Friday, December 21, 2012


I decided to start Christmas shopping on Monday. Yes, as in just a few days ago. The mall has been a tough place for me for the past year, and I guess I put it off as long as I could. My big mission was to get in and out of Abercrombie without crying.

There's a lot to cry about in there, between the music playing so loudly it feels like your ears are going to bleed, the lack of standard sizes (with Margaret ranging from an extra small to an extra large), the prices, and the fact that I have to beg the teenage employees to unlock a frickin' dressing room.

All of those factor into my tears, yes, but the main problem is that Abercrombie was the last store I took the kids to before Jack's accident.

Before. After. Before. After.

I've been thinking so much about the Sandy Hook families and how everything is now marked for them in that way.

Before. After. Before. After.

Our last trip to the mall that early September day was a happy one. We had gone to purchase Jack 3 Lego minifigures as a reward for finishing Oliver Twist for school. After that, we went to Abercrombie because Margaret was having a clothing crisis. Yep, I spent less than $9 on Jack for reading and annotating a 500+ page book (during his summer vacation!), then spent $80 on Margaret, well, because even if a girl wears a uniform to school she still needs cool clothes. This disparity in spending would have sent me into a tailspin as a 12 year old, but Jack didn't mind at all. To hear more about his gentle ways, read what his Auntie has to say about him here.

When the music and the waiting around got too much for him, Jack asked if he could stand right outside the door to the store and play on my iphone. I said yes and kept him in eyeshot. In that moment, I was struck by how much I was enjoying my kids, because I certainly didn't always remember to, especially when they were younger and far needier. It felt really good that I wasn't dying for summer to end.

On the way over in the car, they had both started sharing some of their weird traits and habits including this classic, "I always check behind the bathroom door in case there's a murderer in there." Each weird habit garnered more laughter than the next.  I glanced at them in the rear view mirror and yelled, "I love my quirky kids!" And I meant it.

This felt like progress, because I hadn't always appreciated my kids' unique personalities, likes and dislikes. 3 year old Margaret  afraid of automatic flush toilets? Sheesh! 9 year old Jack peering at us with sunken cheeks and glazed eyes as if we were trying to starve him to death when we gave him, God forbid, turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing at Thanksgiving? Puh-leaze.

But that September day, I just got a huge kick out of being with them. Of seeing how they interacted with each other. Of knowing where they were and where I thought they were going. In just a few days they would start 5th and 7th grades.


Before. After. Before. After.

So this past Monday, I steeled myself for Abercrombie. I didn't want my trip to end the way it had a few months ago when after about 45 traumatic minutes I started crying and Margaret and I left without any jeans. Skinny? Super Skinny? Dark wash? Ripped? I was pushed to the limit.

On Monday I felt like every act I did was somehow a testament to the parents in Connecticut who, while I don't know exactly what they are going through, may likely be feeling that they can not go on living, let alone function through the mundane stuff of life ever again. 

I tried to stay on the girls' side of the store, only once drifting over to a checked button down shirt, feeling the fabric between my fingers, remembering how Jack seemed to have been born preppy.

In the check-out line I looked up and saw the mom of one of Jack's baseball teammates. Margaret and Jack had also attended acting camp with her son one month before the accident. She held teenage boy clothes in her arms. I looked down at the floor, willing her not to recognize me. I didn't want her to feel guilty that she got to buy presents for Jordan when I couldn't buy any for Jack. That Jordan needed teenaged sized clothes but Jack never would.  I bit the inside of my lip so I wouldn't cry. I kept my eyes down, exchanged pleasantries with the teenage clerk, bought the clothes, and got the hell out of there.

So I don't really know how I did. And how much of a testament I can be for the moms and dads in Connecticut.

But I did buy Margaret's over-priced gifts. And they are now wrapped and under the tree.

That's something, right?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hugs for the Holidays

The holidays can be so hard on those who grieve.

Whether they are grieving fresh losses such as those of the precious children in Newtown, CT, or whether the losses were long ago, absence of a loved one comes into sharp relief at the holidays. I remember last Christmas when we were still in shock from Jack's sudden death. We made it through all the decorating, the shopping, and we even sat in our same place in the church balcony for the Christmas Eve service. We held it together through the hurt.

Then, on Christmas night, we went to the cemetery.

Tim wanted to go, but Margaret and I didn't.Tension ran high as each of us lashed out at the others, saying hurtful words and stomping through the grass as the sky grew dark. We were so broken and angry about Jack's death and the rubble that remained of our lives that the flicker of hope we'd been fanning and trying to keep going seemed certain to go out. I stood there in the cold and dark and felt more alone than I had at any other time in my life.

This Christmas will be different. The shock has worn off, so we feel the pain of Jack's absence more acutely these days. But we also have survived nearly 365 days since last Christmas and (most days) we know that we can and will do this.

It doesn't mean we want to.

It doesn't mean we are okay with what happened.

It just means we can and we will survive. We will laugh. We will remember. We will cry. We will celebrate. We will eat Mexican food.

The flicker of hope has grown stronger once again.

And truly, one of the ways our hope has grown stronger is the love and support others have given us, many times through this blog. Perhaps you need love and support today as you grieve a loss. Maybe you are feeling weighed down by grief as celebrations take place all around you. 

A few blog friends and I are proclaiming today "Hugs for the Holidays." If you are grieving any loss, please know that we are here to support you, hear your stories, look at your photos, and lift you up. At the bottom of this post you will see links to posts that deal with certain kinds of grief and loss, such as loss of a parent and infant loss. Feel free to link up one of your own posts, share a photo, or leave a comment about your loss. If you are experiencing another kind of loss, such as that of a spouse, please know that we are here for you too and would like to hear from you.

This holiday season, I hope we will all be able to be gentle with ourselves, enjoy pockets of peace when and where we are able to find them, and remember that we are not alone. Hugs.

For those grieving the loss of  a child, I want to share this peom by John O'Donohue

For a parent on the death of a child

No one knows the wonder
Your child awoke in you,
Your heart a perfect cradle
To hold its presence,
inside and outside became one
As new waves of love
Kept surprising your soul.

