Kindness from a Stranger

She entered the salon where my son was getting his hair cut. Immediately I recognized her…but from where? This happens to me all the time. I drew a blank. She smiled and said, “Oh hi.” But her face revealed she was trying to place me too. Oh good. After a moment she confessed she knew me but…was it from the school my kids attended? We pieced together that she worked for the district and we’d met at a parent input forum I attended last year with principals, parents and others. We laughed at our bad memories.
We chatted about her little guy and how fast kids outgrow clothes. She had a five year old and a three year old. I told her the ages of mine. We laughed at how fast things no longer fit and how big they get. I pointed her to my 5’10” “baby” across the room. Her little boy began asking me questions fitting of a three-year-old. Where were my kids? Three are at home and one is here. Which boy was mine? That big boy over there. Where was my boy’s daddy?
The last question made my breath catch. Should I tell this boy, this toddler-stranger that my boy’s daddy had died? I was grateful for an interruption from my phone. When I finished he was distracted. Relief.
As we began chatting again she asked an innocent question, fitting for her job. “How are your kids liking school this year?” I tried to keep it simple. Though it had been an emotional day, there was no need to burden this stranger.
“Just ok?” she pressed with a smile.  
Tears came to my eyes as I said in a quiet voice, so out of character for me, “My husband died in the second week of school. It’s been a rough year. I have a freshman, an eighth grader, a sixth grader, and a kindergartener. It was already a transition year so it’s been extra hard. (my voice caught in my throat) Its twelve weeks tonight.” The tears spilled over before I could stop them. But only a few.
Compassion filled her face. This stranger was also a wife and mom. Our simple conversation about how fast her boys were growing had connected us on a mommy-level. She seemed to know words were inadequate. After a moment of struggling for control with tears threatening to leave her eyes she said, so kindly, “I’m so sorry.”
Her questions that followed were the normal ones people ask—was it unexpected? How old was he? Are the kids doing ok? She didn’t pry beyond that. She expressed sympathy as she’d lost her brother a year and half ago. She said holidays are the hardest. I told her we were headed to his family’s home for thanksgiving because that’s what my kids wanted to do. Her face lit up. She said, “You are a good mom. My ex-sister-in-law doesn’t see a need to let us see my nieces and nephews.” I told her that was terrible—these were still their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their cousins. She looked relieved and impressed that this was my attitude.
Just then Jarod finished his haircut and I turned a smiling face to him. No need for his evening to be burdened with our conversation, with my sadness. Her smile was kind as I turned to leave.
It’s amazing the connections we make. I’ve discovered this since Kraig’s death. My chatty nature has connected me to people I hadn’t even realized. I am memorable—for good or bad, I just am. I used to joke I could chat with a kumquat. But this ability to strike up conversations has networked me in my kids’ school district, made connections I didn’t realize with checkout ladies at Walmart, and even moved the people at the health food store to reach out with sympathy to me, simply one of their customers.
Tonight this woman was just being polite at first. We were just two moms waiting in a salon—me for my son, her for a little pampering. But when the conversation turned more serious than she imagined, she was so kind. It was more than I thought would happen just taking Jarod for a haircut.

