that there’s only so much space in a little house to hold onto the belongings of five family members. Some items will serve a better purpose in the hands of others who can enjoy them rather than gathering dust here.

There were a few photos too, a sweatshirt, and a stuffed toy dog that went into the trash pile. Gifts from her ex, Connor. Kace seemed way less melancholy about letting them go than I felt. But I only had to see how easily she was looking ahead in her life to know that there was no point in dwelling on the past.

And ultimately, it was my daughter who helped me feel good about the major purge that was happening. She was enthusiastically making the bigger room her new “home.” Her college career will come to fruition by the end of this year. And she is planning to come back home, at least for a while, after she graduates. Yesterday as we were driving back from the Goodwill, she talked about a good friend of hers, who has likely job prospects after graduation in the city where she attends school. “But she wants to find something closer to home,” Kacey was saying. “She just wants to be able to come home for dinner whenever she feels like it, and spend time with her mom. You know? She doesn’t want to be hours away and limited to a weekend here and there when she can come visit. She and her mom are close. Not like you and I are, but in their own way.”

That made my heart swell, that my daughter acknowledged feeling the same closeness that I feel with her. She went on to tell me that she’s of the same mind as her friend. She can’t imagine living and working far from this home, our family home. I love that she cherishes the bonds of family and wants to stay close and connected. I see great things ahead for her, and I’m thrilled that whatever waits for her, she wants to experience it in close proximity to her loved ones.

So later today we’ll say goodbye when she hops in her car and drives back to school. I’ll feel a little sad, as always to have to part ways. But only temporarily.

Life with (Imperfect) Human Beings

My boss has a favorite saying. If you’re going to stir the shit pot, you’d better be prepared to lick the spoon.

Having an almost 24 year-old still living at home presents occasional opportunities for the shit pot to be stirred. For the most part, I’m happy to have him still here. Considering the person he is, and his current circumstances, it’s the best thing for him to live at home right now. As far as I’m concerned, he can stay as long as he needs. But it’s not always a bed of roses for him, or for us.

Well-meaning people have their opinions. My oldest son, for example, has been known to say, “Mom, he needs to go live on his own for a while so he can gain some concept of what it’s like to be solely responsible for himself.” (Actually, he says it more like, “Mom, you just need to kick him out.”)

A coworker without kids of her own is always preaching tough love to those of us who make the mistake of admitting to challenges with our kids – adult or not. She’s always spouting off about tough love and how she would so easily do this or that. Teach that kid a lesson. And if he didn’t agree with her position, he could just go away. And stay away until he’s ready to come on board. Easier said than done. A parent’s heart carries a lot of guilt about letting a child suffer, or sitting idly by, when it would be so easy to make everything better. And honestly, when I think about his shortcomings, I frequently wonder how we failed him in those areas.

He still has some growing up to do, although, for the most part, I think he’s pretty typical of a lot of people his age. He’s a little bit impetuous at times with his money. Living under a roof that’s not his, and being constantly reminded that it’s not his, he has little motivation to contribute without being asked. And he has that youthful ability to just tuck certain worries away for another day. Not to completely bash on the kid … he can have a great sense of humor at times. He’s got a good work ethic (at work.) And he comes home every night at a reasonable hour.

Obviously, three adults living under the same roof is not always a bed of roses. Particularly when one of them is at the early end of the spectrum of life, while the rest of us are on the far side with all of  our scars and experience and knowledge of how it should all work.

Admission. Conflict ties me up in knots. I’m not entirely sure from where comes this fear of letting it all out, saying exactly what’s on my mind, to raise my voice, and of letting anger and frustration rise to the surface. There is something in me that believes that’s not okay, that once it comes out, some damage occurs that can’t be undone. I’m guilty of swinging too far to the side of not saying anything at all and just hoping the heat will pass. There’s probably something too about being too much of a fixer, even though I know sometimes the best thing is not to rescue someone from their own devices.

