How a superhero goes back to school

Tonight, as I made your bed and tucked your Batman sheets into place, I glanced at the sign that hangs above your bed, “A superhero sleeps here”. For whatever reason, it looked different tonight. I thought about how you haven’t seen your school friends for almost six months. That’s half of a year. One day I picked you up outside your kindergarten playground and you had no idea I was about to tell you we wouldn’t be back on Monday. I had no idea we wouldn’t be back that year. You worried so much about them, so many of them whose parents I didn’t know or who weren’t able to participate online. “Mom, are they okay? Are they getting sick? Do they have enough snacks at their house, so they won’t be hungry?” So many questions weighing heavy on a little six-year-old heart.


You and your sister have been counting down the days, almost counting down the seconds, until your first day of school. You know it’ll be different this year, so different, but you don’t care. You just want to be there. We are days away from the start, and I’m holding my breath hoping we get a chance to have that first day back. Our state isn’t doing a good job of keeping the numbers down (to say the least). If we get to start in-person, we know it will be short-lived. We have done our part this summer and while we sacrificed vacations and sports and playdates with friends, we worried. So my little super hero, it’s time to put on the cape and set our worry aside. It’s time to make a difference.

Every year, you and your sister ask me to read our favorites about the first day of school. This year, those stories don’t fit, so here is my back-to-school story for you. This year is going to be different and change can be hard. This year I hope you try extra hard to listen to your teacher. They are so excited to have you back, they missed their students. They will be there to help you every step of the way. Their job is going to be even harder this year, but it’s up to you to help make it easier. That’s what superheroes do. They help, and you my sweet girl, have always been a helper. 

Follow the rules and be a good listener. Be kind. Throw kindness around like confetti because everyone needs it right now. (And we need it now more than ever.) Sit where your teacher asks you to, even if it’s not where you want to sit. Have fun at recess and love every second of playing with your friends! Wash your hands when you come back inside. (And please wash them a lot.) I can’t wait to see the artwork you bring home for me to hang. I can’t wait to hear all the details about each and every day. Your classmates are going to be stressed and worried just like you. They have worried about all of the same things we have, but some have even worried about more. Be patient, and I know some days it will be extra hard, and those are the times it will mean the most. There’s going to be some hard days, but there’s going to be some pretty great ones, too. 

You know how much I worry, just like you, and it’s hard to let go of the things we can’t control. So I will help you and do all of the things I can control. No one wants an opinion right now, so we must do something that matters. When I go grocery shopping, I’ll pick up some extra things for the food bank. I will make sure to help your teachers find the extra supplies they might need. If your classmates need masks, we will help them find some. I know your friends’ parents and grandparents will be helping, too. You have always surrounded yourself with other superheroes, who want to help the world as much as you do. 

Every night when we say our prayers, we always ask God to help guide us to how we can help others. This is your chance, my superhero. I know you are going to love your first day back, even if it’s different. Know how much I’ll miss you on the days you’re at school, but how glad I’ll be that you’re back to the place you have missed so much. I am proud of you and I am proud of your classmates. There is so much about this year we don’t know, but I know you will do all you can to make it better. Thank you for being brave and thank you for being you.

To Those Who Do All the Things a Dad Would Do

I lost my dad when I was in 7th grade. I was just old enough to understand the permanence of his loss, but too young to understand the magnitude of it for my future self. When he left, we both ran out of time of the things I had yet to learn from him. We both thought we would have more time. I’ve now had over twenty years without him to understand how many things I wish he could have been here for. There is always so much emphasis put on the big life events, but if you have lost someone, you know that the truth is you miss them for the little things throughout each day, every day.

My dad loved to golf, but by the time I wanted to learn, he was already gone. My mom put me in lessons, but my 13-year-self wasn’t catching on.  A dear family friend invited me to come over after school and hit golf balls in his pasture. He helped me anytime I wanted to practice. I was terrible, but because of him, I made the varsity team. Everything I know about a sport my dad loved to do, I learned from Howard.

One day when visiting my aunt and uncle on the other side of the state, my Uncle Wayne tossed me they keys to his truck and told me to get in the driver’s seat. I had no idea how to drive, but my uncle laughed and said it was a good time to learn, so we hit the country back roads. I know he had other things to do that day, but instead, he taught me how to drive that day.

When I was a junior in high school, I qualified for the National High School Rodeo Finals. One of my dad’s best friends and his wife, who I consider my second parents, drove my mom and I across the country to be there for us. He left his ranch for an entire week, which is something ranchers just do not do. And it wasn’t just that he was there for that week, he came to all of my practices and rodeos in the years leading up to nationals. Fifteen years later, that same couple would drop everything on a cold December day (a windchill of -23, literally), to help me move into my house. When my babies arrived in this world, “Papa Larry” was one of the first to visit each one of them in the hospital. My children never got to meet their Grandpa Steve, but they still have this person who loves them like a grandpa would.

