Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Life is Weird: When Worlds Collide


Sunday, Tim took Margaret down to college to get set up in a new apartment. In another life, I would have gone too, helping her organize her closet, treating her to lunch, maybe taking Charlie for a walk around a local winery. You know, grown-up, empty-nest stuff. 

Instead, I was on Andrew-duty. I'd hoped for a sweet mother-son day since he's been really busy with outdoor camp this summer. While he still loves me, he hasn't been trying to climb back into my uterus like last year.  Instead, he has become friend-obsessed. To his great disappointment, all the neighbors were either on outings, at the pool, or out of town. I remember this developmental stage with Jack, when he would peer out our kitchen window to see if his buddy across the driveway was awake. He'd run out the door in his pj's to greet him, often forgetting to put on shoes. Margaret was more content to stay home, or participate in whatever fun Jack drummed up.

So as Andrew and I rode scooters up and down the street, looking for someone to play with, I thought about how weird life is. A tired, sweaty 51 year old on her dead son's Razor scooter, trying to keep up with her 5 year old on his new, entirely too-fast one. Hours later he would smash his head on a driveway, at the exact spot his helmet did not protect, but that is a story and a worry for another day.

I remembered how Jack considered it a good day when his special friend was available, and a bad day if  he wasn't. I remembered how the worst day of all of our lives was a day that same little boy was available  when he normally wouldn't have been. And how playing outside that late afternoon changed everything. 

I realized how if it weren't for that moment, we wouldn't be experiencing this one.

I could feel September creeping into my bones. The dread and weepiness, largely kept at bay, but arriving early this year. Maybe because of menopause or the fact that Andrew is about to start Kindergarten. Maybe it's due to a year and 1/2 of worry, weariness, grief and disruption because of Covid. Yet most likely it's because the 10 year mark looms. 

I hesitate to write about that creeping feeling, because I don't want dear ones who are early on their paths of grief to recoil and feel they are doomed to despair so far down a road that seems almost inconceivable to them. For now they must operate in the day by day, and the hour by hour. Secondary losses will pile up in their own time, and no one needs my gloomy rumination to take them further into the pit than they already are. My passion and privilege these past 10 years has been showing that healing, peace, and even (real, unforced!) joy are possible after great loss. I'm a regular, flawed person who keeps showing up for life-- not the one I thought I'd have, but the one I do have. And I am utterly convinced that Jack is happy and he is right here with me. 

Most days I am even grateful to be parenting a little one, but it's something I have to dig deep for. It's no joke to parent again right when your nurturing and caregiving hormones have exited the building, and when your friends are "finding themselves"-- in new careers, relationships, or exotic locales. It's harder than I thought, and I thought it would be pretty hard.

Anyway, because I'm a woman and can keep 1,000 tabs open in my brain at once, all of these thoughts were on my mind as I walked, scootered, and watched for cars. A young man left my neighbor's house and climbed into his car. I had Andrew pull to the side so the car could pull out. The young man flashed a mega-watt smile as I waved him past, and all of my weird worlds collided at once. 

He wasn't just anyone; he was the special friend, the one whose days with Jack were his very best days, until the one that was everyone's worst. I don't know what the chances were for this encounter after so many years, in a different neighborhood, right at the moment I was pondering the intensity of young friendships, the potential (no, the certainty) of pain, and wondering if I'd have the strength to navigate it all again. I wondered what the young man was thinking, especially when he saw Jack's mini-me. What did he remember from those hot days so long ago? What did he make of me, a decade older, once a daily presence in his life, but then suddenly no more, because I needed to deal with my own family's trauma and let others tend to his?

I felt the sting of tears in my eyes, but kept on. We didn't find anyone to play with, so we ended up going to mini-golf, the ice cream shop, and the dollar store. Our very long day was a mix of highs and lows-- loneliness, hurt feelings, a tantrum, a scooter crash, deliciously sticky fingers, and a hole in one. 

I think in the coming weeks I will try to emulate early-grievers and re-learn to take things hour by hour and day by day. 