I’m reluctant to express serious anger. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it, or that it’s not obvious to others when they stir the shit pot. I just get quiet. And Lord help those who have done the stirring. I know that losing their cool is their way of releasing those pent-up emotions. Unfortunately for them, the aftermath is that they’ve frustrated their wife and mother, the queen grudge-holder, who envisions a household in which differing opinions and life-lessons are discussed rationally, with calm and compassion. And would it be too much to ask for some hugs and I’m-sorries now and then?

I know. Pretty unrealistic. I live with cave men. And most of the time, I’m pretty proud of who they are with all their manly talents. And hugging and feelings don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with the caveman lifestyle. I know this. Also, they take care of the icky and dirty stuff around here so that I don’t have to. And I can forgive them for the fact that they’re oblivious to the idea that bathrooms need cleaning on a regular basis, or that having food to eat requires advance planning. I’ll gripe about it, but deep-down, I know that domesticity is my arena.

The thing is, Mark’s hair can be on fire and his head can fly off his neck and the next hour, he’ll be like, “Hey, whadda ya wanna do this weekend?”

And I’ll be all, “Are you kidding me? I don’t want to do anything that involves you! You just yelled at everybody and your head’s still rolling around over there in the corner of the living room. You have to suffer for that for a while.”

Yeah, when I see it in writing like that, I realize just how crazy it is. Yet I keep doing it. Today I have some repairs to make – with my son who needs a little honesty mixed with my brand of patience, and with my husband, who doesn’t deserve to be emotionally exiled for making our son hear some things he needs to hear.  We need to work (again) on communicating realistically with each other. I see it as my job to keep working on this. No one else gets tied up in knots over this kind of stuff. They just see it as how we are and they’re okay with that. It’s not the end of the world, in their worlds.

As Mark was leaving for work today, and I was still laying in bed with my eyes closed, I heard him ask, “Are you still mad?”

Without opening my eyes, I said, “No,” while in my head I was saying “Yes.” All I can say is thank God my husband doesn’t take too seriously my need to punish everyone for their unpleasant emotions. I’m also grateful for the changing season, with the warmth it brings and the opportunity to get outside for a walk with Lucy before the sun was fully up. I blew off some steam and am ready to put the shit pot away again for a while.

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Hormotional

There’s a rhythm to life in this house these days, one to which I’ve become fairly accustomed since two of our three chicks have left the nest. Granted, one of those two is likely to return for at least a while after she graduates, but most days, there is only one chick still in the nest and it’s not exactly what he’d choose for himself if he had better options.

Being a young man of almost twenty-four years, Jake is understandably not always happy to still be here. His older and younger siblings are on different paths than his, ones that lead to more frequent independence and adventure. I’m sure it’s often hard being the one who marches to a different drum. But living at home is his best option right now, and I do my best to encourage and support him whenever possible. He holds down a respectable job. He doesn’t drink other than socially and comes home every night. And he always gives us the courtesy of telling us where he’s going. He’s also a slob if left unchecked, and would never do a household chore without first being told. He eats all of the junk food and little of the good food I stock in our cupboards. He worries me when I see just how much Mountain Dew he consumes every day. I do my best to be patient with him. After all, as I mentioned, he is a young man of almost twenty-four years and that patience sometimes requires an extra effort. He’s not exactly all about a tidy house, making his bed, or keeping up on his laundry. I try to give him some leeway while reminding him that living under our roof requires certain contributions on his part.

I can also attest to the fact that being the wife and the mom, and the only female in the house (not counting Lucy,) is sometimes a challenge. I often feel that I’m the only one responsible for thinking ahead, thinking about someone besides myself, planning for anything, or making sure we have the simple comforts in life, such as food, laundry soap, and a supply of toilet paper for the bathrooms. Most of the time, I don’t mind being this person. It’s how I operate. But sometimes I think it would be nice if the other two could occasionally shed their caveman personas and pitch in.

I’m also highly aware that I’m the one most likely to have emotions. I have a lot of emotions, and from my point of view, most situations have many shades of gray.

I don’t want to say that Mark doesn’t have emotions, but I think his supply of them is much smaller and much more clearly defined than mine. And for him, situations are usually very black and white.