My dad had an insurance agency that he poured himself into during the final ten years of his life. He loved that career and the people he met through it. A good friend and colleague, Dave, offered my husband a job last year. Dave told my husband that my dad had mentored him and he wanted to do the same. My dad has been gone for two decades, yet it feels like parts of him are still being passed down.

One of my dad’s best friends made it a point that my little girls were in the summer junior golf program. Bob has always called me for my birthday and he sometimes calls just to check in. He and his wife even joined my mom and I on my college graduation trip to Nashville.

A few months ago my car started rattling as soon as I pulled out of the driveway. I pulled into a neighbors driveway trying not to cry, since my husband was already at the basketball game we were running late for. My neighbor, Donnie, walked outside, knocked on my window and said, “Pop the hood! Let’s take a look.” I live only a few hundred yards away from where I grew up and this neighbor has been there for us my entire life.

The thing about each and every one of these individuals is that they didn’t have time to spare, but they made it a priority to look after me, too. They have children and grandchildren, but they have all made sure that if my mom or I need anything at all, they are just a phone call away.

When I became a single mom, my friend (who later became my husband), made my tire appointment for me and researched what tires I needed to get. I knew nothing about tires – and I still don’t- but he figures it out for me. In high school he was the friend who came over to install my satellite radio in my car or take care of a snake when I came across one, even though he lived 30 minutes away. Now as my daughers’ stepdad, he has never missed a dance recital and carried all of the things, including carrying dolls even when he says he won’t carry them.

He fixes the car things for me that I don’t know how to deal with – and I don’t want to deal with. (He might get crabby about it because I tend to wait too long to get something fixed, but he still does it for me.) He has taught my little girls countless things, like how to shoot their bows and everything we know about baseball. He lets us adopt pets even though every time he swears this time is the last time.

There are so many people in my life who have done “the dad things” for me over the years. They have been here for me, for my mom and for my children. They have been my uncles and friends. They have been those who traveled to be there for us on our big days or to fix something that is broken.   

As the years go by, I become much more aware of the luxury of time. I realize that no one has much of it to give, so when they spend it on you, it’s a big deal. So to all of who you go out of your way to do the dad things when you aren’t the dad, I thought you should know it’s appreciated. Whether you showed up for a school preschool Christmas program or sat through a ballet recital on a beautiful day, it’s going to be remembered. Forever. When you say you’ll be there, and you mean it, just knowing you are there is a gift that won’t be taken for granted. 

These people weren’t my dad, and they weren’t trying to be, but they left their mark in my life, too. Their small acts of being there for me meant so much more than they will ever know. Happy Father’s Day to all dads and Happy Father’s Day to those who do all of the things a dad would do.

I Miss Our Mondays

On Monday nights, we had 37 minutes to run to a nearby fast-food place in between ballet classes. We had those nights down to a science after trial and error. Sometimes you and your sister couldn’t agree on a place, so rock paper scissors would make the final call. We lived such a busy life – and we loved that life. The other day you mentioned those Monday night dates. You said how you wish we could have another night like that, another night like “the way it used to be”. You said, “Mom, I would even pick the place I liked going the least, just to be able to go out again.” I heard every word in the way you said it.

Every year, the day and the week leading up to the recital was chaotic and crazy, I mean, so crazy. I was stressed about making sure I put the right shade of lipstick on you for the right performance and I was stressed about if your bun could last for both performances. I always loved the chaotic week of practices leading up to it because it felt so good to worry about dance. It distracted us from whatever else was going on. It gave us a chance to just focus on something we loved, something that gave us so much happiness.

This would’ve been your fifth year of the big recital weekend. This was always my absolute favorite weekend. I loved watching you and your sister be a part of the magic. I loved watching how somehow your instructors put together a ballet with hundreds of students from age 3-18. You all worked so hard all year for this day and every time I watched it, it took my breath away.

This year, that Saturday came and it went. It was quiet. And I cried. In March, when I realized what was about to happen in our world, I told myself I would not cry over a ballet recital. That is a luxury and a privilege. I had cried tears over fear. I had cried tears over how many children must be hungry and how many patients were dying without loved ones by their side. I was not about to cry over dance – but on Saturday, I did. And when I did, I realized it really wasn’t just about dance.

