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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Right In Front of Me

We're at the beach. She left her glasses at home, so I can clearly see the gray in her eyes and the sand on her lashes. The salt and humidity has caused her curls to tighten, and ringlets dance around her neck and face. 

"Bury me all the way to my head, mama," she says.

"Oh, we don't have a shovel big enough for that, baby. Maybe tomorrow," I distractedly respond. 

Our shovel is not too small, I just don't want to do it. I'm tired and groggy and have no energy to dig holes for little bodies today. 

Depleted from the expectations and excitement of the holidays, I feel over-fed, over-served, and in a fog of exhaustion and distraction. I usually spend this week after Christmas taking mental inventory of the previous twelve months, which always seems like a productive thing to do, but ultimately only adds to the feeling of paralysis.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Elsewhere on the Internets...

Thanks to one of my favorite publications, Mamalode, for publishing a piece that is very near and dear to my heart. If you haven't already, you can read the story of how my son's teacher gave him a small but powerful gift here: I SEE YOU

Also, it's a hard subject for many of us to talk about, but I opened the conversation about the R-word over on The Mighty. Please check it out: Why I Don't Want People to Apologize When They Use the R-Word in Front of Me
I'm having even more conversations over on Facebook, so feel free to join me there and like my page for updates! xo
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Thursday, December 3, 2015

For Real Magic

You know those nights when thoughts take over instead of sleep? That was last night for me. I tried to rest, but instead found myself thinking, mulling, worrying, and planning. I felt utterly split in two by my thoughts and emotions - one half of my heart overwhelmingly giddy and grateful, and the other half scarred and afraid.

We went to bed after a magical evening of Christmas music, dancing in pjs, decorating the tree, and eating cookies. It was for real magic, too, not just Pictures for Social Media Magic (although obviously I documented it on Instagram, because otherwise it didn't happen). 

A lot of times, certain things seem like a great idea in theory, but they actually turn out to be totally horrible. For me, trimming the tree has historically been one of those moments. You start out in good enough spirits, but after two hours of spilled hot chocolate, whiny kids, a husband who will. not. stop. adjusting the tree, and a thousand broken ornaments, you're all screw this, Santa.

But last night was nice. I only said like one cuss word, I think.

Afterward, when the kids were dreaming of sugarplums still awake but adequately threatened with their lives not to emerge from their bedrooms because I already moved that damn elf and I don't have the energy to come up with some obscure story if they find him in his new location before dawn, Pat and I flopped down on the couch - grateful to once again be home for the holidays instead of in a hospital room.

Pat has been sore from training for a marathon, and I sweetly thought about giving him a massage. Instead, I decided to turn on the TV. 

And there it was. Another mass shooting - fourteen people dead.

I watched what I could stomach and then retired to bed. As I laid there, simultaneously grateful and fearful for my children, I once again found myself thinking about the juxtapositions of our lives: young/old; happy/sad; sick/well; magical/horrific. 

I thought about how Christmas cheer can instantly become defiled by a mass shooting and how cancer can one day threaten to define your entire life, but just a two years later become the impetus for reflection and celebration.

I thought about the things that thrill and scare me; how I could all at once be filled with joy, anticipation, gratitude and fear.

I thought about my daughter and the school field trip she had planned for today. She's been giddy all week about attending a Christmas program at a local high school - my alma mater, actually. Until last night, I was equally excited for her - I even taught her a few of the school songs, which she will no doubt perform to anyone who will listen.

By the time morning arrived, my Christmas spirit had been diluted by my midnight musings.

At some point in the night, I'd made the difficult decision to broach the topic of school shootings with my little girl. It's not that I actually know what one should do if ever faced with an armed murderer, it's just that I felt I had to say something

I started things off cool and casual by asking her about the drills they currently have in place. "So, what is that thing you do at school when you turn off all the lights and you have to be really quiet?"

"It's for when a bad guy comes and wants to hurt people. You turn off the lights and you get really, really quiet so that he can't hear you." (I know. It's soul-crushing.)

She started to bounce away and I couldn't help myself. "Hey baby - let's talk a little more."

I had no idea if what I was saying was even remotely true, but I found myself telling her that if she were to ever see a person come into her school with a gun - and she didn't have time to hide and be quiet - then she should flop face-down on the ground and play dead. I don't know if that's good advice. It tears me up that there even has to be advice on this sort of thing. 

All I know is that at 5-years-old, my daughter's cognitive reasoning and judgement isn't developed enough to know what to do in a situation of that magnitude. (Is anyone's for that matter?) Since she doesn't yet have a reliable fight-or-flight instinct, I wanted to give her something to do if - God forbid - she should ever find herself face-to-face with the devil.

So I told her and then took it a step further by asking her to demonstrate. She rolled her eyes, but flopped on the ground like a good girl. 

"What do you think about all of this?" I asked, terrified that I had done some serious damage to her psyche.

"It's cool. Hey mama, let me crawl under your legs." 

And that was that. As I watched her scurry army-style between my feet, it dawned on me that small children know how to navigate this contradictory existence better than any of us - they haven't yet tasked themselves with taking on the weight of the world.