We’re not sure if Jake has emotions or opinions on situations. He spends a lot of time not being here and not spending time with us. Therefore, there is not a lot of conversation with him. Again, this is understandable to me. At this point in his life, I’d worry if here was overly willing to hang out with us old fogies. When he’s less than pleasant, I try to understand what’s behind his behavior. For example, there’s this thing Jake and I do every morning while getting ready for our workdays.

First, I should explain that Jake is not a morning person. Jake ranks somewhere in the 1,089th percentile of non-morning persons. He gets up sometime after I do and we go about our business. I might say good morning and he might grunt at me … if I’m lucky. And every morning as he walks out the door, I say, “Have a good day! Love you!”

And if I’m really lucky, Jake might say, “Yeah.” Otherwise, he probably grunts at me. He’s always much more pleasant in the evenings, but I can expect next to nothing from him in the mornings. Still, it bothers me that I wish him a good day, every day and he can barely acknowledge. I know it’s a bit much to expect him to tell me he loves me every day, but a polite reply would be nice. Recently, I decided that whether or not he ever responds courteously to me, I’m still going to wish him a good day and tell him I love him. I’m going to tell him this every day that I have the chance.

And then yesterday? I was crabby. I blamed this on Mark, but in hindsight, I’m willing to admit I was partly to blame. Our gray versus black/white differences on this day were the recipe for our discord. And the whole thing was one of those stupid things, fueled by fatigue and possibly some hormones on my part. Jake grunted at me when I said goodbye, and it just made me feel worse. I worked hard all day on things that drained me and when I came home, Mark was playing the crabby card. Inside my head, I said, “Oh, this is what we’re going to do? Fine then.” And I proceeded to discontinue speaking to Mark.

An hour or so later, Mark wanted to discuss the cloud hovering over us and work through it so that we could play nice again. Except the way he communicated that to me was to ask, “What is your problem?”

I opened my mouth to explain what I was feeling, but what I was feeling in light of his tone and choice of words – was defensive. Before I could begin, I stopped and said instead, “You know what? When you open the conversation with those words, I don’t want to talk to you.” And so I walked away and we proceeded to continue not talking.

In the midst of this, Jake came down the hallway from his bedroom and went down the steps to our entryway, probably oblivious to the tension in the house. He slipped on his boots and called upstairs to anyone listening, “I’m going to Bobby’s.”

Mark didn’t respond, because that’s just Mark sometimes. And since I was crabby, I didn’t respond either. That is just not usually me, but I was at the end of my rope and fed up with everyone and everything.

Poor Jake was confused, so he stood with his hand on the door and said, “Mom? I’m going to Bobby’s?”

“K,” I grunted. And then added under my breath, “I guess I’m expected to respond when you talk to me.”

“What?” Jake asked.

I was already ashamed of my behavior and said, “Nothing.” I’m sure he caught on to the fact that Mom was in a mood and couldn’t make tracks soon enough. Off he went, not to return until long after I was asleep.

This morning I felt like a turd. I was swimming in guilt over my childish behavior. Mark and I had both cooled down and he left for work with a silent hug between us. But as I continued getting ready for work, I kept thinking I needed to apologize to Jake. You’d have to really know Jake to believe this, but the reality is, he probably thought way less of the whole thing than I did. And even though he usually just seems to take me for granted, and I go along with it, I had just the slightest inkling last night that he knew exactly how he and I usually worked, but that I had messed with the system and thrown him off. I couldn’t let him out the door today without setting things right again. I was on alert so I’d be sure to hear Jake when put his boots on in the entryway. Soon enough I heard him trudging down the steps with his usual air of morning drudgery.

I was in the lower level and so I moved to the stairway as he was bending over, slipping on his work boots.

“Hey,” I called up.

His eyes met mine, with no expectation in them and I said, “I’m sorry for being crabby and rude to you last night.”

“Huh?” he asked. (See? Told ya.)

“When you told me you were going to Bobby’s and I didn’t answer you,” I reminded him. “That was rude of me and it had nothing to do with you. I’m sorry.”

“S’Okay,” he mumbled.

“Okay,” I said. “Have a good day. I love you.”

