Competing Souls

While we haven’t officially reached the fall equinox on the calendar, in Pennsylvania this past weekend the weather shifted from the oppressively humid, mid-90 degree days of summer into the cooler, crisp days of fall. Using history as the indicator, the temperature will undoubtedly spike and dip again at least a time or two before we officially enter the fall season on September 22, but the 60 degree temperatures the last couple of days serve as a nice reminder of what’s to come as the days of September continue to quickly pass.

As a new season looms, the sudden shift in temperature this past weekend isn’t something I’d call unexpected, but the sudden shift I felt within myself was. There was a shift in my soul, a shift to center; to my internal home.

As I shifted home, I just wanted to be in my home with the three other people in my life who call my house “home” too. Along with the cooler temperatures came rain resulting in the cancellation of my son’s outdoor sports activities on Saturday and Sunday. I admittedly didn’t find myself disappointed. I took the opportunity to handle some of the many small things around the house I haven’t made a priority, but continued to nag at me every time I turned certain corners, opened certain drawers and doors and looked certain directions. My husband must have sensed my unspoken priorities because he took care of some of them without me even asking. All weekend the phrase, “All is right in my world,” kept replaying in my mind. As my soul re-centered I also felt my mind re-focus. A feeling of gratitude was punctuated with relief; with peace.

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I have spent much of this year holding my breath in the proverbial passenger seat of my life’s car while I let what I can only describe now as my alter ego take the wheel and steer. I never knew I possessed an alter ego but when it appeared I didn’t fight when it demoted me from the driver to passenger seat. I was tired of driving; I needed a break. With few questions and little concern, I trusted the role change was occurring at the exact necessary moment and for a very specific purpose. My trust allowed me to embrace a very uncharacteristic attitude of “just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

While behind the steering wheel my alter ego kept one eye on the road and one eye on that person sitting in the passenger seat. From the passenger seat, my normal-self did the same – one eye on the road, one eye on that person behind the wheel. We trusted and distrusted each other just enough to create a balance; an understanding as we forged ahead on our journey together.

The coupling wasn’t always a harmonious one though. Some days the dichotomy of myself left me feeling torn between selfishness and selflessness, responsibility and freedom, desire and self-control. On those days I usually felt very conflicted but would let myself be guided by the forces around me, never losing faith that I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that moment and would end up exactly where I was supposed to.

“Just say, yes!” I quickly learned is my alter ego’s favorite phrase. Permit opportunity, permit change, permit the unknown… Saying “Yes” opens doors. My alter ego has no fear of what she’ll find on the other side because she knows whatever is there is intended for her and she can handle it. My normal-self rarely fought this mantra. When I did I always fought with an alternative “yes” option not a blatant “no” because even my normal-self knew that the terse two letter word would change the trajectory of the journey I was intended to take.

Saying “Yes” resulted in so many great things this year. I made spontaneous decisions, went new places and tried new things. In terms of people – I reconnected with some old, connected with some new and formed deeper connections with those already present. I let go of some things I was holding for far too long. I tested boundaries, accepted challenges and found more confidence in my thoughts, words and actions. By saying one simple word more often I feel like I have been living a more authentic version of myself.

It’s been a somewhat scary but incredibly amazing ride. For some reason though, along with the cooler temperatures and rain this weekend, a fork appeared in the road. With no explanation it signified in my soul that it was time for my normal-self to slip back into the driver’s seat. So as quick as a Chinese fire drill happens, the shift occurred.

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With my normal-self back in the driver’s seat, there is no doubt the view is a little different, as am I. The co-existence of competing souls on this nine month journey formed new perspective and created balance so that I can live a more fulfilling and authentic life. I’m certain that was the point of this leg of my journey. Now, with many miles yet to travel, and so much left to learn, I am just putting the pedal to the metal; traveling forward focused on what lies ahead while smiling at what is in the rear-view mirror.

Ebb and Flow

The only thing certain in life is that it ebbs and flows. When hard times are upon us the speed at which life travels can be completely overwhelming. During the hard times though there is still beauty; so much for which to be grateful. It’s our focus on the beauty that frees us from the hard times.

 

As my car approached the bridge spanning the Susquehanna River the world around me disappeared. I saw nothing nor did I hear anything. My eyes were frozen on the road, my hands tightly gripped the steering wheel. I’m sure I looked like a woman on a mission but I was nothing but a woman lost; a woman who in that moment had completely lost her grip on reality.

My daughter was asleep in the backseat. We were on our way to her second appointment with the orthopedic specialist who was monitoring her mild hip dysplasia.  We had been on the road nearly an hour when the thought struck me from nowhere – I was dead.

After experiencing life threatening complications immediately following my daughter’s birth two months prior, I was convinced in that moment that I did not survive. I was dead and everything I had experienced in the last two months was as a ghost who was stuck in the world I wasn’t ready to leave two months prior.

Think Patrick Swayze’s character in the movie, Ghost.

As my mind ran wild I convinced myself everything I had done in the last two months was simply a figment of my ghostly imagination. Everyone’s life had gone on without me. I continued to live amongst them because I couldn’t accept that I was dead. In the present moment someone else was really driving my daughter to her appointment. I had just interjected myself into the driver’s seat because had I survived that is exactly what I would be doing – taking care of my daughter.

This departure from reality lasted the entire length of the bridge and then some. All I could think to do to try to pull myself out of it was pinch myself but I couldn’t loosen my grip on the steering wheel. Finally, I forced myself to lift each finger on my right hand, one-by-one. I moved my hand off the steering wheel to my left forearm and squeezed some skin between my thumb and index finger. It probably took a few seconds to do, but in my mind it happened at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Once I felt my own pinch I still wasn’t truly convinced I was alive. Feeling the warmth of tears roll down my face is what really brought me back into reality.

I had no idea what had happened, but I knew it was fucked up, which in turn probably meant I was fucked up. After what I experienced following my daughter’s birth, everyone expected that I would be. Of course they didn’t use those exact words to say so but in that moment, for the first time, I wondered if they were all right.

During the rest of my drive I questioned if I was in over my head trying to navigate my post-partum emotions on my own, without medication. That whole “moment” over the bridge wasn’t just a sad thought crossing my mind that caused some tears, which is mainly what I had been experiencing the weeks previous. No, that moment was a complete departure from reality like, “Should I be heavily medicated in a padded room?” departure. I was fearful, but managed to convince myself I still had it all under control.

I never spoke a word about it to anyone.

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The hospital where I gave birth to my daughter is 30 minutes from my house but only five minutes from where I work. I haven’t stepped foot in that hospital since the day I left on June 12, 2016. A part of me wants to; I feel it’s necessary to progress in my healing, but I know I’m not ready yet. I fear I will encounter a sound, a smell, a sight that transports me back to the hours I fought for my life.