Kids give themselves permission to show off all of their conflicting parts because they instinctively know that we are each a unique mixture of joy, sadness, expectation, disappointment, excitement and fear. (If I had written this post two years ago, I'd totally be getting royalty checks from Pixar right now.) They aren't yet scarred by the torrent of good and evil that deluges our world.

I love that my kids sing and laugh and dance without a glimmer of self-doubt. I love that my son survived cancer and lives with a disability, and doesn't have even the smallest chip on his shoulder about it. I love how my daughter wakes up foggy with sleep and all bed-heady, but taps into her boundless energy as she tears through the house in search of her Christmas elf. I love that she loves her Christmas pajamas so much, that she wears them every moment she's not in school. 

I especially love that she can tell me about the bad guys while remaining sweet and innocent. 

But even without the awareness that comes with age, kids still grasp one very important concept: Life is consistently inconsistent. They instinctively know that there will be times when you are riding high, as happy as can be. But that there will also be moments when you find yourself down on the ground, unable to move. 

In these instances, they know that best plan is not to lay there defeated, but instead look for an opening, crawl through, and go right back to looking for the magic.


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Monday, November 16, 2015

Together We Are Mighty

As I watched the news this weekend, my heart hurt. The terror our world abides is harrowing and tragic. Witnessing the events from an unfettered perspective would be traumatizing enough, but this isn't the first time we've borne witness to evil and pain and sorrow.

Personally, my heart was indelibly shattered fourteen years prior, as I sat on my bed and watched the horrors of 9/11 unfold. As a senior at a very conservative college, I led an intensly sheltered life up to that point - I was naive and self-absorbed and the exact opposite of worldly.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Today Show Contribution

Thanks to the Today Show parenting team for featuring my piece on losing sleep with little ones. 

Lack of sleep is a form of torture and if I had one wish, it would be for mamas everywhere to get as much beauty rest as my husband seems to every night. But, since that will probably never happen, I figure perspective is all I've got.

You can read the entire article here: Putting Lack of Sleep into Perspective.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Year of Firsts

My birthday is a few days away, which in my younger years signaled the start of a week-long party filled with the types of shenanigans that are forever locked in a memory vault titled Shit You Do Before Kids. These days, there are no t-shirts to mark the occasion or requests for the DJ - there is simply reflection and gratitude. (Although if someone made me a shirt, I wouldn't be mad about it.) 


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Funny Over Fear

I am dying to get my funny back and breathe fresh perspective into my life and writing. Is it possible that literally nothing in my life is funny? Sweet Jesus, poop cannot be the only thing. Please tell me it's not the only thing!

That's the text message I sent my best friends this morning. 

In no particular order, Friend A is a real writer and not some phony like me. She has her PhD in English and has dissertated and defended and is published. It goes without saying that I trust her implicitly. I value her opinion and rely on her when I need direction on all things prose. She's gives me thoughtful, high-level feedback and gets it when I send her deep thoughts and arcane statistics and pictures of birds accompanied by long ramblings of what I imagine they may be thinking. She is my spirit animal.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Birthday Gift

Three years ago today, I stared into a pair of murky blue eyes and kissed a nose that was an exact replica of my own. Six pounds is tiny, but in my son's eyes I could see the deepest recesses of the sea and the entire galaxy all at once. He had a way about him that was magnetic and transformative and though I didn't know then what our lives had in store, I instinctively understood that we could manage it together. 


Monday, August 17, 2015

Bittersweet

Dear Elle,

Today is bittersweet. Do you know what that word means, baby girl? It's kind of a funny word, but it's the perfect choice for your first day of kindergarten.

Bittersweet means that parts of today are bitter like a lemon - a little bit yucky and hard to swallow - and other parts are sweet like candy - sugary and delicious and something we want to have again and again. It was so hard to let you go this morning. I know that you have grown up a lot, but you are still my little girl. Today everything changes and that makes me sad because part of me wants things to stay the same. 


Monday, March 9, 2015

True Grit


"Be yourself.
Everyone else is already taken."
-Oscar Wilde


One of the things I admire most about my children is their tenacity. They both have a spirit for life and a thirst for learning that melds beautifully with their innate curiosity and shared stubborn streak. 

Last year, Elle came to us determined to learn how to snap and whistle - two talents that are split evenly between our parental skill set. I can snap, Patrick can whistle - neither of us can do both. She asked how it was done and after our mostly crappy demonstrations, I told her it would take a lot of hard work and practice, and that it may take months - if not forever - to become adept at two such tricky techniques. I didn't want to squelch her spirit, but figured it was best she knew up front that she may never become a duel snapper-whistler. Besides, I hear they are very rare and hide in trees and only come out at night.


Monday, February 23, 2015

All the Things


I find myself in bed, debilitated and immobile. I've just returned from my fourth trip in almost as many weeks and instead of being refreshed and restored, I feel worn and worse for the wear.

I can feel my ugliness and the weight of my own body on the sheets. I looked passable yesterday, but today I am hideous.

My internal dialogue does nothing to ease my exhaustion. I am disappointed in myself, angry that I don't feel better - annoyed that I'm not living every second of my life to the thousandth degree like I promised myself when the year dawned anew. 