I didn’t wait for the non-response, but just turned and began walking the few steps back to my bathroom. And that’s when I heard him reply, “Love you too.”

Made. My. Day.

Old Pictures, New Pictures, Glimpses of Our Lives

In our foyer, above the front door, there’s a decorative collage frame full of photos. Surrounding the photo frames are words like live, laugh, love and family. And until just now, it held a couple of photos that were long overdue for replacing, considering events of last year and people who have stepped out of our lives. While those people might always have a little spot in my heart, they no longer hold a place our family’s photo frame about love and family.

Luckily, this particular piece of decor is so familiar to those of us who live here that we rarely notice it or give the photos much thought any longer. Occasionally, I’ll glance above the door and really see those pictures. I wonder if the fact that they haven’t been replaced means that deep down, I’m having trouble letting go. A little wave of sadness sweeps over me sometimes when I look at them and I ask myself what I’m waiting for. And every once in a while, someone will ask if I’m planning to swap out two particular pictures anytime soon. I guess it’s just one of those things that I keep meaning to do, but never quite get around to. Changing them requires just enough effort that the task keeps falling to the wayside.

Brad came home for a visit this weekend. On Friday night, he casually mentioned that he’d taken a girl out for drinks recently… and that he planned to ask her out again. While my heart did cartwheels of happiness  at the realization that he’s picked himself up and is most surely moving on from a broken relationship, I tried to act casual and not ask too many questions. But the conversation reminded me once again that there were pictures that didn’t belong on our walls.

Technology is a beautiful thing sometimes. While Mark and Brad were off running a couple of errands yesterday, I opened my laptop and browsed through picture folders, picking out the ones I wanted to frame. I uploaded them to the Target photo website and received confirmation before my boys were even back home again that my prints were ready for pick-up at my local store around the corner.

I had taken the opportunity to find and print recent pictures, ones that will remind my kids of happier moments than the photos that were being replaced. There were some of Brad from recent fishing trips, looking like a champ holding trophy-worthy catches.

And there was a great picture of Kacey with her cousin and my mom. I don’t have enough recent pictures of my mom looking as happy as she does in the picture from this past Christmas. And the smile on my daughter’s face tells me that she is just fine, right here at this place in her life today. A particular door closed for her last year too, but her face shows the certainty that her life’s road holds good things ahead.

002And as long as I was printing pictures to display around the house, I took the chance to print a few oldies too. After my father-in-law’s funeral in December, one of Mark’s siblings scanned all of the photos that had been collected and displayed at his wake. A CD of the scans was burned for each sibling to keep. What an amazing gift! I’d never seen most of these pictures because, as I’d long ago learned, most of my in-laws’ old family photos were on slides. There were never any on display around their home. I’d never seen the slides, so the photos that surfaced when Bob passed provided a window to a past to which I’d never before been privy. The story of Bob’s life came alive through the pictures displayed in memory of him. And I was fascinated to learn another side of this man, one that I’d never known before.

Mark’s parents’ wedding photo, showing a young, beautiful, hopeful couple is now displayed alongside those of my own parents and grandparents in our living room. And there are some military photos of my father-in-law from when he served in France during the Korean War. One was a formal portrait of Bob in full uniform. Another was more casual, but so handsome. Bob didn’t trust the internet, but I think he would forgive me for displaying just one old photo of him here. Everyone who saw this picture at the wake agreed he looked rather “Hollywood” in it. I can’t resist sharing.

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And then there was that one snapshot of Brad and his grandpa, taken when Brad was just a baby. I’m not sure who took the picture or contributed it to the collection for the wake. I don’t recall it being in any of my photo albums. It’s one of those poorly framed shots with a messy background, the kind that until just recently, I may have dismissed and tossed in a storage box, deeming it unworthy of framing. But when Brad saw it, he decided he had to have a copy of it. My father-in-law wasn’t much for posing and smiling in photos. Many of the pictures we found were taken spontaneously, where someone was lucky to catch a glimpse of Bob laughing or smiling. This particular picture caught him in a rare moment of playfulness with my son, with Mark driving the riding mower, and Bob riding with Brad in the trailer behind it. It’s one of those moments we probably thought little of at the time, but now seems so precious. I printed it for Brad and picked up a frame so he could display it in his own home.

scan0081 with BradI’m relieved and happy to have finally refreshed the photos in the house. The sad memories will be tucked away.  They’ve been replaced with happier visions of the past and present, showing where we come from, and what’s really important. And the common thread, we’ll be reminded, is love.

