One Teacher’s Thoughts on School Shootings

We live in the era of urgent news updates sharing information about the most recent school shooting.  Sadly, we have largely become numb to these frequent news stories and the subsequent “our thoughts and prayers are with your school” sentiment from our legislators.  Is there anyone else out there who shares my sentiment — that thoughts and prayers for these students, staff and families are not enough?  When are we going to enforce our gun laws and keep our children safe?  When are we going to say “Enough is enough!” regarding our teachers being human shields for our children?  When will we work to find a real solution to students bringing guns to school?  

I’m writing about this because, though school shootings are horrific, most people feel significant distance from these events.  We all have a “not in my neighborhood” mentality.  We all want to feel that the community we’ve chosen is safe.  However, on Friday, March 4, 2022, Olathe East had a school shooting.  Olathe East — the school where my children attended.  The school that houses students and staff who I care about.  A school that’s practically in my backyard.  Wait, what?  This wasn’t supposed to happen in a suburban Kansas school!

Luckily, no one was killed in this shooting.  The shooter was shot and later hospitalized.  The assistant principal and SRO were both shot, but they were released from the hospital the day of the incident.  Still, a school of nearly 2,000 students is left feeling traumatized and afraid. Teachers, like students, are anxious.  Are there other kids in the building who regularly bring guns to school?  Is there a way to make this building feel safe again?

As a teacher, I have lived through the pre-Columbine era, where a school shooting was both shocking and occasional.  But since Columbine, school shootings have become a thing.  We now have active shooter drills in schools to prepare for this event.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am glad we prepare.  In the case of the Olathe shooting, it appears to me that the SRO followed protocol and probably saved many lives.  The school was on lockdown, and no students were injured.  But if you’ve ever been in a dark room with frightened first graders, hunkering down with the door locked and only a dim flashlight for light, you might reconsider your stance on what to do about school shootings.  Gun violence at school should not be a thing, and small children should not have to ask their teachers whether an active shooter exercise is a drill or real.

I don’t have the answers, folks.  I wish I did.  But I do believe that though there are many responsible gun owners, we are a country that values our 2nd Amendment rights more than we value human lives.  We allow underpaid teachers to go into buildings knowing that today might be the day that they have to block a child from a bullet or lockdown their classroom.  And instead of helping us, many of our legislators offer this sort of statement, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  Well, that’s not enough.  What about doing something?  What about action and policy change?  What about providing adequate funding to schools that will allow protections for our children?  What about education and/or counseling for staff and students so they don’t feel anxious about coming to school?  What about mental health initiatives to help students who attain guns?  What about putting our heads together as a country and a community to make school a safe and harmonious place for our children?  Please, no more empty words “addressing” this problem.  

Let me end with this.  I am prepared to protect a student from a gunman by taking a bullet.  I am prepared to die so a child won’t.  But folks, this isn’t actually my job.  My job is to educate, support, mentor and encourage.  We need to ask ourselves as a nation, is this the America we want — a nation where our children are afraid of being at school?  We owe it to our children (and to our teachers) to do better than this.  

“Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to 

breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation.”  

Brene Brown

Here are two organizations that work to end gun violence in schools (as well as in homes and communities) if you’re interested in getting involved. 

And here is the link to an article about the Olathe East shooting.

This is Me: A Glimpse Inside my 50 Year Old Self

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This (literally) is me!

A few weeks ago, I celebrated a BIG  birthday.  As this day approached, I had been thinking about my life and what I’ve learned thus far.  I remember that I was scared to death of turning 30. Thirty sounded so old.  Turns out, 30 was no big deal. I’d relive my 30s any day.  My metabolism was still my friend, I had energy, my kids still snuggled with me.  My life was pretty much problem-free.  Then, my 40s rolled around.  I wasn’t too excited about turning forty, but my 40s have taught me some important lessons.  I’ve learned to love my body in thickness and in health.  I’ve also learned to love myself and accept my flaws.  I started to become a more authentic version of myself.  It seems that with age comes wisdom and a “don’t worry too much about what people think” mentality, which is a blessing.  

As my forties came to an end, I didn’t feel nervous or sad.  Instead I mostly just felt grateful.  Fifty sounds like a big number, but aside from the sound of it, I am happy to be a year older.  You see, I believe that growing old, even with its aches and pains, is a privilege.  I understand that my life is a gift, and I am actually looking forward to living and learning and growing as a person in my next decade of life.   

