Somewhere in the Ocotillo Trees

I have this irrational argument in my head on a regular basis of whether I prefer the ocean or the mountains as my soul place. I force myself to choose.

Definitely the mountains with their all-encompassing pine trees and majestic views, I think.

Yeah, but the ocean with it’s limitless expanse, compassion and fresh salty air, I’ll think back.

On Sunday, we went rogue and chose the desert instead. I had been desperately craving a nature adventure; a hike that required actual hiking boots rather than my Nike Frees.

Me, Ryan, Maisley and Coura drove out to Anza Borrego State Park, taking a road we’ve never driven, to a hiking trail we’ve never stepped foot on. We strapped Coura securely onto me or Ryan, and Maisley hiked a good half of the trail with my hand in hers before finishing the rest on Ryan’s shoulders. We played in the stream, threw rocks, looked for mountain goats and took several snack breaks. We only got a few weird looks climbing small boulders with a baby on our back, and much to Ryan’s surprise, saw almost no one on shrooms.

Maisley thought the desert was a destination we would find at the end of our hike. “Are we at the desert yet?”, she asked a few times every few steps on our three mile (two hour) hike to the oasis.

When we had finished our day, and the last PB and J had been devoured, Ryan asked me if I had any good conversations with my dad on the trail.

I had, of course. I feel my dad so strongly right now. His voice turned up to full volume in my dreams. His presence in the beauty of the fluorescent purple and green hummingbird on our hike.

Still, I so wanted to call and tell him about our adventure. I wanted to then hear him talk about “That time we brought a generator to the desert and built a makeshift dance floor” or “That other time Chris and I were backpacking in Mammoth…”. My dad loved a good adventure. He grew up with dirt under his bare feet and always had a story from the great outdoors.

Deep down, I know that he knows. In fact, he was the first to know about our day. Somehow it makes me feel happy, like he’s gloating to my mom from Heaven that HE is now the first to know everything.

I found peace and a surprising amount of quiet in the desert.

And as I had hoped for, somewhere amongst the freshly blooming Ocotillo trees, I found a little bit of me. A part of me out there in the wild desert that came back home. A little added piece to the puzzling notion of wholeness.

The beauty in nature is that we don’t have to choose which place to love best. We can love all of it and find ourselves in all of it, all the same.

Golden Hour

8:25 pm. “Golden hour” for those of us in the parenthood. After 45 minutes of Maisley’s In-N-Out style bedtime routine, and a tiny turd of evidence that confirmed Coura’s constipation, both kids finally gave in to their weighted eyelids.

Ryan is kicked back in his corner of the couch wearing a new robe from Christmas while laughing at a meme from TheDad on Instagram and eating a bowl of ice cream.

I’m ironically sporting my “Ryan’s gone” pulled back hair-do, wearing a striped sweatshirt I bought in 2010, and crunching on a cup of granola. After scrolling for 20 minutes through the same shows and movies we see every night – “you pick, no you pick” – we decide to watch a Vice about Doomsday.

I paused from my crunching for a minute and just started giggling.

“Who have we become!?” I asked rhetorically. “What would our 25-year-old free-bird selves say about us right now?”


Ryan and I have been married for four years as of January 10th.  Everything has changed since our wedding day, yet nothing at the same time.

Four years and two weeks ago I was crying in the bridal shop about hating my wedding dress and ended up pulling a very last minute switcheroo.

[Still indecisive, just about less important things.]

Four years and one day ago I was in the emergency room with food poisoning praying that whatever was left of my body would make it down the aisle.

[Currently still dealing with gross bodily things on a daily basis.]

Four years ago we danced to “Forever and Ever, Amen” in front of our favorite people. 

[We’re still on track singing that same tune, just a little more broken in.]

Over the last four years we gained new members of our family and lost really important ones. We’ve been broken down and built up. We’ve learned to not have arguments when our heads hit the pillow at night. We’ve discovered what makes each other crazy (why? why do the contents of your pockets find themselves at home on various counter tops around the house) and what makes each other full (road trips with chex mix and a good playlist).

Elbows deep in parenthood, sometimes we feel more like roommates and wanna-be sleep scientists than husband and wife. Other times I look at him like he’s the cute football player I’m flirting with in chemistry class and still can’t believe he’s mine.

When I look at a photo, hold Ryan’s hand or smooch my daughters cheeks, I sometimes miss them. I find myself nostalgic for the present moment, this “time of our life” – even though I am in it.

I wonder what a year from now or four more years will hold. Thank God for golden hour. Thank God it’s him.

 

Love Through Loss

No one knows what to say. We don’t know what to say. No one can imagine. We can’t imagine either.

New to death? So are we.

While nothing can take away the pain or fill the void of a loss, so many thoughtful words, acts and gestures have helped us carry on to the next day – even with joy.

