How Far She’ll Go

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Right now, Sprout tells me she isn’t going to move out. When you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says nothing, she wants to stay at home with me. “I’m not leaving my Mama”, she says, with a stubbornness that is genetic.

Every time she says it, I get a pang in my chest, my heart squeezing painfully against my ribs. Despite her insistence that she is not going to leave, I know she is. Her time will come, and she will want her independence. Already she is stretching the bond between us, spending more time without me, playing by herself, or with her sister, wanting Daddy for more and more, letting go of my hand when we’re at the grocery store, and skipping ahead down the aisle. She jumps from one brown tile to another, skipping the white ones, on the floor, until she is at the end of the aisle, and I have to call her back.

The knowledge that she will spread her wings and fly shows itself in her taste in music. She loves the Moana soundtrack, and she loves How Far I’ll Go, the most. One day, after she sat and sang the entire song from her car seat, I asked her why she liked the song so much. Because Mama, Moana is going on an adventure, and she sees all kinds of things on her adventure, she meets Maui, and the sparkly crab and whales, and she learns to steer the canoe by the stars.

She is attracted to stories and songs about adventures. For a year it was Tangled, and the adventures of Rapunzel. Then it was Frozen. Now it’s Moana.

The stories about princesses who wait for the prince to come? They aren’t for her. She’ll watch Snow White warble on about her prince, or Sleeping Beauty sing about her dream of a prince, but given her choice, she picks adventures. She watches Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy, she has dived headlong into the Emily Windsnap series, this morning at 5 am she was up reading. She wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, and just like Belle, she isn’t afraid of monsters.

My oldest child is going places. She feels the same attachment to home I have, and I know when she leaves it will be with tears in her eyes. But she will leave.

She is my child. The call to the road and adventures is genetic too.

~Jennifer

The Land of One

Tomorrow is my last day in the Land of One. There is no little baby coming up behind Pudge, once the clock rolls over to midnight, I will not come here again.

One is a land of sippy cups during the day, and bottles at night. One is a land of Up, and More, and NO. One is the land of naptimes, lovies and pacifiers.

The baby I cradled against my shoulder, a head full of dark hair, skin yellowed from jaundice, and slept in the sunshine from my living room window, she is gone.

But so is the barely one year old.

A sturdy toddler body launches herself into my arms from the couch. A head full of dark hair lays next to mine on the pillow at night, half-heartedly sucking on a pacifier as she sleeps. The crib has been turned into a toddler bed, and already we are looking at bunk-beds.

2T clothes, and soon 3T, dominate the wardrobe. Size 6 shoes sit by the door.

We are firmly in the Land of Toddler.

Today at lunch, she held her arms up, arms that are no longer chubby, and said Up. Followed it up with a please, and so I ignored the bubbling water on the stove, and hoisted her onto my shoulder. On their bedtime playlist is These Are The Days. I have memories of spinning slow circles in my kitchen with her cradled in my arms, or sleeping on my shoulder.

Sprout and I have Layla, the Unplugged version. She still firmly believes that Eric Clapton wrote that song for her.

Pudge and I have These Are the Days. And standing there today, on the last day of 1, with her head on my shoulder, and her eyes half closed, I cried. Not the big fat tears of true sadness. But small tears. Tears of letting go.

Tomorrow we are off to see the snow and play in the mountains. Her first day in the Land of Two will be one of adventure and fun.

Goodbye Land of One. My memories of you are sweet. And exhausting, I feel like every time I have come through this land, I am exhausted. But we can not stay any longer. Life is pulling us along.

 

~Jennifer

Alexi Laiho. Cheekbones.

Alexi Laiho is the reason why I know I have cheekbones.

Let me back up. In the years in between Sprout’s birth and now, I have lost two siblings, an aunt, and the only set of grand-parents I had alive. I have become the official Black Sheep of my Mom’s family. My husband has deployed once more, left the Army, and moved us across the country during the hottest part of the year. And I had Pudge.

Somewhere along the way my immune system decided it hated my thyroid, and left me dealing with a long list of symptoms, leaving me a casualty of the war between white blood cells and hormones. The stress of everything broke me, and I collapsed in on myself.