I decided that in honor of my  50th birthday, I should write down my fifty truths — my deepest, silliest and most honest beliefs. I want to put in writing my current perspective on the world and reflect how my outlook has changed over time.  So here is my list.  These fifty truths are in no particular order, but they are all ideals I hold dear.

  1. I believe in wearing bright and sparkly nail polish no matter my age. Bright toes make me happy.
  2. I believe in dancing in the kitchen. Dancing in the kitchen is always evidence of a good night.
  3. I believe in do-overs — for myself and for others.
  4. I believe in the power of a parent’s love. The older I get, the more I respect my parent’s love for me and the more I love my own children.
  5. I believe that public education is a critical component of our society. and that teachers are real life superheroes.
  6. I believe in community.
  7. I believe in a higher power, even if I don’t understand all of the details.
  8. I believe in the quote from Dead Poet’s Society where John Keating says “words and ideas really can change the world.”
  9. I believe that the Beatles are the greatest rock band ever.
  10. I believe that the Foo Fighters and U2 are a close 2nd and 3rd.
  11. I believe in adventure. I find myself, as I age, wanting to run towards the world.
  12. I believe in love. Enough said.
  13. I believe that sometimes — okay, most of the time — self care is more important than productivity. (My husband disagrees with me, but I stand behind this one.)
  14. I believe in sitting with people in their darkest hours just as they have sat with me.
  15. I believe that being a mom has been my best and hardest job.
  16. I believe in naps.
  17. I believe in connection. I’ve learned that I am good at connecting with people and building relationships.
  18. I believe that I am creative but not necessarily artistic.
  19. I believe my parents did the best they could with what they knew, and I have tried to do the same.
  20. I believe that my family of origin — my parents and my sister — are still my biggest fans.
  21. I believe that we all need a safe and happy place to land at the end of the day.
  22. I believe that part of being happy is recognizing the small joys in our lives.
  23. I believe that you can be a happy person even if you’ve experienced great loss.
  24. I believe in therapy. Therapy has helped me in a plethora of ways.
  25. I believe that, for me, writing serves as a kind of therapy.
  26. I believe in writing notes of gratitude to people that I love.
  27. I believe in silver linings, even if that makes me appear naive or overly optimistic.
  28. I believe that teachers make the world a more educated, more beautiful place.
  29. I believe in fun and mischief.
  30. I believe in girls’ trips.
  31. I believe that yoga can restore your health and your soul.
  32. I believe in hugging — friends, family, my students, sometimes even strangers.
  33. I believe in reaching out to people who are struggling.
  34. I believe that I experience God’s presence anytime I walk barefoot on a beach and look into the vast ocean.
  35. I believe in the power of a good coffee date/chat with a girlfriend.
  36. I believe that money spent on books, movies and music is never wasted.
  37. I believe in sleeping in.
  38. I believe that lifelong learning leads to a fulfilling life.
  39. I believe that a person is never too old to try something new.
  40. I believe that someday I will figure out my purpose on this Earth, but until then I will try a lot of different things.
  41. I believe in girl power. Thank you Sandy Hudson, Ally Baier, RBG, Michelle Obama, Cindy Lauper, Malala, and all my other female heroes.
  42. I believe in kindness.
  43. I believe that there is almost always a resolution to a problem.
  44. I believe that you never give up on your children.
  45. I believe that Brene Brown’s writing has changed my life for the better. (If you haven’t read her, start with The Gifts of Imperfection.)
  46. I believe in taking walks with friends.
  47. I believe in honesty — or at least attempting honesty. I no longer have the stomach for bullshitting people.
  48. I believe in peace.
  49. I believe that it is important to have things in life to look forward to.
  50. I believe that that life, even in its most difficult seasons, is a gift.

So there you have it, friends, a list that reveals who I am at 50.  I have grown from a shy kid who was afraid to speak out in class to a person who is fun, free, and maybe a little bit fierce.  Today I strive to be a person who runs toward life and feels gratitude on even the most challenging of days.

The Marriage of Grief and Depression

I recently developed a new mantra.  It goes like this:  It is not my job to make people comfortable.  I don’t mean that I’ll go out of my way to make friends and acquaintances ill at ease.  That’s not really who I am.  What I mean is that I am trying very hard to be honest about myself and my life.  If that makes people feel uncomfortable, then I need to let that roll off my back.  