My tears were sadness that suddenly mid-March became mid-May and I did not expect for time to go so fast and yet so slow. I cried that you and your sister had been talking about this day since last year’s recital, and how I never even thought about this scenario. (I worry about absolutely everything and anything, as you already know, but I never thought to worry about a pandemic.) We always assumed the big events would still be there. I cried because I don’t remember the last time you got to see your friends in real life and then I cried because how can I be sad about that when other moms are worried about how they will feed their children. I cried because your sister did not get to finish the basketball season she loves so much and that she never got to share with her class that she finally lost her tooth. I cried because my mom friends have seniors who lost moments they had waited forever for. I cried for my self-employed friends whose businesses will not survive this. This was no longer just about dance. Once the tears fell, they would not stop. I realized it was not even the big days I missed the most, it was all of those days in between. I missed our Mondays.

I missed our dance nights and frantically digging through my front seat to find the missing ballet shoes that inevitably always found its way out of the bag. I missed our nightly discussions about what happened at school and what you were excited about tomorrow. I missed our evenings at youth group and our weekend play dates with our best friends. I missed our conversations about how excited we were to take your baby brother to the pool this summer. You were finally going to be tall enough for the big water slide. There will be no summer junior golf or trip to Disney this fall. Until now, I had not realized how we had quit talking about future plans. Either you are too scared to ask, or you have realized that I do not have the answers. 

I still do not have answers about ‘when’, but I do know we will live our lives differently after this. I know once our Monday nights resume, we are not going to take for granted the luxury of eating out. I know that for the rest of my life when I go grocery shopping, I’m going to pick up extra items for those in our community who need it most. (I hope you’ll always do the same.) We tried to help before, but now I see I could have done more. I know that the first time you step foot in that dance studio, you are going to look at it as you “get to be there”, not that you “have to be there.” I know that when we someday get our summer day at the pool, we are going to love every second of the sun on our faces while we talk about how chubby your little brother looks in his swim trunks.

I know that when we see our friends for the first time, we are going to hug them like we mean it. A hug will no longer be a communicative gesture out of habit and obligation, it’s going to mean “I have missed you and I love you.” I know that when you return to school, you will love every second of learning from your teacher and recesses with your friends. While we cannot wait to have this all behind us, there are pieces of it that I hope we carry with us. I hope we do not forget the creativity and ingenuity of those who kept us going. I hope we remember to appreciate those who proudly did the jobs that put them in harm’s way. I hope we never forget how much light came out of so much darkness.

Our big Saturday came and went and we learned from it. I am so proud of how hard you worked for it, even though you didn’t get to see it through (at least not yet.) I hope that you never stop dreaming and working for it, even if the ‘recital Saturdays’ of your life don’t turn out the way you planned. And my sweet girl, I hope that when our Mondays return, we take the pieces of now with us to the someday, and never forget what we learned. It was never about the big days.

You Never Met Your Grandpa

I can’t count the moments of your life where I think to myself, “I wish your grandpa was here to see this.” You never got a chance to meet him. I’ve missed him for two thirds of my life, but I have missed him for all of yours. Until I became a parent, I didn’t truly realize how many memories we had yet to make.

I realize I’ve never taken the time to tell you all about him. To be honest, as the years go by, I start to worry that I’ll forget the details. So I wanted to take a minute to tell you about the man I loved so deeply, whose love surrounds our lives every single day.

He was funny, the kind of funny that never tries to be funny, it was just who he was. He wanted to make others laugh, and he did it very well. I see that in you sometimes. You have this sparkle in your eye and I love how much you love to create laughter and joy. I love that when you describe your friends, humor is one of the first things you mention. It’s important. It will matter in life.

Your grandpa worked hard, really hard, in all that he did. He would expect that from you, too. He used to always tell me to find something I truly loved and if I did that, work would never feel like work. He was right. He worked hard in his career, but he loved it. I never knew if he had a good day or a bad day at work, because when he came home to me and your grandma, he was always so glad to see us. He left his stress at the door.

He was always the optimist and it was contagious. He always saw the good. I see that trait in you, too. I love the way you find a way to focus on the good. It mattered to him to do good – so he did. And so do you. He wanted to help those who might need it and I love the way your heart does, too. You care so much about those around you and I pray that you continue to feel that way for the rest of your life. If we don’t spend our days helping others, what else really matters.

He kept candy in the center console of his car, and he would hand them over on the mornings he drove me to school. It was morning and he was giving me candy. He kept a stash of candy bars in his top desk drawer and he never hesitated to share those with me either. When I would sit in his office, he always made me feel like it was essential for me to be there. He made me feel that I was important, and I hope I make you feel that way, too. On the mornings he drove me to school, we sang the songs he loved at the top of our lungs. You and I sing in the car, too, and I hope you always do. I hope when certain songs come on, they always remind you of a crisp October morning as you drove to school and felt nothing other than absolute love. 