The only thing I will do, which pushes me out of my comfort zone every time, is drive by the hospital. Funny enough, I usually do so in the name of Jimmy John’s. Apparently, getting my hands on my favorite sandwich is worth the emotional price I pay because every time I get within a quarter mile of the hospital I feel my chest tighten and my breathing change. My mind flashes back to my time in the hospital. When I finally come upon the hospital I tell myself not to look but like a collision of cars on the side of the road, I can’t resist the urge. My eyes go immediately to the window of the room I occupied for four days and my mind wanders to the recovery that miraculously occurred among the room’s four walls. I expected by now the affect of passing by the hospital would have waned at least some, but it’s still as strong as it was two years ago.

I’ve never spoke a word about this to anyone, but I did write them to someone once.

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I situated myself back into my car after pumping gas – pushing the ignition button, dropping the receipt in the compartment in my door, putting the credit card back in my purse. Ready to pull away I looked out the windshield. A woman, and presumably her daughter, about the same age as my daughter, caught my eye as they crossed the street in front of me. The mother walked slightly in front of her daughter (a little too far in my over-cautious opinion) as her daughter obediently followed.

I don’t know what it was, other than probably the age of the little girl, but the sight of this mother and daughter triggered my anxiety and I froze. I sat there completely still – my eyes on the woman and child, my right hand still extended to my purse on the passenger seat where I had just placed my wallet, the music in my car playing. I was aware, I knew I was “stuck” in a moment, but I literally couldn’t move. I sat there in stillness for what felt like minutes but was probably only one. Aware that there were many people around me pumping gas, idling in the parking lot, I worried someone would notice my frozen state and stare. Fearful of looking like a total lunatic my mind instructed my body to move. It didn’t. It tried again. Still, I couldn’t move. Finally, I resorted to what I had done before and focused on moving one finger at a time. Eventually, I brought movement back into my body, shook my head to completely shake the stillness and quickly drove away.

Five minutes later I was in the parking lot at work. I got out of my car still unsure of what had just happened and panicked. I wondered, “What is going on with me?!?!” As I questioned my sanity once again, my heart raced, I instantly felt hot and I couldn’t feel my legs as I walked. Depending entirely on instinctual movement to propel my legs, I was relieved I made it to my office without causing a scene.

I’ve spoken to only two people about this.

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It’s taken me a while to recognize how anxiety manifests within me. It’s taken me even longer to talk about it. I’ve dealt with it quietly because I needed to understand it, accept it and own it. By doing that I can now discuss it without feeling too vulnerable or weak.

My understanding has allowed me to usually feel anxiety brewing. I feel exhausted, like I am literally dragging myself through any motion I make. The simplest things feel excruciatingly laborious, not to mention overwhelming – brushing my teeth, dressing my daughter, unloading the dishwasher, getting a drink… When I find myself thinking, “Everything feels so hard,” I know my proverbial bucket is about to overflow. That realization is my cue to enter what I call “protection mode.”

Protection mode is when I essentially call a time-out in my life to protect myself. I focus only on what is absolutely necessary and shut out the rest as much as possible to try to avoid triggers that will cause my bucket to overflow and anxiety to intensify. Almost always I encounter triggers even in protection mode because shutting myself off completely from the “real world” just isn’t possible but at least the triggers are minimal.

When I encounter a trigger, I know it. I feel a surge of restlessness through my body. It’s hard to breathe. I have a strong desire to escape my current environment. My mind is like Jell-O. It’s hard to make decisions. I’m easily distracted. I hear people talking but I don’t comprehend what they are saying. I see people but I can’t focus on them; I see straight through them.

When anxiety strikes I always feel aware that I’m reacting irrationally but I still can’t rid my body of the physical reactions it causes. It’s very odd to feel as though my mind and body are not communicating; not in sync.  So during such times I just try to focus. I try to be mindful. I try to feel. I try not to panic. I try not to flee.

Anxious feelings often come and go within minutes for me but sometimes they linger longer and compound. When that happens, anxiety lingers for a full day or two.  When I start to feel a little bit like myself, and think all might be resolved, I’ll muster up some courage to take a step out of protection mode back into the “real world.”   Often the anxiety will quickly resurface but I try not to retreat at that point. Instead, I just move forward. I take a deep breath along with another step out of protection mode and let the ebb and flow of life carry me onward. After all, I always have been a strong swimmer.

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Synonym and Antonym

This morning while I strapped my daughter into her car seat I asked my son to take a piece of mail to the mailbox because it didn’t belong to us. He agreed and said he was going to ride his bike. I told him to just walk but since I must have only thought those words and didn’t actually speak them, he promptly mounted his bike.

A couple of minutes later he returned to the garage, with the envelope still in hand and said it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox. I said, “Just bend it and put it in,” to which he responded, “I can’t! It says, ‘Do Not Bend’ on the envelope!”

I couldn’t help but laugh and shake my head! My son lives such a straight and narrow life that he follows the freaking directions on a piece of mail! I was the same damn way when I was his age; so afraid to break “the rules.” I too wouldn’t have bent the envelope. And for the record…I wouldn’t have pushed it either! I’m still that way in many regards but make exceptions when necessary like to do my son’s “dirty work” by bending the piece of mail and pushing it into the mailbox!

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It became apparent to me four or five years ago, when I began to sense that my son was an old soul, that he and I share a very unique bond that extends beyond the natural love between a mother and son. He is my male “mini me;” he is my synonym. I look into his big blue eyes and I’m literally looking into my own. I know his heart is filled with so much love for those closest to him. I know that his conscience guides him maybe a little too straight at times. I know on rare occasion he’s compelled to rebel against his nature and let the wild hair lead him only to then apologize for doing so and quickly revert back to the straight and narrow. I know he wants to please and do what’s right and be praised for those actions. There’s no doubt that I get him and he gets me.

I must admit though I don’t feel that same connection with my daughter. My relationship with my daughter has been different than that with my son since the day she was born two years ago. I often think about those differences and know many of them stem from nature. She is just naturally a very different being compared to my son. She’s self-sufficient in ways it took years for my son to be. She’s a spitfire – strong-willed, stubborn and a rule breaker. Without a doubt she would’ve read the words, “Do Not Bend” on that envelope with a side-eye then proceeded to bend that envelope in all possible directions!!!

Every day I question the best way to handle her and am certain I’m doing exactly what I shouldn’t be doing. My daughter exudes all these strong characteristics that scare the hell out of me as the woman who is raising her but at the same time comfort me because they assure me she is naturally equipped to hold her own in this tough world.