With that in mind, I need to tell you that this blog post is not a happy one.  I’m purposely going for honesty.  Maybe someone out there needs to hear this and know they’re not alone.  Maybe there’s someone else who feels just like I do.  Today’s topic — grief and depression.  Unfortunately, this is a topic I know well. 

A few years back, I was diagnosed with depression.  This was before my daughter Ally’s illness, before I had experienced real loss. We were dealing with some behavioral issues with my son, which looking back, were insignificant compared to what we’d later face.  But still, I was struggling.  My therapist thought I had situational depression, and he suggested I talk to my doctor about this.  My doctor then put me on a low dose of Lexapro.  For several years, I stayed on this medication, and it worked.  It helped keep me level and able to cope with life.  

A few years later, life got really difficult.  My sweet, twelve year old daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer.  My family lived in limbo for the next 3.5 years, trying to stay afloat while also living in fear of what could/would happen next.  Those years were filled with joy, fear, hope, tears, love and a deep sadness.  I stayed on meds to keep going as grief was starting to creep in; I grieved a life of normalcy for my child, for my family, and for myself.  I had constant worry, a constant sense of ‘What will happen if…?’ 

In April of 2020 the if happened.  We discovered that treatments were no longer helping Ally.  On May 3, Glioblastoma took my daughter’s life.  And that’s where real depression kicked in.  Intertwined with this depression was grief, which has been a constant companion since then.  I’ve been trying to work through my grief, take the right steps to keep my depression at bay, and still be a functional human.  I’m on meds, and I recently adjusted them as I can feel that the holidays will be hard this year. I see a therapist.  I am doing life the best I can.  Up until a couple of weeks ago, I really thought I was doing okay.  But then depression swoops in, and I’m flat on my back again.

Now here’s the part I’m a little embarrassed to share.  I like to think of myself as a strong person.  I’ve had to be during my daughter’s illness and after her death.  I feel compelled to be strong at work and when I’m out in the world.  But the last few weeks when Rich and I sat in counseling together, working through our grief, I got called out by our counselor.  She said I was “awfully tearful.”  I was furious.  Of course I am tearful.  Counseling is hard.  Grief is hard.  Trying to piece your life back together after a devastating event is hard.  I thought I had been doing so well.  I get up in the morning and go to work.  I am trying to be a kind teacher, a reliable co-worker, a loving friend.  I exercise.  I read.  I stay busy with writing groups and yoga classes and happy hours with the girls.  And yet, I’m still depressed.  I had an epiphany:  I live in a haze of blah that I can’t fully pull myself out of.  And I’m so angry that I can’t outrun the grief and depression that hangs over me.  If a friend were to tell me about his or her depression, I’d tell my friend to get a good therapist and to consider medication.  Don’t give up.  Be gentle with yourself.  Practice self care.   Why can’t I be gentle with myself?  My therapist and my doctor both suggested I should give myself grace…which is hard.

In most of my blog posts, this is where I’d try to insert a positive reflection or maybe a bit of wisdom.  But this time I can’t because I don’t have any meaningful insights.  I don’t have a solution.  I’m still in the depths of trying to understand my loss and correctly treat my depression.  I will say this:  If you are hurting, if you feel low, if you are anxious about the holidays, you are not alone.  Do not be ashamed about asking for help.  Do not feel badly about needing therapy and medication to feel better.  And do not second-guess being honest about all of this.  Life is hard, my friends.  However, life is better when you love and grieve and share with and lean on your people.  As for me, I’m not giving up.  But dang, this journey of grief and depression is a long one.  Here’s to lighter days for all of us.

”Grief is so human, and it hits everyone at one point or another, at least, in their lives. If you love, you will grieve, and that’s just given.”  – Kay Redfield Jamison

Note:   If you are struggling with depression during the holidays or any time, you can call the Depression Hotline at 1-888-771-5166.  If you want to search for a therapist near you, go to the Psychology Today website at  Most importantly, if you feel suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. 