Get up and do something with yourself. Be a better mom. Spend more quality time with Patrick. Go to the gym. Fix your wrinkles. Write on your blog. Play My Little Pony with Elle. Return those phone calls. Raise more money for St. Jude. Start that Down Syndrome Association. Teach Reid his colors. Book those doctor's appointments. Start eating healthier. Go to sleep earlier. Feel better. Just do something, you lazy piece of shit. 

I get out of bed, but barely. I am congested and have a headache. Maybe I'm sick. I would feel better about my indolence if I were sick. 

I am scrambling eggs and there is too much noise. 

My self-loathing turns to anger. It's a deep, guttural rage and I don't know where it's coming from. I am tired and disconnected and there is too much noise. It is pounding in my head like a high school marching band at halftime. I can't think for the tumult of barking and fussing and little girl questions. It takes me a moment to realize that it's my voice rising above the din - I am making the most ruckus of all.

I find myself screaming. 

WHAT DO YOU WANT?!?!

The screaming gives way to pleading. Tell me what you want, Reid. Use your words. I cannot live like this anymore! I can't take it - all day, everyday. The screaming and the yelling. Everyone has got to be QUIET!!!!

I shouldn't be screaming and yelling. And I most certainly shouldn't be screaming at my kids to stop yelling. 

I can't help it.

Somewhere deep inside, a faint voice fights through. This is just today. This is not your life. Slow down. Breathe. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

I snap my mouth closed. I grab Reid under his armpits and carry him at arm's length - like stinky garbage that I'm taking to the curb. I put him in his crib and lock myself in the guest bathroom - the blue rug a minuscule oasis, the tile wall a mother's cool rag on my forehead.

Reid's yelling is muffled in here and I will myself to temporarily ignore the image of Elle's eyeballs widening in horror at the sound of my apocalyptic scream.

All you have to do is breathe, Brooke. 

Inandoutinandoutinandoutinandoutinandoutinandoutinandout.

I catch my breath and in an instant it's all over. My rage is replaced by a flood of regret and and the primal urge to hold my babies and never let them go. I miss them and they are only in the other room. 

I leave the bathroom and find Elle where I left her. Probably only two minutes have elapsed but it feels like a lifetime.

I'm sorry, baby, I say.

Mama. That was NOT good. I have never heard you yell like dat. Reid was being so bad and got in trou-uu-uu-ble and I was just being so good and eating my breakfast and you were so loud.

No, baby. Mama was the one being bad. Reid is only two and mama knows better. I made a mistake by yelling but I want you to know that everyone gets frustrated and angry from time to time. We all get tired and we all yell. No one is perfect except for one person. Do you know who that is?

She does. She smiles and points her finger and slowly and proudly turns it toward herself.

Nice try.

Uh, no. You're pretty wonderful but you aren't perfect. And mama isn't either. I was talking about God, I say. 

She puts my face in between her two little hands and tells me it's okay. She calls me her "honey"  and orders me to look into my heart and find my love and kindness and says that when I find it, I'll know just what to do.

I know just what to do. I kiss her and I head off toward brother. He has calmed down and his earlier frustration has given way to annoyance. He is skeptical of me and doesn't want to be held. I hurt his feelings.

I pick him up and hold him tight. I rock him and sing him his favorite song and let him fill in all of his favorite words.

You'll never know…

deeeeee.

How much I…

luuu ooooo.

So please don't take my sunshine…

wayyyy.

His soft body relaxes into mine and I whisper all the Things in his ear. Our own version of The Help

You are smart, you are special, you are kind. I love you and support you and I will always be here for you. Even when I yell, I love you. I am sorry… 

…you were kinda being a jerk, though.

We kiss, we make up, we move on.

And so today - exactly one week later - I find that I have given that morning much more thought than is probably reasonable. Sure, I yelled at the kids - louder than I ever have, to be sure - but was it all really that big of a deal? 

I should clarify. I yelled louder than I ever have at them - not ever in life. I'll be honest - I went all Brooke Alexander for a minute, but that's the glory of having kids. They don't have the displeasure of knowing the old you, so it works to the parent's advantage. Unfortunately for them, they also don't know when your old habits emerge, so they can't relish in the satisfaction of giving you that very particular "Aaaand there it is" smirk that every family member in the history of families has perfected over the years.

So why do we get so confused? Why do we take one bad day or one bad week or month or year and let it define us? Why do we mull it over it for days like it was some cataclysmic historical event?

It's not the yelling that has me thrown off. I took care of that immediately and I stand by my words to Elle - we all make mistakes, we all yell, no one is perfect. (Reid was totally being a jerk.)

No, it's the moments before and during that have my wheels turning. The minutes in bed where I berated myself rapid-fire and said things that I wouldn't say to a mortal enemy. It's the realization that on that day - and the few that followed - I wasn't practicing what I preach.

I (like many people I know) make it a habit to surround myself with positive, inspiring, supportive people and create specific personal boundaries for those who leave me feeling depleted. I teach my children about love and kindness and compassion. I remind them that accolades and milestones and labels don't mean anything and that at the end of the day all that matters is being happy. 

So why is it our innate human instinct to bash ourselves whenever things aren't perfect? And since life is never perfect, does that mean we are doomed to self-hate until we die?