IMPORTANT: If you subscribe to this blog by email, that feature is being disabled by the blog company in a few days. I do have your emails and will try to send posts to you that way, but it will no longer be automatic, and I am technologically impaired, so I can't promise I'll figure it out. I'm usually over on facebook at An Inch of Gray and Instagram @annawhistondonaldson and would love keep in touch that way too. XOXO

Friday, April 9, 2021

"Growing Old Gracefully" by I.P. Freely

Staying home during the pandemic was well-suited to the combo of my tiny bladder and huge water consumption. 

But things have started to open up a bit here with spring weather, devoted mask-wearing, and vaccines. We even signed Andrew up for t-ball. Last night was an hour-long practice. That, coupled with the drive across town, put my bladder right in the danger zone. 

After practice, we realized we needed to eat. You know I like eating and despise cooking, so we grabbed some food at an outdoor space in our town. 

I drank nothing with my meal and kept my legs crossed.

It was taking a while to get the bill, so I told Tim to wait for it and drive Andrew home in his car, while I raced  home to the bathroom. Those final seconds unbuckling Andrew from his carseat have gotten me in a wee bit of trouble before, so I was glad to be on my own. Tim eyed me suspiciously as if I were trying to pawn Andrew off on him for a few moments of alone time (who, me???), but he acquiesced.

All was fine until I reached our neighborhood. The trash cans were lined up for the next morning. I noticed one had a glass vase, that looked to be about the size of a large milk jug, sticking out of it. Not content to let it go a landfill, I decided to grab it. Perhaps it would like nice in our house, or I could give it away on our Buy Nothing group. 

As I pulled it out of the huge, wheeled trashcan, I stared in wonder. It was like a magician's scarf that just kept coming. What I thought was a sizable vase or jug seemed to grow as I reached deeper into the can, trying not to pee myself because of the numerous muscles involved. I placed it in the car, thanked my pelvic floor for making it this far, and climbed into my car. 

Then Tim drove by. 

He slowed down and asked what I'd been doing, but I silently waved him away with flailing arms, knowing if I had to explain why I'd been digging in the trash, I was going to wet myself. 

Moments later, I was in the garage. So many small victories: I'd attended a sporting event with my precious kid. I'd stayed out of the house for more than an hour. I'd saved the environment with my eagle eyes and brute strength hauling the vase into the car. The only thing that stood in my way was Tim, about to get Andrew out of the other car. I waved him aside again, my body bent, my face set in determination. I had the garage to traverse, then the kitchen, then a 1/2 flight of stairs down to the bathroom. 

Damn you, split level.

Then, as if he didn't know me at all. As if he hadn't been dealing with my tiny bladder since early 1992. As if he'd never been on a road trip with me. Or seen 3 babies' heads crown in my nether-regions, doing untold damage. He decided  to delay me with a smirk and, "You didn't LOOK like you were in much of a hurry to get home down on the road there." 

At which point I started to laugh. I thought of the world's biggest vase in my car. 

All was lost. 

I  crumpled to the ground, trapped between the car and the garage wall. The kitchen was close, but it might as well have been a continent away. I let loose a torrent like no other.  Andrew watched from his carseat. Tim looked on in horror and pity, trying to hold me up, but also avoid the splashing. 

A voice through the window: "Mommy always says she's going to pee herself, but this time I think she really did."

Anyone want a little vase? 

Photo credit: Newly-minted 5 year old. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

I'm Here

One of my favorite things for 4 year olds is the "basement play date." That last year of preschool before kindergarten opens up a child's world to the wonders of playing with someone else's stuff in the treasure trove of a basement or a playroom. Sometimes it even means going home from preschool in a friend's car, having a snack in an unfamiliar kitchen, and playing until mom picks you up hours later. Almost a whole day away! It's exciting, scary, fun, and an opportunity for growth.

The pandemic began shortly before Andrew turned 4. Now he's almost 5. So we were on the cusp of this magical stage right before everything changed. We canceled his birthday party at an indoor play place. (Sometimes I think this whole mess is my fault because as a germaphobe I threw caution to the wind to plan that kind of party in the first place!) Preschool shut down, and I became his primary playmate. 

If you ask Andrew today what his heart desires, it is to play inside a friend's house, and to have a friend come inside ours. Sitting inside McDonalds again is also pretty high on the list. In 10 months he has gone inside a Dollar Tree once, but no other stores or restaurants. 

