As I attempt to color your beautiful world with words, I have to start with the truth. Your first year of life was the most challenging of mine. A transition into a whole new existence that neither of us saw coming. And yet, you never left my side through it all – our bright light behind the dark clouds. From the day you were born, you’ve been my teacher. You make me want to be present in the moment, stepping outside of my chatty brain to enter your world of endless possibilities.
Thank God for your deep belly laughs, your big cheesy grin and the way you liked to speed-crawl across the hardwood floor with your head down. You are coordinated, determined and always in motion. Climbing is first nature for you, which goes hand-in-hand with your rock-solid glutes. You are a lover of fine foods with a special palette for noodles and raspberries. Anytime music comes on, you stop in your tracks for a signature move: a unique mix of the booty bounce and a side-to-side sway.
Your sister’s scooter is the current object of your affection. Scratch that: you love riding on, sitting on, chewing on or being near anything that is Maisley’s, including the legend herself. I love seeing you two together. You make Maisley brave and she does the same for you, and my sisters do the same for me. You will always be your own person with your own preferences, but her steady influence will also be your guide. Someone to test the waters so you can later jump in with ease.
One day, at any moment, you will enter toddler-hood. I now know what that means – for better, for worse – but until then, your sweet self can do no wrong. I wish I could wrap you up in a baby carrier onto my heart forever, tied just as you are now so that I can come here anytime I need to feel your silky smooth skin, thick auburn hair, determination, goofy-loving heart and life-giving courage.
Poppi didn’t cry often, but he got choked up when he first heard your beautiful name. You were named after Grandma Joan, his mom. She was a loud-whistlin’, fun-lovin’ lady who made a mean broccoli chicken casserole, hosted the best parties and always had a trick up her sleeve. She was a bright light, just like you are. In addition to loving your name, Poppi loved holding you in his arms any chance he got, soaking up your calming, Heaven-sent presence. Even though you only knew him for a short time, he is a part of you and forever your trusted angel advisor.
Just like we all the know the story about Aunt Linny eating a cigarette butt when she was little, you will reluctantly grow up hearing about the time you ate dog poop. Though, I hope the stories you hold onto at your core are the ones about how you didn’t stop laughing and smiling from the day you learned how. I hope you see photos of your baby self that reflect your patience and optimism. I hope you hold onto the moments where you gave me strength when I didn’t think I had anything left. I hope you have beautiful babies when you grow up and understand how much bigger the love is than any frustration or moments of sadness.
Thank you for all that you are. We love you forever and ever my sweet baby Jo.
The roughly 23-year-old guy at Trader Joe’s and I stood gingerly talking about the salmon in my cart. It was all fun and games until he unintentionally drop-kicked me with this line: “People my age like to go to sushi a lot and I just don’t love it.” People my age.
For the first time in my adult life I felt old, swimming upstream to the youthful, free-wheeling existence I once knew. The roughly 23-year-old guy and me, separated by a few extra wrinkles, new grey hairs, the need for an alarm clock, and a hot shower. (And I didn’t even have my kids with me.)
Like the old cliche warns us: choose your words wisely. I’ve been living through a lot of cliches recently – life is short, life’s unfair – and this one is no exception. Words can uplift, help you make sense, educate, connect, or kick you in the ass (even with perfectly good intentions).
Discovering new meaning for old words, discomfort with new words and finding the “right” words has been the name of the game in conversations recently.
Circumstance: When reflecting back on the year. Me: “My dad died in September…” still gets stuck in my cottonmouth every time. I will sometimes use softer words like since dad’s been gone or passed away which only help my brain and not my heart.
Circumstance: When new people ask where my parents live. Me: “My mom lives up in Orange County”.
Circumstance: When my daughters are asserting their independence. Me: Playing voice dress up to reveal the right tone and language – somewhere between yelling and my quiet time voice – that empowers us all and bypasses uninterested ears.
Circumstance: When hearing about someone else’s grief. Me: It’s so hard to allow and hold space for the pain of people I love. Even though I’m in my own grief, I wonder what words they need to hear?
Circumstance: When I hear the word “Dad”. Me: A word I’ve said millions of times has developed an entirely new meaning. It means despair, gratitude, crickets and love. It means the Dad I knew for 31 years and it means the angel Dad I am getting to know now. It means guardian and the one who still, always shows up.