He is the reason I am obsessed with music and therefore, so are you. He loved it and appreciated it more than most and I’ve never met another child who knows more about songwriters or lyric meanings than you. He is the reason I love college football. I love watching you cheer for the teams I love, because I’m cheering for the teams he loved.

He was one of those people that others were just drawn to. He had a smile that lit up a room and he was the one making that room laugh. He was a light, just like you.

When I see you love the things he loved, I see an extension of him. You remind me that he is still here. Sometimes I feel him so strongly that it’s as if he is sitting right next to me. Sometimes I feel him at your big life moments and I am certain he is there. Sometimes I see him on a random Tuesday when you unknowingly stick out your tongue as you focus on your homework. Sometimes I see him in you when you raise one eyebrow, questioning something I have just said. You have this frown I love because it reminds me of him. You are my reminder that he was once here. 

The Teacher Parade

It was cold and grey this morning as we stood in the driveway, waiting. My little girls had been counting down for this moment, giggling as they looked down the road, waiting for the long line of cars to turn our direction. I can’t think of a parade they’ve ever been more excited to see.

It has now been two-and-a-half weeks since I picked my girls up from school and told them the governor closed schools for (at the time) one week. Their response almost caught me off guard. I thought they would eagerly ask about all of the things we might do. There was no applause or cheer, just a quiet sadness followed by questions. “But when will I see my friends? I’m going to miss my teacher, mom.” My heart was torn between gratitude and sadness. I was so thankful they spent their days in a place with people they loved so much, yet I knew this shut down would be much longer than a week. As we pulled out of the school parking lot, the tears streamed down my face. My mind was overcome with worry for the students who relied on school, whether it be for the meals or for a safe, warm place. Seeing the way my own children reacted to the news gave me a new perspective of how vital this place and its people are. If my own were going to miss school this much, what must it be like for others.

So today, as I stood in the driveway, the tears started to form at just the thought of the staff taking the time to spend three hours driving through the community. Three hours. We are part of a huge school. I kept thinking about the other families who were standing on their streets, knowing they were probably as excited as we were. Did the teachers realize just how special this was to so many children? Did they realize that even just a wave from them meant more than any celebrity meet-and-greet we have ever had? 

When we saw the cars finally turn onto our road, the tears started to fall. There were so many more cars than I was expecting, and my daughters were so excited at the thought of finally seeing the teachers they love so much. These teachers had to change the way they have always taught, and they had to do it literally overnight.  These teachers have lesson plans to type and parents to respond to. Now we are past the point of review and they are navigating ways to find new methods to teach new material to students who aren’t on the same playing field. They must figure out who can access online content and who can’t. They have to prep paper packets and decide how to get it to families. They have adjusted their lives to be available for 24 families and not just during school hours. They each have 24 students (give or take a few) which means they have 24 families they are worried about. They are fully aware that the students they love are trying to learn new material on top of the stress in their home lives. They understand that parents have lost jobs – or if they are lucky – trying to work from home or work their shift then come home to help with schoolwork.  They know exactly the way their students absorb the stress from home, they’ve seen it their entire career. Now the students they love are being thrown into a situation like none of us have ever experienced. So, on top of the infinite list of things they needed to get done on this Friday morning, they were spending three hours of time they didn’t have to remind their students how much they love them. I love them so much for it.

The other day, as we were in the midst of something which I can’t even remember, my kindergartner blurted out, “But I didn’t get to show my friends I lost my tooth!” It was completely out of nowhere, but it obviously had been on her mind. While I worried about an incredibly long list of worries I’ve never had to worry about in our pre-pandemic life, this was what she was worried about.  I love that it was important to her and I know for a fact her teacher would’ve made her feel so very special when she shared her news. I love how much she missed her teacher and friends. 

Today the teachers brought us comfort. They brought us the familiarity and safety we miss now more than ever. Today they brought us a hope for a better tomorrow, reminding us there will be a better tomorrow. They brought us all together. Teachers, thank you. We can’t wait to see you soon.

Hey Husband

Hey husband. You spent Valentine’s Day evening cleaning out my shower drain. You lectured me as you carried the culprit clog to the trash, shooting me a look of annoyance. Our Valentine’s Dinner was take-out because we are in the height of flu season and as a household of five, we couldn’t dodge it.

You get me a snack when you stop for gas, even when I say I don’t want one. (That was a mistake you didn’t make twice after a long, big fight. Now you know that when I say I don’t want something, it isn’t true.) You know which gas stations to stop at – the ones that have the crushed ice that I love. When we meet at a restaurant and I’m running late, you order for me and you always just seem to know what I would get.

