Come What May

It was a cold, gray, January day.  All of the other kids were in school as it was a Thursday, but Kid A had checked herself out early.  It was her 18th birthday, so she could do that now.  She climbed into her newly-leased electric car and turned on her iPod.  The passionate and emotional voices of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman spilled from the sound system.  The words blasted her ears and bombarded her heart.  The song lasted the exact length of time it took her to drive from parking lot to parking lot.  She took it as a sign, like a cardinal at the window or unexplained feathers.

Sheepdog and I arrived together.  We held hands as we walked into the waiting room.  I noticed a giant eel slithering inside a 75-gallon fish tank before I even saw Kid A in the corner.  The building smelled faintly of rubbing alcohol and burning things.  We all hugged and walked over to meet with her guy.  She gave him a piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded and looked at so many times that it had the worn feel of soft leather.  They spoke to one another in the language of creative people.  Then he scanned her paper into the computer and pulled it up on the big screen.  A lone sob escaped from my throat before I could pull it back.

Seeing his familiar handwriting up there, larger than life, I was caught completely off guard.  But seeing it a few hours later, permanently inked onto the slight wrist of my oldest child, it actually felt good.  After all she had seen and experienced and lived through the past few years, it felt right.  Well, as right as a tattoo can possibly be.

"I will love you until my dying day."

“I will love you until my dying day.”

His life story will always be a part of hers.  He left his mark on her heart.  Now his handwriting is marked on her forever as well.

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Today is the first anniversary of Braden’s death.  One whole year has gone by.  An entire year of holidays, and birthdays, and Mondays.  One whole year passed of experiences, and change, and growth.  One whole year of the regular and mundane too.  One whole year of memories made without Braden.  I feel like that is one of the worst parts.

I have thought of him so much over the past year.  Sometimes I think of him intentionally, like when I plant flowers in his memory.  I talk to him as I’m doing the work, updating him with new funny stories as well as the regular day-to-day stuff that’s been going on.  And when these plants inevitably die, I think of him again because I know he is playing a twisted joke on me.  All of my other plants thrive.  It’s just the ones that I tell him are “his” that end up brown and crispy.  I like to think that Braden enjoys our conversations so much that he is just making sure that I’ll keep checking in with him.  So I guess I’ll keep buying him new plants.  And I’m good with that.

Other times he pops into my consciousness accidentally, like when I recently came across the milk shake recipe for cancer patients that I used to make for him when his stomach could tolerate them.  It was made with protein powder and coffee and chocolate sauce and Haagen-Dazs ice cream.  It always made me so happy when he would finish one, because he was losing so much weight and what else packs on the pounds but the best ice cream on the planet?  I also find him popping into my head when I’m listening to music in the car, wondering if he got to hear that really great song before he died.  Or was he around for that game?  Or did he get to see that movie?  Or look at that blood moon?  As more and more time passes, the answer is almost always ‘no.’  Not while he was here with us on earth.

So, to officially and reverently mark the passage of one whole year without Braden, Sheepdog and the kids and I went on a short hike up the Indian Seats Trail at Sawnee Mountain this past Sunday.  When we reached the top, we found some rocks off the beaten path and we sat together as a family.  We overlooked the valley below and Sheepdog said some nice words and reminded us that Braden is happy and healthy now and we shouldn’t ask for anything more than that.  He also reminded us to be thankful for our own health and happiness and to make each day mean something.  Some of us spoke about happy memories and fun times with Braden.  Some of us weren’t able to speak at all.

There was a placard up by the Indian Seats that said mountaintops are considered sacred by Native Americans because they bring us closer to Father Sky.  I don’t know about that, but I certainly felt closer to my God and to Braden that day.  It was sacred and it was good.  Well, as good as it can be when somebody is taken away before we are ready for it.

Wish me luck for tomorrow… come what may.

Speaking of Donating Platelets…

A week ago, on New Year’s Eve, I had an appointment to donate at Atlanta Blood Services.  I have been going there every other month ever since Kid A’s boyfriend, Braden, was diagnosed with leukemia, mainly because he needed blood products (we always joked that he would know when he got mine because he would have a wine hangover afterwards), but also it gave me something to do at a time when I felt in control of nothing.  Even after he died, I keep going back to donate.