Circumstance: When someone asks what’s helped the most. Me: God. A God who doesn’t care if my church is surrounded by walls or water or pine trees. A God who is happily present in every area of my life – creativity, protection, love, dreams – if I invite him to be there. God, in me and in all of us.
Just like my daughters are adding new pieces to their vocabulary everyday, my language is also fluid and expanding. Growing by the ten half read books on my nightstand, podcasts and conversations with therapists and family/friends. Most importantly, as a practicing mindful, spiritual being – I’m working to discover the right words through my inner voice, my intuition, my heart. The guiding light of all impeccable words.
At the very least, I can practice my Dad’s golden rule: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
It’s hard to go back to the place I called home for so many years. Four walls that are dangerously close to feeling more foreign than comforting now almost eight months after September 29th.
We pulled around the corner to 48 Amantes, just like I’ve done thousands of times, and some of those since he’s been gone. It never gets easier. I see his truck sitting there. I see his house. The bricks he laid with his hands. The rooms that hold a lifetime of traveling artifacts, his baseball caps, his shoes. All the other mountain bikes out enjoying the trails this morning. It feels like a betrayal in some way to be in this space without him. Wouldn’t it be so simple to jump back to a day when he was here?
Sometimes crying is conscious. Your nose starts to get tingly and you decide if you’ll allow it or not. This wasn’t one of those times. It was the kind that takes over and you’re left to either surrender or surrender. The cold hard fact of him being gone hit like a wall as I walked through the door. His BBQ, his office, his chair, will somehow never be his again.
Yet in the same thought, none of that stuff matters. After he died, one of the lessons that deeply struck me was that we take nothing with us. It’s us and God, at birth and death.
So what does that mean for us in this beautiful, complicated dash in between? What do I do with this firsthand information? Sell all of my things and live in a tiny house with my husband and kids? That’s going to be a firm, toddler-style “no” for me (at least in this phase). Sell all my things and move back to Australia? A little more likely.
Right now that lesson is manifesting as “do the soul work”, which means constant, merciful reminders to myself.
When the kids are running rampant and your finger is aching to scroll or phone a friend – be present. When you’d rather sleep in – get up to pray. Pause before you purchase new things. Connect with new people. Cherish and nurture the time with people who have steadily been along for the ride. Turn toward hard emotions/pain and away from distractions. Invite God into all parts of your life first – the same God you ask for protection is the same One who inspires your creativity.
After the dust settled, I walked into the garage. It’s the space in the house that still feels like he never left. His workbench and tools that frequented his calloused palms, still in perfect order. I always admired how he worked with such ease and comfort on projects around the house while classic rock stars hummed a low beat on the radio. He would always be the first one to greet us as we pulled into the driveway.
“Hey Dadio”, I would say. “Hey Jen”, I can still hear him say.
It didn’t take long to realize that Monterey is one of those special places where the forest meets the rugged coastline. Where you can hike in the redwoods and dip your toes into the ocean in the same stride. Wildlife is so casually abundant; sea otters doing flip turns, and seals, the same. Overly intimate seagulls flocked with abandon and brave squirrels did just about anything for a walnut.
As the race director said, Big Sur is more of a state of a mind than an exact destination. And after a salty kiss of tears, sea mist and sweet relief, I could tell Ryan knew exactly what that meant with every muscle fiber of his being.
We drove up the coast with the girls in tote – nearly one and close to three years old – our car, a mobile goldfish dispensary, our destination, the Big Sur marathon. We had been so spoiled with wildflowers recently that I tried looking at the golden hillsides with fresh winter eyes. The old El Camino Real lamp posts and distinct oak trees over rolling hills tipped me off to the approaching central coast. Tears, naps, Elizabeth Mitchell songs and delirium came in waves, but we made it to our Airbnb mostly sane and excited to meet up with our Minnesota family: Ryan’s brother and co-runner, Marcel, his wife, Beth, and their kids Nya and Nash.
