Wednesday, June 21, 2023

You're My Lobster

As you may know, Margaret graduated from college last month. 

We are incredibly proud of her! She persevered despite the pandemic and other challenges, and we are excited for whatever her next chapter holds for her.

A few years ago, she mentioned that her school has a tradition of the graduates carrying mylar balloons during the procession, and that she'd like me to get her a lobster balloon. I haven't been a fan of balloons since learning the harm they do to the environment, but when she told me the balloons are collected and given to kids in the hospital, I felt better about it.

So, for years I've had a reminder on my phone to fulfill her request for a lobster balloon in honor of her brother Jack. They had some inside jokes about lobsters from their early days observing the lobster tank in the grocery store, and wishing that could save them. "You're my PAL!" Jack would say to the lobsters, in a funny voice. And even though Jack and Margaret never had the chance to watch the tv show Friends together, I loved the association that lobsters stick together for life, as in, "You're my lobster." We've always considered Jack to be Margaret's lobster. 

At least 6 months before graduation, I started looking for lobster balloons. 

Her high school and college years were a jumble to me, as I felt torn between being a baby's mom and a teenager's mom, and not always doing well at either. We didn't go on many college visits when she was a junior, and the first two years of college we were so concerned about Covid, I don't feel like we were much of a haven to come home to. I couldn't run down to see her on campus at the spur of the moment if she got lonely or sick,  I did what I could, but everything took so much COORDINATION.

But I could buy a balloon. 

So I scoured ETSY and found two contenders. One was so big I wasn't sure it would float, so naturally I bought a back-up lobster. I purchased a helium tank, not wanting to leave anything to chance. I left sticky notes around the house. LOBSTER? LOBSTER?

By the time we got down to her school the day before graduation, our nerves were fraught. Tim had expectations about the time Margaret would spend with us, and he was annoyed that this didn't match up with her plans. I was fried from arranging dog care for Charlie, packing, getting Andrew out of first grade early, and trying to run interference between Tim and Margaret. I kept checking to make sure I had the balloons. 

Mainly, I believe we felt the unspoken emotional weight of not having gone through any of this with her big brother Jack two years before. As with many families even long after the rawness of grief has subsided, celebrations can include joy and yearning. Both/And.

In her apartment, we inflated the first balloon. 

It was big!

It was gorgeous!

It didn't float.

Our helium tank said it would have enough to inflate two large balloons, so we started to fill our back-up lobster. After it was plump, and full, and floaty, we gave it one extra squirt of helium.


It felt like a tightly wound ball of grief in my chest exploded. Hot tears sprang to my eyes as I failed to provide the one thing I had promised Margaret on this day. The one thing I could do, amidst so many things I couldn't. But I didn't just want to give her a lobster balloon. I wanted Jack there for his little sister, as so many brothers were that day. Grown-up sisters and brothers together, who had paved the way and supported each other during adolescence and college, whose photos were already popping up on my phone in celebration. 

In that moment I felt sick and weary of trying to keep forging ahead in whatever life handed us. Again and again and again. Jack was her lobster, and of course the damn lobster popped. I sat quietly on the balcony as Andrew rubbed my arm to comfort me. He may not have understood all the subtext, but young kids certainly relate to the sadness that comes with the sudden pop of a balloon.

Soon, we rallied, because that is what we do. I went to an amazing party store and got what they had left. A giant M, a Margarita for  "Margaret," and a Sponge Bob because she and Jack had watched every episode together. 

We tucked ourselves in early and left the partying to the other parents. 

The next morning, the graduates were up at 5, per tradition, heading to the strip of bars on the corner across from the university. They were a jumble of caps, gowns, champagne bottle, selfies and giant balloons. It was a gorgeous day, and during the ceremony, we were able to spot our beautiful Margaret by the balloons she carried. We listened to an amazing speech about loss and community.

Later, Margaret sent me these photos so I'd know that while her non-floating lobster may have gotten lost somewhere on the way to the procession, he had made it out for some of the early-morning hoopla with the graduates. 

Love you, Margaret!

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Hot Mess Express

 In today’s episode of “Why Can’t Anna be Normal?”, whatever normal is, I’d like to take you with me on a little journey. Picture a formal event for an elementary school where all the participants will be two decades younger me. I wonder, “What is in style? Can I still rock a black-tie event? Could I ever?” I get out my favorite long blue dress from Amazon, but it becomes clear that no amount of shapewear is going to get my post-Menopausal fluff into the bottom of it. 


At this point I head to my happy place, the thrift store, and purchase a dress for $10, a dehumidifier, and some Pok√©mon paraphernalia. The dress wasn’t love at first, second, or even third sight, but I figure it will do. When I get home and try it on, I realize it needs altering. One place quotes me $90, but I eventually find someone who will add two darts to the bust for $40. 


$50 total for a formal dress, albeit one I don’t love, still sounds like a reasonable bargain, so I forge ahead. When I pick it up, I find that the straight strapless cut across my chest, rather than being cute, sexy, or even classy, looks like when you get out of the shower and wrap yourself in a towel. No decolletage, just a vast expanse of skin. 