It was really hard to go back at first, especially since the infusion clinic is directly across the hall and he and his mom spent a lot of time over there during his treatment.  The very first time I returned, I stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts and got some treats and a jug of coffee because I wanted to give it to the staff over there.  I even planned ahead and made a little card with a picture of him that said something like “In Memory of Braden Dean Smith” so that everybody would think of him while they were eating their yummy donuts.  I intended to ask the receptionist if I could put them in the break room once I got there.  But I was so overcome with emotion and grief that I was a blubbering, snotty mess and I couldn’t even get words to come out of my mouth.  Instead, I showed the girl the picture of Braden and held up the jug of coffee, all while tears and weird noises kept pouring out of me.  I was like the deaf/ mute people who hand out cards asking for money, except I had a Box O’ Joe and two warm dozen.  She didn’t even bat an eye as she buzzed me through to the back and guided me through the labyrinth of halls to a room marked “Staff Only.”

I was eventually able to calm down and I finally went across the hall to Atlanta Blood Services to start the donation process that day.  Each time has gotten a little bit easier after that.

Until last Tuesday.

Looking back on it, it turns out that last Tuesday, the 365th day of the 2,013th trip ’round the sun, Anno Domini, was a fitting end to a quite sucky 2013.

Each time I go in to donate, I first have to do the dance for the lawyers (reading some legalese, mumbo-jumbo, CYA crap that basically says “I know I can die at any time and it’s nobody’s fault but my own”).  Then I answer a long set of questions on a computer from 1999 in a tiny, private room (questions like “Have you ever had a transplant of your dura matter?” and “Have you ever had sex with a man who has had sex with another man?”), and then they take my vitals.  Following the computer exam, I get poked for a blood sample, and they run tests to see what and how many blood products they can safely and most efficiently extract from me over the next two hours.  They always want my platelets.

Last Tuesday was no exception, as I had just shy of 400,000.  Be amazed, people, because that makes me a rock star, if only in that room.

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So I went into the donation room with the nice nurse (are they even nurses?… I honestly don’t even know) who had reviewed my Scantron and all of my bodily tests (she was new), and she put me in a bed which was not my regular spot.  That kind of thing doesn’t really bother me, so I didn’t say anything, but the other nurses/ people who enjoy extracting other people’s blood products without proper qualifications were all like, “Whoa, Nelly!  That’s not her bed.  She goes over there!”  The new lady and I just laughed at them and I stayed put.  Mistake #1.

The machine was on the other side of this particular bed – the right one, which meant that I would be donating from my dominant arm.  Traffic had been really easy that morning (some days it takes me 2 hours to get there, especially since they started taking down the toll on GA-400!), so I was all, “NBD and whatever!”  I climbed in and snuggled under the warm blankets (it makes the blood flow better).  Mistake #2.

While she was setting everything up, the machine started to do weird things.  It was being quirky and disagreeable.  It crossed my mind that I should suggest a move to my regular spot then, but I was doing a great job of being laid back, so I decided to commit fully.  I said nothing.  Mistake #3.

There was a man donating to my left who is also a true regular.  He comes in every two weeks and donates one or two bags of platelets, which means he donates at least 26 bags a year.  That is super impressive.  It also takes a whole lot of his time, but he teaches yoga and his schedule seemed flexible.  He also video blogs (or “vlogs”) about his donations, because he wants people to see that donating is easy and painless and everybody can (and should) do it.  He had already vlogged on YouTube about his own New Year’s Eve donation, his final one of 2013, but made a big deal about me sitting next to him (remember that I am a triple donation rock star here), so much so that he made an addendum vlog about me!

So, I had fully committed to this different spot, and I was talking to my new friend, and the new nurse finally tamed the machine and got me hooked up and started my actual donation process.  Pinch, release, then slowly and continually squeeze the stress ball to keep the blood pumping.  Eventually, I settled in and everything was A-OK.

About two bags in to my donation, I started watching The Truman Show on my laptop.  When the second bag was just about done, the nurse wanted me to eat a snack and drink something.  I asked for crackers and water.  She brought them to me and proceeded to open the water bottle (I only had one free hand… everybody knows you are not supposed to move the arm with the needle in it).

Then came the slow-motion, yet speeded-up combination of events.

The water bottle was not level on the bottom, as sometimes happens with disposable plastic water bottles (I suppose it is karmic punishment for selfishly destroying Mother Earth with those BPA-laden landfill staples).  When she put the bottle on my tray, it promptly tipped over onto the keyboard of my MacBook Pro.  She reacted and I reacted too.  She yelled something and ran to get paper towels, and I moved my dominant arm (along with my left one) to save my laptop.