From our experience, here is a list of what we (my sisters, my mom and I) are finding helpful and comforting in the days and weeks following the loss of our dad. Above anything else, the biggest act of love is to show up and reach out with a listening ear and compassionate heart.

What to Say

  • Ask “how are you today?” rather than “how are you?”
  • Talk about the person they lost, offer kind words, a warm hug and a listening ear. This feels much better than any well-intentioned avoidance of the person.
  • If you have experienced a loss, share meaningful perspectives you have learned through personal experience.
    • “The future that I felt entitled to with this person wasn’t actually ever mine. This path that I am on is the exact one that was always intended for me.”
  • My aunt came up to me on Christmas and said, “I just want you to know that I miss him so much. I miss him every day. I’m not trying to make you sad, I just want you to know that.” The perfect combination of acknowledgement, love and empathy.
  • Offer understanding, prayers and support that don’t expire.
  • I love when people text me a memory or a story about Dad. I love the random texts because it’s nice to hear Dad is on other people’s minds too.”
  • Send a “Thinking of you and your [loved one]” text to show support on both holidays and random days.
  • Follow-up after the service or celebration of life is over.
  • An email over a text is great in the beginning if it’s not someone super close to you.
  • If the person is upset or having a moment, assume it’s because of their loss. Offer love and grace, no questions asked.
  • Let them know that they aren’t crazy and what they are feeling is normal.
  • Sit, cry and make them laugh.
  • Briefly give tips on what helped you during a period of grief.
    • “Grieve how you need to and don’t judge yourself for how you are feeling. Feel what you need to, when you need to.”
  • Text, email or call to share your favorite memories or the way the person they lost made you feel
    • “Your dad always made me feel so understood and heard. He genuinely cared about what I had to say.”
  • Let them know you are eating their loved one’s favorite food, listening to their favorite song, etc.
  • If they are religious – send a comforting bible verse or song.
    • “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
    • “He will send His angels concerning you.” Psalm 91:11
    • Homesick by MercyMe

What to Do

  • If there is something you want to do, be persistent. Follow up if they forget to respond.
    • “I’d like to bring you or order you dinner. What night works best?”
    • “I’d love to meet you for a walk. If you are up for it, how does next week work?”
  • Bring over normal food and groceries like eggs, bananas, avocados, bread.
  • Freezer meals are great.
  • Do something to help them honor the person that died:
    • A poem
    • A special tree or plant
    • A candle to light during the holidays
    • Organizing an annual memorial bike ride or event that suits their loved one
    • Have a mass said in their honor
    • Turn their funeral flowers into a rosary
    • Name a star after them
  • Attend the funeral and celebration of life.
  • Send a meal a week or two later.
  • Do their laundry.
  • Clean up their house.
  • Bring a seasonal item if applicable to help bring joy (i.e. pumpkin cookies and decor for pumpkin carving)
  • Remember that the person is still grieving months down the road, so offer to take them to dinner or do something after the storm has calmed.
  • Babysitting!
  • Offer to visit the cemetery with them.
  • Be the “check-in” person if you are close to them while honoring their personal space.

What to Give

  • Journal to write down thoughts
  • Magazines and mindless books
  • Melatonin and calming essential oils
  • A book on grief
  • A daily devotional book on grief
    • Healing After Loss by Martha W. Hickman
    • Grief Day by Day by Jan Warner
  • A poem
  • Print out helpful quotes on grief to give them hope
  • A nice handwritten note with memories or kind words
  • Prayer shawl
  • Memorial item such as a necklace or ring with loved one’s initials or something specific to honor them
  • Custom Nike shoes with loved one’s initial

What We Did for Ourselves 

  • Giving and receiving huge, long hugs
  • Showing up every day, even when it’s hard
  • Crying when we need to and not crying when we need to
  • Doing “normal” activities even when nothing feels normal
  • Exercise
  • Pray – endless prayers of gratitude and of mercy
  • Talking to our Dad
  • Welcoming the big cries whenever they come
  • Talking about memories
  • Laying and sitting with loved ones
  • Getting outside to feel our Dad and to see God’s beauty
  • Paying attention to the nuances and signs from our Dad
  • EMDR and therapy
  • Yoga to process grief
  • Walking around outside with my shoes off
  • 4-7-8 breathing
  • Xanax on hand those first couple weeks if you are struggling with anxiety or panic attacks
  • Talking to the right people who have stood where we stand
  • Doing what feels right that day, that moment, but also giving myself a little push
  • Hanging out with people who fill me up, make me laugh and I can be myself around
  • Making self-care a priority
  • Watsu Water Therapy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grounded & Free

“The wilderness had a clarity that included me. That included all of us.” – Cheryl Strayed

There is a call within my grief to go into the wild. A deep desire to feel connected to the Creator; grounded in His expansive, oxygen rich masterpieces.  In a past life, I would uproot and run to it. Right now, I’m patiently listening to it. Incorporating it in between nap times and snack times – in these anything but ordinary times. A quick recharge rather than a full on runaway.