As much as I attribute nature to making up my daughter’s soul I do question how much nurture has contributed. Due to the complications I experienced immediately following her birth I did not get to hold her until 18 hours after she was born. I realize it’s crazy for me to think that this delay altered her to her core, but the suspicion will always linger in my mind. Furthermore, she’s my second child and…well…we all know how things go with the second child! The fact that she’s my last child, the baby, will hopefully make-up for some of those second child shortfalls.

Whatever the factors that have molded my daughter, I just don’t get this strong feeling that she is another “mini me.” Instead, she is my “wanna-be me;” she is my antonym. At two-years-old she is already naturally so many of the things I naturally am not and have to work to be. She is assertive. She digs her heels in and doesn’t budge for anyone. She sets boundaries without question and speaks her mind with no apology. She is simply a force to be reckoned with.

When I was a mom to just my son I often felt like I wasn’t living the life of a “real” mom. Everyone always talked about how hard it was being a mom but there was nothing hard about mothering my son. He entered my world and just assimilated without disturbance. I knew he was the “trick” child and if I had another child I would be the fool. I was up for the challenge though and knew the reward would be worth it.

My daughter made me a “real” mom. She was gifted to me to make my life “interesting” and my hair gray. I have no doubt she will be my child that tackles life completely different than I do. Her tactics, and undoubtedly her antics, will make my heart race, my anxiety skyrocket and my knees shake. Instead of finding familiarity and comfort in her eyes like I do my son’s, I will find unknowns and adventure; a brand new perspective. Mothering her is, and I’m sure will continue to be, a challenge. Seeing the world through her eyes, instead of trying to see my world in her eyes is how I will understand her, how I will bond with her. And if I’m really being honest here it’s probably the only chance in hell I have of surviving life with this feisty soul who was brought into my world to splatter paint all over the black and white pages of my life’s novel!

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As I walked to put the over-sized and now bent envelope in the mailbox my son squeezed in a few more seconds on his bike and followed me. While I put the envelope in the mailbox he circled in front of it on the road and somehow lost his balance. He not-so-graciously caught himself in the fall so not to injure himself. We both laughed and as I thought, “Thanks, Karma,” he said, “I guess you’re thinking that’s what I get, huh?”

I wasn’t surprised in the least that he knew what I was thinking. Like I said, I get him and he gets me. We get each other so well that I know in the future I won’t even have to ask him to pluck out my gray hairs while his sister is out causing more!

A Version of Our Dreams

I have a stash of writings I’ve been hoarding for years now. The stash is a compilation of writing assignments. Most are from college and a few are from high school. Soon after moving into our new house last September I sifted through the pile and sorted out my favorites to keep. I organized them in a three-ring binder and put it in a chest where I keep some mementos.

The other day I pulled out the binder. I was looking to re-read something I knew I had written many years ago. In my search I came across a paper I knew I had but haven’t read in years. For some reason I felt compelled to read it and was fascinated as I did. It was an interview assignment for a college class. I don’t recall the exact parameters of the assignment but I had to interview someone about their job. I chose to interview a “dancer.”

Spending my high school and college years in Nevada I didn’t have to search hard to find someone with that job to interview. At the time I didn’t personally know anyone, but not surprisingly I was only one degree removed from someone; a friend of mine knew the girl I interviewed.

I remember contacting her, describing the assignment and asking if she was interested in being my interviewee. Without hesitation she agreed. I scheduled a time to go to her apartment in Reno, NV, not far from my own, where we sat for nearly two hours and talked. Below is what I produced from our conversation. She didn’t make this request, but I remember I did not use her real name in my paper. I can’t recall what her real name was, but as I read through this paper the other day I remember distinctly how I felt after talking with her. Interestingly, 14 years later, my feelings remain about the same.

Since I don’t remember much from my interview in 2004 I didn’t edit my writing in any way. I didn’t want to risk losing any of the interviewee’s voice and her honesty.

 

Rachelle Franklin

She is a 20-year-old dancer and model who closely resembles the actress/model Carmen Electra. A native of Reno, Nevada, she was raised in a strict household, and until she graduated from high school, considered herself to have lived a sheltered life.

“I’m a dancer, not a stripper. Strippers are dirty, do drugs and drink. Dancers are clean, respectful and don’t do drugs or drink. I’ve been dancing for a year now. It was a quick, easy way to make money when I needed it. I wanted to live a certain kind of life and working at Scolari’s full-time as a checkout girl was not going to get me that life.”

I’m not going to dance forever. When I started I told myself two years. Max. I just needed to prove to my parents that I could take care of myself and be successful. I got into dancing when I got into a huge fight with my parents and moved out of their house. I only had my clothes and that was it. My friend was a dancer and she got me interested in the business. I’d see her come home with hundreds of dollars a night and I wanted that. I went to the club, filled out an app, picked out the stage name, “Divine,” and started dancing.

When people ask me what I do I tell them I’m a Hawaiian Tropic model. I mean, I am. I get a paycheck from them every week too. It’s just easier to say that to people. That way people don’t judge me and shy away from me. My boyfriend tells people I’m a dancer though. I don’t care because the people he tells are mostly his friends and they don’t judge me, like girls do. He had a problem with me dancing when I first told him about it, but he came into the club and watched me one time, which was so uncomfortable, and he saw that it wasn’t a big deal. If I was married or engaged I wouldn’t be dancing. I think it’s disrespectful to the man – his woman’s body is for his eyes only. I wouldn’t dance if I had kids either because when the time comes when they ask you what you do for a living, what are you supposed to say?

Lots of the guys that come into the club are married and have kids, and I don’t see a problem with them being at the club. I think watching porn is way worse. The guys don’t do anything while they’re at the club, except eat and watch us girls. They can’t touch us or anything. The girls dance two dances. The first, we keep our clothes on and just dance around. During the second dance we take off all of our clothes, except our thong. The club I work at is really classy. A lot of clubs are trashy, but mine has bodyguards, security cameras and rules for the dancers and customers that they enforce. I wouldn’t work at a club that didn’t have these things. I went to a club once in Vegas to try dancing there and I hated it. It was completely different from what I was used to. The guys were touching the girls everywhere and the girls were so disgusting. At my club all the girls are pretty, some should even be on a runway, not a stage, and none of them are fat.

You know dancers are really just psychologists. All these guys come in talking about all their problems and we’re just there to comfort them. I actually learned a lot about relationships since I’ve been dancing. I know why guys are unhappy in their relationships, and I know that they need freedom. A guy has to go out and be with his friends and not have his girlfriend clinging to him all he time. Yeah, that’s what we are, family psychologists with our clothes off (laughs).