Yep.  I did that.  Even though I know better, I moved my arm with the needle plunged into the vein.  It immediately hurt (I don’t know which hurt more… the needle or knowing that my laptop just took a shower), so I quickly brought it back to immobile station zero on the arm bar.  All of the nurses freaked out and checked on me, making sure I was okay, drying off my laptop, and checking on my arm and the apheresis machine.  The new nurse was so freaked out that she came over to help clean up and accidentally dropped the water bottle again, this time into my purse (fortunately, my phone was not in there).  I honestly felt so bad for her.  It was a complete and total accident.  And for whatever reason, I was (honest to goodness) not even upset about it.

The pain in my arm went away quickly.  We determined that the needle likely punctured through the vein and I would have some bruising afterwards, but it was not life-threatening.  I even finished my full donation and they collected three whole bags from me.  I’m still a rock star!

Except this past week, my arm looked like that of a rock star who shoots up (poorly), or maybe a rock star who dates Chris Brown.

“Yes, but you should see the other guy!”

It is getting better every day.  It doesn’t hurt at all.  It just looks awful.  And because Sheepdog took excellent care in drying out my laptop, even the MacBook Pro is recovering nicely.  No harm, no foul.  I plan to go back in 7 weeks or so.  I promise that donating is easy and safe and something that I hope everyone will consider doing.

Except next time, I am sitting in my regular donation bed.  And I’m bringing my own reusable water bottle.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

Six Months

Hey, B.

Just checking in…

I’m sure you have lots and lots going on right now.  I figure that you are still going through an orientation kind of period, where you get to learn about all of the amazing options available to you in the afterlife.  Kid A likes to remind us about the things you planned to do after you were done being sick.  Did you learn to speak Arabic yet?  For some reason, the thought of that always makes me giggle.  السرطان لا يزال يمص حتى ولو يمكنك التحدث باللغة العربية الآن.  In case you haven’t gotten around to learning it yet (like me with my Pimsleur Spanish lessons), that says “Cancer still sucks even though you can now speak Arabic.”  At least according to Google Translate it does.  I sure hope I didn’t just write something offensive.

I talk to or text with your mom and dad now and then, and I also see their posts on Facebook.  They miss you something fierce.  Everybody does.  And your brothers and sisters are still figuring everything out, too.  Hell, I can’t even say this silly little prayer to you without crying.  And now I just said “hell” in a prayer.  I am not very good at this, dammit.

I loved, loved, loved when you gave us a tour of “your spots” when we drove through Washington, D.C. this summer.  We don’t normally even drive through the city (we go around), so I knew something was up.  And then Sheepdog got turned around in the same exact place that I got turned around when I was driving to my 25th high school reunion just a few weeks earlier.  Once was “whatever,” but twice couldn’t have been just coincidence.  Then I looked back from my seat and saw Kid A happy-crying as she whispered, “Braden is here.”

Thank you for that.  It was amazing.

Dear God,  That's a very important Kid you've got up there.  Please make sure he is adjusting okay... sometimes he like to play tough.  Oh, and thank you for beautiful orange sunsets.

Dear God, That’s a very important Kid you’ve got up there. Please make sure he is adjusting okay… sometimes he likes to play the tough guy.  Maybe you could give him some extra hugs or something.  Oh, and thank you for beautiful orange sunsets.

I worry about Kid A sometimes.  She still marks your symbol on her wrist every single day.  Then she traces “Come What May” in your handwriting over top of it.  She wants to get it tattooed, but I am making her wait until she turns 18 to do that.  Sheepdog offered to take her across state lines to Alabama (mostly because he is also campaigning for a new tattoo… you remember the biohazard one he wanted you to get because of all of the chemo?) but I put my foot down.  Yes, I am still a rule follower.  And yes, I am still putting my foot down about stuff.  Tattoos are FOREVER.  But I guess that you will be with her forever too, so I get it.

Over all, she has been handling everything pretty well.  She has the distractions of her senior year to keep her busy.  We hardly see her at home.  But I worry about her most when the busy stops.  And every once in a while she will say something that gives me pause.

Like when she said, “I am afraid to get close to anybody because the people I love die.”