Errands and laundry followed by the earth beneath my feet. “Brush your teeth”, “change your clothes”, “here’s breakfast” — a quick song by The Birds in the Trees. Holding her small hand in mine on our short hike to the tippity top top.

The introduction of death has sped up every lifelong dream and desire from someday, to today. With so many different lives beckoning my attention, my mind feels in a constant state of tug-of-war. How do I go here and there, take this course, that road and fulfill the other idea, while still being “mama”, “June” and “Jenna Bean”. A cognitive dissonance between grounded and free. My family; my home, my heart, my everything and everywhere I want to be. And yet – travel, solo adventure, art, creativity, feeling like me. 

As with sadness and joy, maybe grounded and free are closer together than I think. More alike than different. I feel Grounded and free in the majestic arms of Mother Earth. Grounded and free in the presence of the innocent, unfiltered, colorful joy of my children. Grounded and free in the promise of forever with someone who I am fully me. 

My answer to the call of the wild: Thanks for including of me. I’m coming for you, just in pieces, rather than all at once.

Dear Dadio

Dear Dadio,

It’s been three months now since you’ve gone home. It feels like longer and it feels like yesterday. I try so desperately to cling onto specific words from past conversations, but everything feels hazy right now. Saying I miss you doesn’t do it justice. I wonder what word would be better. I fucking miss you? I don’t think there is a word. It’s so far beyond anything in my capacity to say or feel. We talked about saying “Altoid” when we are thinking about you a lot. It’s because your car was always stocked with Altoids, Carmex and trail mix. To soccer, from soccer, and so on.

Every day that goes by makes me wonder deeper and further about where you are and how you are doing. You are one more day into your other life and we are one more day into our life without you. More things are happening and you still aren’t here to experience them. Thanksgiving, three of our birthdays, and even Christmas. Thanks for being there with us, even though it’s not how we selfishly wanted you to be.

With Maisley’s first Christmas preschool performance came the uprising  of a new hit single to replace the “Baby Shark” phenomenon: “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.  I was so proud of her for getting up in front of everyone and pretending to sing. Maisley hugs me, rubs my back and brings me ice packs when I’m crying about you. She says, “It’s okay to be sad sometimes”. I try to hide my tears from her but I think it’s okay and maybe even good for her to see me like that.  Thanks for being the best part of our nighttime routine; your star is always the brightest one.

Coura is so smiley, Dad. She is the happiest baby you’ve ever seen and I have an inkling that’s not on accident. Maisley makes her laugh hysterically by jumping up and down and doing crazy faces. Those two roll on top of each other and Coura is finally starting to hold her own. They love each other so much and Coura seems really content being a part of our family. I wonder what she will be and do and see.

Altoid.

Ryan is doing well, too. Work is humming along and his busy travel season starts in a couple of weeks. His parents got him a guitar for Christmas and I have to admit, he can jam out a mean “Twinkle Twinkle Poppi Star”!

I spoke at an open mic poetry night a couple weeks ago when I had only planned on listening. I know you were there because I heard those chirping crickets. Thanks for giving me that burst of courage to go up there and read my writing. I cried so hard on the way home, for so many reasons.

Since you’ve gone home, I grab the hammer more around the house. I’m growing less afraid of what people will think and less afraid of life. I am trying to be extra kind to the people around our neighborhood or at the grocery store. That’s what you did.

We never got to talk about how the Red Sox won the World Series this year or how Tiger Woods is in the thick of a comeback. Can you believe the Chargers are in the running for a Super Bowl title the year after they move out of San Diego? Bring out your rally monkey for the Angels this year!

Dad, you made and are continuing to make such a dent in our community. I wish you could have been there in person as we celebrated your life. I wish we could have seen the embarrassment and pride on your face as people poured out their respect and gratitude for you. The way you lived made other people reevaluate the way they are living. Just take the compliment, alright?

Know that when we smile and find joy it’s for you, it’s because of you. Know that when we are sad and down, it’s also for you. Thanks for infusing us with your strength during hard days and your joy during good ones.

Thanks for being with us through all of this, Dad. When I pay attention and stay present, I am able to find some peace, because that’s where you are. In the brightest stars. The gleaming sunsets. The wispy clouds. The cool breeze. The James Taylor soundtrack. You are in all that is beautiful. 

That’s about it for now. Give Grandma, Nana and Nonno a big hug for us. Happy New Year, Dadio.  See you in my dreams.

Love you so much,

Jen

The Most Time of the Year

What makes the holiday season so great is all of the love, magic and memories. Years of traditions, never breaking from our favorite ways: Christmas eve mass, a special visit from Santa at my Aunt’s house, and then a very precise Christmas morning formula: first stockings, then breakfast with cinnamon rolls and then opening presents.

