Sunday, November 5, 2017

November Regret

I read about grief recently, how it comes in waves. The waves are strong and overpowering at first and you feel as though you’re drowning but in time they settle down and only come around in smaller and less frequent intervals. The reader was urged not to resist these moments but rather let these waves wash over you with the assurance that in time they will pass and you will not drown.
For me the waves come mostly in the fall. Or perhaps they are most notable in the fall because this when they are accompanied by the sharp pains of regret.

In high school I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer. He and I had done theater together and I completely adored his gentle, funny demeanor. We had bonded over a few plays but we weren’t terribly close so I never inquired too deeply into his diagnosis.  I did know he had gone through treatments and was in remission when he graduated a year ahead of me, and in a pre-Facebook age I assumed he had gone off to college to enjoy a wonderful life.
The following fall I ran into him at a sporting event. It still stings to recall the moment because his smile and words were so kind and upbeat, “Hi Katie, it’s me!” He opened his arms and I hugged him, gingerly. It was clear his cancer had returned and the young man I had laughed with backstage during many a dress rehearsal was hardly recognizable.

At this point I’d like to say I was mature beyond my 18 years and grabbed his hand and sat beside him and listened closely to his story. If I had a do-over I’d have looked him in the eye. If I had a do-over I would have let him make me laugh, he had a brilliant dry humor. If I had a do-over I would have told him how much I admired him, how much I treasured his friendship, how grateful I was that we had run into one another that night. If I had a do-over I would have treaded tenderly into the “how are you doing” conversation and if he was ok to talk about it I would have listened, bravely.
Unfortunately, though, I was not courageous. His bright smile, excited to see a friendly face, was met by my fear. I didn’t know what to say. I stammered. I made very lame small talk. I told him it was great to see him, because it truly was. But I begged off quickly. One last tender hug and that was it. ‘He’s probably going through treatments again, he’ll be fine’ my ridiculously naïve eighteen-year-old self thought.

A month later I learned he had passed away.
I never cried so hard in my life. Certainly there was deep mourning for a precious, young life lost to a hideous disease. But also, there was intense regret. How could I have been so heartless, so fearful, so unkind? How could I have missed it so entirely, a chance to be a friend in moments that must been so lonely and terrifying?

I went to the funeral. I wrote his mom a letter. I told her how wonderful he was and how he would never be forgotten. I told her about how he would make us all laugh and how he would save my place for curtain call. I told her that I know someday we will meet again and I look forward to finding that same smile awaiting me at the final curtain call. She wrote me a long letter back and told me it meant a lot to her. I didn’t tell her that I had been a coward just a few weeks before.
For the next several years I would find the changing leaves always brought on a huge wave of sadness and regret. I would call my mom on a long drives and just sob, “Why didn’t I just TALK TO HIM!?!”

With time and years, the waves diminished, but the lesson was not learned.
In early November of 2008 I had a birthday party to plan and work to do and two little ones to care for so when I ran by my grandparents’ house I didn’t have much time to chat. My grandma asked me how the party planning was coming and I sat down for a few minutes to tell her all of the details. She had thrown some noteworthy parties in her day and it made me proud to be following in her footsteps. But when I got up to leave she urged me to stay. I remember thinking it was odd how much she kept insisting, “Just stay a little longer Kate.”

At this point I’d like to say I stayed. If I could have a do-over I’d have sat for hours. I’d have listened to her stories of when she was first married, of being a young mom, of starting a business, of when I was born. If I could please have a do-over I’d have thanked her for making my childhood magical. If I could have a do-over I’d have held her hands and listened to her voice and soaked in every last second.
But I didn’t take the invitation. I said I had to go, I’d see her soon.

Two days later I got a call that she’d had a massive stroke. I cried hysterically the entire way to the hospital, “why didn’t I just stay a while like she asked!”
She would never regain consciousness, though I begged her, and God.

My grandma had been a pivotal figure in my life and losing her, especially so unexpectedly, felt like a loss I could never fully recover from. And, once again, the loss was compounded with the deep regret of our last conversation being cut short by my busy-ness, and the assumption that we’d have more time.

