When I was in college, the largely unspoken, but prevailing belief seemed to be that smart, strong women could have plenty of fun dating around, but would want to get their degree and all their career ducks in a row before settling down. For some, random hookups were the mode de jour; for others, dating was one long stream of bad men. Only a few had really long relationships. And motherhood? That was for way later, if at all. Pregnancy would practically mean the end of your life. Taking birth control was the only smart choice.
The trouble is none of us had any idea how difficult it could be to find a good partner after college. When you join the work force, you enter a pool of widely varied, but highly limited options. There’s usually a huge age range—which makes finding unmarried age-mates more difficult, and when you spend the vast majority of your life in one office, meeting people outside that milieu gets incredibly hard. If there aren’t any suitable mates among your coworkers (and let’s not even get into in all the potential trials of an office relationship), you can be hard-pressed to find the time or place to even meet anyone else new.
I remember when I was a teenager, I used to dream that I’d go to college, get a fancy career started, find an awesome apartment in a big city, and then find my future husband, whom I’d marry, preferably around the age of 28. After a couple years of marriage, we’d have our first child, probably when I was around the age of 30. Thirty sounded like a good child-bearing age. That still would give me a couple of years to have my second child at 32 or so, and be done well before that fertility drop-off at 35.
I assumed getting pregnant was easy because all you hear, when you’re young, is about the girls who got pregnant even though they only had unprotected sex “that one time.”
I don’t know if it’s by luck or by choice, but I never had a string of bad men or bad relationships. Sure, I dated a jerk or two and a few guys who, though nice, weren’t going to captivate me long-term. But those were always obvious from the start and I never was one to stick around with a losing bet (I distinctly remember one relationship that had a shelf-life of “Four Tuesdays”—my best friend from college will get this reference; there were lots of fun, crazy memories from that episode in our lives). My relationships either lasted a few weeks or a few years—the long ones, even the ones that didn’t work out, were great while they lasted, and important learning experiences in preparation for marriage.
It turns out, I met my husband in college—though neither of us was anywhere near ready for marriage at the time. But we fell in love, probably to both our surprises, and we stuck around each other, even though “not ready” was a big light flashing above both our heads. Toby took a year to travel the world after he graduated college, and in the interim, we had both grown a lot. By the time he came back, I knew I was ready to think about marriage, even if we weren’t anywhere near ready to marry each other. We loved each other; we knew that much. I probably broke a slew of dating rules by doing this, but I told him, in no uncertain terms, that if we were going to be together, it would be with an eye towards marriage. Though we both knew there were no guarantees in this trial run, I wasn’t going to waste time with someone who was only in it “just for now.”
Luckily for me, he was on the same page, more or less, and the years following were a steady learning experience in which we tried out what marriage might look like, what commitment meant, and what it would mean to devote ourselves to another. By the time he proposed to me, I was 26 and we were ready. We had grown into marriage together. We had become ready together. When we did exchange vows, I had just turned 28.
But marriage isn’t the only odyssey one embarks on—there’s also parenthood. Having just gotten married, I wasn’t in any rush to have a child. There was my doctorate to finish and a career to start. Toby was only just getting his career off the ground, and a job in the tech industry at that time seemed volatile and uncertain. We lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and had other dreams too, namely involving travel. Maybe living abroad for a while. There was still adventure to be had and a baby seemed more like a huge complication and intense responsibility than the next inevitable step in our life progression. The biological clock had started ticking, but I ignored the bell toll.
Though I had heard that fertility decreases with age, I still assumed it would be easy enough to get pregnant. I did have one friend who was trying to get pregnant and had started fertility treatments. She warned me getting pregnant could take time. I heard, but didn’t hear.
When I turned 30, I finished my doctorate and we made plans to move to Thailand. Work with The SOLD Project was already lined up; all I had to do was get to northern Thailand. We were leaving everything we knew behind. That wasn’t the time to start thinking about babies.