Fork the Nonbelievers:  Some 1st Quarter Reflections from an Already Tired Teacher

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To my Fellow Educators, 

I am coming off of a tough week at work.  I am tired and struggling, as many of you are.  As the end of our first quarter approaches, I am realizing that the second full year of teaching during a pandemic will be no easier on us as educators.  Last year we were so glad to be back in person with our students that we happily pushed through a lot of hard things.  But the hard things seem to keep piling up on us.  I don’t care if you’re a homeroom teacher, a specialist like myself, a paraprofessional or a custodian, your job right now is tough — harder than in any “normal” teaching year.  Covid protocol has changed many aspects of our jobs and has added additional challenges.  

On top of the new challenges, Covid has alienated us as teachers and co-workers.  We don’t see each other at lunch or after school, thus we don’t get to share our stories and struggles. Because we don’t communicate like in the past, we forget to empathize with one another.  We forget that each role within a school may look a bit different, but each role has its unique benefits and challenges.  I feel strongly that by working together and supporting each other, we can create a positive learning environment for ourselves and our students.  You see, quite often we teachers learn as much as our students throughout the year.

While dealing with my own personal struggles, I’ve been thinking about the kind of teacher/person I want to be.  I’m not perfect.  For instance, just today I snapped at a class over something that wasn’t their fault, and I’ve been beating myself up about it all afternoon.  Still, I want to be a teacher who goes to work with my head held high, a teacher who tries a little harder next time, a teacher who my students and co-workers respect because I try to maintain my authenticity and my integrity.  I’ll tell you all the truth — teaching is not easy right now.  And yet, teaching is literally all I’ve ever wanted to do.  I knew back in 4th grade, sitting in Mrs. Cruit’s classroom, that I wanted to be a teacher. I am doing EXACTLY what I’d hoped to be doing when I was a kid.  I don’t want to take this for granted.  

So here’s my plan.  Instead of sitting around and listing for you all of the hard things about my job and yours, I’m going to tell you my WHY — my beliefs about teaching.  Then I’m going to print this out and post it in my office.  I’m going to look at my list every day, and I’m going to bust my ass trying to be the kind of teacher that I hoped I could be.  I’m going to take a piece of advice from my father:  Fork the nonbelievers.  (Note:  Language slightly altered to be less offensive.  I am a teacher, after all!)  I think this is what my Dad means by this phrase.  Don’t worry about other people — what they’re doing or what they think of you.  Keep on doing your best and you’ll be all right.  That is what I intend to do.

So here are my beliefs.  I encourage you to sit down and write out yours as well.  I think that in remembering why we became teachers in the first place, we can re-motivate and re-inspire ourselves.

What I Believe about Teaching


  • I believe that my job as a  teacher is important.    What I do has the potential to positively impact lives both in the present and in the future.  
  • I believe in teamwork — teamwork in the classroom, within my building, and within my field.  I want to be the kind of co-worker that people enjoy collaborating with because they know I will work for what’s best for our students and for our school.  I believe in connecting with other teachers who do what I do to share ideas and garner encouragement.  
  • I believe that a strong public education system levels the playing field for all children.  And it’s my job, in part, to help students see the importance of education now and in the future.
  • I believe that I can be a bright light in a child’s educational experience.  I strive to be a person who both shares the importance of lifelong learning and who connects deeply with her students.  
  • I believe in building relationships in my classroom.  Students won’t care about learning from me until they understand that I care about their well-being.  (Thank you Sharon B. for teaching me this!)  I also believe in building positive relationships with my co-workers and families.  Relationships are key in my profession.  
  • I believe that my content matters, but I also believe that my character matters.  How I treat my students every day makes a difference.  I want to be a kind, fair, fun and enthusiastic teacher.  On days when I fail in this department, I want to pick myself up and try again.  
  • I believe that all kids have something in them to be valued.  We all have had tough kids.  But even the toughest kid has something that can be appreciated and fostered.  
  • I believe that when there’s a problem in the classroom, there is also a solution if you work hard to find it.  I believe in talking to other teachers or my principal to find a remedy to a challenging situation.  I don’t want to give up on a class or on a kid.
  • I believe that I have the most interesting, creative, challenging, heart-breaking AND rewarding job.  I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do or be.

“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”

Malala Yousafzai

Happiness vs. Despair

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I’ve declared this summer as The Summer of Crysta.  To be fair, I do this every summer.  But this summer, it seems extremely important to dedicate some time to myself.  I am a little over a year out from losing my beloved daughter  And this summer feels like a perfect opportunity for some self-care and healing.