My work life and personal life are completely separate. I don’t talk about my personal life at work, and I don’t talk about my work life at home. I only have given one of my customers at the club my phone number, but I trust him. He’s never asked me to do anything for him, like dance and stuff, he just wants to talk. He’s the owner of a local car dealership and money is not anything to him. He comes into the club and takes me and some other girls, along with bodyguards, to the Eldorado in a limo. He gives all of us girls gambling money. One time he gave me $4,000 in chips to gamble and I’ve seen him drop almost a million dollars in 20 minutes. He’s the one who paid for my boob job. I have always been conscious about my chest. I was like a double A cup, now I’m a C. I just was telling him one night that I wanted to save up money to get a boob job and right there he told me that he’d pay for it. He sent my friend and me to San Francisco, paid for my boobs, plus for our gas, food and hotel. He put it all on his credit card. Just like that. I wanted them to help me in my Hawaiian Tropic career. All the Hawaiian Tropic girls have big boobs, and I wanted some too. I didn’t want them because I’m a dancer. And the guy is cool about it too. Just because he paid for my boobs he doesn’t act like he has all rights to them when he comes into the club. I’ve seen that happen to some girls. I got my boob job with no strings attached. The guy was just being nice. That, and averaging $800 to $1000 a day during an eight to nine-hour shift are just some of the many perks of my job. It’s also great being able to make my own schedule. If I don’t feel like working one day, I don’t. If I want to go shopping instead of going to work, I do. I don’t have a manager forcing me to work.

Some days I leave the club and think that I never want to go back. I usually feel like that when I don’t make much money. I can take that personally sometimes, even though it’s not really my fault. It also pisses me off when guys ask me to go back to their hotel room or whatever with them. I’m not nice at the club if you piss me off so I just straight up tell them that that’s not what I do and they need to go somewhere else for that. I hate when guys think that’s my job.

I’m moving to Huntington Beach in June, and I’m going to work as a bartender while I go back to college. I want to go to acting school and as a backup I’ll go to school to get a degree in fashion design. I’ll still dance for a little while, but I’ll bartend at the same time. Eventually, I’ll just let dancing fade away and bartending will be my main job to get me through school. That’s still really good money. I think you have to stop dancing that way. If you quit dancing cold turkey, you’ll be back. I know girls that have tried that and they’re back within five months. The money is just too good.

I’ll miss the money when I quit. I mean I’ll admit, you fall in love with the money the first week you start dancing and all the things it gets you. Growing up my parents always had nice things but they wouldn’t let me use any of them. They told me I had to work for my things. So, that’s what I’m doing. I wanted a nice car, my own place, a big screen TV, leather couches and everything else and I got it all. It’s been nice buying whatever I want. Anything I want I can have. Anything my boyfriend wants I can buy it for him. I can even help support my family if they need it.

The only thing about working as a dancer is that my work ethic has kind of changed. When I worked at Scolari’s I was more disciplined. I’d go to work, but only because I had to or I’d get fired. Now, I’m kind of lazy. I’m motivated by money, so when I need it to buy something or pay bills, I’ll go to work. I used to only work two or three days a weeks but now I work five to six because I want to save up a bunch of money to move to Huntington and buy my own house. I don’t work Sundays and Mondays, usually because those days are just dead. Unless there’s a big game on, a fight in town or a convention going on it’s not worth working on those days.

My dream is to be successful in modeling and acting. That’s why I’m going to Huntington. There’s more opportunities for that stuff there then there is here. I want to own a home, get married and have kids someday and have nice stuff. I’m not getting married or having kids though until I’m in my 30s. My parents were too young when they got married and had me, they messed up on some things. I want to be older when I have kids so I can make sure I know what’s going on. I might tell my kids someday that I used to dance. Yeah, maybe I will.

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After re-reading this I can’t help but wonder where “Rachelle” is today. What is she doing for a living? Did she go to college; have the career she wanted? Does she have the family she wanted? I can only assume (and hope) she is living something close to the dreams she described to me the day we sat in her living room. I mean isn’t that what happens to most of us…our life ends up being made up of some version of the dreams we had when we were younger?

 

Peace and Restitution

Early last year I decided it was time to write about my nearly fatal birthing experience in June 2016. In a series of posts (that began here) I shared my story up to the present day of finally succumbing to the fact that maybe it would help me to talk to a postpartum therapist. I really didn’t want to but knew I had reached a point that I needed to explore the option. After one visit I explored enough to confirm what I already knew – meeting with a therapist just isn’t my thing.  My feelings had nothing to do with the therapist but I left her office that day saying to myself, “Forget this! I’ll figure this shit out on my own one way or another!”

As I vowed to continue navigating myself through the after-effects of nearly dying, I quit writing about it. Not because I didn’t want to write about it but because I wasn’t ready to write about the next piece of the story – my blood transfusions.

Of everything I went through on June 8 and June 9, 2016 – a train wreck of a birth plan, a hemorrhaging uterus and subsequent removal of that uterus in emergency surgery, waking up in the intensive care unit on a ventilator – the blood transfusions have been the hardest for me to emotionally process and handle.

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While I fought for my life in the labor and delivery operating room I remember hearing a female voice count.

“10, 11, 12, 13…”

“21, 22, 23…”

I figured the doctors were still pumping my uterus, trying to bring it to “life” like one does chest compressions on a person during CPR. I learned later from my husband that was not the case. The counting came from a nurse who was counting the towels used to soak up the blood I had lost. He watched as she did it.

As my mind quickly shifted through all the chaos in the room I never heard the number she ended on but when I received my itemized medical bill I learned.

54.

It took 54 towels to soak up all the blood I had lost.

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Soon after I came home from the hospital I cut my finger with a knife. As a bead of blood emerged from the minor cut my instinct was to put my finger in my mouth but mid-action I stopped. Even though that was the blood pumping through my body, it was not MY blood. I was not going to put THAT blood in my mouth!

The thought was maybe a bit irrational but nonetheless it was exactly how I felt. I had “strange” blood from probably at least a dozen different people flowing through my body. I felt contaminated. Dirty. Angry. I propped my forearms in front of the kitchen sink, hung my head and cried. I wanted MY blood back!!! The blood I was born with!!! The blood that had been pumping through my body for the last 33 years!!! But it was gone. I would never get it back.

Through the course of my surgeries I had lost at least 11 pints of blood. The average female body contains about nine pints. I know because it was one of the first things I Googled post-surgeries. I was that obsessed with trying to figure out how much of MY blood may possibly still be pumping through my body. With this information I figured 0; all of MY blood was gone and every drop was “strange” blood.