I was thinking about all of the things he's missing and that I'm missing for him: church, sporting events, hugging his grandparents, and play dates are just a few. He has been resilient and adaptable, and I am so proud of him. I know for sure that I won't have to "play Legos" forever which, unfortunately, doesn't mean "build Legos"-- there are battles and backstories and I never seem to know what is going on, just that the clock seems to slow to less than a crawl when it's happening. 

Many, many people have lost so much more than my little guy. Jobs, physical and mental health, homes, food security, and a year of education slipping away and leaving those with "less than," with even less. 

And most especially, the death of family members.  

The death toll of covid is so VAST it is natural to start tune out, to not see each loss, each life as unique and precious. What seemed inconceivable in early March, is a daily reality that keeps getting worse, at least for now.

It's normal to see what's in our own home, our own families, and our own circumstances. I think it's valid and healthy to acknowledge and let my heart ache a little for some of the small losses of opportunity my little guy has had, and be genuinely sad that my big girl's college experience looks nothing like we'd all hoped. 

But when Andrew is finally playing in a friend's basement, and I am out of the lonely fog of my current circumstances and on to my "next thing," I want to remember them. Your grandma. Your sister. Your uncle. Your spouse. Your friend. 

This community has stood by me and honored Jack's death as significant for many years. Even as time has passed and the smaller issues of life have crept back in, you have said, "I'm here. Jack matters." 

I know I'm on Facebook and Instagram constantly and have been very quiet on the blog.

But I'm here. Your person matters. 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Calendar Pages

I was talking to a good friend yesterday, whose young husband died suddenly a few years ago. I wanted to know how the new rhythms of the pandemic were affecting her family. How had they coped during the complete shutdown? "I mean, grief is already so isolating," I said.

Her reply landed deep inside me, because I recognized my own experience there. "It's been okay. In a way I feel as if the rest of the world has been catching up to where I've been for a while. That they are getting a taste of grief."

She didn't mean the many, many families whose loved ones have died from this brutal illness, a number that is unfortunately climbing by the day because our country does not have a well-coordinated plan on how to address Covid-19.

The "taste" she was referring to was the swift wiping clean of the calendar pages. When everything shut-down in mid-March, people took a sharpie and drew through weddings, work trips, school days, and social events and had to surrender to the uncertainty of when and if things would ever return to "normal."

People struggled to find a daily routine and felt rudderless when the rhythms they'd always known of work and school and even identity were upended. Jobs they thought they could count on disappeared, and they were separated physically from the ones they loved. The world outside their doors felt confusing and even dangerous.

And so it is with grief. Grievers know the stark Before/After well. They know the disorienting feeling of having a plan for how things were going to be, how one's life would look, then being left with the uncertainty of how to move forward when life turns upside down.

I remember my sister scrambling to find a new wall calendar for us right after Jack died, because the one on our kitchen door scrawled with things like, "Jack/Margaret dentist", "Boy Scouts", and "baseball practice", in all its normalcy, belied the shattered state of the family inside that door. It wounded us us with the could-have-beens. Each plan cut us to the bone.

Grief requires an adaptability and flexibility that is not innate or comfortable, right at a time when you are feeling ill-equipped to exhibit either. It requires a letting go of the expectation of how things were going to be, when your instinct is to clench your fists and try to hold on with all you've got. We deny and resist our pain as much as we can, but at some point we have to face it.  The longer we resist, the longer it lasts.

Grief is messy.

As is life in a pandemic.

It's important and even healthy to acknowledge our losses. To say, "I hate this! This is terrible! I wish it were another way!"

But when we continue to cling to the way things were, or the way we wanted them to be-- whether we are doing it because life is "unfair", or even in the name of "personal freedom" we can spew our grief, or our germs, on others.

Both are harmful; one can be deadly.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020


Hi Dears! I want you to know I'm thinking of you and sending you love at this strange time.

We are doing well, but being with Andrew 24/7 makes it hard for me to write.

Instead of sharing my own words today, I'm sharing my sister in law's thoughts on fear, chronic illness, grace, and this unique time we are in.