Now you sit bereft
Inside a nightmare,
Your eyes numbed
By the sight of a grave
No parent should ever see.

You will wear this absence
Like a secret locket,
Always wondering why
Such a new soul
Was taken home so soon.

Let the silent tears flow
And when your eyes clear
Perhaps you will glimpse
How your eternal child
Has become the unseen angel
Who parents your heart
And persuades the moon
To send new gifts ashore.

If you have had a miscarriage, stillbirth or lost an infant link here:

If you have lost your mom link here:

Your dad link here:

Your sibling link here:

A child link here:

A friend link here:

We have also created a special #HugsfortheHolidays Pinterest board so check it out for tips on dealing with grief and some inspiration to help ease the pain during this season.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Horror

Praying for the families of the precious children and teachers in CT who were murdered today. Holding space for them in my heart, as I know you are too. Love you.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chain Reaction

When Jack was little, he and Tim would spend hours setting up elaborate machines to make chain reactions. Margaret and I would swoop in to view the final products, but only the boys had the patience to rig up pulleys out of Tinker Toys, make tracks out of paper towel tubes, and send marbles and wooden trains down paths to a desired effect.

My favorite was the balloon popper, when Jack was about 5.  Pulleys and buckets and tracks set off reaction after reaction until, at the very end, a sharpened pencil would dip down and pop a red balloon. The idea! The excitement! Every single action and reaction had to be perfect in order for this to happen. I remember standing there, video camera in hand, as each object set in motion the next and the next and the next. The balloon looked doomed for sure! But in the last second, as the pencil spun toward the taut balloon…nothing. The point was not quite sharp enough to pierce the balloon.

I’ve been writing about our lives. Jack’s life,  and thinking of the chain of events leading up to his death. Not ruminating, but trying to understand and lay things out. It truly is amazing how one thing led to another and at any point, at the the smallest of junctures, the momentum of that day would have been diverted and it would have had a very different ending.
If the power company had trimmed the trees along the road that week, instead of just one week later, and the electricity had stayed on. If I had said to the kids, “You need to stay inside.” If our neighbors had considered the creek in their backyard to be hazardous. If Tim had made it home at his usual time. If the weather had been windy and cold instead of balmy and intoxicating. If I had gotten to the creek 10 seconds sooner. If. If. If. You can take this way back. If we had not wanted a bigger house 9 years before. If I had been brave enough to move out of state when the kids were small.

Chain reactions are persnickety things. Every single factor has to be perfectly placed or they fail every time. I find this frustrating, yet interesting.
We can all look at our lives and imagine if one thing had unfolded differently. If Tim hadn't been at a graduate level pool party when he was still an undergrad, we never would have met.  If a devastating miscarriage hadn't led  to another, different pregnancy you would not have the very baby you are cuddling right now. If a chance conversation had gone a different direction...
If. If. If.
I remember sharing with Jack an intriguing book about how every action counts, "The Butterfly Effect," by Andy Stanley. It's a lot to think about.
Chain reactions. Too much for a Monday morning?
For your viewing pleasuse, here's a short clip of one of Jack's smaller chain reactions. Seeing Margaret at the end is priceless. It's worth it even if Jack is rubbing (not picking!) his nose. Sorry, Jack.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Here's Looking at You, Kid

I'm working on our yearly photo album. I've always enjoyed getting a whole year's pictures bound in one slim volume-- a family yearbook that we look at again and again. Last year's was tough, but at least we had Jack for 8 of the 12 months represented. That yearbook looked pretty normal, until it didn't.This year's is a struggle that I'm just trying to power through before my online coupon expires.

My heart is heavy.

It has made me think of baby books. As the third child in four years, I took great offense upon discovering that my own baby book was nearly empty. I took it upon myself in first grade to rectify the situation by gluing in random pictures and filling in the blanks to describe myself. For "HAIR" I wrote: "Pretty" instead of brown; and for "EYES" I wrote "Nice" instead of blue. My mom got a huge kick out of this. I  drew, in ink, a portrait of my family, including our dog, cat, and guppies. I also drew fart bubbles coming out of my sister's rear end, so I guess my love for potty humor and my jealousy toward my older sister started young.

For Jack's baby book, however, I was on the case! As the first child, he had my undivided attention and resources. We also had no cable tv, blogs, smart phones or high speed internet to lure me away from my glue sticks, or Pinterest to intimidate me into creative paralysis.

So page after page is filled with lists, cute anecdotes, ticket stubs, folded paper party hats, class photos, and certificates. I hoped that someday Jack, or at least an interested wife or child, would pore over his well-documented cuteness.

And now it sits here, to what purpose?

To mock us about what should have been? While his friends get facial hair and all we get are memories?

I've spent some time this morning crying and looking over his book. I know that if it has been a while and I need a good cry, looking at pictures helps me get there fast. Videos are still almost too painful to watch. I wondered whether Jack had even seen his baby book, but I was pretty sure he had, because he loved things like that.

I smile through tears when I see he has indeed read it, like mother like son, taken it upon himself to pencil in a few additions.

He must have been 8 years old because where I had left off writing down Halloween costumes at age 6, Jack had added in sloppy cursive:
"Age 7: Darth Vader
Age 8: Zombie Doctor"

On the page about the origin of his name, I had left a blank:
Your name means:___________________

Jack added: "Successor, Given by God."

Given by God?
Given by God.
Given by God!

"You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name"

It's a choice. Every. Single. Day.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Traditions Old and New

I've shared with you some of our favorite family Christmas traditions. I've included photos of  my big impact, low stress decorating routines. And of course I've confessed some of my hormone-induced Christmas meltdowns.

Today I'd like to share one old Christmas tradition and one new one.

For years I've been putting our family Christmas card photo on a tree ornament. I write the year on the back with a sharpie. Any photo site such as MyPublisher or Shutterfly has this option. I've also had success with and Costco. I usually do it when ordering our cards, and if I forget, I just do it for a few years at a time. All of these sites make it super easy to upload a photo and order an ornament.