And honestly, I didn’t know what to say back.  Because – technically – she is right.  You died.  Everybody dies.  Some die later and some die sooner, but we all die.  It is one of those yin/yang facts of life.  Yet, we can’t guard ourselves so closely that we never let anyone in, either.  So, I hugged her and let her cry about you and I reminded her that she can’t let fear dictate her choices in life.  We keep encouraging her to do more counseling and therapy.  And she has been trying hard to do fun things and meet new people this year, so I think she is going to be okay.  But I will continue to keep an eye on her just in case.

And maybe you can keep doing your surprise drop-ins, too.  In between your Arabic lessons, of course.

I miss you, Kid.

xo

Magic Markers

Every year I take the kids back to school shopping for new supplies.   I usually despise shopping, but I love this particular trip, as I am hot for office supply stores and the wares they peddle.  I can’t really explain it, but I can tell you that I get a little tingly every time I go down the padded envelope aisle.  And I have a thing for 5″ X 8″ notepads too.  I like to touch the paper.  My favorite thing is the sound it makes when I fan the pages.  It’s like a magical purring noise. “Puuuuurrrrrrrrr.”  So sexy.  But I digress.

Anyway, each August the kids come with me to Staples and Target to pick out new folders and notebooks and binders.  The younger ones also get rulers and scissors and crayons and index cards.  And everyone gets a new box of markers.  Now, some are classic colors and some are dry erase, some are highlighters and some are washable.  None of them are actually called “magic” anymore, but to me they will always be magical and special, because they mark another important milestone in each kid’s life… the start of a brand new school year.

This year the markers led me to thinking about other milestones in my life and the kids’ lives and how quickly time is passing.  This summer, in particular, seemed to whiz past us in a spectacle of raindrops and road trips and beach sand.  It marked the first summer we didn’t get to relax together as a family (until one week near the very end, which was pretty awesome).

I realized that this marks the last year that all five of my kids will be heading out the door on the first day of school together.  Kid A is starting her senior year in high school.  Next year she will be off at college, starting her own life with some pretty significant new markers of her own.

Then I realized that Kid E still has twelve more “first days of school” ahead of him.  He is not thrilled about this, especially because “school does not have very much Minecraft.”  Sorry, kid.

Kid B started high school this year – a big marker made complicated because her boyfriend also started, but at a different high school.

This is the year that Kid C started dancing en pointe in ballet.  Kid D will begin kid-pitch in baseball next week.  They are in 7th and 3rd grades, respectively, which can be full of all kinds of markers… middle school relationship drama, puberty, playground fights.

Sheepdog and I made it to the 20-year mark of marriage this summer.

And today marks exactly three months since Braden died.

So many markers.  Not all of them are magic.  And not all of them are huge.  But together they become the stories that make up our lives.  So I write them down and take pictures on film and in my mind so we won’t forget.  And we can look back on them and remember each one of the markers and what they meant to us at that time in our lives.  And they will shape us and affect us and make us who we are.  But they can also inspire us to make change, to do more and be more, if that is what we want.  So much possibility can come from those markers, big or small.

And that is truly magical.  Just like the purr of a good notepad.

I get high with a little help from my friends.  You say "toluene and xylene," I say "magic."

I get high with a little help from my friends. You say “toluene and xylene,” I say “magic.”  Source:  Google Images

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

That’s Gonna Leave a Mark

I mean to do some random things… wash my car, clean out the storage room in the basement, send a wedding present to the couple who Sheepdog knows but I don’t, and who has now been married for well over a year – maybe even two or three.  I think they just had a baby.  I guess I should add “send a baby gift” to the list now too.  For whatever reason, I am just not inspired to do these things.  Ugh.  Thinking about it makes me feel like a slacker and a little icky, so I just put it off until later.  Much later.

But when it comes to my blog, I am motivated to write about things as they are happening in my life.  It goes nicely with my intention for “This Is How I Do It” to be a sort of memory keeper for me and my family.  If it is out of order or if too much time passes between the actual event and the time I press “Publish,” then it just seems wrong to me.  I don’t mean “untrue or fake,” because I don’t make up the stuff I write about here.   Maybe I mean it makes me feel like a slacker and a little icky, like the things on the never-ending, random to-do list.  But lets instead call it “less genuine and organic.”  Yes, that is exactly what it feels like.  Nevertheless, I’m finding out that sometimes it is necessary to break my own rules…

There is a milestone that I meant to address at the end of the school year, but it got pushed aside when Braden died.