With so much love to you, Anna

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Catching Up but not Catching Many ZZZZ's

How did January last 153 days and February has whizzed by? I've never been good at math, so none of this is clear to me, but I will say that hurtling toward spring feels like a good thing.

More outdoor time with my little guy will keep us from watching too much TV, which has been our M.O. for a lot of the winter.

Spring will also mean a chance to see Margaret over her college break. She and I are planning a little getaway together. There have been SO MANY gray days in a row, I know she will welcome the  warm sunshine. I'll welcome the sleep. Andrew still pops into our room every night and his morning wakeup time has scootched much earlier the past few weeks. This is torture for a night owl like me.

Springtime also means birthdays!

Jack's, Andrew's, and then a milestone one for Tim. I've scheduled Andrew's party for a huge indoor play place. Funny that I've never once taken him to one because I'm such a germaphobe, and now I'm willingly paying for an entire party there. Hand sanitizer for everyone! The thought of having a preschool party at our house just overwhelmed me.

In Tim's honor I've set up a dedicated puzzle table in our house with an ongoing jigsaw puzzle on it. We're pretty wild and crazy over here, for sure. We'll probably have a shindig for his birthday, too, but he hasn't yet told me what he wants. We almost called it quits while planning my 50th (he was in the wrong, of course), so I'm a little nervous about the forthcoming negotiations.

Jack would be 21 on March 18. This feels big. Huge. What would he be like? What would interest him? Would he be as handsome as I picture? Oh how I long to know.

I'd like to invite YOU to join me in celebrating Jack's life, and our ongoing love, by taking part in #Cheers2Jack on March 18.

Because this would be the day for his first (legal) drink, I invite you to toast him with whatever your favorite beverage is, whether it's a cold beer or or a hot latte. Feel free to take a picture for me and put it on the An Inch of Gray facebook page or instagram (I'm @annawhistondonaldson) with the tag #Cheers2Jack. I hope to do something in person here in Vienna, most likely a mid-week dinner over chips and guac, but I haven't planned anything yet. I'll keep you posted.

Today is Ash Wednesday, as we remember how fleeting our physical experience on earth really is. I got ashes and a blessing in the narthex of the preschool while dropping off Andrew. Talk about a full-service experience. Kind of wished I'd showered first.

Love and blessings to you today.

Friday, January 17, 2020

A Language of Love

Do you know your love language?

Mine is words of affirmation. Kind, loving words go very far with me, and hurtful words sting more than almost anything else can.

Presents are okay, and I enjoy a good hug, but tell me I'm doing a good job, I'm capable, or I offer something of value to the world, and I will put my chin up and persevere even in the toughest of circumstances. I will stand tall for you or for whoever else needs it.

I've been going through a lot, feeling over-tired and overdrawn. Uncreative, unhealthy, and unproductive in the world. I find myself wondering if I'll ever settle into a groove for 2019, but then I discover it's 2020, so the answer is likely no. Sleep eludes me with a mashup of menopause, preschool parenting, and middle of the night worries about how my daughter is adjusting to college.

I wonder why I never bothered to set any goals, personally or professionally, and just coasted until somehow waking up at 50 feeling like life has been a series of reactions versus actions. I ponder if I only have 30 or 20 or 2 years left, whether I'll be satisfied that most days all I looked forward to was a big bowl of popcorn and a Netflix binge. Is this my offering to the world, during this one life? Morning comes too soon or not soon enough.

Andrew is in a stage where he wants all of me, all the time.

At my age, I never would have imagined being needed in this intense way again, and the adjustment has been steep. He is adamantly opposed to all things Tim right now, through no fault of Tim's. He is just taking the whole Oedipus thing about as far as a 3 year old possibly can. The other night he told me he hoped there were two heavens, so he and I could go to one, and Daddy could go to the other. Harsh. It seems this little guy wants to go to great lengths to let me know I'm his number one. I tell him he can love both Daddy and me. That there is enough love to go around. There's enough of all of us to go around.

Although it doesn't always feel like that way, because we are spent.