Life in 2014

Tonight, the year 2014 comes to a close. And like so many others, today finds me looking back, contemplating the events of the past twelve months. I wouldn’t choose to do it all over again, that’s for certain. But I’m grateful for the lessons I learned and the opportunities I’ve had to grow.

On Christmas night, after spending the day with Mark’s family at his brother’s house, half of my family drove home in one vehicle, (Mark had arrived late after working his shift,) while I rode in another with Brad. We were talking about the day, how it had gone on in spite of the recent passing of his grandfather, my father-in-law, Bob. We agreed that Christmas didn’t feel quite right and things were definitely quieter than usual among my husband’s very large family. There had been some tears, but also some great memories shared.

Brad commented that it had been a tough year. I agreed. Neither one of us needed to say any more. I know we were both thinking not only about death, but of relationships that had come to an end. Several loved ones had gone from our lives this past year, some by choice, one because his time here had come to an end. I told Brad that as difficult as some of our experiences had been, I knew they’d made each of us stronger in our own way. I said that he might not believe it today, but somewhere down the road, he will look at his life and think how great it is. And he’ll look back on his darker days and realize that were it not for them, he couldn’t fully appreciate the good in his life.

This week, we laid my father-in-law to rest. His wake on Sunday night was well-attended. We barely sat, stopped talking or hugging visitors for the entire four-hour visitation. The number of people coming to pay their respects was a testament to what a well-loved guy he was. The funeral on Monday was beautiful, with each of Bob’s sixteen grandchildren taking part in the mass as pallbearers, readers, musicians, altar servers and gift bearers. As the mass came to a close, the priest commented as to how impressive it was to see a family so involved in the funeral celebration. Not everyone is so fortunate to be so celebrated.

After mass, there was a funeral luncheon and then we drove in the funeral procession to the cemetery. Everyone later commented on the sign that we figured Bob had sent to us – a bald eagle swooped down from the sky and flew over the line of cars. Bob was a lover of the outdoors and nature. The eagle was surely his way of getting our attention and making us see the miracles in the experiences of the past few weeks as we watched his slow departure from this world. It was a sunny day, but the air was frigid. Upon our arrival at the cemetery, we huddled together at the gravesite, first watching the military funeral honors, and then hearing the final prayers as Bob was laid to rest. There was no shortage of tears.

Later, we all gathered at my father and mother-in-law’s home. We opened sympathy cards, collected money and wrote bank deposits for all the money given in memoriam. We divided responsibilities for the writing of thank you cards, and then together, we ate leftovers from the funeral luncheon. Ties were loosened and shoes were kicked off. A card game went on at the kitchen table while the great-grandchildren pulled toys out of the closet in the den. Three-year old Mitch pulled me by the hand to come race Matchbox cars with him. I willingly agreed. He stopped just before releasing his car at the top of the curving, roller coaster-like track that one of the older kids had pieced together. Mitch clutched his car against his chest for a moment and turned to me saying, “I love you Auntie Terri!”

My heart swelled as I realized just how lucky I am, to be where I am in this world, to be part of a family I don’t often enough stop to appreciate. “I love you too, Buddy,” I said. “You’re my best friend,” he added. (I’ve got to hang around little ones more often! They’re so good for the ego!)

Later, as I sat in the crowded family room amongst so much of the family, I looked upon the Christmas tree that had gone uncelebrated this year. I looked around at all of us, milling around the house, talking, laughing, playing, arguing … and it felt for a moment like so many Christmases that had gone by. Except I quickly remembered it wasn’t Christmas we were celebrating, and one very important person was now missing. I thought back just a few short years ago, when we all gathered, every year in this house to celebrate Christmas Day. I remembered how often I had wished for less chaos, more quiet, and maybe the chance to just stay home instead of rushing, dressing up and playing nice, making food for a feast and feeling exhausted by day’s end. And I realized I had sometimes wished away the very thing I was now missing so much.