Life Goes On

It’s been 11 weeks today. That fact didn’t occur to me until I sat down to write. Eleven weeks of putting one foot in front of the other. Eleven weeks of successes and setbacks. Eleven weeks of parenting alone. Eleven weeks of homework and housework, listening and laughing, crying and coping. In other words, eleven weeks of life just keeping moving forward since Kraig died.
Today was a busy day. There were errands and chores, meetings with friends, and even a trip into the office. I’m a radio DJ and we had a meeting in addition to me needing to track (record my shows, for all you non-DJs). I finished all of this up and headed to my afternoon insanity—after-school juggling with four kids in three schools.
I’ve gotten it down to a science. Pick up Lucy from Kindergarten down the street at 2:45. Arrive home and wait for Ryan and Kati to return by 3:10. They walk. Then at 3:25 head off to the high school to get Jarod so he won’t have to wait. Jarod enjoys the one-on-one time to decompress with me about his day on the drive home.
Except today didn’t happen like that. Because life is unpredictable.
Today Ryan was having a bad autism day. When 3:25 rolled around, I was still missing two middle-schoolers. I called up to the school and discovered Ryan was having a major meltdown and his special ed teacher, bless her, never lets him leave until he’s calm. I told them I’d be right up. We’d be late to get Jarod but there wasn’t anything to be done about that.
I told Kati, waiting patiently for her brother by the office counter, to head outside to the van with Lucy. Ryan was in an office with two caring adults trying to help him calm the sobs. The lights were out. I was so torn between the child I knew would be waiting, wondering where I was, and the child in front of me hurting and unable to calm himself. He wasn’t doing this on purpose.
I texted Jarod while Ryan and his teacher explained to me the cause of the sobs and tears running down his blotchy, red face. He’d been crying a while. “Ryan’s having a meltdown. Be right there.” I prayed Jarod checked his cell phone. He only uses it to call me. It’s rarely on.
When Ryan was still struggling to tell me what was wrong, I realized I had planned to go get Jarod’s newly repaired pocket watch from the shop on the way home from getting him. He’d be thrilled. Now how to occupy all four. “Ryan, would Happy Hour at Sonic for some slushies help?” The tears stopped so fast the teachers laughed out loud. “Sonic?” Ryan perked up. Yes, I assured him, but we needed to go now. Jarod would be waiting and we didn’t want him to think mom had forgotten him.
Ryan calmed and I thanked the teachers. We rushed to the high school to find Jarod, waiting and looking upset. He’d left his cell phone at home. He had indeed worried I’d forgotten him. Plus his day had been exhaustively long and full of high school stress. I apologized. He understands having a brother with autism often means meltdowns delaying things. But his shoulders still sank in a resigned way. What’re ya gonna do? they seemed to say.
We headed to Sonic. Gotta love Happy Hour. Five slushies for $4.33. That’s craft fair money put to good use, honestly. And it let me leave the three younger kids in the van and take just Jarod in to retrieve his newly repaired pocket watch—his pride and joy. It’s over 100 years old and he bought it with his own money. But he fell on it last week, shattering the crystal (the glass, for you non-steampunk fans). Grandpa offered to pay for the repair.
As a result of this chaos, we deemed it “what can we find in the freezer and fridge” for dinner tonight. There are still baths and showers to be accomplished. Rooms to be tidied and laundry to be folded and homework attacked. 
And just like that, another day is done. Life goes on.
In the back of my mind it doesn’t seem right that life is just going on…but I know it is. I’m not sad for Kraig. He’s in a place with no meltdowns, no schedules, no work. And it’s my job to keep doing all those things down here. Today we did. Today I put one foot in front of the other. I tried my best to be a good mom. I talked to God often about how that should work. I pray He’ll give the kids supernatural understanding beyond their years when Mom is pulled in too many directions at once and they must be patient. And I trust He will help me get through tomorrow just like I got through today.

Hating Grocery Shopping

Nothing overwhelms like the mundane when you are struggling through grief. At least that’s been my experience. Dishes and laundry and picking up the house are bad enough. But grocery shopping and meal planning are the worst.
I will give myself credit in that my kids are being cared for. Since losing my husband they have been on time to school every day they have gone. They have been bathed (as well as they usually are bathed), dressed in clean clothing, and well kept. They are fed each day and our home does not yet require an intervention from the show Hoarders—thanks in no small part to a few friends who have helped me clean this week. Laundry is getting done and they have even had clean sheet day several times.
But then there’s planning their food.
This has always been a struggle for me. I used to find joy in baking. Kraig was the one who liked to cook and so he did dinner prep at least three nights a week, sometimes more. I struggle with getting stuck in the same ruts—spaghetti, tacos, burgers and fries, hot dogs and mac n’ cheese, and the ever popular scrambled eggs.
Today was one of those days when I needed to go to the grocery store. We were out of some essentials and, truth be told, my kids have had frozen popcorn chicken, hot dogs, and left overs too often lately. So I tried. I really did. But the vast quantities of choices lining the shelves brought tears to my eyes. I felt like I was failing in this essential part of my job as mom and homemaker. What to make for dinner? I can’t even process what my to-do list should look like today.
I have a friend who has offered to sit down and help me with this chore. Our schedules just haven’t meshed yet. I need to take her up on the offer. I don’t like panicking in the produce aisle. I don’t like fighting tears as I look at boxes of hamburger helper and hear my health-food-conscious friends gasp from a distance. Yeah, I’m imagining it but the knowledge that this is now uncool is still there.
I’m doing OK in this process of grieving. But that assurance goes out the window as I step into Walmart to buy food. Nothing makes me feel so small, so lost, as trying to determine what is good for my kids to eat for dinner over the next five days. What is healthy? Who the heck knows anymore!What is easy for me to accomplish when I’m struggling to get organized, help with homework, get baths done, and fit in TV shows that they like to watch with me? What can I make that will have a minimum of complaints or will appeal to them as comforting? What can I make the one gluten-free kid if the rest of us have this? Argh.
So I came home with three meals, I think. Two are processed and I don’t care. I made it out of Walmart without crying and for today, that is a win.