The same things that make the holidays so great, are also what make them so hard as we grieve the loss of our dad.

There are endless distinct memories.  What he would be wearing, where he sat, his funny sayings, the way he smelled, held his beer and laughed. The way he would roll his eyes at us in church for goofing off, but secretly be laughing inside with us.

Specific visions and moments play like a movie reel, so vivid and close, you can almost touch them. 

The holidays amplify the grief – nothing is as it was, everything is different – and also the love. 

It’s incredible how close sadness and joy have become in my life. Those two co-conspiring emotions are just the best of buds. Although I doubt any greetings cards ever read: “We go together like sadness and joy”. Sometimes I don’t want both of them, or either of them, but they are right there waiting for me, anxiously poking and prodding to be acknowledged.

On Christmas Eve, we all sat around the living room waiting for the special arrival of Santa. As the jolly old man himself came strutting through the front door, Maisley trembled in nervous excitement. Santa sat down and began reaching into his giant sack, pulling out presents name by name.

“This one’s for Maisley!”, he exclaimed. My daughter popped up off the piano bench like she had been waiting her entire 2.5 years of life for that moment.

She walked up – half smiles, half skeptic – grabbed her present while standing at the furthest possible point away, turned right around and walked right back to her seat. No thank you, no time for photos or sitting on his lap for a closer look.

The rest of the night she was glowing in awe and pride at her Rudolph pajamas from Santy claus. She was so proud, elated at the magic and surprise of Christmas Eve.

This was one of my happiest moments as a parent, equally feeling her infectious excitement. Just an hour before that, I had been crying in sadness at how unfair it is that of all the shit people in the world, my gold-hearted dad had to go.

Christmas was weird, chaotic, overwhelming. Getting presents and giving presents felt trivial. Something big was missing. A hole that only my dad could fill. A laugh only he could laugh. It was always going to be that way.

And still, we found gratitude. We found kindness and compassion from so many people. We found peace in prayer. We found laughter and slap happy relaxation. 

We found solidarity with all of the other people who are experiencing the “most” time of the year. The most love, the most tears, the most of everything.

Me & Death: It’s Complicated

Some of my best memories with my dad were spent in his white New Balance sneakers and light-wash, loose-fit Levi’s jeans; hiking, walking, doing chores, working on school projects, soccer games or hanging Christmas lights. He was casual and simple, with an extraordinary capacity for unconditional love and random acts of goodness.

My dad consistently met chaos with peace and with one quick glance of those crystal blue eyes, I felt understood. He always “got it”, he was always on my team and he gave the best back massages that always ended with a triple tap. Not the triple tap!

My dad and I had a great relationship.

I don’t, however, have a great relationship with death.

My concept of Heaven and hell is pretty similar to the one I constructed as a child from church and CCD classes. It’s not something that I have developed over the years because it’s not something I’ve been confronted with head on and it’s not something I like to think about.

I feel so ill-equipped with trying to find peace and “answers” in response to my ignorant, question master, Grief. Questions about where my dad is and what he’s doing, despite being someone with a solid faith. I know he is in Heaven. I know he is here with me. I know that I find his memory in everything I do right now.

I just desperately want to know that he is okay. I want to know that he is happy. I do, deep down I do. From every dream and every conversation we’ve had in this new type of relationship, he is nothing but perfect.

I think a part of the struggle is me projecting my fear of eternity onto him, mostly because it’s a big, beautiful, bright unknown. Unknowns are scary, uncertainty is unsettling, but as I am learning about this whole grief thing, discomfort tends to hang on you constantly like an overtired toddler.

The line between life and death is paper thin. The difference of one breath. The two used to seem so far away from each other, but not anymore. It’s less of a separation and more of a compilation.

Every day the sun comes up. Some days I want it to freeze and for everyone to stop and share in our sadness, validating the magnitude of our loss, and other days I wish it to be 365 sunrises later.

Coura gets older with every bath, like a tiny part of her babyhood is swept away with the sponge. She always looks more mature wrapped up tightly in her towel; bright and clean. [I wish I could say that’s why she only gets a bath once a week, but that would be a generous explanation for my second child laziness.]

All of those trite sayings like “life goes on” and “life’s short!” are actually, annoyingly and thankfully so very true.

I don’t know if there are oranges in Heaven or if there is night and day or if eternity is a place where we go and relive all of our alternate lives.

But thank you God for incredible sisters who share my feelings, thoughts and soul. For new friends and old friends. A husband who holds my hand through it all and kids who bring out all the joy and tears. For a mom who is brave enough to get up every morning, run, shower and face the day with a smile and tears. For loving aunts and an uncle who is a treasure chest of stories, legacy and deep love.