It was nine years ago tonight that I left her house too soon. The wave hit me as I sat at an intersection near her house looking at the beautiful fall leaves. “It was tonight…” the wave crashed in. “You should have stayed….” regret quickly followed. “She kept asking you to stay, remember?”
I remember.

And regret still stings, and I am still so sorry that I didn’t stay. The same way I regret that I didn’t treasure the chance meeting with my friend with cancer. But, I am also slowly lessening the grip that regret has on me every early November.
Tonight I realized that the self-loathing ‘how-could-you-be-so-stupid/selfish/fearful/busy’ part of regret only serves to shame me for being human. In its place I must insert grace. No matter how much I try to be present and connect and listen well I will never feel that I have done any soul the justice it deserved when it departs this earth. It will never be enough.

The truth is that life is busy and hard and we are all doing the best we can with the skills and courage we’ve been given. We can all strive to get better and do better. But there will always, always be a gap. I was once asked by a wise friend, who had surely realized all of these things long before I ever did, “what do you think your grandma would say if she heard you beating yourself up so much about leaving that night?” It took no time for me to hear her voice, “It’s alright Kate, don’t worry.”
So, as the early November memories wash over me this year I am trying to experience the grief without the regret. There are so many good memories to treasure; I cannot let the last one hang round my neck so heavy any longer.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Rudolph Moment

For those of your who have followed our very drawn out house hunting process, you know that I had a specific list of  house qualities. A great yard for the kids to play, four bedrooms, a nice kitchen, move-in ready, those were all things I hoped to find. But whenever we walked into a house the thing I was really imagining was a big Christmas gathering and whether we could host LOTS of friends and family comfortably. Back in February my Aunt told me about a house that was in the process of being flipped that had four bedrooms and might be just the place. I drove by that very day and KNEW it was the house for us (before I'd even gone inside... seriously). I've only felt that "knowing" one other time: the day I met my husband. Thankfully we were able to purchase this perfect-for-us home in July after it had been completely remodeled by the most meticulous and kind older gentleman and his family. It was a tremendous blessing.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve and at last the house that was in much disrepair a year ago was brought to life in the fullest. My poor Aunt was suffering with a terrible cold that was going to make hosting a big family get together very difficult. At about eleven that morning my Grandma called me to ask, "do you think you might be able to host tonight?" I felt like freaking Rudolph, and YES I would be happy to guide the sleigh tonight! Brandon and the girls sprang into action, sweeping and putting away toys, prepping for the forty guests we would soon have the opportunity to host! We rearranged some furniture, set up tables and spread out table clothes.

I felt like a kid on Christmas (I mean, I was literally an adult on Christmas so it's not a tremendous leap). And as the guests arrived and I got to see the kitchen full of food and conversation and plenty of space for everyone to sit and laugh and enjoy I was full up with gratitude for this perfect-for us house! For those few wonderful hours I felt as though everything was just as it should be.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Anapra Visit

In 2013 we opened a library in Anapra. It sits on a corner of two dirt streets in the center of this 10,000 person neighborhood of Juarez. Most people in Anapra survive on around $70 per week for six days of factory work. Public schools are not free, nor do they have libraries. Books are rare. Except at this library where the shelves are filled with over 1,000 titles covering everything from llamas in pajamas to what to expect when you're expecting. This corner of Anapra has become a portal to adventures and to learning. This little library tells a story, too; to the single mother, the elderly grandmother, the tired father, the confused teen, the curious child - that they are valued, worthy of investment, and have a place to belong.

Over the last six months we have added another large space in an "L shape" to help with the library overflow. The building sits back-to-back with the library with a door between the two. The main room is ideal for tutoring and game playing and crafting. The smaller room is great for guests to sleep or potentially a quiet place to read, when needed. For the first time we now have a safe place to stay that does not require inconveniencing our friends or crossing back to the U.S. at night. The space is bright and welcoming, though it is not yet fully finished. The floors are still bare concrete and the walls need paint. One thing at a time and patience, these are things Anapra has taught me.