For 212 Wednesdays (give or take a couple), you’ve rolled our trash can down our driveway, so I don’t have to. You even remember to put in a new bag after you take out the old one. You fix the vacuum (which is related to the same culprit as the drain) and every time you cut the hair out, you swear this will be the last time you do it. We both know it’s not the last time because you’ve done it for years, and I’m glad you do. (Also, just to clarify, I’m forever okay with you fixing the drains, too.) We argue about the dishwasher needing emptied or if it is empty, why there are dishes in the sink if they can go in the dishwasher. We will have this argument forever. You say I have too many clothes and too many shoes – and that might be true. For the rest of my days, I’ll have a pile of clothes laying around somewhere and shoes to trip over which will infuriate you for the rest of your days. There’s laundry in every room and it’s a battle I can’t win. (Never. Going. To win.)

We will forever have the argument where you didn’t know about whatever activity or event I told you about, even though I told you. (I always tell you. Agree to disagree.) You have strong opinions on the thermostat setting and when we leave lights on, just like most dads do.

When I cook something you don’t like, which is more often than I want to admit, you pour some extra ketchup and eat it anyway. You tell me, “It’s not bad,” even when we know it is. (Sometimes it’s so bad.) I love that on the mornings it’s extra cold, you start my car for me. You always tell me I let my tank go too low, followed by a lecture on a fuel pump which I don’t understand. This is another conversation we will have until the end of our days.

We used to tell ourselves we would never let the everyday become our every day. Suddenly we are mid 30s and we did let the everyday become our every day. We have careers and small children and ballet and basketball. We have schedules that keep us so busy we don’t know if we are coming or going. The thing is, at the end of the day, I know my shower drain is going to be fixed. I know when we have a date at a restaurant, it’s for a table of five and three kids’ menus. We tag team as one of us handles two tic-tac-toe games while the other keeps the toddler from throwing crackers at the next table. I know that you hate my Christmas light obsession down to your soul, but every year, you still hang them for me.

At the end of the day, I just want to sit on the couch with you and watch our shows. I love that when you decide to call it a night but I’m still up with paperwork, you turn it to Friends because you know it’s my favorite. I love that I hear you talking to the cat even though you repeatedly swear, “Never again!” when it comes to another indoor pet. We promised each other once upon a time ago that we would give each other our best day in and day out. I didn’t realize back then, that my best meant grocery shopping after a 10-hour work day or re-scheduling my meetings so you don’t have to re-schedule yours. Your best meant scraping ice off my windows in the mornings or coaching basketball even when you barely have spare minutes to give.

Tomorrow morning you will ask me who messed with your thermostat, knowing it was me (since I’m the only other one who can reach it) and I’ll wonder why you even ask a question you know the answer to. Thanks for all the things you do, especially the things you don’t want to do. Love you, husband. Thanks for spending this life with me.

Write Your Kids a Letter

Write your kids a letter. It sounds like an easy thing to do, but with work and school and life it just doesn’t seem to happen. It’s 10 p.m. and I have a long list of things to get done tonight. There’s a sink full of dishes, two more loads of laundry, and bottles that need washed. Tonight, I finally put it all on hold for ten minutes and I wrote my kids a letter.

I’ve always loved letters. I loved the idea that you could put thoughts on paper and then hold those thoughts in your hand. And keep them. Before my oldest was born, I wrote her a letter. I wanted her to know how much I loved her before I ever met her. I didn’t know what to get her that first Christmas. I wanted it to be something she could keep forever, something that would matter someday. So I wrote her a letter.

Over the years, I have tried to write each of my kids a letter at least a couple times a year. Sometimes it is for a special occasion and sometimes it’s just because. My mom was a letter writer. She wrote me a note on a napkin every school morning. She sent me notes in the mail in college, even though e-mail would’ve been easier. She sent me thoughts I could hold, and in a box, I still have every letter she sent. My dad died when I was young. Although he didn’t die suddenly, his cancer was first found due to word-finding difficulty. There was never a letter of advice for a lifetime without him because by the time we realized I wouldn’t have him for all my tomorrows, he could no longer find the words. I wish there was a letter that told me all about my 2nd grade birthday when he took me out to lunch. I remember a few moments from that day, but I wish I could remember more. I wish there was a letter about his dad that I never got to meet. I wish there was more I could’ve known about him, about me, about the places we went. That’s one reason I write my kids letters.