Then my husband got back into metal. He started going to concerts and watching videos and listening to it more. He bought a guitar, and then another, and then another, and then another. He started a blog. One evening, I saw a box. Holding an EMG Alexi Laiho signature pickup. Alexi Laiho was on the box.

The world stopped turning for a moment.

I was looking at the living embodiment of teen-age Jennifer dreams. The ultimate bad boy. That crazy rush of hormones that marks the start of a crush hit my brain while I was still staring at his picture.

First I hit Google, where I obsessively read everything I could about Children of Bodom. Then I listened to their music. Not played it in the background, while I was doing something, I sat in my bathroom, while the girls napped, and listened to it.

I nurtured this crush for months. One morning, after not sleeping while getting the girls back to bed, after dozing on the couch while the sun came up, a sick baby on my shoulder; I staggered into my bathroom. I felt every year, every single day of my life, as I stared at myself. A little voice, a little insidious voice started whispering in the back of my head, that I was not the type of woman Alexi Laiho would want. “You are not a take-charge person and you haven’t been for years.” “He would not want you.” “You are not worth his time.”

I spent a few days so wrapped up in that voice, that I could not concentrate. The house went to hell, I didn’t play with the girls, I barely remembered to feed the girls. I burned dinner. I didn’t sleep.

That voice was right. He would not want the girl who had been devastated by life, who had withdrawn rather than fight back. I realized I did not want that girl either, I didn’t want to be her anymore.

I bought makeup a few days later. I bought highlighter and bronzer and watched Youtube videos on how to even use what I bought, more makeup than I have ever bought before. I remembered to pluck my eyebrows. I bought lotion, and then more lotion, and then even more lotion. I bought lotion that matched bath soap and body spray that matched both. I started painting my toes again.

One morning, I actually used the bronzer. And I discovered, I have cheekbones.

I have cheekbones.

Now, months after I saw his face on that box… I am not who I was. I am still me.

But I am not who I was during those dark days.

I jumped into the world of metal. Hubs bought me a guitar. And then another. And then another.

I started reading photography tutorials again, I started taking pictures again, I remembered to take my camera out of my bag.

I went to a metal concert. Yeah, I went to see Children of Bodom. I stood in between the mosh pit and the rail, in a crush of humanity, screaming until my throat was raw. I did not have a panic attack. I did NOT have a panic attack.

In the middle of all those people, I did not cry, I did not get the itchy feeling that precedes stress hives. I didn’t get the overwhelming urge to run to the bathroom and hide, even when I was sure Abbath was going to summon Satan while playing.

I am standing now, wobbly, but standing, on the far side of the most trying years of my life. But I am no longer hiding. I am no longer afraid.

The next time I see my favorite singer perform with his band, I will be ON the rail, even if I have to stand there for hours.

And no, I am probably still not the girl he would want. But that is ok. I am, and will be, eternally grateful for the cheekbones. For reminding me to scream back at life when it seeks to level me.

But I don’t need him to want me. I will not wither away if he never sees me.

I am bad ass all on my own.

~Jennifer

Postscript: My crush on Alexi Laiho did not cure me. That will take modern medicine, and I will be perpetually thankful that I have good doctors who can treat me. But, that crush, that one-sided, adolescent crush, propelled me to change things. It prompted me to do some soul-searching, to find my inner bad-ass when she was buried underneath layers of grief.

Best Laid Lesson Plans

I am prone to tweaking lesson plans. I write them, plan weeks and occasionally months in ahead, and in the moment, that week or that day, I tend to change them. There have been moments where the girls were working on one activity, and I was re-arranging plans for the next.

Hubs challenged me to do 5 days, following my lesson plans to the letter. No substituting, no changing, do the plans as I wrote them. A brand-new camera bag/purse was on the line, if we met those days. I wanted that bag. And I wanted to see if we could actually get through those days, if with the promise of a treat, I would lead and teach the girls, and not find an excuse to spend the day in my yoga pants.

We set off the first day, and I was full of ambition. And caffeine. I have new curriculum for science, history and math, and I was eager to get into it. The night before I had printed off a lab, read ahead in the history book, printed off a map, and dug through my endless supply of math manipulatives. The girls sailed through that day. And the next. And the next.