Here are two from past years:

Last year, our first Christmas without Jack, we started a simple new tradition I saw in a magazine. We save the piece of wood cut off the bottom of our tree and make a rustic ornament out of it.

Margaret writes the year with a sharpie, finds a ribbon to go through the hole, and hangs it on the tree.  Many trees have holes drilled in the bottom these days so they'll stand up at the tree lot, but if yours doesn't, you could staple or hot glue a ribbon to the back.

 Waiting for a ribbon...

Do you have any old or new traditions to share?

Friday, November 30, 2012


I thought you might enjoy seeing our family photos taken by amazing local photographer Dorie Howell. Thank you, Dorie, for making something so hard, fun. And thank you for doing whatever you did to make it not so obvious I was at my class reunion until 2:30 a.m. the night before. Poor planning on my part!

What do you think? Does one in particular scream Christmas card to you? I didn't do cards last year, and am contemplating, but not stressing over, doing them this year. Click here to see our cards from years' past.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Buck Doesn't Stop Here

So I was kind of hoping a week in the woods would make Tim reconsider his yearly commitment to a guys' hunting trip with my brother. This would mean I would no longer have to drive on long, curving WV roads by myself until which time we could meet up for Thanksgiving dinner.

I had high hopes.

I mean this is the guy who is known to fall asleep in the woods, John Irving novel at his side. He's the one who got "scoped" by a rifle a few years back just in time for family Christmas photos.

He may even be known to lift a pinky finger while (whilst?) drinking tea. So I guess I'm saying, a wild mountain man Tim is not.

But darn if he didn't kill the biggest buck in hunting camp history.

I'm screwed.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Out in the Open

I’m big into acknowledgment. 

When Jack and Margaret would fall down, I didn’t say, “Get up! Shake it off!” even though I know that works for some people. Instead, I did what I would want someone to do for me, “Wow! That was some fall? Where does it hurt?” It’s not that I wanted to turn tiny things into big things, or make my kids into wimps, but I don’t believe that’s how acknowledgment works anyway. I think acknowledging someone’s pain, stress, or struggle helps them feel understood and strengthens them to move forward.

 I tried to teach Tim this early in our relationship, because we seemed complete opposites in this regard. The results have been mixed. When I would be going through something, either big or small, and try to tell him about it, he would be silent. Like no sounds whatsoever.  This could be because he processes things more s-l-o-w-l-y than I do. Or that he was under the impression that if you ignore a problem, it goes away, but if you acknowledge it, it grows. Ha.

Take, for example, if I got sick, like maybe even cracking a rib from coughing while pregnant. I'd want to hear, "That sucks!" or, "What a pain!” This would make me feel cared about, and I would want to be brave and strong and try my best to get better.

I don’t think Tim ever thought about it consciously, but it seemed to me that he worried if he acknowledged my pain, whether physical or emotional, that somehow he’d get stuck staying home from work taking care of me and who knows what kind of chaos and madness would erupt? 

I think it’s the opposite.

I believe acknowledgment, or letting someone know she’s been heard, diffuses many situations.  In fact, when he didn’t acknowledge that I was sick or stressed, I’d feel the need to say, “Boy I still feel terrible today! Cough. Cough” again and again, because, Hello, he obviously hadn’t heard me the first 5 times! Same thing with problems in our relationship. I would want to acknowledge when we were in a bad spot. Not talk it to death, mind you, but at least bring it out into the light. He would look scared, shocked, and silent.

This has improved over the years as Tim gingerly uses a few phrases I’ve taught him, “That must be scary.” “You sound pretty upset about that.” “That stinks.” He has found if he acknowledges me, I feel like he is present with me and is not just hoping I’ll just shut up and go away.

When it comes to losing a child, particularly in a split-second accident, many people are ready and able to acknowledge your pain. They may not be able to fully grasp how terrible it is to try to live without your child, but they freely acknowledge a huge, huge loss has occurred. The acknowledgment we have received from so many people (YOU!) has surely made us feel less alone.

But there are many people suffering losses who might not get the kind of support we have. They may be going through a divorce. They may have lost their job and therefore, their identity.  They may be mourning an elderly parent or a good friend.  They may have lost a child during pregnancy or at birth.
Acknowledgment of child loss could also be complicated by it being a suicide, drunk driving, or a drug overdose.

I wonder whether those who lose children to cancer get as much acknowledgement as those who have died in a sudden accident like Jack did. If a child has struggled for years, friends may compassionately think it is a blessing for the child to be free from treatments and pain, but they may forget parents are mourning the healthy child they knew and loved and also all they hoped for that child in the future.

Even as I crave acknowledgment in my life, I admit many times I’ve avoided acknowledging others’ pain because I was afraid they would then need too much from me. Sound a little like Tim? It’s like when I prayed and prayed for new neighbors because I wanted to be a bright light for them, helping them find their way in our town. But I really didn’t want them to be too needy or vulnerable, just enough for me to swoop in (and OUT!) with a smile and maybe a cookie tray. 

Now, with Jack’s death, I am the hurting, vulnerable one. I am the one who needs acknowledgment and support. I pray that I can meet the needs of those around me without worrying that being with them in their pain will require more than I can give.
I want to remind myself that acknowledging others' pain can be a balm to their hurting souls.
I want to show up for others as you have shown up for me.




Friday, November 16, 2012

If the Shoe Box Fits...

75 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes packed and delivered! Our family did 35 and we joined Tim's office in doing 40 more!

Margaret made these cute stickers with a "Jack" blue ribbon on them for the plastic shoeboxes.

Shadow behaved and didn't eat any of the candy.

Tonight our 5th and 6th grade youth group will pack even more!

A big thank you to all of you who participated in this wonderful way to let kids all over the world know that THEY ARE LOVED.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Deer Me

Tim is going to West Virginia to go hunting with my brother next week, an annual tradition. Don't get me started on his lame explanation as to why he needs to leave Saturday morning when hunting season doesn't start until Monday. Something about male bonding (beer). Please don't point out how hunting season coincides so very nicely with Margaret's chilly fall soccer tournament, the same way last spring's male ski trip (beer) coincided with her very rainy spring soccer tournament.  I mean, I love crying and cursing the GPS lady as I try to find far-flung soccer fields on my own.