For me, knowing is half the battle. Even when I'm in the thick of it, I typically know what is happening and don't necessarily take my ego's opinion as truth. But the mind is a frenemy of the worst sort and if we aren't constantly on guard, it can get the best of us at times. 

Last week my mind certainly won. 

The other half of the battle is understanding this baffling societal urge to know it all, be it all, expect it all, and simultaneously let everyone in on our amazing ability to DO it all by editing out the bad parts, prettying up the good parts, slapping on a filter, and documenting every step for the world to see. 

We live in this world where everyone is constantly trying to out-busy each other, one-up each other and out-do each other. Everyone is always searching for the next "like." I love social media and I use it often - even to get people to read this post! - but I want my children to understand that seeking affirmation and acceptance from other people is absolutely futile. That it's fine to put yourself out there, but never for the purpose of gaining self worth.

Likewise, as they get older I want them to be aware of that creeping "less-than" feeling that sneaks in when we see other people showing off all of the things while we're just lounging on the couch eating chocolate and watching Real Housewives.

I want them to recognize that feeling for what it is - fabricated and fleeting - and tell them that sometimes - oftentimes - lounging on the couch eating chocolate IS THE THING. It's the only thing. I want them to know that being true to ourselves is all that matters. That it's okay to slow down and rest and stay put. I ask people all the time if they've read any good books lately, and the go-to answer is often that they haven't read a book in years because they haven't had time. 

I mean, we're all busy, but who doesn't have time to read a book? And if we don't, perhaps we should re-prioritize or create the time.

Whenever I get caught up like I did last week, I make a concerted effort to understand that my desire to constantly go and be and do has nothing to do with the true nature of ME. That going and being and doing is wonderful and good and might sometimes make a difference, but it can also exhaust and deplete me. I remember that what ultimately matters to me lies within this body and these four walls and only involves these four people. I understand that my feelings about myself come from my ability to do the right thing for me and my family, not from doing the seemingly right thing for someone else. And when I feel down and unattractive and tired, I make sure that I take the time to do the little things that heal and soothe, so that I can go out into the world and do all the other bigger Things. I remind myself that the noise in my head is just that - NOISE. And I don't have to listen to it.

We have this misunderstanding - women especially - that we are to constantly define ourselves and prove our worth. Because of the reasons mentioned above, we mistakenly believe that we must show up all of the time and look good doing it. We tell ourselves that when we feel like shutting down, it must reflect on us and our inability to "do it all." But that's such a crock. It's a made up ideal that comes from the outside in. The truth is that if we want to stay open to the world and go and see and do and be, we must first nurture ourselves from the inside out. Which means that we must treat ourselves with love and respect and understanding. We absolutely cannot give those things to others if we can't first give them to ourselves.

It means that we must pat ourselves on the back for even getting out of bed on the days when it seems impossible. We must comfort ourselves when we've lost a close friend and rest after we've traveled to three time zones in two weeks. When we have a child with special needs who is going through the very difficult time of not being able to verbalize all of his needs and wants, we must remind ourselves that the best way forward is often two steps back.

When we catch ourselves acting like an past version of ourselves, we must remember that past version of us IS us. 

I know the old me paved the way for the new me and it is vital to love both parts equally and carefully. When I return to old habits and patterns or I do too much or too little, I know that I must stop, readjust, and simply move on. 

One day is not a lifetime. And it won't matter what I said or did or accomplished if I beat myself up or spent my time striving for some unachievable goal of perfection and acceptance. 

When I am tired, I must rest and when I am weak, I must let others be strong on my behalf. When I fall, I must get up and when I make a mistake, I must forgive myself.

Self-love is hard sometimes, but I know there's too much at stake to not love myself unconditionally. As a mother, I have to lead by example and take my own advice:


You are smart, you are special, you are kind. I love you and support you and I will always be here for you. 

And whether or not the voice in my head agrees, I know it's not about how Much or how Fast or how Big I did life. It's not what I look like or what I do or don't do for a living. It's not how often I write or what school my kids go to or how much money I've made or raised. 

It's not how many times or how loud I yelled.

It's about simply trying my best and enjoying the parts of life that are too often taken for granted or pushed aside - hugging little bodies, listening to their tiny laughs, seeing my husband's big-toothed smile and snuggling with an old dog. It's taking a warm bath, resting in a soft bed, diving into a good book, watching trashy TV, and savoring a delicious piece of chocolate. 

It's about the grace of unconditional love, trying our best, and starting over when we don't get it exactly right. 

And mustaches. It's always about mustaches.



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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Poet and Didn't Know It

I spent the weekend at a writer's retreat with 25 brave and inspiring women. It was an incredible experience - one I am continuing to process - and I will post in detail once I return from California. 

In the meantime, I'll share some of my writing from the weekend.

Every woman in attendance had an incredible narrative and I found a connection with each of them. One had a story that particularly resonated because it mirrored all of the things I felt and learned while caring for Reid at St. Jude - specifically the reality of parenting from a hospital chair. 
It's a subject I've written about before - all of the brave mamas and daddies who lovingly save locks of hair lost from chemo, inject healing medicine into microscopic veins, and smooth cotton-soft mops before anesthesia - all while singing soothing songs through the hurt and pain of agonizing symptoms and side effects.