There was much hugging that evening. There were still some heated words – due in part to exhaustion and grief, I’m sure and if I’m honest, because that is just sometimes the personality of this family. Even death won’t put a stop to it. But I have a feeling that strong emotions and personalities won’t freak me out so much anymore. I had a heart-to-heart with my younger brother-in-law, whom I’d been feeling at odds with for a while. And it resulted in understanding and forgiveness (and more hugging.) And before my little family went home for the day, I hugged every one of my in-laws. As I said goodbye, I told each one of them that I loved them. Yep, even the sister-in-law I’m not always so sure even likes me. And there were tears in her eyes as she hugged me right back. And believe me, that is not something I would ever have done before. It would have felt beyond weird. But that day, the words just came out of my mouth without a care and the hugs just happened before I could really think about them. Because if I learned one thing from my father-in-law’s passing from this world, it’s that people aren’t perfect and never will be. We’re going to hurt each other time and again, and we’ll find time too, to be happy with each other. And the time to let people know that they are important to me is now, while we’re still here.

The events of this year have opened my eyes to the fact that life and people aren’t perfect. They never will be. It’s how we were designed. And that’s okay. I haven’t taken many photos at family gatherings in recent years. I realized this while sorting through my collection, looking for pictures of my father-in-law for his wake and finding few from recent years. At some point, I decided that too many of my photos just look chaotic, out of focus, destined never to be displayed in a photo frame for anyone to see. Or maybe I’ve been out of sync with some family member and refused to take photos out of spite, not wanting to remember those hurt feelings. This year made me realize that the chaos and feelings both good and bad, are what it’s all about. Everything seems to soften with time anyway, and like I told Brad, the dark moments tend to make the good ones that much sweeter. Those posed, perfect photos aren’t what’s real anyway. Between Kacey and me, we managed to snap a few photos this Christmas. They’re far from perfect, but somehow, they’re perfect.

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I’m grateful for all that has transpired in 2014, and I’m looking forward to whatever 2015 holds for me.

Not a Bad Year

Mark and I squeezed in a bit of Christmas shopping last night ahead of our nightly visit to his dad in hospice. As we drove, I was feeling a bit reluctant. We had been to see Bob the night before and his breathing sounded so labored. He’d startled from his sleep a couple of times, waking with a fearful look on his face and grasping at the air before settling back against his pillows again. A nurse had come in the room to observe and listen, and her concern was evident. I was downright scared, having a hard time staying put in the room, afraid I was going to watch my father-in-law die in front of me and not knowing if I was strong enough to deal with it. When I mentioned this to Mark last night, saying I wasn’t sure I could go back, he insisted his dad was only snoring. But I know that to some degree, Mark (understandably) only sees and believes what he wants to where his dad is concerned these days.

Mark looked over from the driver’s seat as we headed to the hospice facility. He asked if I was going to be okay, and I said yes. I said I’d just walk out to the hospice’s great room if I didn’t think I could handle watching and hearing Bob struggle for breath again.

We were almost there, driving under the lights lining the dark highway, the bright lights of oncoming cars shining in our eyes. We were quiet for a moment and a series of thoughts flashed through my mind. We’ve both been doing some heavy thinking lately.

“It’s been a bad year,” I said to Mark, thinking not only of his dying father, but about my parents and their struggles with age and health. I was also thinking about our kids. Both Brad and Kacey experienced broken hearts this year, as each saw the end of a long-term relationship.

I’m grateful that Kacey appears to be moving on so remarkably well, but worries about Brad have been heavy on my mind, even though almost six months have passed since he broke the news to us. He didn’t suffer a mere break-up. His engagement ended. They’d been living together for several years and shared a dog. And when she moved out of the apartment, she left a lot behind. Their joint lease didn’t end until the end of last month, but she had yet to come claim her belongings and still had a key to the apartment. She would be graduating from her program this month and most likely moving to wherever it is she finds a job.