Of all the questions I asked my doctor about the short term and long terms effects of my experience, a large majority revolved around the blood transfusions. They were the hardest questions for me to ask because I fought tears every time.

I made her explain to me multiple times that within three months my body would change the foreign blood into MY blood. It would take on all characteristics of my blood in a process she thoroughly explained but one I still don’t really understand. I wanted her explanation to matter to me but it didn’t. No matter what the process I would never really have MY blood back. Two years post blood transfusions I still feel this way.

I avoid my blood like it’s a stranger’s. If I see it feelings of anger and disgust arise. Often, for no specific reason, a very visual thought about the blood pumping through my body will enter my mind and my knees feel weak. With these feelings comes guilt because I am incredibly lucky to have received the blood flowing through my body. It’s such a dichotomy of emotions, which is nothing new as I’ve dealt with the emotional trauma caused by the events immediately following my daughter’s birth.

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Since my blood transfusions it has become extremely important to me to donate blood. Donated blood saved my life. I am eternally grateful to the people whose blood I received and to anyone who donates blood for that matter. Donating blood now is the most natural way for me to give back what was given to me.

As soon as I was able (one year post-transfusions) I made my first appointment to donate. I was extremely nervous because I have a terrible track record of extracting blood. I tried donating once when I was 18 years old and passed out mid-donation.

While I never put myself through the donation process again I still had to have blood drawn for testing purposes, and quite often it ended with me passing out. Over the years I have learned, with the help of good medical staff, to control it but even so it still happens on occasion.

My first blood donation post-transfusions was no different. Everything was going so well. I actually made it through the entire donation and was told by the phlebotomist that I was done. I expected she would remove the needle and it would all be over. Except it didn’t go like that. She had to fill all these little vials with blood. As she did I could feel the needle jostling around in my arm. As she continued doing what she needed I could see she was struggling with something. She somewhat urgently called another phlebotomist over to help. Just like that I was transported back to the labor and delivery operating room when my obstetrician called for another doctor to assist her. I panicked and passed out.

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A few minutes later I awoke. The “coming to” feeling was no different than all the other times I had experienced it – the things going on around me slowly came back into focus. I could see the phlebotomist hovering over me, I could hear the TV, I could feel the cold rag on my forehead but my irrational mind feared I had almost died again. I questioned if I could (mentally and physically) achieve my goal of donating 10 more pints of blood.

I had to wait eight weeks until I could donate again. With some hesitation, but more determination, I made another donation appointment. My second donation went better, I did not pass out and it gave me the confidence to think that just maybe I could give back the blood that was given to me.

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I have made three more donations since then. When I donate again in early July I will be half way through giving back the amount of blood I received! For the most part each donation has gone better than the previous, and I haven’t passed out during any since the first donation. I always have to warn the staff of my tendencies, ask for a pre-donation can of cranberry juice and even request they don’t say certain things around me. They are always understanding and accommodating. They thank me after each donation and I say the same to them. I know we all utter our words with sincerity.

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In addition to blood, I also received platelets, red blood cells and plasma during my surgeries. In the future I will consider donating those as well but for now I need to just focus on giving back the 11 pints of blood I received. Once done, I have no intentions of stopping. I will continue to donate blood as often and as long as I can.

With each donation not only do I fight my tendencies to pass out but I fight my tendencies to re-live the events that occurred moments after my daughter’s birth. It’s painful but it’s also humbling. The feelings linger for a couple days and then my mind returns to “normal.” I don’t think the feelings will ever subside.

A few people have asked me why I continue to donate when it’s such an ordeal. In my mind I don’t really have a choice. I’m on a quest – a quest for peace and restitution. I feel like giving back what was given to me is necessary to help me to continue to heal from the events of June 8 and 9, 2016. I also question if subconsciously my intention is to feel as though I have rid my body of those 11 transfused pints. Maybe a piece of me hopes that after doing so I’ll feel like all the blood circulating in my body is MY blood because my body will have made it through the replenishment process.

Regardless, I hope soon after donating that 11th pint I feel a little more peace in my soul. Whether I do or not the fact will still remain that I returned what was given to me and in turn did what others did for me – helped save the life of someone who still has a mission to fulfill in their corner of the world.

Looking for a Punch

I’ve been on somewhat of a search for Mike’s Harder Black Cherry Lemonade for a few weeks now. One beer distributor said they were sold out and another told me tonight they couldn’t get it anymore; that it has been discontinued. Silently I questioned the knowledge of the clerk that told me that but I was tired of searching at the moment so I asked, “Do you have anything else that packs a punch like that? You know, 8% alcohol in an 8 ounce can?”

He led me around the corner to a variety display of BudLight’s -Rita brand. Eight ounce cans with 8% alcohol.

“That should do it,” I said and motioned for him to pick up a 12-pack of the lemonade flavor for me.

I told him I needed a 30-pack of BudLight Lime (for myself) and a 30-pack of BudLight (for the hubs). He graciously offered me two 18-packs of the BudLight instead saying it was six more beers for $1 less.

I’m terrible at math, but I know a good deal when I hear it. Like the “old man” in A Christmas Story movie buying his family’s Christmas tree I told the guy, “You got yourself a deal!”

This is what my life has come to. I made a special trip to the beer distributor, by myself, on a Thursday night in search of something that “packs a punch!” As a wife, mother of two and a full-time worker bee, a beer containing a measly 5% alcohol just doesn’t take the edge off quick enough sometimes.

I have no shame in sharing this. Yes, I drink more these days (since my fiesty daughter entered the world two years ago) but when you go from lightly drinking maybe once a month to lightly drinking a few times a month I basically think I’m just maybe approaching “normal” territory as a responsible 30-something woman.

I totally understand now why my mom would come home from work on occasion when I was younger and say, “I need a beer!”

It took the edge of the day off for her. She still made dinner for us, made sure all our needs were met and was there every night to say goodnight. She survived. I survived. My sister survived. No harm done.

So after getting home from the beer distributor, still determined to get what I really wanted (Mike’s Harder Lemonade), I Googled it online and as I suspected it does not appear to be discontinued. Conveniently they have a product locator that allows me to search for a distributor near me. According to it I should be able to get a 12-pack of punches at numerous locations in the area. Apparently I’ve been hitting up the wrong beer distributors and/or other people have discovered the power of the punch as well and are emptying the shelves before I get there! I think I just uncovered a new mission for myself this weekend. I think there’s just enough room left in the “party fridge.”

Beer. Because No Good Marriage Starts With A Salad

My husband and I met at a bar.

Yes, that’s the shameful truth…mostly.

The whole truth is that we met outside a bar called Naughty Nunnies…

At 2am…

After we closed it down.