Oh well. This post isn't about my marriage; it's about the big ole buck that is standing in my yard, right outside my office window at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning. It has a huge 10 point rack, and like his buddies who sauntered by earlier, seems undeterred by the traffic noises and barking dogs of suburbia. Pretty as they are to look at, these deer spread Lyme's disease all over the region and eat my plants. As an outraged Margaret said when she was little, "The deer ate our Pasta!" She meant hosta.

But just as this post is not about my marriage, it's not about the the moral ins and outs of hunting either. I've never killed a deer and don't plan to, unless you count the time I hit one with my car on the way to school. Anyway, I convinced the kids and myself that, "She's fine! Really!" I don't want to get into all that here.

It's just that I'm a woman of thrift and ease.

It's seems like a lot of hoopla to travel five hours away to hunt something that hangs out on your lawn in broad daylight.

I think it would save a lot of time and money and gas if it were legal for me to go outside and bonk this deer on the head with one of my comfortable shoes. No need for a license or equipment or travel time. Think of the money saved on beer alone.

Somehow I think Tim would go anyway.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Monday Mash-up

A HUGE Thank you to all the veterans who have served our country and to their families who have sacrificed at home!

We had a pretty good weekend around here. Friday night was my 25th high school reunion. Thanks to Facebook, I did not have to tell my story to anyone. I was so very grateful for that. Friends bravely and quietly acknowledged our loss. I know that was probably scary for them to do, but it meant a lot to me.

There is never enough time to catch up with everyone, even when a group isn't that large, but overall it felt relaxed, supportive, and un-rushed. My friend Judy and I managed to stay up until 2:30, which I consider pretty darn good.

The camera part of my iphone "disappeared" early in the evening, brought back later by helpful texted instructions from my 14 year old nephew. Got to love a teenager who can figure out in 10 seconds what I'd been struggling with all evening. As a result, I only have a few pictures. Here's one with my friend Helen so you can see my $35.00 New York and Company wrap dress. Super easy and I got to wear cushy (Aerosole) black suede boots with it. Yay for being warm and comfortable! You may remember Helen from when I wrote about her here. Love that woman!

Saturday we got our family picture taken by the amazing Dorie Howell. Dorie is a professional photographer and a reader here at An Inch of Gray. I was reluctant to get the photos taken because I was mad at myself for not putting more of an effort in when Jack was here. I mean how handsome would he have looked out in a field with the sun going down behind him? Sheesh.

We did it anyway, and my Jack necklace hopefully keeps him in the picture. Here's the first one Dorie sent us. I am freaking out at how good it is. If I had known professional photos could de-jowlify me and erase the effects of a 5-ish beer 25th reunion the night before, I would have jumped on this sooner!

Looking forward to sharing more photos with you soon.

Love and light to you as you start your week.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


If you compare our lives to how they were a little more than a year ago, there is so much that is different. Nearly unrecognizable, even though our faces and our clothes and cars are the same. You could be saying, "No Shit, Sherlock, your son is gone. Of course everything is different!" and that would be true. But I guess I just did not know what to expect, so I am continually surprised.

You know those annoying books, "What to Expect When You're Expecting"? Even if I'd read about all the potential changes we could experience with grief, I don't think I'd have been able to process the information. At the time of Jack's accident, the smaller changes, or collateral losses, wouldn't have mattered to me anyway. The only thing that mattered was not knowing what his last seconds were like. Not being there to hold him when he died. Never snuggling with him again. Okay, maybe there are a lot of "only things."

In general, I'm not all that comfortable with change. It doesn't energize or excite me. If my steady-Eddie personality hasn't sunk in with you by now, let me give you a few illustrations. I'm 43 and live in my hometown. When I finished grad school I returned to teach 10th grade in my old 10th grade English classroom. I attend the church where I was baptized and confirmed. Jack played with the same Fisher Price toys in the church nursery that I did.

I wanted to buy back my family home someday so I could raise my kids there. I even wrote a letter to the new owners asking them to please contact me if they would be willing to sell.  I wanted my kids to climb the tall trees dubbed "The Titanic" and "The 3-Double Tree" in the back yard and bury their goldfish in the "pet cemetery" by the fence. They could pick tiny wild violets out of the grass and bring them to me as a gift and suck that one sweet drop of honey off of each honeysuckle blossom in the side yard. I wanted them to walk to school across the street, and go to the pool down the block, hiding their snack money under the folded corner of their towels.

I guess you could say I like to bloom where I'm planted and my roots run deep. It gives me pleasure to be the steady one. The one with institutional knowledge. The one to make people feel comfortable and safe.


On the surface, many things do still look the same around here. I still wear my blue fleece bathrobe and penguin pj's from the thrift store--  the banana clip in my hair predating my 1991 college graduation. I still come up empty when I need lunch packing ideas in the mornings and dinner every single relentless night. Margaret still sits in "her" seat in the car. Shadow ignores my commands. We arrive bickering at 9:45 for the 9:30 church service. We still eat ice cream every night.

But our friendships have changed. Some friends have retreated in their own pain, while others have drawn closer to us. It is often hard to be in groups because loss hangs heavy over us. We no longer dwell in the world of both boys and girls. We feel like misfits.We do not have a middle school child, about to head to high school. When talk turns to dating and Algebra and droves of kids loitering at Chipotle or walking into town, our heart stings, and we come up empty.

We drive through town, and there are more changes to see.

The independent toy store closes. Then the pet shop where I used to take the kids to see the tropical fish. We hear our favorite Mexican restaurant might be next. We fiddle with our iPhones at stoplights, unable to sit with the silence and boredom that would have seemed normal just 2 or 3 years ago.

I think of the elderly, and all the change they have seen in their lifetimes. So much change; so much loss. I am amazed at their resilience. What about my grandparents who have seen so much change at such dizzying speed? How do they do it? How do they adapt and keep moving forward?