The library, the new expansion, the books, the activities, none would be possible without Estela. She, and the small group of women she has empowered and entrusted with this ministry, are some of the most incredible leaders I have ever met. Despite their own personal challenges, despite the daily struggle to make ends meet and just stay warm, these women serve selflessly. They show up to open the library. They greet the patrons with hugs. When someone new comes they get to know them, they ask about their story, and they listen. Despite only having a sixth grade education Estela manages the library and the volunteers and the programming like a seasoned pro. She laughs about the unlikely role of 'librarian' but it fits her talents perfectly.

It comes as no surprise that Estela spends her time pouring into others. Glancing around her living room there are photos everywhere of family and friends. Her story is as rich as the array of photos on her walls. Someday I'd like to do it justice by taking the time to really write it all out. But again, one day at a time... one project at a time. For now she is busy running a library among other ministries, and taking care of her grandchildren. She has 17.

In the early days of ministry in Anapra Estela learned of a young mother whose palette house had burnt to the ground and left her and her five children homeless. Estela worked with her contacts in the US to build this mother a new cinder block home and they soon became close friends. Bertha and her five, now-grown, children continue to help Estela with ministering to the needs of others. Bertha hosts Vacation Bible School every summer which has grown to serving over 200 children on most days of the four-weeks that it runs. Two years ago Bertha suffered a debilitating stroke that left her badly crippled and blind. The people of Anapra and local nuns went into downtown Juarez to tell Bertha's story and request donations for a much-needed surgery. Donations received, along with those from the US, enabled the surgery to save her life and some of her sight. Recently Bertha worked with Estela to begin a Pajama Club at the library. Though she struggles walking long distances, and only has partial sight, her enjoyment of the children is all that is evident when she sings songs and reads stories to the little ones cuddled up on blankets in their pajamas.

Though much has been done in Anapra in the twenty-plus years Estela has been doing ministry to her neighbors, there is still more that is needed. As winter set in last year Estela visited an elderly woman who was living up on the mesa above Anapra. When she arrived at her house she was surprised to find the woman living in a palette house with her six grandchildren and no blankets on the beds. The woman explained that they had hung the blankets on the outside of the walls to try to keep out the bitter wind. Estela reached out to us and shared the story. As a minimum they needed a heater and blankets, but ideally we'd get a house built. We shared the story, we found donors, and a house was built. During our visit we piled into Estela's van and headed up the mesa to see the new house and to meet the woman and her grandchildren.

Lorenza is a petite woman. She was quite but grateful. Her six grandchildren sat quietly and watched as we stood in their 10 ft. by 20 ft. home, beds in each corner, neatly swept. Two more babies lay sleeping, more grandbabies who need watching while their mother is at work. The home sits a stones throw from the edge of the mesa, which is how one granddaughter ended up falling down the steep hillside and breaking her leg several months ago. Estela points to the granddaughter and notes that her leg is healing well. Lorenza tells us that she prays often for those who help the poor, then asks us if we would like to take a look inside of her old house, which she now uses for storage.

Entering someone's home is so personal, especially when they've built it with their own hands. When I was younger, before I had babies of my own and bills and real life experiences, I avoided looking inside a palette house too closely for fear of making the owner feel shame or embarrassment for their fragile dwelling. But Estela started in a palette house. When Anapra was first settled 30 years ago everyone lived in palette houses and those houses meant hope and space to raise kids and having your own plot of land, it is what drew Estela and her husband to this place. Now I know that putting a roof over your children or grandchildren's head is admirable, no matter how meek.

Before we leave the mesa Lorenza comments on William and his size. She tries to hold him but he is overdo on a nap and wants his mama. We walk to the mesa edge and take in the view. Lorenza tells us the best night is the 4th of July. The children line up along the mesa edge to watch the fireworks that light up the sky in the US. The proximity of such severe poverty against the green grass and malls and fireworks of the US has always bothered me. It is the accepted reality of life in Anapra.

Saturday is the busiest library day. The shaded patio out front is quickly filled with readers. A few children grab a game from the shelf and take it outside to play quietly together. Inside many mothers have found their book on the shelf, bookmark right where they left it. The elementary-aged children head to the new space where a long table awaits them. They line up for 90 minutes of tutoring from a local teacher. Nearly 100 people will visit the library from 10:00 to 2:00, and yet it is never chaotic.