After we got settled in Thailand, and Toby’s work situation seemed solid, I was getting integrated at SOLD and halfway through writing a manuscript, I began to listen more carefully to that biological clock. I went off the pill slightly before entirely ready, thinking it would take a few months for the pill’s effects to clear my system, so that, fingers crossed, I might be 100% ready when it did.
Then, I didn’t get pregnant. Our jobs got even better, visitors came and went, we had grown into life in Thailand…I still didn’t get pregnant. My best friend from college was also enduring her own trial of fertility problems, and my best friend from grad school had suffered miscarriages, and another friend was going through a divorce…so by this time, I was really hearing it: Yes, it can be freaking hard to get pregnant. We traveled to Hong Kong and saw more of Asia. I still didn’t get pregnant. We spent a month in Europe, I didn’t get pregnant. We went back to the U.S. for a month…if I didn’t get pregnant soon, we’d have to think about fertility treatments. I didn’t even want to know what that cost would look like. My mother and sister had both had miscarriages before being able to carry a child to term. My cousin is 40 and still unable to get a baby to take, despite almost a decade of treatments. I knew that even if I did get pregnant, it might not work on the first try, and I had to steel myself for that possibility.
It turn out that it was only when we no longer had a stream of life and travel plans that, after more than a year and a half off the pill, I got pregnant. I’m turning 33 next week, and my dreams of having two kids are now looking more like I’ll be blessed to have one. I’m okay with that, and even saying this, I want it to be clear that I’m not complaining. I doubt I’d make different choices even if I had the chance. I love the years Toby and I have had together, and I think the stability we’ve built and the life experiences we’ve had, having had that time, will only serve our child better.
But I feel incredibly lucky. I feel like it’s only partly our choices, and mostly by chance that things have worked out for us (so far—I don’t want to jinx this!). I look at women I know who’ve been trying for years and years to get pregnant, or friends who’ve suffered miscarriages, or others who still can’t find a life partner, and I know how easily it could have gone a different way.
It’s a myth we tell ourselves when we’re young that we can somehow control life and when and how it happens to us. We make plans for what sounds like a good age to marry, and to have children…and these days, that “perfect age” is getting later and later. Instead of right after college, many push it off to their late 20s. Some women, realistic about demands certain careers make, push it off into their 30s, or even later. We don’t factor in the potential for complications. When we make our timelines, we don’t consider the possibility of divorce. We don’t consider the possibility of infertility.
Though I did get married at 28, the truth is I met the man I would marry when I was 20. It took us 8 years to get where we needed to be. If I hadn’t taken my feelings for him seriously way back then, when I still felt I had other life goals to meet first, or vice versa with him for me, who knows where either of us might be? Maybe we would have found other people to love. Maybe there is such a thing as soul mates, and we really are the only ones for each other. Who can really say? Meanwhile, people perpetuate this fear that marriage really hampers one’s freedom and independence. We’ve found this to be entirely untrue for us. Marriage has given us each a strong foundation from which we can both fly—both separately, and together. It’s made us stronger than we would have been alone.
We tell ourselves, when we’re young, that to be real strong, smart women, we have to put education and career before absolutely everything else. The truth is, life goals can exist side by side. You don’t have to put your ducks in a row…sometimes, you just kind of herd them along together. The trend now is to stave off marriage and family until you’ve lived your life first. What makes for “the right time” is an incredibly personal decision and it varies widely from person to person, but I do think we women do ourselves a disservice when we don’t make clear to each other that there are potential tradeoffs when we put off childbearing; that while you’re busy living your life, it can become increasingly harder (and harder than we think it will be) to be able to bear life. We underestimate how fragile life can be, and how uncertain fertility is. We all popped our birth control pills every day for years, each of us never knowing if we’d be the one who’d get pregnant on the first try, the one who would need years of fertility treatments, or the one who couldn’t get pregnant at all.