And some who are ultimately - like this woman I met over the weekend - forced to say goodbye way too early. 
A nursery but no sleeping baby. Toys but no hands to guide them.
And so, when Annie Flavin - one of the retreat leaders known for her brevity and ability to reach a profound point with minimal words - asked us to work on an assignment that sounded kind of like (gasp!) poetry, I cringed a little. As a fan of overly long, descriptive prose, I didn't initially connect to the idea of putting a cork in it. 
She assuaged my fear of concision when she asked us to focus our words outward rather than in. We were to write about another retreat participant - one whose story had made an impact on us over the weekend. All of the sudden, it seemed like a gift rather than an assignment. And the words just came.
For my new friend Georgia:
Mamas in chairs
Nobody cares
Hospital beds all that they've seen.
Coming home outfits don't mean a thing
As long as she's healthy 
Seems a cruel joke
A diagnosis in exchange for just one more poke
Please let me hold her
Tell her she's loved
Her hours spent here a gift from above
Never forgotten, tears always spilled
My heart was cracked open but at once truly filled
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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Miles Back Home

Just keep posting pictures of that boy. 

I couldn't have guessed that such a simple text would in hindsight mean so much. 

We had been talking all week while he lay in a hospital bed. He sent me a breathing tube selfie and I ribbed back, "Try to get some sleep with that thing on your face."

It was our normal banter and I never wanted to believe it would end. We laughed and we joked. We occasionally took the serious route.  

Can I do anything from here?

Just keep posting pictures of that boy.

And then it was over.

Perhaps I did know that these seemingly basic interludes would one day take on greater meaning. Somewhere deep down I must have, because for the past two years I have been unwittingly creating a virtual memory vault filled with texts, photos, and voicemails that I could never bring myself to erase. 

Bayard Winslow Kennett II - aka Chip (Chippewa as I liked to call him) - was one of the greatest people I have ever known. I met him at the ripe old age of 22, back when we both lived in Washington, DC and worked on Capitol Hill. Every week day was spent IMing back and forth about the best bars in town and every weekend was spent exploring them.

I've written about Chip and his beautiful wife, Sheila, before in my post Get on Board. Team Kennett - as their family of four has come to be known - have been an inspiration to so many as they focused on being present and grateful after Chip's 2012 diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer.

The above words were our last correspondence just hours before he passed away.

We were in frequent contact and texting had for years been our method of choice. But we were friends before texting was a thing. Before we had spouses and children and Subarus to talk about - before our families transformed our lives from a hazy pastel into a blinding rainbow. 

Long ago - before early morning chemotherapy took the place of late night cocktails - we were just two young kids trying to find our way.

We spent our early years together in Washington. An instant friendship created by mutual acquaintances and job proximity, but strengthened by a genuine like and respect for one another. We explored the city and made lots of new friends and stupid mistakes. We were young and a bit reckless, which was perfect because it was that exact time in life when you are supposed to be young and a bit reckless. I trusted him and and relished our friendship and knew that he was truly one of the good ones. He always had his friends' best interests at heart.

And so, when he called me late one Saturday night in 2004 to come meet a group of his college friends who recently moved to town, I didn't hesitate to drop what I was doing and head to a dirty karaoke bar to meet the man I would one day marry.

Hours afterward, I would find myself in a car with Patrick, Chip, and his new love interest, Sheila - four people oblivious to the fact we would be brought together years down the road over a double cancer diagnosis. We laughed when Patrick asked for my number and I haughtily replied that "he could find it if he really wanted it." 

When Patrick called me two hours later at 1:00 in the morning, it was Chip who had written my number across his arm twice in large, drunken scrawl.  

The years went on and Patrick and I became engaged as did Chip and Sheila. We moved and married. They married and stayed. We both had two children - each set born within months of each other. 

We still kept in touch - I saw Chip every year when I visited DC. And in the interim, we sporadically texted and emailed and had the occasional phone call. We discussed important things like Sonic, kid's birthday parties, and what amazing spousal choices we had made (he took credit for both). We waxed poetic. Joked about our past and wondered if our kids would be as idiotic as we were. (They would be, we decided. But, they would also turn out pretty awesome.)

He would often send emails with subject lines like, "Girl, Where You At?" Photos of his kids with captions that read, "Look what I made!" and "Check out these cheeks!" And texts the day before my babies were born that said, "Kick some ass tomorrow."

When Reid was diagnosed with Down syndrome, instead of acting weird, Chip started calling him "my man" and "my boy". And when Reid was recovering in the CICU after open heart surgery, he often checked in, asking, "Hows my little buddy doing?"

But on Sunday, October 28, 2012, I received a text I never expected: 

Hey babe, sorry to do this over text, but I wanted to be the one who told you. I was told on Friday that I have cancer. It is in a bunch of places but I'm going to beat it. Getting old is fucking hard work.

It was followed by an hour-long phone call, a few tears, and the first of many Chip Kennett power talks that I knew even then were as much for him as they were for me. Sheila was 35 weeks pregnant with their second child. Chip was told he was dying. I can never, EVER imagine what that must have been like for them. I didn't have the right words, but I did what I could. I knew I could pray and send support but, more importantly, I could laugh and cuss and make jokes. Because that's what we did and that's what he needed from me. So we kept in better touch and we joked and wondered when our conversations started including all of these adult words like Down syndrome and congenital heart defect and CANCER and also when the hell did we become so old and so responsible for shit?!? We often talked about bad news and Befores and Afters and how you can just wake up one day and right there staring you in the face is a choice you never wanted to make. How you can feel sorry for yourself or you can pull on your big kid pants and go out there and kick some ass.