After the majority of the patrons have left for the day we sit down to a lunch of homemade tamales and champurrado - a truly special Christmas treat. Several similarly delicious meals were served during our visit including empanadas, burritos and flautas. All wonderful and filling. But knowing the amount of work it takes to make tamales they were extra special.

Estela's son wants to make the visit extra special, so he offers to drive the big girls up to a new scenic overlook that was recently built in Juarez. Walking out to the domed portion of the overlook requires a special amount of bravery as the grating you walk on reveals how high above the road you are. Everyone wants to see the view so they are brave.

Border towns are unique in the blend they find between the two cultures they share. Juarez is no different. Estela and her family celebrate Thanksgiving every year, though they wait until Saturday since the holiday is obviously American and no one has Thursday off work in Mexico. This year was no different, and we gladly join the festivities. Rather than turkey we are served delicious grilled chicken with tortillas and mashed  potatoes. For our part we bring chocolates to share and a store-bought tres leches cake.

Sunday morning and seventeen hours of driving await us. We know the line at the bridge could be long so we should leave early. We give hugs and promise to return soon. And we take pictures, to remember.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

We've Moved

We signed the papers last Wednesday. The day before Brandon had been utterly wiped out with a horrendous stomach bug so he was pale and weak but the papers got signed. I had to hurry right back to work but met up with the kids and unlocked the doors to our new house by 6:00 that evening. By 6:01 Julia had vomited all over our new kitchen floor – and just like that the house was so, so ours.
The first few days were a mix of packing and loading and unloading and holding of babies, keeping a toddler from running through doors that were left open and changing lots and lots and lots of diapers. Wipes were sought but not always found. I may have used wet leaves in the yard in a moment of messy desperation to clean a baby’s bottom. It was a long couple of days.
At least a dozen generous, strong humans came to our aid by way of lending vehicles, moving boxes, painting, installing, advising and gifting us meals, childcare and general kindness. It was incredibly humbling and filled my soul way, way up.
The first night went smoothly, with everyone in their new rooms all tucked in and happy as clams. I, however, wandered aimlessly in the dark for a good long while trying to take it all in. About midnight a wave of intense anxiety washed over me as I blankly stared into the darkness of our new living room. A host of unhealthy and useless thoughts raced through my mind questioning all aspects of life and houses and finances; I decided it was probably a very good time to go to bed.
Over the next several days Brandon and I spent a spattering of hours going back and forth to get the odds and ends we had left at the duplex; the fossilized shark tooth from the museum gift shop and other items that don’t really have a proper place in the general packing of a home. After everything was out and it had been vacuumed and wiped down I drove over and walked from room to room to say my own little good bye. Most rooms were so different once empty that I kept it together, but the bedroom that had served as a school room for so many years choked me up as I stared at the wall where we had hung bulletin boards and alphabet posters and imagined our little eager learners and I got very sad. I decided it was probably a very good time to go to Starbucks.
It has now been a week worth of sleeps and this long-awaited and much-anticipated place is beginning to feel very much like home. The park behind our house gives us gorgeous views of deer in the mornings, the rooms are spacious and inviting, and the kitchen has already hosted many good conversations. I am overwhelmed with gratitude and full up with love. I hope to have a talented photographer I know snap some pictures to share very soon!

Friday, June 17, 2016


Julia and Carolyn in the living room 2008
When Brandon and I got married we did what many young, eager couple do and promptly bought a dog and a house. It was a perfectly wonderful little house and when we quickly found out we were expecting our first baby we prepared a perfectly wonderful nursery inside our cozy home. A little over a year later, with new jobs and new baby, we decided it was silly for us both to be driving 40 and 60 miles (each respectively) to work every day and we decided to sell our house. I cried, a lot. I did not want to leave the place I brought my first baby home to, where she learned to walk and had her first Christmas.

Alas, it was inevitable and thankfully we got a fantastic offer (literally months before the whole housing market crashed), with only one stipulation – a very quick moving date.