We can’t control when life happens to us, but we can be honest and informed about the consequences of our choices, and we can listen carefully to our inner guides about who is right for us and when we’re ready. From an employer’s perspective, there’s never a good time for a woman to get pregnant. But your life is your own. External deadlines matter little compared to the timeline we feel ticking along inside.
* * *
This post was inspired by this one, “26 and Already Pregnant,” by Kate from Eat The Damn Cake. If you’re interested in more fun facts about delayed marriage and child-rearing, check out this post, “The Sweet Spot for Tying the Knot,” by Susan Walsh at Hooking Up Smart.
I was planning to write a Books to Savor post sharing a good read I’d come across recently, and I may still get to that later today, but in the meantime, I’m in the mood to share some random things going on in my brain bucket today.
Here they are, in no particular order…
- Our little Dot is a pretty dang obedient dog and a sweetheart…except in one area. She is nearly uncontrollable when it comes to barking at the neighbors, gardeners, and any other being that commits the grave sin of existing anywhere near our house without express permission. Because our house is rented, we can’t fence her in properly so she’s free to wander, which was fine when we didn’t have neighbors. But after the flooding in Bangkok prompted people to start moving up to Chiang Mai, we suddenly have neighbors. Neighbors who like to have visitors. So you can imagine how many times a day we have to yell at her and chase after her. Dot doesn’t respond well to negative reinforcement. It only makes her more stubborn and recalcitrant (or worse, she gives us this look like we’ve totally failed her), which makes it really difficult to teach her NOT to bark because it’s kind of ridiculous to only be able to praise a dog when it doesn’t bark.
It’s hard to get completely mad at her because it comes from a protective instinct and she’s only doing what she thinks is her job. But since I got pregnant, her protective instinct has been elevated from day job to High Calling, which is both sweet and utterly obnoxious. So after trying every other thing we could think of or find through copious online research, we’ve decided to try a shock collar on her. It makes me feel incredibly guilty and worried, especially given her usual response to negative reinforcement and I really didn’t want to break her relationship of trust with us. But…after just a few days with it, I have to say…
Toby has worked carefully with her in using it and keeps it on the lowest possible setting, so that it’s more a sensation than an actual jolt. But the part I really appreciate about it is that you can press a button, via remote control, to emit a little warning beep before resorting to the shock. He only had to use the shock on her twice before she learned to stop barking, come right back to us and sit down, at which point we envelop her in praise and treats. Now that little warning beep is pretty much all she needs to get her to stop barking and come home. And she doesn’t seem to be exhibiting any signs of feeling upset or hurt by us or the collar (maybe because it’s done by remote control, so the connection isn’t clear to her?). So as long as the warning beep is all it takes to get her to obey when we tell her to stop barking and come home, I think I can slowly get behind using this thing, though I still hope there might be a day we won’t have to use it at all.
- Sometimes, I get really tired of how debate is handled with political stuff. Almost every day in my Facebook feed, there is something about how people are shooting people up in America and we need to do something about keeping slaughter machines out of the hands of crazy folk and why do we only care about people dying when it’s a bomb and not a gun AND/OR something about how we need to cling to our guns and freedoms, and clearly not having an AK-47 = tyranny, and because one person managed to use a gun successfully it’s a good idea for everyone to have easy access to them. The media, which exists to sell itself (and these days, doesn’t even pretend to care more about sharing real policy information than entertainment), THRIVES on this kind of conflict, pushing wedges where really there aren’t any. The truth is, on most policy issues, most people are pretty moderate (which, turns out is kind of a reasonable place to be, hey?). But the way we talk about these issues is like two echo chambers existing side by side, rather than actually communicating. Which is really sad because it makes it impossible to advance the conversation. I’m tired of hearing the same old drumbeats on either side. I’m tired of people painting each other as crazy and stupid when they clearly haven’t listened to what the other really wants. And here’s a hint: you’re not listening to people if you’re spending the entire time trying to figure out how to prove that they’re wrong and you’re smarter.