We preferred to kick some ass.

So when we received our cancer news just a year after his, I knew that Chip would not know exactly what to say, but that he would still give me just what I needed. He would pray and send support and laugh and cuss and make jokes. He was one of the first people I told and he was along for the entire ride.

Me: So, this is crazy, Chippewa. You know that before and after? That line in the sand? Well, here's one more to add to the list. Reid was diagnosed with leukemia yesterday. Nothing to do or even say, but I feel better with you and Sheila adding us to your prayers and knowing he has a buddy to fight this thing with.

Him: Oh babe, I wish I could do something to shoulder what you are feeling. I have been aimlessly pushing Joe around Whole Foods for the past 15 minutes. He thinks his dad is friggin' losing it.

Me: You're gonna get home and have nothing but chips and Sheila's gonna be like, "Where are the milk and eggs I asked for?"

Him: Shit! I literally forgot the milk.

Me: Told ya.

Him: I may order Reid a t-shirt that says WTF on the front of it.

It was the perfect correspondence.

He always knew just what to say, even when he thought he didn't. He always put others first and excelled in loving those around him in a unique and special way. Chip had friends all over the world and went out of his way to make time for every one of them.

When I spoke to Sheila this week, we marveled at how he was so good at so many things, but the thing he was the best at was loving. He was just so good at loving.

He loved a lot. He was full of the stuff. He loved the Patriots and the Red Sox. He loved Amazon and hugs and cold beer and ranch dressing and BLTs (crispy bacon, white toast, thankyouverymuch). He loved politics and Washington and music and dancing. He loved New Hampshire (Live Free or Die!) and Colby College and traveling. For a brief time period, he loved car bras. He loved Garth Brooks and Zac Brown Band and he could jam to Taylor Swift's 1989 album like a 12-year-old girl. 

The only two things I'm aware of that he ever hated were the NY Yankees and the zoo. Which sounds all awful and "I hate puppies and babies" but he has a pretty good reason for it, so I let it slide.

He loved God and his friends and he loved his life. But what he really loved most was Sheila and Joe and Crosby. There are very few men who are brave enough to love the way Chip did (although I am proud to put Patrick in that same category). Chip always put his family first. Always. They were his first thought when he woke up and his last prayer before he went to sleep. He was a wonderful daddy and husband.

He walked alongside Sheila and lead those around him by example. He was faithful and strong and brave and taught us all about being present and grateful. He showed everyone around him how to be compassionate and vulnerable and live a meaningful life. He and Sheila didn't just sit there thinking about doing. THEY DID.

Chip gave me many gifts - my husband being chief among them. But the gift of getting to know Sheila and finding in her a like-minded, strong-voiced, soul-sister of a woman, is also hard to beat. Her strength and sense of humor have inspired me and I know that none of us will ever truly understand how she became the living, breathing answer to that eternal How do you do it? question, except that she just did. She is still doing it and will continue to move ever-forward with a fortitude, grace and humility that is indeed very rare in our world. When I asked her permission to write this tribute to Chip, she responded "Of course!" and thanked me. What an incredible woman.

Last Tuesday, when I asked Chip how Sheila was doing, his response was, "She is Sheila. She is putting her head down and doing what needs to get done…and looking great while doing it. You know the type."

I watched those two deftly handle life and I thirstily and eagerly soaked up the lessons they unknowingly bestowed onto me and all those with whom they came in contact. They visited us in Memphis just weeks after Reid's diagnosis and their direct approach and can't-lose attitude got us through the following six months.

Chip had an amazing habit of sending me notes at the exact moment I needed them. Little reminders that we have to keep moving forward even when want to curl up in a ball and let life dump on us.

Buddy, we clearly have buckets of dirt being thrown on us right now and sometimes the only move we have is to keep moving forward.  Like you, I found myself asking what is the point or why a few times over the past week. Every time, I quickly realize that is a fruitless exercise and I put my head down and keep going forward. Due to the circumstances we find ourselves in, that is often the only move we have, and I have discovered that it is a perfectly acceptable move. 

Or

We did some good praying for you guys this morning. In fact, Crosby prayed so hard I had to take her outside because she was disrupting the service.

He would often just ask:

How's the kicking ass going? or 
You need to bitch about anything? or 
How's my partner-in-crime doing today? or 
How's shit? or
Talk to me, goose.

And before one of their respective chemo rounds, there might have been a, "let's blast shit" or "veins can be a real bitch."

There are hundreds of them. Words between friends that might have otherwise been lost forever. And in these few days that have passed since we lost Chip, I'm so grateful that I never took them for granted. I'm so glad they are here and that Chip is writing this blog post with me with his kind and gentle and hilarious words.