But the 4th day, our Thursday, was a slog. No one wanted to work that day, especially me. I found myself accepting work I would normally ask for a redo on. Rushing through our science time just to get it over with. I didn’t stop to make sure Sprout has grasped the math concepts we were working on, and we had to go back to it the next day, and slow down. Our Friday was better, but everybody needed a break.

When we finished up that last day, Sprout looked up at me and asked if homeschool was always going to be this hard. Pudge had refused to let go of me for nearly an hour, desperate for some attention and some hugs. I had an epiphany in that moment, this is not why I homeschool.

I did learn some things though, and I have the feeling these lessons will stick with me through my homeschooling years:

  • It is so easy to fall into the trap of Drill Sergeant. Getting all those activities done, doing spelling words and math problems, became more important than what the girls were leaning.
  • In the moment, likes and dislikes change. Things that Sprout liked, that I could incorporate into lessons, were dislikes by the end of the week, and she did not want anything to do with them.
  • The ability to change lesson plans on the fly is a strength of homeschooling not a weakness. I can easily adjust to a new like, or skip ahead when something is mastered quicker than I anticipated.
  • I got into homeschooling for the creativity it afforded. The ability to teach on the fly, to change things up was a huge draw for me.
  • We have homeschooled for long enough now that going to a more structured schedule, more than what we do now, isn’t going to happen, at least overnight.

I hope to take this knowledge with me, to remember this when I start to feel bad about how often we don’t get everything accomplished, that the girls are still learning. Even when we do nothing more than stay in our jammies and build block towers and intricate marble runs, they are learning.

~Jennifer

Sick Day

It is not easy for me to take a day off.

My honeymoon, that first year of marriage where everything is sunshine and roses… wasn’t. Within months of getting married, Hubs was overseas on a deployment, and I was pregnant. Everything, every single detail of daily life, mundane or not, fell on my shoulders. To complicate matters, when we tossed out birth control, I did not think it would take us just a few weeks to get pregnant. But five days after I said goodbye, the lines on a pregnancy test turned pink.

Life has not slowed down since. I have lost two siblings to cancer, and taken on the care of my Mom, whose health has declined.

When the pregnancy test turned positive a second time, Hubs was finishing up his career in the Army, and we were planning a cross-country move. After we settled in the desert, I found myself homeschooling, making my own baby food, washing cloth diapers, doing it all again.

And then my health started to decline. Mood swings I could not explain, hot flashes, joint pain, and overwhelming fatigue. Nothing I tried made me feel better. I could not get enough sleep, could not get the house cool enough to be comfortable, even when my family shivered and ran for blankets in the middle of a hot summer.

All my passions, writing, photography, music, fell by the wayside. Weeks went by without me picking up my camera, I could not write even the simplest short story. My guitar sat alone in its case.

The doctor put everything together, and told me that I have Grave’s Disease. At first I was dumbfounded; I am never sick. The health problems that have plagued my family seemed to pass me by. It took days for me to really wrap my head around the idea that I was sick. And that no matter what treatment works, it will likely mean a lifetime of medicine.

But it meant something bigger than even medicine. It meant I had limits, and my body was at them. It meant that I could not stay up all night long, and then spend the day teaching Sprout, playing with Pudge, cleaning my house. It meant I needed to pay attention to my diet, lay off the caffeine, get more sleep.

I took some time to look for the lesson in this, what life is trying to teach me. It was a painful lesson, but one I needed to learn. I need to learn to take a sick day.

Sisters

I broke the rules. When you are pregnant, you are supposed to want a happy healthy baby. You’re not supposed to want a boy or girl. Just healthy. At least that is what everyone told me. With Sprout, I did just want happy and healthy. I was excited to see a little girl on the sonogram, but I would have been just as excited to see a little born.

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Just a few months before Sprout turned one, my sister lost her battle with cancer. I had been there with her, at the end. Through the nights when the pain would not cease, when we gave her as much pain medication as we dared. I was there, the night she begged me to give her enough morphine to end it all. I can say, I was one of the few that were there.

Her death changed everything. I know that seems cliché, but words fail me when it comes to describing what her death did to me. It felt like a meteor had slammed into the world, and everything was in chaos. Nothing was the same.