Here’s two things I wish people would think about more. 1) If you think the answer to a policy problem (especially a controversial one) is really fucking simple, then you’re probably not looking at it carefully enough. 2) You’re not contributing to an effective solution if you can’t hear or address the concerns of those who disagree with you. Be opinionated all you want. Having strong opinions is good. Being engaged in the world around you is good. But it’s still not actually helpful to assume your opinion is the only one worth having and to only want to hear other people tell you that you’re right.
The really worrisome part is that perpetuating these divisions make people really, REALLY angry, and I fear that not only does it not contribute to good policy, but that it makes people really hate each other, dehumanize each other, and makes it seem okay to be more violent with each other, so that it is no longer possible to reach each other with words. People begin see no other recourse than weaponry.
- Something else I’ve been thinking about lately is that it can be a challenge learning how to adjust to a parent who is aging. I think part of growing up is dealing with the disillusionment that comes when you realize your beloved parent isn’t quite the superhero you thought they were when you were 5, but alongside that comes the beautiful part of getting to know them as they are, which can make you love them more deeply and more expansively, and can add wonderful new dimensions to the relationship.
Sometimes, though, it is a challenge when you’re confronted with a parent whose age has turned them into someone they didn’t use to be, especially if some qualities you admired have been replaced by something you don’t. I recently realized that, when you factor in time with a relationship, part of loving someone means letting go of them as they once were and finding love and acceptance for who they are now. Sometimes, the change is so drastic you have to find new ways to connect with them, demonstrate love, and support and encourage them. It’s like you almost have to build a new relationship. It’s not easy. But realizing that brought me a long way closer to making it okay.
- Today I’m baking 5-minute artisan bread. The dough has been resting in the fridge for two days, and I’m anxious to see how it turns out. I’ve made it a few times before, but for some unknown reason (changes in humidity/weather? different flour used?), it comes out differently every single time. So it’s like a surprise every time. We’ll see how well it works today!
So that should probably have made up three posts instead of one. Thanks for indulging me! Tell me, what’s been on your mind lately?
An article in the NY Times recently argued that the best way to instill resilience and self-confidence in children is to provide them with a strong family narrative. It’s a fascinating read. Much like other social groups, there is greater cohesion when the group shares its history – the highs as well as the lows – and forms a strong core identity in which children are helped to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.
As I read the article, I saw how it reflected my own family. I knew where my parents grew up, I knew some of the darker skeletons in the closet, I knew the story of how my parents met and how I came to be, and my mom told me more times than I can count that blood is thicker than water; that friends may come and go, but that family – whether you want them to or not, and even if they sometimes go about it in really kooky ways – will always be there for you.
It wasn’t just words either. I saw our family banking system in action: when one member needs a boost to qualify for a home, the various relatives scramble to put it together, knowing full well one day it’ll eventually come back to them, though they’d do it regardless; when another gets married or has a baby, the older relatives pull together and set up a nest egg; when the younger members get older, they send money home to the grandfolks or even offer them a place in their own homes, and they continue the cycle of sending money down to help out the younger generations. The insurance is better than anything the FDIC can offer and it’s interest-free.
I saw unconditional love in action: no matter what was said, no matter what hurt was dealt, you could always come home. It might not be easy – justice would always be meted out – but you would never be turned away at the door.
Why does a strong narrative instill resilience? How does the family story bring strength? The article suggests it has to do with “sense-making,” identity creation, and group cohesion. Based on my own experience, I think it’s about more than that. Whenever my mom sat me down and gave me her blood is thicker than water spiel, I always took a deep amount of solace in that knowledge. I took comfort in knowing that I always had a home base, that I would never be shunned no matter what I did (I might surely have to pay the piper, but ostracism would never be the price), and that I always had a gaggle of supporters cheering me on from the sidelines.