Because I'm tired of adapting. I don't want a damn thing to change ever again.

Or maybe I don't really care, because for all the changes we are going through, and for how frustrating they are, change might piss me off, but it certainly doesn't scare me anymore. I think I would be unfazed if you told me we were moving to Jakarta next week. Or that we'd been selected to colonize the moon.

Whereas in years past I would consider losing a friendship, changing churches, switching jobs, or moving away from my hometown to be tragic and terrifying, driving me to obsessive rumination, I think now they would just leave me saying....meh.

As my sister said this summer, upon learning she and her family would be moving on very short notice, leaving a town town they loved, "Anna, I used to think moving would be the end of the world. We've seen the end of the world, and this ain't it."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Big News

Sooooo, I have some exciting news to share with you:

I'm writing a book.

A book!

You may think that my light-ish number of posts recently would be a direct result of the fact that I've been typing away in my laundry room/office writing said book. Truth is, as soon as I decided to write a book, fear set in, as did a lovely case of the shingles all over my scalp. This rendered me incapable of writing anything much more detailed than a grocery list or an occasional non-pithy Facebook status update. And then the storm came. Oh my.

Tim said to me tonight, in that most helpful way he has, "I was reading your blog and I think it's time for a more substantial blog post. You know, not like 'I did this today, or I went there.'" Humph.

Here's the thing: I will not let fear make my decisions. I will not let fear make my decisions. I will not let fear make my decisions. Yeah, I typed that three times. It has also been on a hot pink notecard on my fridge for the past 7 years during which, unfortunately, I've let fear make a lot of my decisions.

I did not want to wait another day before telling you, my friends, about this brand new thing. Even though typing it here scares the heck out of me. Thank you so much for the encouragement you have given me and will give me.

You help make me feel stronger than I am.

I hope I'll make you proud.

Oh, and if you want to know what I did today, or where I went, I saw the movie "Argo." Wow. Best thing I've seen in years! That update was for you, Tim:

Friday, November 2, 2012

Well, That Sure Didn't Take Very Long

Guess who I just ran into at the grocery store?

Yep. Mrs. Davidson. That took less than a week.

My eyes filled with tears as I asked her if this grief thing was going to get any better.

She said yes. She said yes. She said yes. Clinging to her words today.

And look who is still struggling but was well enough to go to school:

Meet Margaret, The Elvinking from The Hobbit.

She aced her presentation. I told her it would be funny if she dressed like Elvis and said to her teacher, "What? I thought I was supposed to be Elvis, The King." At least I crack myself up.
We'll be doing a lot of shopping and packing Operation Christmas Child boxes this weekend in memory of Jack.
Maybe you'll be doing that too. It's a great activity for the kids. Or if you are like me and you enjoy sorting things and sticking them in piles, for moms too.
Much love to you this weekend.
And to reader Laura, who lost her almost 19 year old son 7 weeks ago in a car accident: I am so very, very sorry. I hope this will continue to be a safe place for you to come. I don't have your email address so I've been unable to contact you directly.
Friends, could you join me in sending love and prayers to this hurting mom?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

From our house to yours...

Poor Margaret feels sick and will be staying in from Trick or Treating. I'll try to get her to put on her Pillow Pet costume for you! Adorable.

This past week was pretty brutal with all of the storm preparation and anticipation. I don't tell you this to complain, but to thank you for the prayers and good thoughts you sent our way. It was a very heavy time, and your concern helped us feel less alone.

The good news is that most of the Northern Virginia area was spared major damage unlike the Outer Banks, New York, and New Jersey.

The bad news is I experienced a lot of grief and anger and flashbacks for the better part of the week.

It was so hard to believe that with all of the advance warning and preparation this week we did not even lose power for a second, while on the day of Jack's accident the power went out, and roads and bridges were flooded, yet schools and businesses continued as usual, and we did not have any warning about how dangerous the situation had become until it was too late. And don't even get me started on the shitty little (empty) creek I saw this weekend.

We really are grateful to be safe and dry.

But we're still grappling with the big questions, and probably will be for a long time.

My love and prayers are with those families who lost dear ones during this storm, and for those of you who are dealing with the aftermath in both big and small ways.

Friday, October 26, 2012

To Thrive not Just Survive

Spent the morning at the mall, one of my least favorite places to be. I would so much rather have been here with you!

Even though I didn't take the kids to the mall very often, it's still a minefield for grief.

My looming 25th high school reunion necessitated a visit. The weird thing about this event is that it's for the whole school, all graduating classes since 1962. That means I'm going back as a student ("Beer is Great! Sex is Heaven! We're the Class of '87!") as well as a teacher (93-99). My outfit needs to say, "She's still got it!" (If I ever had it in the first place) but not, "Methinks Ms. Whiston doth try a little too hard." I'm not as worried about seeing my peers, because the 20th reunion wasn't that long ago, and we're all in the same boat age-wise. The students, however, haven't seen me since I was in my 20's! Twenties! Just don't want the whole thing to be jarring for them, you know?

Of course I've debated going at all, because I know it will be painful. My last day teaching was the day before Jack was born. I left school on a normal Wednesday evening, and by Thursday morning I was phoning in lesson plans from the hospital because Jack had decided to show up  two weeks early. Being with him was the place for me, and though I missed the students, I never looked back.

Now, I will likely receive hugs and love and condolences. I will probably still ask the standard questions that used to seem so mundane, but  now I realize are loaded for so many people with the realities of cancer, infertility, loneliness: "How are you? Are you married? How many children do you have?" 

The overpriced dress I found today is clingy and quite possibly falls into the "trying too hard" category. I'll leave the tags on and see what my wee clothing expert has to say about it. Give a tween a Pinterest account and see how quickly she becomes a fashion expert. If I return my cougar dress for a lacy light pink Taylor Swift number with nude pumps you'll know who's responsible.

As I left the mall I saw Mrs. Davidson, a mom from the neighborhood I grew up in. I never knew her well, but she's a lovely lady and was immediately recognizable to me. I've seen her over the years in the grocery store and such, but I don't know if I've said hi. You see, her son died in a car accident not long after he was out of his teens. I never knew what to say to her beyond "I'm sorry," so I didn't say anything at all. I didn't know then that sometimes "I'm sorry" is all there is to say. Today I hesitated, then said nothing once again.