As winter darkness sets in early, making it feel much later, it's easy to just gather up some of the parenting pieces that have been Tim's terrain, such as the final tuck-in, or reading the last book, if it means a happy boy not getting all worked up right at bedtime. After all, we know this is a phase to ride out; we've been down these roads before. Just as Tim didn't have to sleep on the floor next to Margaret's bed forever like he did when she was two, this too shall pass. In fact, I know that was time well spent, because even at age 18, home from college, she'll still sometimes climb onto his lap. He's a stiff person, and she's a prickly one, but they still connect in this way.

So instead of Tim doing the tuck-in, I started doing it. Then we moved to having me sit in the big blue recliner after tuck-in just so he'd know I was near. Then it morphed into extended snuggle-time in bed. It helps him fall asleep more quickly, and it yields sweet conversation. But, oh, how I resisted because I knew he'd be back in our bed again in just a few hours, and wasn't this a lot of rigamarole to go through for just about 4 hours of separation? With the clock ticking on my precious hours of alone time?

I decided to try to reframe this when I saw a friend with four kids had put a small sticker on her car that read, "I get to do this." She uses it to remind herself that the hours upon hours in the car being present with her kids is special time-- away from screens and homework. A lot of good connecting happens then, even though it's not easy.

This connecting time been good for Andrew and me too, because it is a sinking into togetherness, rather than my pulling away, hiding in the bathroom with my phone and a piece of chocolate while he clambers to find me.

He feels it and I feel it.

But back to love languages. Tim has rarely been one to lift me up through words. Remember during premarital counseling when we wrote down our needs and I wrote, "I want to be told I'm pretty sometimes"? Even more than 25 years ago, I knew we had a disconnect on this issue. His view was that if we were getting married, I could assume he thought I was kind of neat, so what was the big deal? Even in the eyes of young love, which is blind to so many mismatches, I wanted to articulate a need, which went well beyond my looks and was more about affirming me as a person worthy of notice.

Over the years there have been a few stilted, "You. look. very. nice. in. that dress"  or "good job" comments, but not many. Yes, I knew I could have married someone who grabbed my butt and said, "Hey, Hot Mama!" but that's not the guy I fell in love with. I knew it going in. But to hit 50, with a butt that is far less grab-able or remarkable than ever before, and cosmic questions about your place in the world, it's possible to yearn to know that you take up space and are seen. Perhaps because I am a writer and a speaker, words help do that for me.

Margaret has long been more likely to speak to me with criticism than love or affection, even though I know she loves me. My role as a safe spot to land since Jack's death has meant my putting on protective layers so the harsh stuff can slide off.

Stiff and Prickly, remember?

Jack was the one who would tilt his head to the side say with a wry smile, "Aww... I love you!" It was usually after I'd said something clever, or vulnerable or goofy, and it made me feel close to him. Like he got a kick out of me, and as if there was a whole lot of LIKE wrapped in with the LOVE.

I've missed those words that poured out unbidden. Unstrained. Not trying to check a box on Anna's wants and needs list. I know Jack still loves me as I do him. Our love never had a chance to get to the stage where perhaps it would have been uncool to tell your mom how much you loved her. I know if I quiet myself, I can still hear him whisper "I love you" into my soul. I can see his love in the two bluejays at my feeder right now, and in the sweet but hazy memories that come to me in flashes, every single day.

But what does any of this have to do with Andrew, and sleep, and snuggling? Once I began to reframe this new nighttime routine, realizing that it is a sweet and temporary privilege, I've been able to not only sink into his twin bed giving him something he craves, but also sink into the love he gives me freely. "I love you SO SO much!" he beams, touching my face. "Oh, I just LOVE you!" "I love you and want to keep you forever!" These words affirm and fill me up after a long day at a challenging time of life.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think our kids are here to meet our needs. Nope. That is far too much to put on a child. It isn't healthy and it isn't fair.

But I do think that God knows that my soul has been parched for affirmation. That my world has grown smaller the past few years as career and accomplishments and even maintaining friendships have been overshadowed by the ever-present need of caring for a small child again.

He surely knows that the middle of the night doubts about what I've offered the world, and whether I'll have the stamina to do what's before me, can somehow be soothed by having a child, this child, who tells me, again and again, that I am beloved.

And I'm grateful.