One thing I’m doing this summer is taking a class.  I needed something to stimulate my brain (and move me over on the salary schedule at work).  The class I chose is both fascinating and inspirational.  This summer, I needed to move away from the sadness of the last few challenging years and find some forward motion.  This class has helped.  It’s got me pumped up and engaged for the first time in a long time.  I’m starting to think about my “what’s next.”

The title of the class is Social and Emotional Intelligence:  7 Who Dared.  We’re reading the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, and we’re learning about seven amazing human beings — Malala, RBG, and John Lewis, to name a few.  During my study, I  heard John Lewis say this:  “Don’t get lost in a sea of despair.”  Man, this hit home.  I’ve been there for a while now.  We all have.  2020 was a tough year for the human race.  So this quote got me thinking…how do we move away from despair into happiness?

You see, I believe that happiness is, in part, a choice.  I think happiness is connected to gratitude and really digging into your life and being able to  appreciate the little things.  I thought I’d share some of the things that are making me happy and whote and grounded right now.  These things are allowing me respite from the deep despair the world has thrown at me and adding a little light to my life.  Here goes.   

  •  My relationship with my son.  Joel is turning 20 in July, and watching him grow into the man I knew was in there all along is a privilege.  Joel is witty, outgoing, kind-hearted, and engaging.  I love it when I can get him talking.  He has interesting insights on the world,  and I’m glad that he shares a little bit of his heart with his mom. 
  • My parents.  The older I get, the wiser my parents become.  I am reminded daily of how grateful I am to have parents who are living.  My parents have been a rock for me, and I’m truly grateful to have a safe place to land — even as an adult.
  • My work.  I’m glad to be a teacher and to have a work home I love.  My co-workers and my love for my students helped me through a really hard school year, and as I reflect on the year, I realize that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.
  • Yoga.  Yoga has stretched me — literally and figuratively.  Yoga has helped me remember to breathe and to stay connected to the present.  It has given me a break from the constant ruminations in my head.  I am stronger, both inside and out, because of my practice.
  • Reading.  I am a lifelong lover of books.  Books entertain and inspire me.  However, my focus was lacking this past year.  But this summer, I have been able to engage in reading again — for more than just a few minutes at a time.  There’s nothing better than getting lost in a book, and I’ve done that this summer.
  • My tribe.  I have realized that I am a collector of sorts — a collector of people.  I have work friends, church friends, old friends, neighbors who are friends — you get the idea.  I find that I connect easily with people (I am a teacher, after all), and I’m blessed with a lot of amazing people in my life.  When I’m down or need to reach out, there is always someone to reach for.  
  • Writing.  I’m grateful to have an outlet for my emotions.  It feels good to let my insides pour out onto a page.  Writing, to me, is therapy.  It helps me make sense of my world.
  • My daughter. Most of my writing focuses on the deep loss I experienced when Ally died.  And even though I’m still working through the grief of losing her, my soul is fed by her existence.  I feel extremely fortunate to have had fifteen years with this beautiful, kind-hearted, one in a million girl.  I think I learned more from her than she ever learned from me, and for her life, I will be forever grateful.

So friends, I hope that you can take a minute away from whatever is hurting your heart right now and think about what is making you happy.  I don’t mean to minimize your pain; I am right there with you in the hurt.  But I do think that it is helpful to remember the other beautiful things in your life. Keep fighting through the despair you may feel, and look for the things in your life that make your heart sing. 

How to Help a Friend Through Grief

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Yesterday, I left work early to attend a grief seminar.  Yes, I’ve become that super fun person who talks about grief, goes to grief events and then reflects.  But when you’re sitting in grief, it’s something that’s on your mind constantly.  And this seminar got me thinking.

I used to be awkward about grief.  (To be fair, I think we’re all awkward about grief — at least in the beginning.)  When a friend lost a parent or spouse, I didn’t know what to say.  I had the vague sense that saying SOMETHING was better than not acknowledging the loss.  But I’m pretty sure up until this last year, I didn’t know WHAT to say or even what to do.  I have some residual guilt about this — some situations that I didn’t come through in the way I would want to today.  

In May, I lost my sweet daughter Ally.  Prior to her death, she’d had a long battle with cancer.  During the three plus years of her illness, we had so much love and support.  And yet, even before my daughter died, our family was grieving — grieving the change in our family, the loss or normalcy, Ally’s loss of a typical adolescence.  I’d like to speak to how to help a friend who is grieving.  I know because this is what has helped me. 