(Quick side note:  Man, I really miss that kid.  I continue to struggle with understanding his sickness and his untimely passing.  I waffle back and forth between believing that life is precious and meaningful and I should soak everything in like a desperate sponge, or thinking that it is all a random crapshoot, so why bother?  Fortunately, I loiter most often on the former side of that fence.  There are several songs that remind me of him and they move me to sobbing tears when I let myself listen.  I really want to argue with him about the NFL trades (like Welker to the Broncos and Tebow to the Patriots) and the IRS scandal, and Edward Snowden, and Egypt, and Turkey, and Trayvon Martin, and the list goes on and on and on.  I wish I could talk to him or text him.  But that is no longer possible.  Sigh.)

Anyway…

In May, Kid E finished his last year of pre-school.  They did a ceremony back in April with songs and dances and a picnic in the park to mark the special occasion.  They did it early because his school had two GA pre-K classes and both lead teachers were pregnant and due sometime during the month of May.  Both of them delivered their beautiful babies before classes were out for summer, so substitutes came in to finish out the year.  They were very nice teachers and the kids still learned and had fun, but the end result was that the last day of school was kind of  “meh.”  With everything else that was happening in the last two weeks of May this year, I let the last day of pre-school pass without much fanfare.  Stuff happens, right?

But it is too bright of a highlight to let it slip by unacknowledged.

Starting with Carol and ending with Miss Bethany, my kids had some of the most awesome pre-school teachers on the planet.  They loved them like they were their own children.  Even on the days when I could not have been happier to get them out of my sight drop them off at school.  Especially on those days, and that is something I am very thankful for.  These teachers taught my kids so many things, but they also taught me as well.  And I’m talking about the important stuff here…

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I don’t care how cute those heathens look… this drop off deserves the Dance of Joy!

Carol taught Kid A how to be an outside kid.  She loaded up four or five kids a day and strollered them down to All-Wars Memorial Park, where they ran and jumped and played, until they collapsed in heaps and napped for hours.  Carol taught me the importance of regulating my kid’s day naps so that she would actually go to bed at night.  She also potty trained Kid A for me.  The first lesson was necessary for me to learn, but the second was just plain awesomeness.  Carol also taught me the importance of a margarita after the kids are in bed (her husband rented out the big machines for parties as a side business), which I found to be invaluable advice over the years.  Cheers to Carol!

Rosemary taught Kid B how to soothe herself to sleep when she was almost a year old.  Up until then, Sheepdog and I traded nights of sleep… he would get one, then I would get one.  It was a special time in our lives (and by that I mean e-special-ly SUCKY).  Kid B did not go to sleep unless someone was bouncing her, even during the day.  I don’t know if she had colic or we spoiled her, or what, but it was just plain awful.  And then like an angel from heaven, Rosemary came into our lives, and Kid B started sleeping through the night.  And it turned out she wasn’t a horrible devil-kid.  Rosemary also potty trained Kid B.  I did nothing but drop her off at pre-school and then I would pick up a non-diaper-wearing kid at the end of the day.  So I guess Rosemary taught me that, even after having two kids, you still may not know how to do the basic stuff, like get them to sleep or potty train them.  She also talked me off of the ledge when I was completely desperate and sleep-deprived and wanted to sell Kid B on e-Bay.  I really owe her a debt of gratitude for that one.

Kid C had the least amount of pre-school teachers because I had stopped working after I had her.  Following the adage of quality over quantity, the one that stands out the most in my mind is Miss Cora.  She was from a faraway land and said Kid C’s name in the most awesome way, with about seven more syllables than it actually has.  She taught Kid C about letting her freak flag fly.  Up until then, I had been butting heads with that kid about absolutely everything, mainly because she had/ has a very different way of doing things than I was used to.  Kid C took Cora’s lessons to heart and really started being her true self without reservation, which is a little bit crazy and a lot of bit different.  And somehow, they both showed me that it was okay for me to let it happen too.  It was a very good lesson for all of us.  Oh, and Cora also taught me that when a kid swallows a button during quiet time because her friend dared her to, don’t freak out because it will be just fine and probably just come out in her poop.  Another good lesson.