Left in a bit of a lurch with a toddler (and another baby now on the way) we scrambled to find a new home in Kansas City. As luck would have it my Grandma called and let us know she had a duplex that had just come available. Her renter needed to break the lease and would be moving out the following Saturday, which was precisely when we would need to be moving in. It was a convenient coincidence that we worked for the good of all involved.

I remember that Saturday, we were bringing our things in the garage as the former renter took things out the front door. With only a few years of marriage and one baby we didn’t have much to move, though undoubtedly I was overwhelmed. My Grandma offered to have new carpet put down but I reassured her that we would not be staying too long. I distinctly remember telling her “we’ll probably only stay for six months or so.” That was 2006.

Of course I could not have foreseen the ten years that would unfold before our fledgling family. Bringing home baby number two, starting a new job, cars needing replaced, cavities needing filled. I could not have anticipated standing in my tiny kitchen answering the phone call that would inform me that my Grandma had suffered a massive aneurism, or saying goodbye only a few days later. The holidays of that year were bleak and are now blurry, but the days continued to roll on. Then my gallbladder went bad and the mailbox seemed to bring a new bill on a daily basis for what seemed like a year. Meanwhile my babies kept on growing and now they had surely hunted hundreds of Easter eggs in the living room, carved more than a few pumpkins in the kitchen, and not only learned to walk but could now climb the door frames and slide down the staircase. At some juncture in it all I saw a dermatologist about some pesky acne which led to a mole removal which led to a phone call informing me I had amelanoma, which inevitably led to a lot of scars and more bills. By now it was 2011 and five years had flown by.

With more debt than I care to think about and hoping for an adventure we took a year-long assignment with my work to open an office in the Baltimore metro. Packing only what could fit into our four-door car we headed East and let our duplex serve as an over-sized storage unit as we recalibrated life. It was an incredible experience and gave us a lot of time to think about life, what we wanted out of it, and how we might get there. As we rolled back into Kansas City and climbed back into our familiar beds we had a renewed goal to buy a home, eventually… someday. 

After returning home from Baltimore we would occasionally stop by an open house or wander some acreage and imagine what might be, but the right place and the right timing did not come. Simultaneous to keeping an eye out for our perfect home we made a fairly substantial decision to have another baby (or two). This decision both stalled our house hunt and made it all the more urgent as we were quickly outgrowing our duplex. Once Gwyneth was born we set out in earnest to find a perfect home for our family, and even made an offer on one we especially liked. But, as we had seen many times before, life intervened as we were surprised to learn that we would be welcoming a fourth baby a bit sooner than we had expected. The house hunting stopped and we recalibrated once again. 2015 came and went with no new house, but a beautiful baby boy instead, amen.

So here we find ourselves… ten years later. Until recently I had this idea that if my overly optimistic twenty-five year old self was sitting in front of me now I would shake her and say “get a clue!” I imagined lecturing her on the importance of health insurance benefits, personal finance, and cherishing that last visit with Grandma that you never knew would be the last. But… I’m softening on twenty-five year old me lately. I am getting comfortable with being grateful for her optimism, appreciating that her naïve financial mistakes were lessons that are shaping the next twenty-five years of life rather than ruining it. And that last evening at Grandma’s house, it was a Tuesday, when I hurried out to soon – I will always regret it but I learned. I try so much harder now to slow down, admittedly not always well, but I try. I learned. I am learning, and progressing and trying.

Our six-months-turned-ten-years in the duplex are quickly drawing to a close. Soon we will be moving to a house that I am totally convinced is exactly where we are supposed to be for this next chapter of life. I am both crazy-anxious to start painting, organizing, and making new memories and yet incredibly sad to say goodbye to a home that has held so much meaning for us. Easter mornings, Christmas Eves, sunny days, cook outs, blizzards, dance parties, long talks with friends, four years of homeschool lessons, three new babies home from the hospital, first steps, paper airplanes, lots of messes, and so much love – all inside these walls.

It is a bittersweet few weeks ahead but, ten years later, I think we’re finally ready.