Despite being right outside of a big city, we live in a small-ish town. Surely she's heard about Jack. I'm wearing his photo around  my neck on a beautiful necklace sent by a blog reader. While I desperately wanted to say my very belated "I'm sorry, and I'll never forget," I also wanted to ask her about this pain and longing for our only sons. Would it abate? Does one even want it to? I think I was afraid to engage. Afraid to ask.

And now, with this horrible news coming out of New York City of two children killed by their nanny? Sometimes the sadness seems too much.

So I smiled, swung my little shopping bag in the air, and kept walking.

But Mrs. Davidson's roots were dyed her trademark black, while my grays were springing out this way and that. Her toenails were painted a beautiful coral . And she was spending a Friday morning at the mall, of all places, perhaps buying clothes for her next trip to see her grandchildren (please let there be grandchildren!) or meeting a friend for an early lunch.

She looked put together. She walked with purpose, her head held high. She didn't look like she was slogging through her day.

Maybe that's what I needed to see.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Is That How it Works?

So I'm doing what I've been doing a lot of lately, drinking hot tea and staring at a blank computer screen. I type a few words, and my wonky computer sees fit to delete them at random, or insert what I'm typing right in the middle of my previous sentences. This is annoying and unsettling.

My braces keep getting snagged on the inside of my cheek, but I'm too lazy to go get my wax. Did I tell you I now have braces on my lower teeth? Oh yes I do, and coupled with the Target reading glasses I got on Saturday, I'm now able to rock both sides of the age spectrum on one face!

There's so much I want to write about, but I'm not sure if I have the wherewithal to battle the annoying typing gods to do so.

Today I'm thinking about how our family seems so out of balance these days, and how that makes coping with the big and small news of life difficult. Margaret is living the life of an only child, but it's so different than a typical only child's experience because of our circumstances. She's more lonely child than only child, because she knows what's missing. Not the idea of a sibling, but a real big brother. Hers.

Not only is the safe rhythm of give and take and compromise of her first 9+ years absent, there also seems to be a great sense of responsibility on her shoulders for wanting to hold this family together. I don't want that burden for her.

Before, when Tim and I would bicker, which was fairly often, Jack and Margaret could roll their eyes at one another, knowing that while neither of them liked it, everything would be okay. They knew they were on firm ground. Sure, Jack said it would be fun if we got a divorce because then we'd spoil them by buying them lots of presents-- smart boy-- but he truly felt our family and our future was solid . 

Now, I can tell that our bickering stresses Margaret out. I think it's just one more way she doesn't feel anything's certain anymore. A simple cough could be whooping cough. One beer could be the path to alcoholism. And if mom starts to cry, what if she can't stop? In the past few weeks she has seen families we admire breaking up, Tim's and my peers get diagnosed with cancer, and, hell, she had the reality of  her brother going out to play with her in the warm rain and never coming back.

Jack and Margaret used to worry that I'd die young, as my mother did, and I'd convince them that there was simply no way that would happen. Nope. Been there, done that. It would not happen again.

So, basically, it comes down to credibility, and mine's shot. I didn't manage to keep my kids safe, I am not able to keep cancer at bay. Tim and I have a strong marriage, and breaking up has never been on the table, but who am I to say Margaret is crazy to be stressed by such things?

Impossible things happen.

Prior pain is no protection against future pain.

Life is not fair, for good or for ill.

A few months ago Margaret asked  me,
 "Mom, did you have a good childhood?"
"Yes, it was wonderful," I replied. "Why?"
 "Because you're having a pretty bad adulthood."

She went on:
"I'm having a pretty bad childhood, but I hope that means I'll have a pretty good adulthood."


Oh, Sweetie, me too.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Of Box Tops and Shoeboxes

Hi Sweet Friends,

Sorry I've been AWOL. I signed up as the "Box Top Mom" at our school this year, so instead of writing I've been clipping tiny pieces of cardboard along the dotted lines. On an unrelated note, I think I need reading glasses.

Guess What?

It's Shoebox time again! I hope you'll join me in assembling shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child in memory of Jack. Last year we sent hundreds of boxes, and underprivileged children all over the world received bulging boxes of goodies for the first time in their lives. These boxes are truly life changing. We will be packing shoeboxes as a family, with our church, and at Tim's office this year.

The Operation Christmas Child website gives you info on what to pack, such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, hard candy and small toys. You can even track where your shoebox goes.

Here's a short video made by blog reader Katie. She used it to inspire her church to send more boxes than ever last year.

My friend Ellie, a teacher in Illinois, packed a special box in memory of Jack last year and included all of his favorite things-- Legos, logic puzzles, etc. She did not track the box. However, this summer she saw a picture on the Samaritan's Purse website of a teenager in Haiti with a box that looked just like Jack's. Whether it is the same box or not, we'll never know, but the impact the experience had on Ellie is unmistakable.  Read about it here.

Packing boxes changes kids' lives, and ours too!

I hope your family enjoys packing these boxes as much as we do.

If you are unable to pack a box, but would like to drop off any supplies at my church, Margaret, Tim and I will be happy to pack them for you!

Completed boxes are dropped off at collection points around the country Nov 12-19.

Many thanks, much love, and happy packing!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

YOU Oughta Be in Pictures!

I started getting Facebook and Blog messages last night that there was photo of Margaret, Jack and me on the NBC Nightly News! I had no idea that was going to happen! Last week, when I read a blog post called, "The Mom Stays in the Picture," I sent in a comment and a picture with the kids and said why I was so glad I had made sure over the years to "be in the picture." I didn't know that the post, about how moms are too seldom in photos with their kids, would go viral. The writer ended up on the Nightly News, the Today Show, and Katie Couric's new show. Talk about being in pictures! What a wild week she must have had.