Ugh. That story! It just sounds…

What’s the word?

Trashy?

Yeah, “trashy!”

I used to dread getting the question, “Where did the two of you meet?”

When I would answer I would always feel the need to further explain myself and my (sober) state of mind at the time. Then, after doing so, I would still usually get laughs and the side-eye from people who knew me as this straight and narrow, “buttoned-up” woman.

But…it is our story, and nine years into our marriage I’ve come to embrace just how special it is.

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It was just after 2am Sunday, December 4, 2005 when I vaguely heard a guy across the lawn of the bar declare, “I want a girlfriend like that!”

My cousin brought it to my attention that the guy was pointing his finger directly at me.

With my curiosity peaked, I walked away from the guy I had just given my phone number to, toward the guy who had his finger extended my direction and his eyes on me.

Yes [eye roll], I was that “easy.”

But wait! Before you start judging my morals and no regard for “stranger danger” know that I was a girl on the rebound. Just hours before, I had moved out of my boyfriend’s house. I had known that guy since I was 11 years-old. We had a couple of rounds as boyfriend and girlfriend in our adolescence years but were mostly just friends because a few years after we met I moved across the country. Even so we always stayed in touch.

A few months before this fateful early morning in front of the bar, my friend and I reconnected. Within two weeks of that re-connection I made the most spontaneous decision of my entire life – after living in Nevada for 10 years I left and returned to my hometown in Pennsylvania, where all my family lived, to begin a life with my friend who was now my “boyfriend” again.

As crazy as it was I figured, “What do I have to lose?” I was alone in Nevada while almost every single member of my family was in Pennsylvania. If by chance things didn’t work out with the boyfriend, I would at least have the opportunity to reconnect with my family.

I moved into my boyfriend’s house immediately. It was supposed to be the start of a story romance novels are written about except…you guessed it, it wasn’t!

I arrived to my new home (his home) a few days before the semi-truck transporting my belongings. By the time the truck arrived, the exit arrows were already pointing toward the door. It took less than two months for me to follow them. On December 3 I moved again. Going out that night and cutting loose with my cousin was the natural thing to do.

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Once I stood in front of this man who picked me out of the crowd, we quickly got introductions out-of-the-way (Tim was his name) and agreed to do what everyone who isn’t ready to call it a night after the bars close down does…we went for breakfast.

In our small town there were very few dining options that time of morning so we went to the ever-classy Hanover Diner where the bar remnants congregated for some greasy food to soak up the alcohol before calling it a night (or morning).

We scooted into a booth – Tim and I on one side, my cousin and Tim’s friend (who my cousin happened to know) on the other. We spent the next hour there; all of us getting acquainted.

While the whole situation was mildly odd, the oddest thing about it was that practically the entire time Tim and I were sitting there we were holding hands. Holding hands? I know. How weird is that? Who does that with someone they just met 30 minutes prior? I don’t know either! Two people who are destined to get married, I guess!

After eating our middle-of-the-night breakfast we all walked out of the restaurant together. Tim asked for my phone number, which I gave him, and we parted ways. Yes, we PARTED WAYS! That is a very important part of this story; it’s proof that although I met my husband at a bar called Naughty Nunnies, I do have morals and boundaries!

That evening he called to say, “Hi.” I was incredibly surprised that he called so soon. He was clearly not playing the “delay calling her in order to not appear too interested” card. It immediately told me he was not one to beat around the proverbial bush. I liked that.  We made plans to meet up for dinner a couple of days later; just the two of us. During that dinner I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in dating but that we could certainly be friends. Famous last words!

As “friends” we hung out with each other a few times a week and closed down many more bars, but still it took me months to officially call us “us.” Then, even after doing so I spent the next year in denial that there was an “us.” As it often does in relationships, it took spending some time apart to realize that I really did want Tim in my life. From there I never looked back…except in awe of how our “trashy” meeting actually unfolded.

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When things didn’t work out with the man I moved back to Pennsylvania to be with I was of course mad. I was mad at him for pulling a 180 on me literally overnight and mad at myself for thinking we had a chance in hell. However, as the years passed I realized that man came back into my life at the exact perfect time to fulfill one purpose – get me back to Pennsylvania. It was where I belonged. It was where my family and the man who was meant to be my husband were. If I were to ever have a conversation with my ex-boyfriend again I would simply tell him, “Thank you.”

The funny thing is my path certainly could’ve crossed with Tim’s long before it actually did but it wasn’t in our master plans to meet until that fateful December night in 2005.

It turns out Tim had a family member who was very good friends with my step-mom. My step-mom knew Tim long before I ever did. However, if I had met Tim before December 4 I’m certain he would not have been so forthright in his desires nor would he have even had them because he is nine years older than me. He was married from the mid-90s to the early 2000s so when he was actually “available” I was in elementary and middle school and well…that just would’ve been illegal. However, within the first few hours I was “legal” as well as available in Pennsylvania, I met Tim on the front lawn of the bar. Now, if that isn’t fate, I don’t know what is.

The Universe spent years orchestrating that moment. The first opportunity it had to execute, it did. For that I am thankful. That night, without intention, I started a journey of building a life with a man who “gets me” and is strong enough to handle me. He has given me two beautiful children, and together we have designed our life.

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The other guy I gave my phone number to the night I met Tim, never called. He wasn’t meant to. He was brought into my life for only a few minutes; just long enough to keep me in front of the bar for “Eagle Eye” Tim to see.

Oh, and the hand holding thing…Tim’s hands are my favorite physical feature about him. They’re strong, comforting and meant for me. My compulsion to hold them the night we met can only be explained as a natural force.

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Naughty Nunnies and the Hanover Diner have both been demolished since Tim and I married, but we have withstood the test of nine years. Today marks our 9th anniversary. He is not perfect and I am damn near perfect. So together he’s still not perfect and I am damn near perfect!

I will never pretend to know what the future holds but I trust The Universe does so Tim and I will just sit back with our beers and enjoy the ride.

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There Is No Wrong Time

When timing appears to be wrong, is it really? A lot of people would say it is. We’ve all heard someone dismiss an unfortunate or unfavorable event by saying, “Oh well, the timing just wasn’t right…” But is it really that simple? What about everything happens for a reason? What about the timing of everything in our life is right because it all correlates with the master plan we are pre-destined to follow? You know, the plan we have no real control over and simply just have to trust.

If we believe there is a master plan, and we really trust it, we can’t ever truly believe that something is presented to us in life at the wrong time. We have to believe that everything is presented to us at the exact time it should be, exactly when we need it. But then how long does it get to stay? It seems that answer is simple – until its purpose is fulfilled. However, since we aren’t privy to what is contained in our master plan, how do we ever know if something’s purpose is fulfilled in our life?