Besides, when the family unit is strong, there’s no one better than an older, indulgent sibling, who once kissed all your boo-boos and got you that thing no one else knew you really wanted, to tell you when you’re being a schmuck. Because if you’ve gotten to the point where even they have to say something, then you know you better get your butt in gear. Crying about it is not going to make you shine any brighter in their book, so man up.
The flip side of that coin was a deep sense of duty. I’m not sure it was ever put into so many words, but because I had that comfort and the experience of seeing the family in operation, I knew I had a role to play too: that when others needed my help (whether it was asked for or not) the best way to show love was to jump in and do what was needed, that one needs to learn to be open-minded enough to see love in the kookiest of gestures and appreciate even the quirkiest of personalities, and (this was never expressly said, but if it’s true that I would never be ostracized, then the transverse must also be true) that the worst thing I could ever do would be to turn my back on family because they would never turn their back on me.
It’s part of what gave Toby & me the courage to take a leap and fly across the globe. We knew, no matter what happened or how miserably our experiment might fail, we could always have a soft spot to land at home. It’s what kept me going in the darkest, hardest parts of my most painful experiences…when I wanted to give up, when I would have simply let go if it were simply up to myself, I hung on for my family. When I couldn’t do it for me, I did it to honor the ones who never dreamed they could do it for themselves.
This NY Times article shone a light on an aspect of my family that I hadn’t put into quite the same words before. But if it’s true that a strong family narrative creates stronger children, I know what I’ll do when my child joins the fray. I’ll show them each and every day not just how I love him* and not just how my husband loves him, but all the ways all our aunts, uncles, grandmammas, grandpoppas, and cousins love him and what it means to love back. I will tell him again and again where and who we came from, and I will show him that whatever we did and no matter from how far away, we did it together.
* And by “him” I mean “him or her.” No, we don’t know the baby’s sex yet.
For the month of March, Bigger Picture Blogs is celebrating the turn from winter toward spring with the theme: Rejuvenate! Come join us: Rejuvenate your heart, rejuvenate your soul – pick up your pen, your camera, and your spirit!
Find all the ways you can blow some fresh air into life and link it up with us at Bigger Picture Blogs!
Live. Love. Capture. Encourage.
Before I came to Thailand, I had spent about 10 years studying and working at a university in a town three hours’ drive from my family. Three hours isn’t so bad; it was just enough space that I could pop down for a visit every couple of months or so, or if I was REALLY in need of family time, I could (and did) drive down on a whim. It was also enough space that I felt what it was to not be near your family.
Of course, moving to Thailand makes that three hours distance laughable. And these are the choices and trade-offs we made: we traded in closeness to those we loved for adventure, freedom, economic security, and life challenges and the lessons they bring with them. (Sadly, one thing I’ve learned is that the best Thai food is still my mother’s.)
But there are days I miss that closeness – that ease of being able to call and not worry about the time difference; the simplicity of being able to just drive over, raid the fridge, and catch up on the family gossip over a bag of chips; and the stories of the non-main-events, the ones that kind of tell you more about what’s really going on with your loved ones than the main-event stories do.
In particular, I miss the women: mothers (in-laws included), sister, cousins that might as well be sisters, nieces, aunts. I miss their stories, banter, and wisdom. Shared memories and experience.
I wish I could shop with them, cook with them, eat with them.
Take my nieces skating…
…see their burgeoning sisterhood through alternating urges to hold on tight or egg each other on.
I missed seeing my cousin become an American citizen. Wish I could have watched him pledge his allegiance to the flag.
But we adjust.
Instead of phone calls and impromptu visits, we have Facebook and Skype. We can see their faces and still hear their laughs from time to time. And we’ve been so lucky to have such a constant stream of visitors that we haven’t had much chance to feel lonely or alone. We know that even when we don’t hear their voices, their thoughts keep us close: that when we cheer, they’re cheering along beside us. When we celebrate, they’re having a party over there too.