As you know, I always tried to be in a lot of photos with my kids because when my mother died, we had so few pictures with her in them. I yearned for more glimpses of our life together than just what was in my memories. So, I made sure I was in photos so that my kids would have something to remember me by. Of course now, in the unexpected way my family's life has changed, those photos are really a gift to ME!

Here's the clip:

And remember, no matter how your hair looks, whether you have a few extra pounds on you, or even if  your green dress has an awkward "dart" showing, you "oughta be in pictures!"

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Shorts

I was sitting in my office at work early this morning when a sweet man came in carrying a plate of deviled eggs. He was looking for a place to drop the eggs for a funeral reception at our church later in the day. I am not a picky eater, but deviled eggs are one of my least favorite foods. I don't like how they look, taste, and certainly not how they smell. I ushered him out as politely and quickly as possible.

My former students will tell you I can be sensitive about smell. Unfortunately, my B.O. meter is as accurate as my B.S. meter, which is to say... finely tuned. And don't even get me stared on tuna fish. I had a "no tuna" rule with the teenagers who would hang out in my classroom at lunchtime because much as I like to eat tuna, I don't want my classroom trash to smell like it all day long.

So, this dear man came in carrying a plate of deviled eggs quite early this morning. Oh, have I told you I was back at work after being home sick in bed all day yesterday? Ugh. Fortunately, the smell dissipated before I needed to take another sick day.

But this little post isn't about eggs; I think it's about funerals.

The funeral was for one of my mother's best friends. She was a lovely woman who died at age 82 after a long struggle with cancer. She was a huge Bible scholar and teacher, as well as a champion of  women's rights and social justice. She made us think, and in many ways served as a moral compass at our church, always listening, nodding, and pointing us back to grace.

I have been to a handful of funerals in our church in the year since Jack's service. All have been for older people, with grown kids and grand kids. As I sat there, I did not have flashbacks to Jack's service because, well, most of it is a blur to me, and the feel of a funeral for an elderly person is so entirely different from that of a child. Jack's and my mother's dying so young makes me think of what they missed out on, and that's hard.

But with this beloved woman, there was a real quality of completion and a life well lived. She will be missed greatly, as evidenced by the tears shed and the stories shared, but there's also an excitement that all those years of digging and studying were leading up to this moment. She is free from her cancer and can go right to the source of her devotion to gain rest, to gain answers, and perhaps to keep teaching!

I'm no expert on how all of this works, but that's how it seems to me today. Someday I will see it all clearly.

Oh, I skipped the deviled egg table and went straight to the desserts.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Chilly Monday Warm-up

Cold and dreary Columbus Day. I'm in my comfy pants cozied up to my computer with my 6th (!) cup of tea for the day. At this rate, I'll need some serious Crest Whitestrips by the end of the winter.

Experiencing procrastination and writer's block, so I thought I'd finally share this amazing picture sent to me by a wonderful blog reader. Perusing photos on the blog, she saw something interesting and sent it to me as an encouragement. Cloud photo on left courtesy of local friend who saw this in the sky while thinking about our family shortly after the accident while being urged, "Look for Jack." Photo on the right is from the Jack's birthday balloon launch in March.

Hmmmm, do you see what the reader saw?

Pretty cool, huh?

Hope you are staying cozy today.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I think of community and wonder if it’s really necessary for so many to suffer together. I mean, Tim, Margaret and I have to suffer because Jack was ours. Grieving is the price we pay for loving him so very much. But the sadness that slammed a tiny school, descended on a town, and spread throughout this country and beyond through friends and social media? Is that sadness too much to put on others?

Is it right to want others to share our grief with us? To walk this path by our sides? Or is that asking too much?
I really hate to use a drowning analogy because my oh my how I’ve been struck over the past year with how many hymns, praise songs, and even references to grief refer to drowning. Ick. That’s a lot for me to take. Last week Margaret and I counted 5 songs in a row on our Christian radio station dealing with storms, waves, being pulled under, drowning and floods.

However, there is an image that keeps coming to me when I think of community. It is of our little family huddled together out in the middle of a pond on very thin ice. It’s lonely out there. And the weight of our grief and longing for Jack are so heavy, bearing down on us, the pond starts to crack.

Then I see us getting down on our bellies, and spreading our arms and legs out, almost as if we are embracing the ice. Friends, those we have met and those we may not meet for a long time spread out too, grabbing onto our hands or our feet, until we’ve redistributed the weight, making a web or a snowflake pattern that reaches to the far edges of the pond and keeps us safe. Tim’s and Margaret’s and my weight remains the same, but we don’t go crashing through.

I’m not sure if that’s really how ice works. Or grief works. But there is a real feeling of blessing and relief that comes from being connected to others in grief and pain.

Thank you for that today and always.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Time Machine

Jack's best friend in the world was his cousin. I've shared before a little bit about their relationship.

As you can imagine, Jack's cousin was devastated to lose him, especially in such a sudden and horrifying way. He misses him so much, and we miss the relationship they would have had as teens and adults.

A mere two weeks after the accident, Jack's cousin had to write an essay in English class entitled, "If I could bring anyone back for a day..." Wow. That must have been really hard to do.

Here it is:

If I had a time machine I would bring back my cousin Jack. Jack was my best friend, and he drowned on September 8th, 2011. If I had one day to spend with him I would warn him, and if that didn't work I would spend the day with him. I would also get a last goodbye and tell him about the impact he has had on the lives of the people around him.

First, I would try to reverse the events that happened. I'd tell him about that day and to avoid the river. If he didn't, we would go see his family in the present. We would still go see them even if he did believe me, though.

If that wouldn't work, I would spend the day doing things we wanted to do. We would watch the Red Sox play the Yankees, and play catch out on the field. Then, we'd take my sister and his sister Margaret and play the "River Game" at Smokehole campgrounds.

At night, we would stay up late talking about random things like we used to do. We'd also play "The Game," that Jack made up, an RPG style game with a character given obstacles by the narrator. Finally, he'd tell me stories about Kevin Youkolis and mess with my dreams while I was dozing.