Miss Carla taught Kid D how to read.  In pre-school!  She was a seasoned veteran when it came to teaching kids (and their parents) all sorts of things, but the timing was just right (he was ready; she was so very patient) for her to instill a love of books and reading that continues with him to this day.  And even after four years I was still adjusting to having a kid with a penis, so Carla’s incredible patience was a well-timed example that I definitely needed in my life right then.  That patience also came in handy when I had to eventually potty-train the last kid.  I guess I had to learn sometime, right?

Kid E started pre-school early, especially given that I was a full-time SAHM.  But he would just follow me around all day, staring at me, muttering, “Where my brudder?”  So, I loaded up his backpack and his lunchbox and sent him out the door when he was barely two.  He had the most awesome teachers… every single one was fabulous.  Miss Lori, Miss Judy and Miss Tina (You’re Not Ugly) at Little Creek, and then Miss Waldy, Miss Robin, Miss Bethany and Miss Erica at Open Arms, just to name a few.  They taught him so many things, but they all taught me that teachers do sometimes have favorites, and it is pretty damn awesome when it is your kid.

Yes, the pre-school years have finally come to an end for my kids.  They were filled with some amazing experiences, and some crappy ones as well (lice letters, anyone?), but overall I can say that pre-school has left an indelible mark on both me and my kids forever and ever.  And for that I am very grateful.

This is a mark that I left on one of the schools when I may or may not have backed my truck into a No Parking sign.

…and this is the mark that I allegedly left on one of the schools when I may or may not have backed my truck into a No Parking sign.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

Braden’s Memorial – Part Two

I spent all last week thinking about what I would say at Braden’s memorial service.  Interspersed with my bouts of crying, I would have thoughts pop into my head… memories I wanted to share or things that I felt would be important to say.  It was meant to be a celebration of his life, so it was not supposed to be all sad and weepy.  But I couldn’t get up there and recite dirty limericks either.  I was struggling to find a balance.  Plus, I had written a blog post on Tuesday called Remembering Braden that several people had already read, and I felt it was important to say something new.

I am most comfortable writing here on WordPress, so that is what I decided to do.  On Friday night I forced myself to sit down and write a “post” about Braden.  I figured that I could practice speaking it, but I could always fall back on reading it if I got too choked up at any point.  Plus, Kid A would be up there with me and she could always help me out if I needed it.  Unless she started cursing again.  Jeez.  I wonder where she gets that from?

So, here is the gist of what I said at Braden’s memorial last Saturday…

I remember the first time that Kid A mentioned Braden to me… we were driving in the car.  It was Summer 2011, and she started telling a story about some friends from Chattahoochee… Emily, (who had just graduated) and her boyfriend, Jared, and another boy who was his best friend.  And the way she told the story, I just knew that she liked this other boy.  So I paid attention.  She told me a little bit about him… that he was smart and funny and good looking and he had a job and he was on the cross country team and he was the oldest of six kids (Is his mom out of her mind?) and (she hesitated)… he was almost 18 and going to be a senior.  Keep in mind… Kid A was just 15 years old at the time.
 
Shortly after that was the very first time that I met Braden… it was still summertime and I was down in our basement playing video games with my boys.  Donkey Kong had just died somewhere on the eighth level and I may have yelled out a curse word at the television.  No sooner had I done that, then Kid A came walking down with Braden trailing behind her.
 
Braden spent a lot of time with our family.  I kind of insisted on it because he was this almost 18-year-old boy dating my baby girl.  Sheepdog cleaned his guns a lot more often when Braden was over, but quickly we came to see that he was a very respectful young man who cleared his plate after dinner and played with our other kids and doted on Kid A.  But then my Mom Radar was up and flashing because I figured he was just putting on a show so we didn’t send him packing (or shoot him, in Sheepdog’s case).
 
As time went by, we got to know the real Braden. It turned out that he was a pretty awesome kid. He knew good music.  He got a lot of movie references that Sheepdog and I made.  He read books and was actually interesting to talk to.  And even though Braden eventually stopped clearing his plate from the dinner table (don’t worry – I always made him go back and do it), I was happy that Kid A chose such a good egg to be her boyfriend.
 
Soon we met Stacy (Braden’s mom) when the kids went to Homecoming and then Steve and Heidi (Braden’s dad and his fiancée) when Braden played the Chief in Cuckoo’s Nest, and we met his sisters and brothers too.  Braden loved to tell funny stories about all of the wild adventures of his big, crazy family, and it was nice to put faces to the names.  He regaled us with tales of family and friends from all over… Pennsylvania and Nebraska and Georgia and Florida and DC.  So, yes… I know all of your dirty, little secrets, friends!  I actually think that is why he fit in so well with our family… we are big and crazy too.  Family was so important to Braden.  We talked about it often… how much he wanted to have a big, crazy family of his own one day.
 