So, my next bright idea is to get my first-ever spray tan for to make this barren wasteland more palatable. As I get dressed afterward, the technician tells me to not wear a bra for a while because it might mess up the tan. Not only was a $60 expense (plus tip) now added to my “bargain dress,” this commando commandment threatened to mess with my schedule of 1000 errands to do before school pickup. Fortunately, Virginia weather means that the morning was wintry, so I layered on two sweatshirts to try to disguise my unrestrained, pendulous appendages. 


What might seem like no big deal to someone in her twenties, felt like a big deal to me as I ran (gingerly) around town checking things off my To Do list. Who am I kidding? Even in my twenties this would not have been a good look for me. Sure, I was petite, but more in a “marble in a tube sock kind of way” than a perky free-spirited one.


All was well until the temperature started to climb, my spray tan skidded down my body faster than Rudy Giuliani’s hair dye, and I remembered the technician’s final admonishment, “Don’t sweat.” 


I promise I’ll put on a bra later for International Night. Follow me for more beauty and money-saving tips. 


Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Mismatched Sets

We have two sets of sheets for our bed, one robin's egg blue, one white. At some point in the distant past, whether due to a sick child or a particularly sweaty hot flash, the set became separated. A top sheet thrown in the wash, a mismatched sheet put on the bed. When I strip the bed, it's now blue and white, when I make the bed, the same.  

It's a small thing, really, and no one has noticed but me. Every once in a while I will think, "I'd like to get these sets straightened back out," but then I'll toss the mismatched ones in the wash together and put the other mismatched ones on the bed. I do this for the sake of expediency and to conserve energy, because everyone knows if you don't dress a bed right away, you're likely to find yourself at 10:30 pm looking at a bare mattress pad and choosing a fitful night's sleep over having to do ONE MORE THING. It never seems like the right time to deal with it.

I think my sheets are a bit like relationships. 

Something can be out of whack, and instead of addressing it, we keep doing the okay-but-not-quite-right-things again and again. Maybe straightening it out takes too much energy when we are already depleted. Maybe the mismatch has become comfortable or almost imperceptible. And in relationships, unlike with a bunch of balled up sheets, we run the risk of finding out that a simple fix might not be simple at all, and that's frightening.

In life we often take care of the day to day: getting to school and work on time, making sure most boxes are checked and the car registration is renewed. But there are the other things, both tangible and intangible, big and small, that pile up on sticky notes, or in sacred rooms of our brains and hearts, that we just can't seem to tackle. We put them off for another day, hoping for a burst of energy, motivation, or inspiration. We wish we could summon a laundry fairy, a relationship guru, or a virtual assistant to take care of them for us, and do what we can't seem to do for ourselves.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Through Line

A few years ago, I bought a medium pre-lit artificial tree as our sole Christmas tree, with the main purpose of cutting down on marital arguments about light stringing. No longer was there a big fresh tree for sparkly bows, birds and baubles and a kids' tree laden with macaroni ornaments, clothes pin reindeer, and construction paper chains. It became both-- a delightful mish-mash. In fact, many of my "fancier" ornaments remained tucked in plastic tubs because this tree simply isn't big enough for all of it. 

And the ornaments keep coming! 

At an advent event last night, Andrew made 6 new ornaments out of popsicle sticks, paper and felt.

With Margaret home for Thanksgiving, we were all able to decorate together. This meant so much to me, as I was able to remember how the first few years after Jack died, decorating was excruciating. I did it for Margaret, but oh how it hurt. Now, I am able to hold Jack's Baby's First Christmas Ornaments and smile. I am able to remember how I bravely put up Christmas trees during college after my mom's death, even though no one expected it of me.

This year Andrew pulled a ziploc baggie out of one of the tubs and asked me about the ornament inside. I told him that when my brother, sister, and I were kids, we each had a glass ball with our name on it in glitter. Mine shattered one year and I was distraught. My mother quickly selected another ball, wrote my name on it with Elmer's glue, and dipped it in colored sand that we somehow had in our cluttered, happy home. 

That blue ball with red sand followed me the rest of my childhood and far into adulthood. A few years ago it shattered, but instead of tossing it out, I put it in a plastic bag so each year as we decorated, I could remember the loving care of a mom who always provided me a soft place to land.

After we finished the tree this year, 6 year old Andrew called me back down to the family room. He had dug through the tubs of ornaments we weren't using, rigged an ornament hanger into the plastic bag, and hung the remains of my ornament on the tree for me. 

His loving gesture reconnected me to my mother's loving gesture over 45 years ago. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

It's the Little Things

I am a white lights on the Christmas tree kind of girl. The artificial tree I bought 2 years ago has about 7 options, including blinking (ugh!), and cycling through from white to colored and back again.