When the grief started to subside, when I could see through the tears and think of life after… I was possessed by a single thought. We had to have another baby. And we had to have a little girl. Sprout had to have a sister.

Hubs was leaving for Afghanistan, and I could not bear the thought of another pregnancy without him. I did not want to see him miss the birth of his second child. So much time was taken from him and Sprout, I refused to take time away from him and his next baby.

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The thought of the next baby carried me through that deployment. He would come home, we would be a family, and then we would expand it. The baby would be a girl. The baby had to be a girl.

At the same time, I planned for more pink blankets and socks, I wondered if I was damning myself. If by wishing for a girl, I wasn’t wishing for a healthy baby. What if the most painful lesson of my life would be to lose a little girl. To lose Sprout’s sister.

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When the pregnancy tests turned positive, despite everyone and everything, I wished for a girl. I hoped for a girl. I knew if we had a boy, I would want to try again, and I doubted my body’s ability to carry a third baby. So while I said I wished for a boy, and imagined a dark-haired little boy. I wanted a girl.

You see, only a sister gets you. Only a sister understands you, as a woman, on a primal level. Only a sister is there to fight with you, make things better with you, to lean on and to be leaned on in turn. My life has been affected by my sisters. Sprout needed that.

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When the tech pressed the wand into my belly, and confirmed that Pudge was indeed a girl, I was relieved. I was ecstatic. I was overjoyed. When she had Carl and Sprout leave the room, to call a doctor in, to talk about something she had seen, I lost all of that. Every good emotion I had left when the tech talked about my cervix, and funneling, and early labor. The doctor assured me everything was fine, and I would make it to my due date. But she asked me to book an appointment with my OB, after we moved and settled in, as soon as possible.

I knew then that I was at risk for losing my little girl.

We drove across the country a week later, and I drove most of those 3,000 miles with one hand pressed to my belly. She was kicking then, shoving her feet into my ribs and my bladder, and I counted everyone. I stood on the Continental Divide, some of the prettiest country I have ever seen, with my hands pressed to my belly, trying to keep Pudge in.

And a few months later, it was time. The epidural failed. Then she came so fast the nurses did not have time to set up the bed. The placenta was slow in detaching. It felt like the universe sending me a sign, do not do this again.

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I knew, laying in the hospital with a duplicate of Sprout, that my time in the land of pregnancy was over. But it did not matter. She had the same measurements as her sister. The same face. A few weeks later her eyes turned brown, and her hair does not have the blonde streaks in it.

Pudge is old enough now to play with her sister. They build sandcastles together, paint together, color together, make playdo cookies and run around in the grass outside together. Sprout leads Pudge around, teaching her how to kick a ball, how to hold her baby dolls, how to sneak into my room and get into the candy I stash in my nightstand. I have found Sprout in the crib, surrounded by toys, playing as they wait for me to get them up for the day.

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They fight. Already they scream at each other over toys. Or who gets to sit in my lap during the movie.

The bond is there though. They build it every day. It is my fondest hope that their bond gets them through the rough parts of life, and is there during the good.

~Jennifer

Carry Me

“Carry me”, she says. She is 5 now, and those thorough-bred long legs still tire on long walks. She is still afraid of thunder storms, and when the rain beats down, she holds her arms up.

“Up up up!!” the baby says. Chubby toddler arms reach up for me, as she bounces impatiently. The last vestiges of babyhood cling to her, a round face, an equally round belly that pushes out over her diapers. Proof of a healthy appetite.

I moaned and complained for years over my hips. My Mom told me there were child birthing hips. I have no idea if wide hips made giving birth easier. But it has provided me a spot to prop my children.

Since Sprout was tiny, I have carried her. Or worn her. First it was a wrap, then a ring sling got us through the toddler years. I put it away with the hopes of another baby.

And that baby came. Pudge was just a few days old, I was still sore and hurting, when I pulled the ring sling over my head, spread it out over my shoulder, and put her in it. A second ring sling, an Ergo that she outgrew, and finally a Tula.

At the beach yesterday, I wore her. And I realized that she is too heavy, or am I too beaten down and old, to wear her on my chest anymore. A long walk and my shoulders ached, that spot in my lower back that never seems to loosen up reminded me it was there.