I think only on rare occasions do we ever know that answer with certainty. It’s rare because to know with certainty our heart and mind have to agree on the answer. Since one guides with emotion and the other guides with reason rarely do they agree. The conflict between them is what really makes this ride we call “life,” interesting.

On that ride things are constantly changing. That’s the master plan in full effect. It is shuffling circumstances, situations, feelings, relationships, careers, geographies…all in an effort to carry itself out as intended. While it’s fulfilling its mission we often feel like we are taking a beating along the way. It’s hard to remember that it’s ALL happening for a reason, the timing IS correct and the cards are falling in the RIGHT place. As complicated as it all seems to us in the moment, it really is simple – we are where we are supposed to be in life at this moment. The more we accept that the more we can just enjoy the ride.

On the rare occasion when our heart and mind do agree it is then that we can make a peaceful decision and confidently move forward without question, curiosity or regret. However, as we all know, there is usually little time in life to stop and adequately ponder the question, “Is this the right time?” Life travels a mile a minute. If we sit idle we’re going to miss opportunities. We are forced to make decisions even if our heart and mind haven’t yet agreed. That’s when we just hold our breath, leap and hope for the best.

A leap of faith. That’s really how we make most decisions in life. It’s usually very scary but we can find comfort in the fact that we had a 50/50 chance to get it right. If by chance we got it wrong our master plan will let us know. We may not know the next day, the next month or the next year, but when the time is right the master plan will let us know. It’s relentless like that; it will keep at it until it gets everything right and there is no unfinished business.

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Letting the Cards Fall

Has it really been a whole year since I posted on this blog?!?!

[ The cliché question, “Where does the time go?” reverberates. ]

I have done a good bit of writing in the last year but nothing I’ve felt compelled to publicly share. As open and honest as writing makes me I am wise enough to know there are some things best kept private. However, now is the perfect time to “check-in” as June 8, 2018 marks Estelle’s 2nd birthday!

How quickly my baby has grown into a toddler! It literally happened right before my eyes. Some days I witnessed it with the sharpness of 20/20 vision while other days it was all a blur. My reality is no different from any other parent who is doing their best to do all and be all. It’s just what we do.

As I’ve been strolling and stumbling this last year so has Estelle! She began walking two months after her 1st birthday, right about the time we moved out of the first house she called “home” and into the house I hope she will always happily remember as “home.”

In November, she got the thumbs up from the pediatric orthopedic surgeon who had been treating and monitoring her for hip dysplasia since she was a month old. While we will continue to monitor her until she is probably at least 10 years old, the doctor is very confident that the Pavlik harness Estelle had to wear for a mere six weeks as an infant will keep her from ever needing surgery and all but guarantee her a healthy hip for life.

In January she took her second flight to accompany me on a business trip to Dallas. Her gammy and aunt were anxiously awaiting her arrival so they could have her all to themselves while I worked. Those five days were the most Estelle and I had been apart. It was comforting at the end of each day to know she was really only a few miles away from me.

In the last few months she has discovered a love of books, songs and dance. She initiated potty training, can say her ABCs and count to 10 with (in my opinion) amazing accuracy for a 2-year-old. Her comprehension and vocabulary amazes me every day. She proclaims her love to us by saying, “La bu” and “I lub-be.” She gives the best snuggles and cuddles but also marks her boundaries and declares her independence with “Back” and “Top it!” (stop it).

She is a determined, persistent and self-assured little girl. I know these traits will serve her well in life but I also know that they are going to make for a challenging relationship between her and me in the coming years. I find comfort in realizing these traits now. I figure the sooner I understand what I’m up against the better my ability to plot my plan to handle her!

Every day I consider myself beyond blessed to be beside both my children on their journey through life; every night…I thank my lucky stars. My gratitude for each day, each hour, each minute, each second is ever-present as well as the thought that it all almost wasn’t. Of course June 8th can’t come and go without acknowledging that it’s also the second anniversary of my survival.

[Begin the dark side of this post.]

I never really know what to call it – survival, second chance at life, new lease on life, the day I beat the odds and defied death? While all are accurate statements none of them sound like the right statement. They all pierce my ears more today than ever for a reason I just can’t put my finger on.

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Last week I attended my seventh funeral in the last two years. Prior to June 8, 2016 I may have attended that many funerals my entire life. While death always arrives too soon, five of the funerals marked the closing of life’s natural circle for people who had lived full and long lives. I cannot say the same for the other two. Their death came far too soon. Their life circle was nowhere near complete in the minds of those who loved them but, for reasons that are hard to understand, it was “their time.”

As hard as it often is for friends and family of the deceased to understand the “whys” of someone’s death I can tell you it is also very hard for a survivor to understand the “whys” of their survival. It’s a question that enters my mind practically every day and always punctuates a funeral I attend. The darkness of what almost was for me, paired with the reflection I see as I stare at the deceased in a coffin or an urn, are both equally blinding.

As one might expect, surviving a traumatic event causes a person to analyze everything about their life. Realizing you only get one life and that tomorrow isn’t promised resonates much more than before. “Live life to the fullest” is no longer a cliché motto, it is an obsessive mission. That mission has led me to course correct a bit in my life. Sometimes those corrections, albeit subtle, feel so far removed from who I was before June 8, 2016 but at the same time they feel so right. They’re scary and exhilarating; like I’m teetering on the edge of glory and the edge of self-destruction at the same time. It’s a very conflicting process that some days leaves me wondering…am I redesigning parts of my life in response to my survival or is this just a mid-life crisis (or as the progressives call it these days, a mid-life transition)? Since I don’t really know I’m just calling it a mid-life fuck it! At this point I figure it doesn’t really need a label other than “life.” This is the journey I’m supposed to take that will ultimately make up my life’s story. That’s it!

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When I left the hospital on June 12, 2016 I remember distinctly feeling like a different person than when I entered. I wrote about that thought at the end of this post. I didn’t know what that feeling meant, but I remember it feeling very unsettling and scary.

In the last year I feel like I’ve started to better understand how I am different. I’m getting acquainted with the “new” or perhaps just newly uncovered pieces of me. As I do I’m trying to examine the pieces with caution to ensure they really do fit into my life’s puzzle. I figure that’s about all I can do with my different self…proceed with caution. I can’t fight her. She’s stronger than the old me.

Many days I miss my pre-June 8, 2016 self. I admit I look for her often, and am comforted when I catch glimpses of her. She definitely still influences me and she’ll never be forgotten, but I’m also curious to discover my post-June 8, 2016 self. I’ve already learned that she does everything “more.” She says “Yes” more. She is more carefree and spontaneous. She has more fun, laughs more, relaxes more, appreciates more, forgives more, loves more and throws up her hands and says, “Fuck it!” way more! She more often than ever just lets the cards fall where they may and is finding it quite liberating.