He had moments of anxiety and fear and sadness, but even in the end, he always deflected concerns from himself and focused on others. He had a soft spot for Reid and always turned his own pain into tenderness for my son. One of the last times I saw Chip, he felt ill from chemo. He had a gray pallor, was nauseous and had a consistent cough. He said he felt pretty bad, but that was ChipSpeak for feeling AWFUL. He would never complain too much and even when it became incredibly painful, he would say things like, "I always think of my little buddy when I feel like this. I just don't know how he did it when he couldn't even tell you how bad he felt. What a hero."

And when Reid went into remission and our battle was over, but Team Kennett's was just gearing up, he never felt bitter or resentful or anything but joyful for our great news. We videotaped Reid's "No Mo' Chemo" party and Chip texted me immediately saying, "That video is just about the best damn thing I have ever seen. That confetti kind of messed with my little man, though."

He always wanted the best for us and never stopped asking about #14 (his pet name for Patrick from their college football days), Elle and, of course, Reid. He loved seeing our pictures on Instagram, so on the last day of his life - in his last words to me - it was fitting that his only request of me was to,"Keep posting pictures of that boy."

I don't remember when, but somewhere along our friendship, I confided in Chip that in the months after Reid was diagnosed with Down syndrome, I would drive around aimlessly - crying and worrying and listening to Zac Brown Band's Highway 20 Ride. A song that was written about someone else's little boy, but that made me wonder about the one in my belly whom I felt I didn't know and in all honesty feared a little bit. 

It's one of those songs that has a specific meaning but can be easily transmuted to bring significance to a variety of trials and tribulations. 


I ride east every other Friday but if I had it my way
The day would not be wasted on this drive
I want so bad to hold you
Son, there's things I haven't told you…

So I'll drive
And I think about my life
And wonder why, then I slowly die inside…
…and I count the days and the miles back home to you 
on the Highway 20 ride

...so when you drive 
And the years go flying by
I hope you smile
If I ever cross your mind 
It was the pleasure of my life
And I cherished every time
And my whole world 
It begins and ends with you
On that Highway 20 ride

It was cathartic for me and I don't know why I told Chip about it, but he understood and believed in the power of music and I remember it making perfect sense to him. And from then on, every time he heard that song, he would send me a text that simply said, "Highway 20 Ride" or "Heard me some Highway 20 Ride." A simple acknowledgement about something deeper than ourselves - those moments that we cannot avoid, when all we can do is just press the gas and drive straight through to the other side.

And so now - in this very moment - I am sitting in an airport after driving three hours along Interstate 20 listening to that song on repeat. I write this as I wait to board a plane to DC, where I will end one hell of a ride by attending Chippewa's memorial service.  

This morning, as I listened and drove, I thought about my little boy and how much has changed in the two and a half years since he was in my belly. I smiled at the realization that I was on the other side of a battle I didn't even know I was capable of fighting and I cried at the irony of spending those long, hard months just waiting for things to change - waiting for my life to begin again and constantly wondering why, why, why - only to realize that my whole world began long ago when Chip introduced me to Patrick. And that it grew larger and larger as Elle and Reid came along. It was there all along and there was plenty of room for everything - the good and the bad and the in between.

And I thought about Chip and his whole world - how his too began and ended with his family. I thought about Sheila and their little girl and precious boy and how he always counted the miles back home to them. I cried and tried not to wonder why, why, why. I thought about how fast the years have flown by and I smiled through my tears as it all crossed my mind - proud to have known Chip and call him a friend. Proud to have made it to the other side in no small part because of him. It was truly the pleasure of my life and I cherished every time.

Chip once told me, "Have the courage to live. Anyone can die."

And that's exactly what he did. He lived a courageous, honorable, loving, kind and compassionate life. He lived a life that I will spend my lifetime trying to mimic. He had bad days, but he was mostly present and grateful because he knew that we are not ever promised tomorrow. He knew how important it is to live big and love loud. He knew how to do the right thing and make a real difference in this world. He knew how to have a good time and take on everything he encountered with purpose.

As Sheila so eloquently told me this week, "He would be so f-ing pissed that he died!"

Even in his death, his words and spirit live on. And because of the equal spirit of his wife and the legacy he has passed on to his children, Chip will never die - he will always be alive and well in those who knew him.

And so, I'm boarding this plane and heading back to where it all began. I miss him very much already but I will keep pushing forward. I will continue to follow his lead. 

And I'll keep posting pictures of my boy. 




2003

2003

2004

2004 "Don't Stop Believin'"

2005

2006 "Pour Some Sugar on Me"

2007 "Dirt of Your Shoulder"

2009

2013

2013

2014

2014


Give 'em hell up there, Chippewa. I love you, buddy.
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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Write Away


They say if you want to be a writer, then you have to write.

I've been thinking about this notion a lot lately. I've been telling Patrick that I have this overwhelming need to get it all on paper.

To get back to the page and soothe my soul with some good, old-fashioned word therapy.

I am not foolish enough to believe that I'm actually a writer. Although if you believe my resume, I earned a degree in journalism back when that was a legitimate option for a major, and subsequently received several years' worth of paychecks where my main job requirement was to write (albeit incredibly boring tripe). But still, it barely paid the bills.

Before dipping my toes into the "real" writing world, I spent an inordinate amount of my teens and early twenties writing sappy, overwrought, angsty, apologetic letters to ex-boyfriends. 