I realized it was time to put her on my back, and so for a second walk, down by the ocean, I did that. She was content to watch the world from my shoulder, and I did not ache at much.

I have heard it often, that I should put them down. Let them run and play. And I do. At the park, on the beach, around my yard, and through my house. I could, and have, talk myself blue in the face about not running and slowing down and being more careful. They do not listen.

But the time when I can carry my babies on my hip, on my back, in my arms, is passing. These are the hard years, but they are the fast years. I still feel like I just brought Sprout home from the hospital, and this fall she starts kindergarten. A year ago Pudge was a roly poly baby, and now she is my independent toddler.

I will hold, and carry, and wear, them as long as I can. Until either my body gives out or they are too big to carry. Tomorrow they may conquer the world, but today, they have a spot on my hip.

~Jennifer

Bouncy Balls

Sometimes, I don’t get a homeschool project perfect. This is one of those times.

I had seen recipes for super bouncy balls you could make at home. I have several pinned, ready for me to print out. But on a recent trip to Walmart, I found a premade kit. Colored crystals you pour into a mold, sit in water, and preso!!, bouncy balls.

The box said it made 18 bouncy balls. With visions of bouncy balls bouncing through my head, I bought the kit. Sprout, Pudge and I cracked into the box the next morning, and…. It’s not what I expected.

You have to make the balls in molds. Which were a pain in the rear-end to put together. And there are only two of them. Each ball has to sit in the mold for a total of 20 minutes. 10 in a cup of water, 10 on a paper towel. And then they are still tacky, so they sit more.

If I had two little girls interested in this, it would have been a nightmare. However, Pudge was content to sit in her high chair and eat some pretzels. Sprout would make a set of bouncy balls, and then we had to wait. Wait. Wait.

We made four before everyone was tired of bouncy balls, molds, crystals and water.

Lesson learned… I will take the time to look up the recipe for the homemade version next time we start a project.

~Jennifer

The Girls of Summer

I had just enough time to meditate this morning. Just a few minutes to calm the cyclone that beats a never ending path through my head. I have lists of mantras pulled up, things to chant. But today my mantra was simple, “I will not wallow.” I will not wallow in my grief. I will live today as best as I can, because I do not know what tomorrow will hold.

I repeated that mantra, over and over again during the day.

I didn’t grasp it; it didn’t settle until this afternoon. I spent most of the day faking it, hoping neither of the girls saw the cracks in my armor. But after Pudge and I took a nap, we all went outside. The weather is warm; it was hot this afternoon. Summer is here, at least in my corner of the world.

I am a sun worshipper. Not in the sense that I tan, I burn and then peel. But when the sun is out more, when the weather warms up, I feel more… alive. More me. I packed away my vitamin D lamp in March. I have enjoyed the spring, watching the sun spend more and more time in the sky, watching the grass green up again, the plants start to grow. There was something different about today.

Maybe because I forced myself to notice the warmth, and the sunlight streaming through my fingers. The hummingbirds are out now, buzzing around and chirping and fighting over the feeders. Maybe that is it. Maybe it is the sight of my girls, growing and thriving, maybe watching all the hard work of parenting slowly come to fruition.

The girls played in the sandbox, in their playhouse, with the neighbor’s dogs. I found my center again, with a camera in my hand. When I stood in front of my camera case, I picked up a lens I have rarely used, I didn’t shoot that many pics this afternoon. I didn’t take that many pictures, I put my camera down to play with them instead, to build castles and eat play food brought to me with dirty fingers.

When it was bath time, and the toys were put up and the playhouse closed, they smelled sweaty. Dirty little toes pit patted across my kitchen floor, and I ignored the sandy footprints. A bubble bath, clean pajamas, and our day was done.

I will not wallow in my grief. I will live for today. I will live for the hope of tomorrow. I will enjoy every moment in the sunshine and in the rain and in between. I will take pictures, build sand castles, color on the sidewalk, paint with bright colors, made bead necklaces. I will pick up homeschooling, and guide my lion cubs through lessons and play time. I will rock a baby to sleep and let a big girl sleep on my shoulder when she has a nightmare. I will put together a summer camp for my girls, and sign up for soccer lessons and eat too much candy. I will drink lots of coffee.