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We celebrated Estelle’s birthday last weekend with friends and family. I debated for weeks about when to host the party partially because I just never know when the best time for me will be to celebrate her birthday. Both years now, months before Estelle’s birthday, I feel the anxiety slowly building within me. Last year I remember the day came and went very smoothly with so many thoughts of happiness and gratefulness. Still I feel like I’m a bit of an unpredictable soul this time of year so I opted to celebrate the weekend before her birthday in case I found myself struggling more and more the closer I got to June 8th.

The party marked our first official pool party at our new house. I can’t even describe how much I enjoyed seeing friends and family in the pool, showing off their stunts on the diving board, dancing to the music, chatting, laughing and just having a good time. As I took pictures I knew it was one of the many small moments for which I lived.

The day after the party though I started to feel the walls close in a bit. That afternoon, at the grocery store, I saw the one-and-only nurse who expressed extreme compassion for me during my emergency c-section prep on the day my son was born. While his birth was a bit scary due to the unknowns as a first time mother, his birth is not one I would describe as traumatic. Seeing the nurse though caused me to get lost in thoughts about the stark difference between his birth and my daughter’s right there in the middle of the grocery store.

At the dinner table that night my son mentioned something about the time of day Estelle was born. It was 6:52p. Minutes later I was fighting for my life. My focus shifted and I fought tears at the dinner table. Just like that I am transported back to the trauma. It happens on occasion and I have to fight to bring my mind back to the present.

That night I couldn’t sleep. My mind was calm but I could feel my body was unsettled. Eventually a thought entered my mind about the last two years and a couple of tears escaped my eyes but it was 2am. I needed sleep! There was no need to go “there” at that time of morning. I forced myself to close my eyes because as I’ve always told my son when he is restless at bedtime, “Close your eyes! You can’t fall asleep with your eyes open!” Thankfully it worked.

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This week has been difficult. I’ve had the attention span of an ant. I’ve been easily distracted and extremely unfocused. My mind has been fuzzy. At times, out of no where, tears welled in my eyes, a lump emerged in my throat, a knot tighten in my stomach and the feeling that I needed to puke arose. I know it’s anxiety. These physical reactions subsided about as quickly as they came but reminded me that sometimes, no matter how strong, even the mind can’t control the body. It has its own memory; it too doesn’t forget.

I hope, until the time is right to share my birthing experience with Estelle (which will be a very long time), that I can always hide the anxiety that brews inside me in the weeks leading up to her birthday. Or better yet, I hope that anxiety completely disappears in time. I never want her to feel like her birthday is a difficult day for me because it’s not, it’s the time before it that has proven somewhat difficult. On her birthday I truly feel excitement and pride to see her conquer one year and launch into another. In the simplest terms, it’s all any parent really wants for their child and it is undoubtedly an answer to one of my  “whys.”

 

In Loving Memory of One of My Most Devoted Blog Readers

Cindy Womer

November 25, 1959 – May 20, 2018

That Which Hovers

It’s proven difficult to focus at times the last few weeks. Thoughts and anticipation of today have distracted me at random moments. It’s my daughter’s first birthday; a milestone mothers excitedly prepare for by choosing a party theme, writing out invitations, ordering the smash cake and planning décor. I’ve done all that in preparation for Estelle’s party this coming Sunday but it’s all been done with a calm fear churning within me about the emotions that would surface today.

Today is Stella’s day. The day she, and those closest to her, will celebrate for the rest of her life. She deserves this day to be all about her. Always. Today, and all the June 8ths that will follow, I will undoubtedly make all about her. It’s been bothering me though to know in the background of today’s celebrations there are memories I sometimes wish I could erase.

While this day will never pass without a celebration for Stella, it will also never pass without a reminder that every day since June 8, 2016 almost wasn’t for me. My body failed during childbirth. It took the quick hands and sharp minds of dozens of doctors and nurses, and eleven pints of blood from generous strangers I can never personally thank, to sustain my life one year ago today. Because of all of those people I have been able to care for and love my daughter every day since her birth, and I am here for her first birthday.

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I look at this picture, taken less than 18 hours after I nearly lost my life, in disbelief of what happened after Stella’s birth. It’s a miracle this moment was captured. My body had been through hell – laboring for hours only to then be cut open for a c-section, stitched up then cut open again for an emergency partial hysterectomy. I had foreign blood and platelets circulating in my body, my arms were so bruised from being poked and prodded I looked like I had been run over by a car and felt like it too.

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I had suffered through being intubated and hadn’t eaten in almost 48 hours. Yet, there I sit in my hospital bed looking like a typical postpartum mother smiling and loving on my daughter. This picture is proof to me that life is beautiful even during the worst of moments.

It’s been a challenging year – physically and emotionally healing all the while caring for an infant, along with a kindergartner, losing two grandparents, accepting a new role at work, putting our house on the market… If someone were to give me one of those “check all that apply” stress questionnaires I have no doubt my total amount of stress would indicate I should probably be medicated and maybe even in a padded wall room.

It’s odd to me however; that in the last year rarely have I felt long-lasting, overwhelming stress. Yes, I’ve definitely had moments, days and sometimes weeks where I was on edge, my mind heavy with thoughts that distracted me during interactions with people, but in those times I was usually able to calm my stress with positive clichés like – “Things could always be worse,” “Everything happens for a reason” and “No matter what the situation I’m blessed to be experiencing it.” Sometimes I truly believed those thoughts, other times they were nothing but trickery to get me through the moment. Regardless, I know they helped.

My life has certainly become focused on moments. The big ones, the little ones, the stressful ones, the euphoric ones. Every moment is a gift and it’s changed not just me, but my husband in ways I probably don’t even know. But I do know that we often think, “What if she/I wasn’t here?”

The thought causes pause in both of us but I personally cannot ponder it very long. It stirs up too many “what ifs.” It takes me to a place where I know by now I can’t spend my precious time. But nonetheless the question still hovers in our lives. It’s an ever-present, quiet reminder to be grateful for what we have and not take it for granted. Some moments we succeed, others we fail but that’s human nature, I suppose.

So it is gratefulness I choose to focus on today. I’m sure I will have to wipe away a few tears but they will be tears of gratitude as Stella’s birthday is not only the day I received the beautiful gift of a daughter, but also the day I received the incredible gift of a second chance at life. Both are incredibly spectacular gifts for which to be grateful. I have to let myself rest easy knowing it is ok for my family and me to always celebrate both on this special date.