My buddy Andrew loves the colored lights, and we are in a sneaky battle with each other, changing it back and forth when we walk past to go to the bathroom, multiple times a day. We haven't spoken a word about it, and I love it so much!
It reminds me of when my teen brother used to do something similar to my mom. She was a fantastic florist, and when she would go on deliveries, she had large "Flowers by Margaret" magnetic signs on her car doors. Sometimes she'd drive around all day before realizing her signs were upside down, thanks to her firstborn pranking her.
Sometimes connection and I love you's come in funny forms.
Now when my high school boyfriend did deliveries for her and changed every single one of her radio presets from country and classical to whatever the hell he listened to, that was just plain rude.
Like, read the room, Dude.

Monday, October 31, 2022


I just spent 45 minutes in the toy section of Target looking at Legos with Andrew. It wasn't what I would have chosen for a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, but he had money burning a hole in his pocket and was excited buy something new. We compared prices, and talked pro's and cons of each Minecraft set. It was no surprise that after reading Minecraft books, hearing Andrew's running commentary about all of the characters, and watching him play for months, I was able to hold my own in the conversation.

After we checked out, I let him try some parkour moves on the giant red concrete balls out front. We've been watching American Ninja-type shows and he's developing an interest in climbing. As I watched, an old friend from the "before times" crossed the lot. We hadn't seen each other in years. We were young parents together in the same mothers' group at church. I remember when she had her third, thinking "Oh boy, Laura just set her ticket to freedom back about three years." I was so tired and so busy with two little ones, that I kept my eyes on what I thought was the prize, getting them launched someday.

As we know, I didn't get to launch Jack in the way I thought I would, my "baby" Margaret is now 21, and  launching Andrew feels like a lifetime away. 

After my friend and I chatted, Andrew and I headed to the car. He was proud of the money he'd earned selling original comic books to our friends and neighbors. He showed no regret about reducing his nest egg down to one 2 dollar bill and a Sacajawea coin. I knew the coffee table would, once again, be taken over by colorful bricks for the next days or weeks.

I gave myself a minute on the way home in the car to be proud of myself. Proud for persevering after devastating loss. Proud for embracing my 50's and 60's and beyond that will look a lot different than I thought they would, even as I acknowledge the twinge I still feel when I see my peers at different stages. Proud for being in the moment with Andrew, and fully invested in what makes him tick.

Can you think of something today that makes you proud? 

Life is not made up of grand accomplishments. Sometimes it's just waking up, showing up, and taking baby-steps, even if the baby is 35, 45, or 60.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

A Walk in the Woods

A good friend and I were taking a walk when she asked if I'd like to explore a path near her house. It wasn't until about 10 minutes in that I realized we were headed right into the woods behind my old neighborhood, the woods where Jack died. 

I hadn't been back there in many years. I didn't want to make my friend feel bad for not connecting the dots that her neighborhood eventually ran into my former one. She's been going through a rough time, and I'd wanted the focus of our time to be on her, not on me.

As we walked beside the empty creek bed, noticeably dry even after 5 straight days of storms, I was transported back to the terrifying afternoon and evening 11 years ago when Jack fell in the creek and drowned. 

As my friend and I spoke of other things, I silently checked in with my feelings, letting thoughts pass in and out of my head: 

"There's the house where it happened." 

"I wish no one had let them to play back there."

Then, as we followed the long path parallel to the creek, traversing the distance between where Jack fell in and where he was found, I thought of his small body hurtling through the churning water.

"This is really far. Wow. This is even farther than I remembered." 

In checking in with myself, I found that I was okay. I wasn't stuffing my grief down. I was acknowledging the significance of the location, while still able to stay present with my friend with genuine interest and concern. I then shared some personal difficulties I'm having and got wise counsel from her. 

Both of these things felt significant. 

First, it was a gift that I was able to truly care about another's situation, because in the early days of grief, that seemed impossible. Back then, I couldn't imagine the ticker tape in my mind or heart saying anything other than "Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack" for the rest of my days. 

Second, I was able to talk about problems I'm currently facing in the life I have, not just the pain of Jack's death and the life I thought I would have.

We made it to the end of the path, retraced our steps, and ended up back at her house. 

I don't know whether this experience is helpful to anyone in early grief because frankly, thinking about years and years down the road was distasteful and scary to me at that time. It was torture to consider living so long without Jack's physical presence, and the impossible concept of healing or "getting better" provided no comfort whatsoever.

Eleven years??? 

I was worried about 11 seconds! 

Surviving grief is not about years, months, weeks, or even days. Sometimes it is a moment by moment slog in which your brain tries to process your new, unwanted reality, while also being forced to remain tethered to the rest of the world. 

This walk made me think about how amazing it is that pain can lessen and soften-- although not through sheer will, or the desire of others for us to "get better." 

In my case, it lessened through being acknowledged. Through glimmers of hope. Through my understanding that love never dies. And yes, through time. Lots of time

I am no longer a raw, exposed nerve-ending. I am a person who can take a walk in the woods with a friend on a gorgeous fall day, appreciating the crunch of leaves under my feet, while living in this moment, being supportive, and being supported as well.