And that’s okay. Because love is deeper than distance. And we are very loved.
For the month of February, Bigger Picture Blogs is celebrating LOVE! Share a loved or loving moment with us – it can be anything: a poem, a memory, an ode or yearning, so long as it comes from the heart!
Bigger Picture Moments
Live. Love. Capture. Encourage.
This week we’re linking up on the Bigger Picture Blog’s website!
This morning, I’m sipping my coffee in South Carolina, where I’m feeling the brisk chill of autumn for the first time in two years. I haven’t been this cold since we were in Poland! We flew in yesterday and it’s really only now dawning on me that I’m back in the States, as is evidenced by the sucking dry of my skin and hair that the climate change has wreaked, causing me to run to the store for moisturizers to bathe in, and the fact that I get to pull out my woolly socks.
Woolly socks make me happy. Except at night. I can’t sleep with socks on, no matter how cold my feet get – much to my husband’s chagrin, as he becomes my personal heater. I just know he misses me putting my icicle feet up in between his legs and my frigid hands up on his stomach every night. The gasping sounds he makes are certainly signs of affection.
And now we’re back in a place where I can wear my woolly socks and still make my husband gasp. It’s a far cry from sweaty tropics and mosquitoes. People have been calling us globe trotters, but I feel like we haven’t been trotting the globe so much as flinging ourselves about it. I’m discombobulated.
Only a little bit though. I just had to say that because I like the word “discombobulated.”
But it especially gets weird when I’m here and I hear other people talk about their memories of Thailand. Or when I’m answering work emails and making plans, giving directions in Thai.
I’m sure that by the time I adjust to being here, we’ll be boarding our next plane out.
I kvetch, but truthfully, it’s been great to be back. I got to hang out with my sister and cousins, while drinking some of my favorite beer (and melting in a puddle of bliss).
And I took my nieces to the skating rink and taught them how to skate.
It was wobbly at first.
But they soon got the hang of it.
And, despite being a tiny bit afraid, they had a blast.
And so did I – I’m so glad to have had the chance to do something like that with them. Missing watching them grow up is one of the hardest parts of being away, so this feels extra special.
Anyway, this week, I’m looking forward to a little down time and catching up with Toby’s mom. I hope to get some writing done, and maybe a little reading. A fun day trip to Charleston is also in the works.
I may even do a little of this again.
Don’t worry; there’s nothing back there but more woods and maybe a creek.
Seriously, how is it that two weeks ago I was eating sticky rice with impoverished children in a community center in a rural village in the north of Thailand? And a couple of weeks before that, sipping cocktails on a rooftop bar in the center of high society in Bangkok? Then last week, baking cookies and driving a convertible in California, and now eating chili and cornbread in the deep backwoods of the South? Flinging myself, I tell you.
At least good food is always involved.
What’s in your cup this week?
My sister is thirteen years older than I am. When I was very wee, she played second mother to me, helping my parents feed, bathe, and clothe me. She helped babysit when my parents worked, in a way, sacrificing a good portion of her youth to take care of little me.
By the time I was old enough to develop a relationship with her that I could remember beyond snatches and glimpses, she was graduating high school, moving out, living with friends, and getting married. She was trying for babies while I was watching The Lion King.
Her first husband was a long story, so I’ll skip to the part where she moved back closer to family, where she has been ever since. But by the time this happened, I was the one moving out, going to college, and falling in love far away.
There was love. Always a tremendous amount of love between us, but little else in common with so many years, life experiences, and differences in the way. We would spend holidays together, with the whole family, laughing and joking. But we didn’t share thoughts, or clothes, or inside jokes like other sisters might, and neither of us likes talking on the phone. There were a few breaches in the age wall – like when she found a new man and started asking me for dating advice, and when I went through a major breakup for reasons much like her earlier divorce and I stayed with her for a week as I nursed my wounds – but still, 25 and 38 make for different people and different life phases.