  • Acknowledge the loss.  Don’t tiptoe around your friend’s loss.  It’s not a secret.  They are thinking about this loss 24/7.  It’s okay to express how very sorry you are.  And it’s okay if the only words you can utter are “I’m sorry.”  I’d also suggest if the words won’t come at all, a hug speaks volumes.  Your presence is more important than finding the exact, right words because there are no exact, right words.
  • Bring food.  Bringing food and buying gift cards to restaurants are tangible things you can do when you don’t have the right words.  These things tell a friend, “I love you.  I’m with you.  I want to help you.”  And during a time of grief, cooking is a burden.  Food always helps.
  • Send cards.  I can’t tell you how much cards brighten my day, and I’m still getting cards even now.  I have stacks of cards from friends.  I keep these because they are constant reminders that I am loved.  Ally was loved.  People are thinking about our family, even months after our loss.  
  • Check in with your friend.  Call. Text.  Go knock on your friend’s door and drag him or her out for a walk.  Make sure your friend knows he or she is not alone.
  • Talk about the person who died.  I know people who are uncomfortable talking to me about Ally.  This comes from a place of caring; they don’t want to make me sad.  But you know what? It is cathartic to talk about my daughter.  She was a beautiful person, and talking about that is a happy reminder of who she was.  

Now, let’s address some things to avoid. 

  • Don’t ask a person to talk about their “stage” of grief.  I call bullshit on the stages of grief anyway.  It’s not like grief is a neat little progression of emotions; grief comes in waves of thousands of little feelings hitting you all at once.  I’ve been angry.  I’ve been depressed.  I’ve even been joyful.  (Yes, I know that sounds weird — but joyful for Ally’s life, for friends, for the support we’ve been given.)  I’ve felt guilty and uninspired. But these feelings ping from one to another constantly.  Let your friend express how he or she is feeling instead of you trying to force a conversation about the stages of grief.  Try to listen and understand.  
  • Don’t share platitudes or meaningless religious philosophies.  “God has a plan.  She’s in a better place now.  Everything happens for a reason.”  These statements may be comforting to YOU.  You may believe these things to your core.  But these statements feel utterly ridiculous to a person who is grieving.  (Note:  I have had people I love and admire say these things.  I understand.  People don’t always know what to say.  So I’m not monumentally upset about this. I’m just saying that if you could avoid these platitudes, it would be a kindness to the griever.)
  • Don’t have a time frame in your head as to when your friend’s grief will magically be vanquished.  Grief is a lifelong friend. I’ve only been grieving my daughter for nine months, and I can tell you that I can’t imagine a time when grief won’t be sitting right on my shoulder.  I’m hoping my grief lessens, but I don’t think it goes away.  And I’m not sure I want it to leave me completely.  My grief is a symbol of my great love for Ally.  I don’t want my love for her to ever be extinguished.
  • Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you do handle a friend’s grief imperfectly.  We are all learning and growing.  I myself have huge regrets.  I know I could have showed up for friends better as they grieved.  I just didn’t know how.  I didn’t understand.  So when you know better, you do better.  And that is my goal moving forward — to be a better friend to fellow grievers.

I want to end by saying this:  A person who is grieving will need constant support and friendship. I’ve been blessed to have a tribe of people who’ve lifted me up and kept me going.  Recently, I was talking to a friend.  We were sitting in her car, getting ready to go into the gym to work out.  I started crying, thinking about and missing Ally.  She grabbed my hand, held it tightly, and said this:  “Crysta, there is no expiration date on how long I’ll listen to you talk about Ally.  We’ll be in a nursing home, and we’ll still be talking about your sweet girl.”  Friends, that’s what we all need in this crazy thing called life — people who will love us through hard times right up until the end. 

The Gift of Family Tradition

I was a bit of an ungrateful teenager.  I was annoyed by my parents, and I pushed back quite a bit throughout high school.  I thought my family of origin was over-the-top, not normal,  not like my friends’ families.  I’m sorry, Mom and Dad.  I was a stupid, naive, insecure kid.  And now I really appreciate our family’s uniqueness.  I was talking to my therapist recently, and a light bulb went off in my head:  I had (and have) pretty amazing parents.  My parents’ biggest offense — they wanted to spend time with me at a time when I just wanted to be free.  I grew up with love, safety, security, and meaningful family traditions.  I was lucky.  