Over time, Braden’s passion for everything became more and more evident.  Football season got into full swing and he was excitable, to say the least.  Our second oldest daughter, Kid B, was very much into soccer and she and Braden started watching European league games together.  I never realized that there was anybody louder and more fanatic than football fans, but I was wrong!   And do not get Braden started on politics or social issues.  Sometimes he would get so wound up about an issue, I would take an opposing stance just to see how fired up he could actually get.  It was kind of fun.
 
But Braden wasn’t perfect.  He was sometimes sullen and sarcastic and moody… because he was a teenager.  And then he got his first car… The maroon BMW.  Oh, how he loved that car.  And then he crashed that car and he got sullen and moody again.  Teenagers.
 
Then came that awful day… March 2, 2012.  I had gone to get my hair done… I have a lot of gray hair from an 18-year old dating my baby girl, so I was in the chair for a couple of hours.  When I got done, I checked my phone.  It had blown up… I had a bunch of texts and phone messages from Braden and his dad and his mom.  I knew that Braden had been feeling really sick and his grandfather, Walt, was going to take him to see a doctor.  When Stacy told me the news, I was in shock.  I remember emailing my dad, who was out of the country at the time, “How in the world do I tell Kid A that her boyfriend has leukemia?”
 
I will tell you, after those first few days of haze and confusion and denial, after reality started to set in, everybody rallied.  Stacy and Steve, friends, family, people in the community… it was an amazing thing to see.  And there was Braden, this 18-year-old kid who had just been told he had cancer and that his white blood cell count was so high that he should not have even survived the night, and he was still really positive.  He was passionate that he would beat the leukemia and that he would go to college and eventually get married and have a family, just like he had always planned.  And with so many people supporting him and a great team of doctors and nurses in his corner, we all believed he had a really great shot.
 
The next fourteen and a half months had many ups and downs… the roller coaster ride of cancer.  Hospital rooms and tests and procedures and more tests and doctors and then the bone marrow transplant from his very brave sister, Maddie.  And then good numbers from tests and every time he got sprung from that dreaded 4th floor, it was such a celebration!  It was joyful!  Oh, how I hope I never have to smell that awful hospital soap again.
 
But after the summer ended and most of Braden’s classmates went off to college, I saw things get harder for him.  He struggled with staying positive.  His body had been beaten up by the cancer and also the medicines that are supposed to knock the cancer out, but his mind started to get tired too.  Don’t get me wrong… he was still passionate.  Did anybody get on Facebook during the presidential election?  Am I right?  He always had something to say about something, and I loved that about him, even when he voted for Obama.
 
But by his 19th birthday, I saw less of a light in his eyes.  He felt it coming.  He told me after he blew out the candles on his cake that he knew it would be the very last birthday he celebrated.
 
IMG_0167
 
Braden changed then.  He became much more contemplative.  He had a lot of time to sit and think and he didn’t waste it.  He thought about what he wanted after he was gone.  We talked about things at length over the last few weeks… about hopes and dreams and fears and regrets and wishes for the future.  He became much wiser than any teenager.  He kept saying, “This is what I want for my dying wish…” and I was like, “How many dying wishes do you think you get, pal?” 
 
His answer was always, “Unlimited.”
 
So, I give to you now the things that Braden wished for…
 
He wished for his sisters and brothers to go to school and to try hard and do well – because you are all smart and super talented.  Specifically, he wanted Cameron to take all of those AP classes.  No excuses.
 
He wanted his mom and dad to find happiness within themselves and the strength to help the family move on.  He wanted you to continue to create family memories, both together and separately.  
 
He wanted the family to tell Eric about him as he grows up.  As a matter of fact, he wanted us to talk to everybody about him all the time, so no one would forget him.  
 
He wished for Kid A to go off to college and get married and have that big, crazy family of her own some day.  
 
He wished that the rest of his family and all of his friends will go on to live happy, healthy and productive lives.
 
He wished that Jared and Emily would just go to Europe and shut up about it.  
 
He wanted us to look out for each other because he knew we’d all be sad after he was gone.  He wished for us to accept that some things we have control over and some things we just don’t.  He wished that we would live up to our potential and make the most of every day we have in this life.  
 