But then she got remarried. And I got married. She had a second baby, and I was maturing enough to start playing aunt, albeit still from a three-hour drive away. I poured love into her babies as proxy for all the love I couldn’t express to her when I was younger.
And now she’s come to visit and I’m discovering there are no awkward pauses. No shuffling. No wondering what to say or what to do. I’m showing her my home in the country of her birth. I show her the markets and restaurants I love, and watch with a smile as she buys up more food than anyone can reasonably be expected to eat. I laugh as we both reach for the same purses, home decor, and hand-carved goods at the night market. We whisper back and forth about prices and conspire over whom to buy from and how much to bargain down.
We sit by the pool, sharing guavas and dreams, and I’m discovering 33 and 46 aren’t so different after all.
The years, they’re melting away.
* * *
but by the moments that take our breath away.”
- Author Unknown
What moments stole your breath away this week?
Each Thursday, we come together to celebrate living life with intention by capturing a glimmer of the bigger picture through a simple moment. Have you found yourself in such a moment lately? Share it with us!
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We’re back! Hope you all had a Thanksgiving so yummy it induced a cozy stupor! This week we have a touching story from Lenae at Just Lenae. If you don’t already know this woman, you should because besides being warm and funny, loving and thoughtful, she and her lovely family are on the move. To Azerbaijan. (Where?!) (Yeah, I had to look up how to spell it.) And they’re doing it right smack in the middle of Christmas craziness. So you should follow her on this new adventure – I’m sure it’ll be quite the roller coaster indeed. Anyway, she took time out of the craziness to share a moment that changed her. I hope you’ll take a moment to pull up a chair and join in the conversation.
From Lenae, titled: My Walk With Red
It was meant to be a weekend visit, when I drove up the California coastline to the small Oregon town where my great-grandparents lived, all those years ago. I was on the cusp of turning 19, with long, black hair I still hadn’t learned how to style, and grand, vivid hopes for all I hoped to accomplish after I left for the Air Force in a few months.
My great-grandpa wasn’t doing well. His health had been spotty for years, but it had recently been on the downward decline long enough that my dad urged me to go see him in the rehabilitation home he’d recently moved to. Just in case.
I don’t remember much about the 6-hour trek north. I sped along the redwood-lined highway I knew so well and reveled in the freedom of my solitude. I littered the floor of my parents’ car with empty Mountain Dew bottles and rotated through my favorite CDs. As for what awaited me once I arrived at my destination, I had no expectations or heavy thoughts about it. I was enshrouded in a bubble untouched by serious illness or death, moving lightly in self-assured naiveté.
It was a bubble that dissolved easily enough the moment I stepped from the cool, Oregon fog into the rehabilitation home. It smelled as most medical facilities do –stuffy, sterile—and all sound was eerily muffled and hushed. I was not prepared for the sight of Grandpa Red, as he’d always been called because of the copper-hued locks of his youth. He was emaciated and unshaven. He stirred instantly at the sight of me.
I had great affection for Grandpa Red, but my memories of affection from him were mostly hazy, rimmed in his characteristic sarcasm. He wasn’t gentle; if he wanted to hug you, he pulled you in under his arm and more likely than not gave you a noogie. He served in the Seabees during World War II, and filled the Navy-stereotype beautifully with entertaining, salty language. He listened to Rush Limbaugh in the shop behind the house and enjoyed fishing. He taught me in part how to have the grand and vivid personality I was carefully stoking for myself.
Yet the man in the hospital bed was neither grand nor vivid. He was a remnant of the person populating so many of my memories, already faded. Somewhere in my subconscious I recognized that this, truly, was a farewell visit, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around that reality just yet. I crossed the room and perched carefully in a chair beside him and did something I couldn’t remember doing since I was a very little girl: I held his hand.