Brad expected her to come clean out her belongings by the end of the year. When I asked what he wanted for Christmas, he told me, “Tupperware. Pots and pans. Kitchen utensils.” He joked that we might buy him furniture. He was certain that he would soon be left without the necessities of daily living, because so much of what fills the apartment was hers. My biggest fear was that she would take the dog. Although Brad had made it clear he didn’t intend to give up the dog, she was just as insistent she would not either. Custody of Dacotah has been a big question all these months. Dacotah has been Brad’s constant companion and comfort as he’s begun to rebuild his life. I’ve worried endlessly that he would suffer even more heartbreak if he lost her too.

Mark and I have each tried to talk to Brad a few times in an attempt to help him protect himself as best as possible, not only with Dacotah, but in the division of their “stuff.” But he didn’t want to talk about it with us. His time with his family, he said, was a time to forget about all the hurt and pain. He’s an adult, and we knew it wasn’t really our business if he didn’t want to talk with us. Still, I wanted to protect my “boy” and make sure he could keep his dog. I could help him regain new belongings, but I knew I could never replace Dacotah if he lost her.

This week finally saw the day we’d all been so worried about, and all I can say is I am grateful to his ex. Brad called Mark yesterday and told him it was done. She took only her bare necessities and left the rest for Brad. She left her key on the counter and sent him a message saying everything else was his. Most importantly, she left Dacotah. I know she loved that dog every bit as much as Brad does, so I know it wasn’t easy in the least for her to walk away one last time. As much hurt as has come from this break-up, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to her for that last act of generosity.

All of those thoughts went through my head in the span of a few seconds as Mark and I made the short trip to see Bob. And I corrected myself out loud to Mark. “It hasn’t been a bad year. It’s just been a challenging year.”

“It’s been a good year,” he agreed. “With a lot of challenges.” He was right. If I count all of the blessings of the year, they would far outnumber the bad things.

A lot has been proven to us this year, to me especially. I’ve experienced a transformation of self within the last six months that brought with it an explosion of faith, hope and belief like I’ve never known before. This came almost out of nowhere, and I’m not entirely sure why it happened when it did and to the extreme degree that it did.

Actually, I do know why. I’ve been looking for it for years and my eyes and heart are finally open. It doesn’t matter why or how. All of those years of struggling to find what it is I really believe – even whether I believe – are behind me. And now I know. I had to get past the idea that I had to believe and practice faith only in the way and in the places I’d been brought up to believe were the only options. And once I’d cleared that tremendous hurdle, it was all so clear.

Almost overnight, my sense of skepticism disappeared. The lack of self-confidence that I’ve carried around all of my life to some degree has almost melted away. The tightness of constant worry I’ve always felt in my chest? Gone. (Most days!) We’ve had some pretty tough experiences this year, but I feel like we’ve climbed to the top of a mountain. I no longer hope that my family is strong enough to handle adversity. I know it. My sense of doubt is quickly disintegrating. My ability to believe in other people comes so much more easily. Amazing how different people look when you believe in them instead of doubting them. I’m astounded too at how easy it now is to know that if I want something in my life, I only need to believe it’s possible. And I’m impressed every day, how often like-minded people cross my path.

Before we walked into Bob’s room last night, I said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t be afraid. And when we walked in, his breathing still sounded very labored. But he was sleeping, and somehow seemed more calm than the night before. We didn’t stay too long before we left to take Mark’s mom home and head back home ourselves. It’s always hard walking out of Bob’s room. I never know if he’ll be there for us to visit another day. He’s going to leave us soon, but I know he’s going to a better place. I know it! Bob told Mark the other day that he’d visited with his best friend Howie. Howie passed on a couple of years ago and I now know he’s let Bob know that he’ll be there to greet Bob and walk with him when Bob is ready to let go of this world. This whole experience is helping me to know that people in our lives will come and go, and we’ll be just fine.

Meanwhile, I am ever so much more grateful for the simple good things in life.