Lastly, I would get the goodbye I never had. My last goodbye I got from him was an awkward one armed hug and "see you in a couple months." I can't tell you how much it hurts me to think that was my final goodbye to Jack. I would give up everything to see him again, even if it was just for a day. I would tell him how much he meant and still means to me and all of his family. I would tell him the impact he has had and how he has changed our lives before and after he died.

I can't describe how much I love and miss Jack. It pains me to kmow that I won't see him for a long time. If I had another day with Jack Donaldson, that is how I would spend it.

I love you boys.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Stepping Out

We noticed when Jack was a baby that he seemed like an "old soul" because he seemed to grasp things well beyond what someone his age should.

Me? I'm just plain old, and I have been for quite some time.

In doubt? Any day after 4:30 pm you can catch me walking around the house in flannel pjs topped by a down vest. If you're lucky, I'll be working the Washington Post crossword puzzle.

Then there's the fact that I acted like a mom long before actually becoming one. I fretted over people. I hugged. I worried whether my friends would grow up and meet someone nice. I dished out healthy doses of guilt to my high school students. And, thanks to beloved college friends, got valuable practice cleaning up other people's vomit.

Today I went on a shoe shopping spree to replace the fall shoes and boots I've been wearing since Margaret was in preschool. No need to rush into anything.

Putting the boxes in the car, I looked over the labels:

and... dear God...
Life Stride.

Comfy, old people's shoes. I'd like to say that my comfy shoe wearing ways have come about since I turned 40, but I cannot lie to you. Considering how grumpy I get when I have to pee, need a snack, or am tired, I learned long ago that I don't need to add uncomfortable shoes to that equation. Yes, I am aware this sounds more like a toddler than a mature woman. Let's just say that when my kids complained of scratchy tags, I got it.

I'm just so happy to have found 4 new pairs of shoes that work and can carry me into the next years (decade?) in comfort.

I also gained a new slogan, inspired by today's shopping mates:

Anna Donaldson, Lowering the Median Age in the Aerosoles Store since 1993.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Just A Little Something

Jack never went to Disney World, Hawaii, or a professional football game. He didn't have a cell phone or fancy electronics. Many of his clothes were from the thrift store, a "perk" of having a mom who loved bargains.

Thriftiness was part of our family culture and it was easy to take pretty far because Jack really didn't ask for much. Maybe he would have preferred an expensive baseball bat and batting helmet instead of cast-offs. I don't know. But really, he seemed content.

Money did not burn a hole in his pocket. He was a saver and a savorer. He liked to save up for "something big" and make sure it was something he really wanted. In fact, after the accident, we found a lot of unused gift cards in his room, from birthdays and Christmases waiting to be used for the next. big. thing. Tim, Margaret and I ended up using them to buy Christmas gifts for needy kids.

Of course I would have loved for Jack to have traveled more, done more, and to have had a lifetime of experiences instead of a measly 12 years worth! Today I would love to be able to read a trail of texts between the two of us that captures the warm give and take of our relationship, but I can't because he never had a phone! Ugh. But I suppose measly truly is not the word I'm going for today, when thinking of the years he had, because while measly in quantity, the quality was okay with Jack. How he spent his days. What he had or didn't have.

You may be a mom who is wondering whether your kid is missing out on the pricey riding lessons or gymnastics clinics or ski vacations of his or her peers. You may be looking at your neighbor's house and thinking that a great big kitchen island, preferably covered in Carrera marble, would somehow make you a kinder, gentler, more organized mom (or am I the only one who does that?) You may be counting the years until college and realizing there had better be one heck of a financial aid package on your family's horizon, because you will never be able to pay. You may even be wondering, in a very real and scary sense, if you can meet your family's most BASIC needs this month.

You may be wishing you could give your kids more.

Tim and I were fortunate to be able to give our kids more, in a financial sense, but we didn't. We gave them what we gave them. And we don't regret it. Not really.

Because many times, but not all of the time, when the stars were aligned in that sweet spot of parenting, in the midst of blowups and apologies and busy-ness and petty comparisons and our easily bruised parenting egos... we gave them ourselves.

Our eyes.
Our ears.
Our hearts.
Our acceptance.

And that really is something.

It's something we all can give

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wonder-filled Wednesday

If you have a Michael's Craft store in your town, and you walk down the poster frame aisle, you'll likely see what we saw:

Row after row of pictures that look just like Jack and Margaret. I don't know what you call those things. Frame fillers?

Seriously, they looked exactly like my kids. Jack's arms, hands, cheek, hair, clothes. And Margaret. Little Margaret, arms out, next to her brother, hair flying out behind her? Wow.

My sister saw the frames first in her town and let us know about them. She wondered it we'd think she was stretching things a bit. Of course, I had to check them out for myself.

They did not disappoint, even up close. Without hesitation, Margaret said, "That's us, Mom!"

I was struck the most by the way these kids are standing, because it is precisely the way mine looked to me as they walked down our long driveway the day of the accident. Jubilant. That last time I saw them together.

And yeah, they are walking into a sunset (sunrise?) full of birds. So there's that.

If your kids are the real models from these pictures, please don't tell me. I'm just going to enjoy this little bit of wonder today.

I hope you will too.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Oh My Goodness

So grief puts a new spin on marital intimacy. Sure, the family bed thing comes into play. (Don’t worry, our therapist says that’s fine for now) Plus you have the exhaustion of mourning. Throw in the usual buzz killers: middle age, new braces on my bottom teeth, and a mouth guard. Super sexy.

But there’s one thing I hadn’t counted on. You know how the past year has taught me so much about heaven being so close? So RIGHT here? Well, most moms know how hard it is to turn off the multi-tasking mind during certain special moments… “Did I sign those permission slips? Can I pass off a store bought cake for the bake sale? Why is so and so acting weird? Did I really say that at the bus stop?”

Well, now I’m confronted with the fact that there are some things adolescents are never supposed to see. And if the other realms are so close… well, you know. Good luck getting that OUT of your head as you’re supposed to be getting INTO “it.”

I've decided I just have to trust God on this one. He knows how hard we’ve worked to protect our kids from inappropriate images and situations, and that continues on.

Turning off the lights must help too, right?