Don’t Tell Me "I don’t know how you do it."

Two months ago my husband died. It was earth shattering. We had just celebrated our 20th anniversary this summer. We were preparing for a new stage in life with all four of our kids headed off to school for the first time. From Freshman in High School to two in middle school and now our baby in Kindergarten, this was going to be a cool new world.
Except it’s not.
On September 3rd, my Kraig suffered a massive heart attack. We now know he had been having smaller ones for days. Multiple doctors missed it. There was no chance to say goodbye. One minute he was suffering from what we thought was back pain and the next I was having to take a deep breath and tell my children Daddy went to heaven.
I am a strong woman. I say that without conceit or vanity. It is something God has built into who I am. It’s one of the things that attracted my husband to me. Some of it is my nature and some of it is lessons in faith God has been teaching me throughout my life. Some of it is supernatural support from a God who knows my pain and promises to equip me for the road ahead. One truth I know: God is faithful.
October 2013, The Kids & Me
Now my days are filled with caring for confused and wounded kids. I’m trying to figure out a new normal in our lives where once there were two actively involved parents and now there is just me. Each day I’m encouraging the kids and myself to ride the roller coaster of grief as it comes. If they feel sad, that’s OK. Feel it but don’t stay there. Life doesn’t stop. If you feel happy, that’s OK too. Daddy loved to laugh and would want us to laugh again.
I just finished one of the hardest weeks of doing this by myself. There were teacher meetings and parenting challenges that made me mad at Kraig for leaving me here to handle it all alone. There were concerts at school and trick or treating obligations. There was a sick child and craft fair I had to sell my handmade wares at. And there was a mother-daughter event to take my daughter to even though I would have rather stayed hidden. But she needed this.
As the week got harder and harder I began to feel so sad, so overwhelmed, so exhausted. This morning, someone uttered those words that many have said over the past weeks: “I don’t know how you do it.”
Let me tell you I hate those words. I realize they are meant as a pat on the back that I’m doing something amazing. They have been uttered by many people. There are two reasons I hate them.
First, what else am I going to do? I have four little hearts to shepherd through the greatest tragedy of their lives. I have mouths to feed and baths to arrange and schools to communicate with. I do not have the luxury of curling up in a self-pitying ball and stopping my life. I wouldn’t if I could. My children need to see that life goes on and it’s going to be OK someday. They need to see from me that God is here in the daily struggles to breathe and eat and laugh and cry without their daddy.
The second reason I hate that sentence is that there is hidden inside it the implication that I shouldn’t be doing this well. Hearing that sentence makes me doubt myself. If I loved him more, should I be finding it harder to function? If I was sadder, less functional, would that show I was grieving better? Am I somehow too strong? Should I be falling apart more?
I sat here today struggling with exactly those thoughts and realizing for the first time since Kraig died that I was feeling depressed. Up until now I could confidently say I was not depressed. I’m sad, I’m lonely, I’m lost sometimes, but depression was not on the list. Until I realized this sentence was making me question myself, making me feel like I’m doing this wrong.
So here’s my request from strong women everywhere going through amazing amounts of trial—stop telling us you just don’t know how we do it. I do it because life must go on. I do it to honor a husband who told many people that he had faith in his wife to carry on living if something ever happened to him.  I do it because my kids need me and that right there will get any good mother going when life knocks her down. I do it because I trust in a sovereign God who gives me strength each day.
When I need help, I ask for it. When I need to collapse, I have friends waiting with comfy couches and open arms. But as I’m teaching my kids, I do not stay there. Life doesn’t work like that. So please, don’t tell me you don’t know how I do it. You may not like my answer.