I don’t remember if we traded any polite remarks. Frankly, I don’t remember anything about that interaction other than how very warm his hand was, and that he startled me to my core by asking if I’d attended church yet that week. “I’ll be at church on Wednesday,” I offered him shakily, information he wouldn’t know because we’d never discussed my budding faith.
“Will you pray for me, Lenae?” he asked.
After a very long pause –because now I was attempting to wrap my heart around the reality my mind had already recognized—I promised him that yes, I would.
Mortality is an interesting, twisted object to try and hold in your hands. I’d always been very precocious, very mindful of the darker aspect of the humanity I was a member of, but this meeting with my great-grandfather shattered any perceptions I’d built of my awareness. I was a typical 18-year-old in that I was quite sure I knew exactly what I was doing… about everything. And of course, nothing will tear up the roots of false confidence like confronting death.
The rehabilitation center he was in was not ideal. My great-grandmother was fretful and alone there, pacing the halls of the home they shared not far from the beach. But I wanted to leave. I wanted to return to the warm security of the car gliding down the highway, and sing my heart out and slam down junk food and think of how cute I’d look in an Air Force blues uniform.
In the end, there were a few things that compelled me to do otherwise: compassion bred beneath an umbrella of intentional parenting; a heart leaping and jumping in new faith, and ideas of what vibrant service and selfless love actually looked like. I quit my job back in my hometown to stay there in Oregon, and help my great-grandparents. The ensuing weeks were an education in one of the most grand, vivid transitions of life – as it were, the exit from life. It was a privilege to dole out medication, to hear tales told one last time, to observe gratitude delivered in unchecked fullness. It was shattering to be present for the physical breakdown of a body that was, at a time, strong and streamlined. I held those warm hands that grew ever warmer as he –we—neared the end, and it seemed he was burning the truth of existence into my soul. I’d never shared anything very deep with the man, but I was honored to be there with him as he grappled with the inevitable questions we weigh as we contemplate being no more. I was humbled to be able to pray with him, blessed to see evidence of a peaceful heart just hours before his breath came and went and then did not come again.
It was not graduating from high school or taking the oath at the end of military training that propelled me into adulthood: it was this – the overwhelming, breaking, final walk I took hand-in-hand with my great-grandfather. I felt in his grip all the love he was never able to convey in words, and when my eyes had cleared, I looked up to the see the sunrise of eternal life as I’d been unable to view it before.
I hope you enjoyed this moment, and that beautiful juxtaposition she created between youth and death. I hope you’ll join us once more next week, for the conclusion of our series. Thanks so much for connecting with us along the way!
We could ask for no greater reason to inspire gratitude than the one we were served on the night of Thanksgiving. My husband’s father has been in the hospital for a week. He had lost all feeling in his legs, and when the doctors went to look, they found several growths along the spine, ones they feared might be related to cancer. The news sent our family into a head spin; we were so unprepared for such a prognosis. Not that anyone’s ever really prepared to hear such a thing. But after many days of anxious waiting, we heard the results of the biopsy: in surgery, they were able to remove all of the growth, and no sign of cancer could be detected.
If my husband hadn’t already been sitting down, he might have collapsed in relief.
We had much to be thankful for, and we celebrated, our little family of two.
I surprised my husband with a miniature Thanksgiving dinner. I laid out the table with flowers and candles.
No turkey for us, but I did make a traditional green bean casserole and of course sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, along with pork loin that I had marinated in a balsamic & Dijon sauce. Plus a slice each of some amazingly decadent, but not too sweet, almond-coffee-cream-cake and German chocolate cake for dessert.
(Our oven is on the blitz, so I did have to improvise a bit.) It wasn’t much, but it felt festive. And after dinner, my husband pulled me into an embrace, the kind that tells you more strongly than words that you’re appreciated.
And then we watched Cowboys & Aliens. ‘Cuz we’re traditional like that.
Anyway, I hope your Thanksgiving was lovely, fun, and full of warmth. Much love to all of you in the holiday season!