I have so much I want to tell them, teach them. Maybe I write to them for myself as much as I do for them. I never want to forget the way my daughter pronounces lasagna “masagna” or the way they call their lunch boxes “lunch pails”. I never want to forget what they said to their baby brother the moment they first met him in the NICU and all they did for him when we finally got to bring him home. There are so many one-liners that I swear I’ll never forget, but if I don’t write them down, I do forget. Someday I want her to know that one day at preschool pickup, her teacher told me she was a friend to a classmate that had a hard time making friends. I want them to remember our special Monday night dinner dates after ballet and our favorite summer trips to the lake. I want them to remember the days that didn’t go the way we thought they would – and the way we persevered through it. I want my son to know the story of his arrival into this world and the people who helped save him.  I want my kids to know how fiercely proud I am of them. I want them to know how much I love them and I want them to have the words they can hold in their hands.  They don’t yet know I have a pile of letters for them.  Before my oldest started kindergarten, I wrote her a letter ( which was the first one I ever read to her. She smiled from ear to ear the entire time as I tried to read the words through my tears. Even if she didn’t understand it all, she knew it was just for her, from me.

I volunteer in my daughters’ school lunchroom. I love the way faces light up when kids read lunch notes from their parents. I love the way the kindergartners raise their hands to have the staff come read what a note says, even if it’s the same note every day that says “ I love you , Mom”. We love to hold the words in our hands.

Sometimes I start to write a letter but I never get a chance to finish it. I still file it away, for them to have someday. The feelings I felt or the events of that day are still worth writing about, even if my thoughts got distracted by life and I never get to finish it. Letters take time, whether handwritten or typed. They take a lot of time, which is exactly what also makes us appreciate them. Tomorrow night at this time, I will again have two loads of laundry and a sink full of dishes. Sometimes (actually, all of the time) I feel as if there is nothing to show for the amount of effort I put into the everyday duties of a household. Then I write, and that stands out as something for tonight. The minutes we put into writing, into telling those we love just how much we love them, those minutes will borrow time from today that can be read over and over again for the somedays to come.

Write your kids a letter. Remind them how much you love them and remind them of all the reasons why.

16 Days

Looking at him today, you would never believe his story. The only physical evidence of his time in the NICU are littles scars, one on each side of his chest, where the chest tubes once were. I love those tiny scars on his soft skin. They remind me of where we once were and the people who got him – and got us- through it. It reminds me of how hard he fought and how hard we prayed.

September is NICU Awareness Month. Last September, this had no meaning in my life. I was eight months pregnant and counting down the hours until the end of October. I was trying to decide which of the three Halloween costumes my baby boy would wear first. I was spending my spare time building his big sisters’ Halloween costumes to coordinate with how I would decorate his stroller for my favorite holiday. We were over the moon that a little boy would be joining our family. I knew he would change our lives, but I never could have predicted the way he would change my perspective. He opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about. This September, being a NICU mom has immeasurable meaning in my life. While this is the month that acknowledges the place I love so deeply, every day of my life over the past ten months has been my “NICU Awareness.”

This was my third pregnancy. When my daughters were born, I had the luxury of taking them home the day after they were born. I was spoiled in spending my time snuggling them in adorable onesies and feeling exhausted during late night feedings. As excited as we were, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this time was going to be different.

I entered the delivery room on a Tuesday morning. It was the week of the World Series. My husband had played college baseball and I remember telling him that night he would be holding his newborn son watching the game. (This was just another example of what I had taken for granted in the past – holding my babies as soon as they arrived.) Before I entered the NICU on that October day, I took so much for granted, as much as I hate to admit it.

As soon as our sweet baby boy was born, he struggled to breathe. He was perfect in every way, full-term and a healthy eight pounds, but he just couldn’t breathe. A NICU team was paged into the delivery room and they wheeled him away to the NICU. My husband followed them as I had to stay behind, a new fear I had never felt before was taking over. This was not the way it was supposed to go.

I was wheeled into the hospital’s Level III NICU. I was confused and overwhelmed, and I didn’t understand what people were saying, but I specifically remember a feeling of calmness the moment I met his NICU nurses. My baby couldn’t breathe, the most basic thing a mom could hope for her child to do, but they were making sure he had a way. At the first shift change, his next nurse told me our daughters were in the same class. I remember that moment being the first time I heard and understood words that were being said to me. She asked me if it would be okay to give him a pacifier. She said she knew I was a speech-pathologist and that I might have a strong opinion about them. I remember crying and nodding yes, I would love for him to have a pacifier. It meant he could do at least one thing like all the other babies. It meant she was asking for my opinion since I was the mom, even though she was the one helping to save his life. It meant she was thinking about a long-term habit, while I couldn’t think past the next minute. Somehow these NICU nurses knew just what to say and how to say it.