The girls of summer are here. And I have to play in the sunshine with them.

~Jennifer

 

Specs:

Nikon D7100

Focal length: 35mm

Aperature: 3.5

Shutter Speed: 1/250

ISO:100

 

Grief

Sometime, shortly after my sister died, someone told me the grief would change. I was almost bleeding my loss during this time, the grief was turning into anger, and there were days when it felt like someone was digging a scalpel into my ribs, trying to separate the bones and dig out the places where I carried my emotions.

I took this to mean it would get better, that I would stop hurting so much. So I waited, and waited, and waited, for it to get better. It never has. Grief is not present every day, I do not spend hours staring at her pictures, or her jewelry where it hangs on my Mom’s bedroom wall. It comes and goes; gone and then back again, threatening to pull me away like a vicious undertow.

But my grief is not gone.

Grief, I have found, make me angry. Once I am doing crying (for that moment), I have to do something, anything. The anger makes me restless, and I find myself cleaning the school corner at 11 am at night. Writing fanfiction until I can see the light of dawn creeping over the horizon. Or chasing down unsuspecting Alliance players, across a battleground in World of Warcraft until my eyes are gritty and I cannot focus my eyes to see the screen.

Last night, as I surfed facebook, wasting away a few minutes after the girls fell asleep, I found a picture my sister had tagged me in, before she was even sick. And so I found myself scrolling through her wall, until I came to one picture, posted a little over a week before she died. It was Sprout, sitting in a recliner, with a little mouth open wanting food. We were in Texas then, I had come for a visit and stayed as long as I could.

She posted that picture, along with a couple others, a little over a week before she died. It was probably the last time she was on facebook, before she became too weak to even sit up and scroll through the pictures and well-wishes and prayers and all the positive energy that was pouring in to her wall.

One of the last things she did, was post a picture of my firstborn.

Seeing that picture, everything hit me. The phone call where I told her and Mom I was pregnant, the calls where I asked for advice about morning sickness, maternity clothes, foods to avoid. The shrieking and giggling and “I TOLD YOU SOOO!!” screamed into my phone when I called to tell them Sprout was a girl.

The mounds and mounds of baby clothes and blankets and socks they had bought, and how I had to buy another suitcase to get them home when I visited that Christmas, my last trip anywhere before the baby was born.

And the toys and clothes that waited for us when went to Texas, when she was barely able to walk, but insisted on buying things for Layla. Of the final day, when we had to leave, when I had to go back to my life in Georgia, when I had to leave my Mom’s house, knowing I would never see my sister alive again.

With those memories comes the knowledge that she is gone. There is no coming back. All the things we would supposed to do, we will not get to do. Everything that was supposed to happen, has not. And my life changed course forever when she died. I can divide my life into before she got sick, while she was sick, and after she died. The memories of my first year with Carl, of a long deployment and a first pregnancy, are mixed with the memories of her diagnosis. Just a couple of months after him and I reunited on a parade field somewhere around 1 in the morning; her cancer was terminal, and we got the you need to come home phone call. Her death stands as one of the most monumental moments in my life, nothing has been the same since.

And the grief continues to come. It has changed, leaving and then sneaking back in. But it is still there, still digging in under my ribs, making it hard to breathe. Or maybe I cannot breathe through my tears. For in the worst moments, I cry so hard I nearly puke, I almost always end up bent over the toilet, heaving in gulps of air as the anger and bile rise in my throat.

Her birthday is this Saturday. A day I always called her, to tease her about growing old, about gray in hair or crow’s feet around her eyes; will come and go. And I will not be able to call her. I kept her last voicemail in my phone, and the day I upgraded my phone and lost her voicemail was a painful day.

I want to spend the next few days curled up in my bed, under the blanket she took to chemo. But my girls will not let me. The baby she loved so much, and the baby she would have loved just as much, need me. So I will do what I did the morning she died. I will follow my girls, and let myself fall into their world; where death has not touched them, where even rain is something to be celebrated, and the sunshine is a gift to be treasured.

 

~Jennifer