One time I wrote a 25-page, kick-ass paper on Toni Morrison's Beloved and would love to know where that is so I can go back and pat myself on the back for a job well done.

I recently ran into my sixth grade creative writing teacher and she remembered me well from the cloying poetry and exaggerated short stories that I earnestly turned in each week.

And as far back as 7-years old, I remember writing down every single curse word I'd ever heard and tucking the list safely and discreetly under my pillow each night while I slept. Our housekeeper found it once and threatened to tell my mom (it was some juicy, only-hear-it-on-the-school-bus stuff), so I had to be more cautious about my prose moving forward.

The point is, I've always loved to cuss. 

And write.

So, as often as I walk away, I just keep coming back. I've spent the last six months in deep contemplation and found myself right where I always leave off - yearning to get it all down. 

My new year's resolution - if you want to call it that - is to live a more purposeful life. For me, that means doing things that have meaning and true connectedness, instead of just going through the motions and constantly falling into the same predictable, habitual patterns.

I'm an overly-organized control freak (a bad combo) and it can be difficult for me to begin an endeavor without being one million percent prepared. I'm a little ritualistic about starting new things and everything has to be just so. 

(Thus the new blog layout - "Oh, I'm going to blog again? Well then I must revamp EVERYTHING!") 

It's a troublesome way to be and something I would like to genuinely work on changing for the future. Afterall, if you spend your whole life preparing, there is no time left for actually DOING. 

The last three years have been a spiritual journey of sorts - aided in part by prayer, meditation, Pema Chodron, and my recent discovery of kombucha - and led in full by JC himself. I am not a super-religious person, but I am a super faithful one, and I truly believe that God's got it all worked out if we will only abide. 

The problem is that we want things to be EASY. And we want to be happy and joyful and calm all the time. When things are going well, we don't mind giving the credit to Jesus or whomever we happen to believe in. But, when things start going bad - like when your kid gets cancer - those are the times we stop listening. We shut down and we conjure up a billion crazy thoughts and we FREAK OUT and we don't realize that if we can just be still and listen, then the answers will come.

So, I've been practicing stillness and calmness. I've been working on trying to connect with others even when it's hard and I don't want to. When I just want to go into a rage spiral and throw things and blame everyone else but myself. 

Part of my plan to better abide and listen and grow involves a lot less technology. We're turing off the TVs and the iPads and the iPhones. Every other day - whenever we're all together - we are going without. And on the days inbetween, we can just stick our noses in a screen and zone out and ignore each other all day. I'm all for a 50 percent success rate!

Another part of my plan is focusing on being present with everyone around me - especially my family - and to take care of my mind the same way I take care of my body.

And, so, in the brief interludes of calm and stillness that I've had so far, I kept hearing the same thing over and over again.

Write. Write. WRITE.

I briefly wondered if writing about me, me, ME could actually be purposeful or if it's really just incredibly vain. For a second I thought that I should probably rework my resolution to something along the lines of, "Stop thinking you're so awesome."

But then, I thought about it some more, and realized that it's not coming from a selfish place - it's coming from a deep desire to be accessible. To put myself out there and connect to this world and the people in it. 

I've met so many people over the past two years, and I am humbled and grateful that many of them have contacted me through this blog. A few of them have dealt with a cancer diagnosis, but most of them reached out to me after a Down syndrome diagnosis - this blog was one of the places they found while furiously Googling for answers.

In my last post, I wrote that I blog just for me. But, that simply isn't true. I do get a lot of personal fulfillment from writing, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. I think it was easier to pretend that I write only for me so that I had a layer of protection if anyone disagreed with what I had to say. Putting yourself out there can be very liberating, but it can also be very terrifying. Sometimes it makes you feel better to caveat it or cushion it in some way.

But now I know it's not about whether people agree with me or even like me. And it's not about validation. It's about being completely honest and seeing where sparks fly and connections happen.

It's about being kind and compassionate and living a meaningful life; finding my way and teaming up with others for the ride. 

A few months ago, I entered an essay contest - the winner would secure a spot at a writer's retreat in Ojai, California. It was a kind of random thing for me to do, and it came about after a moment of quiet listening. Of hearing Him say, "DO IT."

So I did it. I spoke honestly about my desire to start writing again. Part of my essay went something like this:

I hate that we are always polishing ourselves up when we're really just raw and flawed. I am no more deserving of winning a spot at this retreat than anyone else because we ALL have a story to tell. We all have our own truth.

My truth is that Down syndrome and heart defects and leukemia once terrified me. But how can I be afraid when I look at my own son?

Right now, I'm figuring out how to reconcile unequivocal joy with crushing pain. How to balance my growing inability to relate to the minutiae of life now that I've seen the bigger picture. But the REAL truth is that I'm okay. I am guarded and I am vulnerable - I am weak and I am strong. I am finding my new voice and I've realized that sometimes we need to shout out loud. And sometimes the most important things are best left unspoken. 

I was truly floored when I received an email inviting me to the retreat. But I honestly can't think of a better way to start 2015 than strengthening my voice and reigniting my love of writing with a group of women who appreciate the power of putting it all on paper.

I hope we can all find whatever it is that is meaningful to us and just DO IT. There is certainly no time like the present.

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