During his first 24-hours, my sweet boy’s condition went from bad to worse. He was intubated, had one collapsed lung followed by the other, which resulted in his heart moving to the wrong side of his chest due to air filling spaces it shouldn’t. I remember sitting in my hospital room, staring at his brand-new diaper bag. Everything inside it was new and fresh and ready for our baby boy. He had a beautiful nursery at home with everything I thought he would need. Instead, what he really needed, was a vent to breathe and tubes in his chest and tubes to be fed. He needed the physicians and nurses who knew exactly how to fix him. I needed them, too. During every moment of his care, I knew he was exactly where he needed to be.

I spent 16 days praying as I had never prayed. I watched other babies being wheeled into the NICU and I prayed for them, too. One thing is for sure – there is no fairness in the NICU. I watched the physicians work around the clock. I watched nurses give each and every baby the most diligent and compassionate care I had ever seen. They gave everything they had to the tiniest, most fragile humans who couldn’t convey what hurt or where. I sat next to his warmer, in awe of everything happening around me. This windowless room gave me a front row seat to witness miracles collaborating with science. I never wanted to be there, but once I was, I couldn’t imagine going back to the life before I knew all of this. During those 16 days, our baby was their baby, too. His story is not just our story, it is their story, too.

The moment we received the news we would be taking our baby boy home, I let out a sob. I had waited 16 days to see him without tubes and cords and machines. I had waited for the moment I could load him in his car seat. I had waited his entire life to take him home, but now everything would be forever different. He had two big sisters who could not wait to have their baby brother home. My mind could never go back to the pre-NICU days, and honestly, I wouldn’t want to. This perspective is deeper. When we carried our baby out those NICU doors, I promised myself I would never forget what the men and women behind those double doors did for us. When you leave the NICU, it doesn’t leave you.

It has been ten months since we left the NICU. I think of the NICU staff literally every day of his life. I sometimes hear the beeping of the machines in my dreams or I wake up in the night just to look at him to remind myself he is here, not there. I think of the babies I saw, wondering where they are now and how they are now. I think of one baby girl in particular, every time I see an elephant, as I know that was the theme of her nursery – the nursery she never got to spend a night in. I think of her when I take milestone pictures. I will think of her at his birthday parties, my heart wishing there was a place setting for her there, too.  At her funeral, I watched the way the NICU staff filled the pews, having given her extraordinary care for months and a profound love I only wish every baby could have. The NICU made my heart feel deeper. Within the NICU, you will find the greatest happiness and the ultimate heartbreak.

It’s unrealistic to think anyone could understand such an experience and such a place unless they lived it. NICU Awareness Month will likely only hit home to those who have known it. My friends who were moms of NICU babies, they supported us and loved us and showed us day in and day out. The NICU mom tribe is a tribe I never wanted to be a part of, but the comradery is inexplainable.

 I have a deeper sense of gratitude for healthy children. I am a better pediatric therapist now, as I now know the feeling of worrying about developmental milestones. I am a better friend now, as I now have an empathy I couldn’t have had before.

I hope NICU Awareness Month can result in actual awareness. I hope when we hear a friend’s child is in the hospital, we drop off a gift card or make a meal for their return home. I hope when a friend must drive home with an empty car seat, we let them know we can help drive them home or come over to talk. I hope we can donate more to help our communities have the equipment that is needed for NICU and pediatric floors across the country. There is so much to be aware of in a world I previously knew nothing about. To those who have dedicated their lives to helping the most delicate patients, NICU parents are forever grateful for you.

Now it’s Your Turn

Now it’s your turn to start school. I had two years to prepare for this day, telling myself this time would be easier than when your sister entered those kindergarten doors. I realized this past week that there was a great secret I never realized, it’s harder to send the second child. I thought for sure it would be easier. I had already done this once, so I know what to expect. That’s exactly why it’s so hard – I know what to expect. It’s harder this time because I know just how much I’m going to miss you each and every morning until I see you in the afternoon as we head to dance or soccer. It’s harder because I know your days will get busier and this is only the beginning of just how busy you’ll be.

There’s a toy kitchen that will now sit quietly in your room. For almost every day of your life, I have heard the toy kitchen fridge door open and shut. I have heard your shopping cart wheel up and down the hallway, hauling toy groceries and dolls and random things you decide to stuff in that cart. I have heard your footsteps run up and down that hallway thousands of times.

I thought for sure you would be my baby, the one who would have my undivided while your big sister was away at school. God wrote a different plan and you suddenly became a middle child. You’ve had to share this past year of your life and you didn’t complain once about it. You became a pro big sister over night because you learned from the best. You are a perfect match for your birth order. You march to your own beat because you don’t have the time or interest to wonder what others might think. Your outfits amaze me every day and you wear them with all the confidence a girl could have. I often think to myself that I hope to be like you when I grow up. How can someone so small be so brave and so independent. This independence will serve you well in life.  My heart isn’t ready for this change, but you were fist pumping on your way to buy school supplies. I watched you big sister grab your hand at open house and march you down to the kindergarten wing. You smiled a huge smile as she showed you where you hang your backpack and where you sharpen your pencil. You are ready, my sweet girl. You are so ready.