We woke up the next day and went straight to the famed Monterey aquarium, the place that inspired me as a kid to want to be a marine biologist when I grow up. After a sea otter feeding and stingray petting, we got notice on Whatsapp that two members of the Dutch family were somehow at the race expo. We looked at each other laughing and confused only to realize they were actually here, in Monterey, right now. What an incredible show of support and love to appear unannounced from Holland to watch their nephews run. The world is small and full of infinite possibilities. What a legendary Big Sur (prise).
After a jam packed day of fun and some misfired nervous energy, we pulled up to our Airbnb for a certain restless night of sleep. Everyone was grumpy. As we stepped out of the car, a beautiful wild deer appeared in front of us, munching on grass in the middle of our neighborhood. It looked up at us for a few seconds and then continued eating, right next to a vibrant birds of paradise plant (his plant). I knew Dad wouldn’t miss the race.
I was anxious and couldn’t sleep, like I was the one getting up to run further and harder than I ever had. I wonder what life is like for non highly sensitive people? This race felt bigger and more emotional than any other. Ryan was nervous, of course, but he was ready and prepared in every way. He would represent America with his American flag socks, Holland and Challenged Athletes Foundation with his orange hat, and best of all, he wore my dad’s “Trails of Memories” sticker on his bib.
In the morning, our eager cheering squad made their way to the 26-mile marker, ready to bring our favorite runners home. Our eyes sat glued on the hundreds of legs in motion as the electric loud speakers drew them in for the final .2 of the race.
First up, we spotted Marcel with his white long sleeve shirt and compression socks. Strong, relieved, a high five. After two months with a groin injury and a lot of questions, he made it, and with a wildly impressive time of 3:49. What a beast!
A few minutes later, I saw the man with the orange hat appear out of the sprinkle of runners. My heart leapt and I started jumping, crying and screaming with joy. He looked at us with fierce determination and relief, blew me a kiss and threw his hand up to salute my dad. Aside from the Sydney airport in 2011, I’ve never been happier to see Ryan in my life.
He did it. From what I heard: The first five miles he was flying. Conquering the two-mile hill at mile 10 was empowering, the huge bongo drums electrifying and mile 14 was deflating. Moments of pause to soak up the scenery were unforgettable. He could hear me cheering his name with my all of my heart at mile 17 (which I was, just in my head) . Mile 18: claw.the.ground. Mile 22 was spent lost in marathon land, tasting the finish line and one too many Clif shot blocks. Seeing us at mile 26 was the ultimate payoff.
All of those moments and the countless others stamped on his sole equate to a goal time of 3:58 and a newfound Big Sur state of mind that will never tire: connection, expansion, freedom and unconditional strength.
I miss the way his hands look and the comfort of his big hugs. What I wouldn’t give to listen to his memories, hear his perspective and feel his words of encouragement and praise that always held the weight of ten people. Sometimes, selfishly, it’s only him in his human form that will do.
And still, there is beauty in the mystery of our new relationship.
Dad was such a rule follower in his earth suit. Always doing the right thing. I see him as a bit of an angel rebel in Heaven; wearing his black leather jacket and working with the Boss every day to get as close to us as possible. Pulling countless strings up there for good days down here. And pushing the boundaries on sign allowances because he doesn’t want us to be sad or suffering.
Like this James Taylor song that has been looping in my mind like a record on a turntable since the day he left. I know it’s from him. I wonder what it means?
There’s something in the way she moves
Or looks my way, or calls my name
That seems to leave this troubled world behind
If I’m feeling down and blue
Or troubled by some foolish game
She always seems to make me change my mind
And I feel fine anytime she’s around me now
She’s around me now
Almost all the time
And if I’m well you can tell she’s been with me now
She’s been with me now quite a long, long time
And I feel fine
Every now and then the things I lean on lose their meaning
And I find myself careening
In places where I should not let me go
She has the power to go where no one else can find me
Yes and silently remind me
The happiness and the good times that I know, but as I had got to know them
It isn’t what she’s got to say
But how she thinks and where she’s been
To me, the words are nice, the way they sound
I like to hear them best that way
It doesn’t much matter what they mean
What she says them mostly just to calm me down
And I feel fine anytime she’s around me now
She’s around me now
Almost all the time
If I’m well you can tell she’s been with me now
She’s been with me now quite a long, long time
Yes and I feel fine