Do big things and do them with passion.
 
Do them for Braden… to honor his memory and to celebrate his life that came to an end much too soon.
 
Braden memory card

Braden’s Memorial – Part One

Before Braden passed away last week he was doing the unthinkable… planning parts of his own memorial service.  He wanted to make some of the decisions so that no one else would have to.  He said it felt surreal, but he did it with an unbelievable calmness and sense of purpose.  I am still amazed.

When he asked Kid A and I to speak, we both yelled out “F*ck” in unison.  Now, I sometimes curse like an Eagles fan in a sports bar, but Kid A is not really the type, so it was kind of sweet that we both had the exact same reaction to his request.  Nevertheless, we told Braden that we were honored that he wanted us to do it and we would try our very best.

Last week was a whirlwind of tears and heartbreak and sadness for all of us.  My biggest concern was that neither Kid A nor myself would be able to make words come out of our mouths that would be loud or coherent enough to be heard over our crying.  And it is less than glamorous to have snot bubbles when you are speaking in front of a bunch of people.  But we still wanted to say something meaningful that gave honor to Braden’s memory, so we tried to make a plan.

Little did I know that Kid A’s plan involved practicing full stage makeup on the morning of the service for her part as the wolf in her ballet studio’s production of Peter and the Wolf, which is happening next weekend.  Two hours before we were leaving she came out of her room looking like this:

What are YOU wearing to the memorial service?

Fortunately, the black makeup all washed off.  When we got to the service we tried not to talk to anybody who might set us off crying.  We tried not to look at the happy pictures of Braden on the screen or leaning on the easel.  We didn’t read the Fitzgerald quote about courage on the back of the memory card that was perfectly suited for Braden.  But we listened as the guitarist played the music he loved.  And we sat in the high school auditorium seats and smiled and cried along with everyone else as his Grandad, Walt, his godmother, Lisa, and his friends, Jared, Emily, and Chris all spoke beautifully and from their hearts.  And then we stood up and walked to the podium together.

Kid A broke the tension by telling everyone that when Braden asked her to speak, she said, “F, no!”  Yes, my daughter pseudo-cursed at her ex-boyfriend’s memorial service and I could not have been more proud.  It was charming and fitting and Braden surely laughed a big belly laugh when he heard it.  Then she read a short passage that she wrote about Braden going off to college.  It was incredibly perfect for his memorial service, even though she wrote it months before he was diagnosed.  She was calm and composed and she got through the whole thing.  I asked her if it would be okay if I shared it here because it is so beautiful, and she said yes…

There once was a bird, brown – the color of hickory wood and milk
chocolate and worn leather, with wings too big for its body. It sang songs at
early hours of the morning and late at night, but never after sunrise, when
the other birds would join in. This brown bird liked to feel like it was the
only one up in the trees, the only one on the block, the only one on the
whole earth, when it sang.
It lived in the branches that rattled against our bedroom window
come summer nights, storms crashing through the sky like clockwork and
gone as quickly as they appeared. We would wake up every time it began to
sing, and though it wasn’t the prettiest birdsong we’d heard by any means,
something about what it projected had meaning, and we all knew we were
meant to listen. The brown bird sang to us about love and loss and
heartache and missing and empathy and pure joy, and about excitement
and fear and safety and comfort and family and friendship.
His big wings would have made another bird look out of proportion,
but they suited the brown bird just fine. He wouldn’t have been himself
without them, because besides singing, that bird loved to fly. He’d be gone
for days at a time, and the sticky summer air was empty without his song.
The night before a long trip, he would sing to us about all the places he’d be
going, and about how he was really just biding time in the branches outside
our window. Soon he’d leave for good. The next morning, a flash of
caramel in the waking sky would be our goodbye.
One spring, the brown bird sang for us one last time. The song wasn’t
sad, but it brought tears to our eyes. We had that bird on borrowed time,
and he had taught us about life, but we couldn’t hold him back any longer.
We listened to him sing through the night, and when the sun came up he
held a final note and was off.
We all loved that brown bird, and he loved us, but his wings were too
big for his body and they were made that way so he could fly away.
 

Then it was my turn to speak, so I wiped away my snot bubbles and held on to the podium with both hands.  Next time, I will share with you what I said to honor Braden.  Until then,

Wish me luck for tomorrow…