It’s time for me to accept that there’s a long list of things we didn’t yet finish. There’s no more days where time doesn’t matter until next May. I know exactly how hard it is to pack a summer into summer. There’s no more after preschool lunch dates at a place of your choosing. We didn’t have enough days at the pool, and we didn’t master those shoe laces.

Tomorrow morning you’re going to pick out your first day of school outfit and I’m going to try to hold it together at drop off until I get back in my car. You’ve waited for two years for this day, to finally be at school with your big sister, and I have tried not to think about it. The American Girl dolls will sit quietly in your room while you meet new friends. The costumes in the closet will actually stay hung up because you won’t have time to transform into Batman or a fireman multiple times a day.

I am sad for me but so excited for you. You saw the tears fall down my face yesterday when we pulled out of your babysitter’s driveway. You spent six years with her and now it’s time to pass the torch to someone else. You smiled a sympathetic smile at me, because somehow you just understand how hard this is for me. For two years, you’ve asked me to “pack a lunch pail” for you, even on the days we would be home. You’ve wanted nothing more than to go to school like your big sister and tomorrow is the day. We didn’t get it all done as I had hoped we would, but we packed a lot in. You asked me not to “embawass” you tomorrow by taking too many pictures and crying too hard. I promised you I would try not to.

I can’t wait to see what you have to offer the world and what the world has to offer you. Be kind and be brave and be a good friend to those that need it most. And know that I am going to miss you so very much.

I’m Not Ready, But You Are

I am not ready for this day just on the horizon, but you are. Tonight, I watched you open and close your new lunchbox over a dozen times. You call it a “lunch pail” and it makes me smile every time. You love your new Frozen backpack and often put it on to show me “it fits so perfectly.” While we were at Target, you excitedly showed other shoppers your new crayons and pencils. When I saw that Target’s summer section was replaced by school supplies, my eyes filled with tears. Other moms smiled at me and nodded hello as their 5th and 6th graders picked out binders. They knew, they remembered. I had five summers to prepare for this, but I still wasn’t ready.

For five summers, I knew this one would be our fastest yet. You were only minutes old when my mom looked at you and said to me, “Before you know it, she will be leaving for her first day of kindergarten.” I’ve thought about those words almost every day. Your grandma has been right about a million things, and those words are some of the truest she has ever said.

I watched you and your little sister fall asleep for a nap on Sunday. I curled up on your beanbag, my eyes filling with tears while I listened to you breathe. I realized this was our last weekend of these Sunday naps we shared for five years. “Oh! The Places You’ll Go!” stared back at me from your bookshelf. I know you’re going places, girl. I know. I’m going to be here cheering you on every step of the way.

There’s so much I have left to show you, to teach you. We need to work on mastering those shoe laces and the loose pony tail the way you like it. We need to work on jumping jacks. While my mind is full of things I’m worried that you might not be ready for, I realize it’s me that isn’t ready. I’m not ready for quiet days without you here. I’m not ready for the day you don’t ask for the race car shopping carts at the grocery store. I’m not ready for the first time you don’t want a hug and a kiss good-bye. I’m just not ready for how incredibly much I’m going to miss hanging out with you. I’m not ready, but you are.

I am so excited to share you with the world. This is the end of an era for me, but the beginning of a new one for you. Those days somehow turned into years and now it’s time to send you out in this world.

You’re one of the most incredible kids I’ve ever known. You are a constant happiness in a world that sometimes isn’t. You care so deeply about everyone else. For your 5th birthday, you asked me to buy food for people who might not have any. You think about everyone else before yourself. You are the greatest big sister to ever be on this earth. You are so exceptionally fun to hang out with. I’m not ready, but you are.

It seems that five is such a young age to release you to the world. Up until now, I’ve had a say in who you play with, who influences the things you say. I’ve helped select your meals and shaped the choices you’ve made. I’m a strong influence in how your likes became your likes. Now it’s up to you.

My heart is overcome by feelings I can’t explain. It is not lost on me how incredibly lucky I am that you get to embark on this childhood passage. We had a friend not come home from St. Jude. He should be starting school this fall, too. So while I am overwhelmed by how hard it will be for me to watch you wave from the playground, I am going to thank God for every second of this, of every moment I get to share with you.

My mind has not yet wrapped itself around how time can go so fast – I have a feeling it never will. I I love you, my sweet girl. You fascinate me every day. I’m not ready to watch that Frozen backpack march down the driveway on the first day, but you are.