I was thinking about all of this as I was disassembling my Christmas tree.  (Don’t ask when, friends.  This is the year of Covid.  I may have taken my tree down embarrassingly late.  No judgment, please.)  I was taking down the ornaments, one by one, and examining them.  Many of these are new to me this year.  I was gifted a lot of really special ornaments this year.  Lori gave me a Harry Potter-style wand ornament; Andrea gave me a Noel ornament in honor of Ally.  My family members made handmade ornaments to remember Ally, and my principal gave the whole staff a handmade ornament.  I was looking at these and thinking about the amazing people I have in my life.  Each of these ornaments are special and will hang on my tree for years to come.  Then I remembered how ornaments had always been special in my family.

When I was a kid, my Gram and Gramp decided that they wanted to give the grand kids a special Jan Hummel Christmas ornament each year. I loved those ornaments.  Although they were fragile and we had to be very careful with them, I loved adorning our family tree with the Hummel balls.  Each year, we’d make a special night of putting up the Christmas tree.  Mom and Dad liked for us to think of a memory from the year of each ornament.  For example, 1976 was the year that my sister was born.  1990 was the year I graduated.  We talked about the good things that had happened to our family.  Afterwards, my Dad — the world’s biggest kid at Christmas-time — liked us to turn off the lights in the room and lie down under the tree.  Together, we gazed up at our creation.  The ornaments.  The sparkly lights.  The memories.  My dad was probably tearing up, and my sister and I were probably anxious to get to the telephone and call our friends.  But for a brief moment, time stood still and our family was together — still, content, and connected.  My sister and I learned about love and gratitude from those nights of putting up our Christmas tree as a family.  We learned that we are people of connection; we are meant to be together in good years and in bad.  

Since I’ve had my own family, I’ve tried to make putting up the Christmas tree a special event as well.  But as you all know, when you create your own family unit, traditions morph into what makes sense for your own family.  In my own little family unit, we’d drink Coke out of bottles, listen to Christmas music and put up ornaments.  Rich would usually assembly the tree and leave most of the hanging of ornaments to the kids and me.  My kids loved Christmas.  Ally especially loved Christmas.  This year, the first year without Ally, was a tough one. And yet, I had hoped to make this Christmas meaningful, or at least bearable, if I could.  

I decided that the best way forward was to let Joel and Rich do what felt right in their hearts regarding the Christmas tree.  In fact, I waited a while to assemble it as I wasn’t sure I’d be in the right headspace to put up a tree after this horrible year.  But I talked to Joel, and we decided to do it — late, but better than not at all.  Joel agreed to help.  I wasn’t sure if he’d want to participate.  But he thought we should keep the tradition. 

Joel and I put together our artificial tree with a few laughs as we had some assembly mishaps.  We added lights.  And then we brought out the ornaments.  I bought us Cokes in bottles, which Joel and I enjoyed together, and then we talked as we took out each ornament and hung them.  There were the ornaments that the kids made.  Ornaments with pictures of Joel and Ally when they were younger.  There were our favorite ornaments – the ornaments my Dad decorated for the kids, the goofy KU ornament that we put up every year even though we’re KSU fans.  And then there’s THE ornament.  

THE ornament is the one Ally hated the most.  It’s the ornament with only three names — Rich, Crysta and Joel.  This was the first ornament we bought in 2001 when we became a family of three.  Ally HATED that ornament; she hated thinking of a time when she was not a part of our family.  Every year she was alive, we had words about this ornament, and we always ended up keeping the ornament but hiding it on the back of the tree.  There were years when Ally slyly threw the ornament away as she ranted about the injustice of having a time without her around.  Joel and I would retrieve it from the trash can and hide it on the back of the tree.   And yes, if you know my son Joel, you know that he teased her about this for years.  “Hey Ally, look at this ornament.  This is a good one!”  I can hear the whole thing go down now.  

But this year, when we got to this ornament, it brought us both tears and laughter.  We both agreed to hang the ornament on the back of the tree.  And in that way, Joel and I felt Ally’s lasting presence.  We talked.  We kept to tradition.  We remembered to be grateful for all of our beautiful and imperfect ornaments, our family memories, our sweet Ally.  

Though I miss Ally with all of my being, I am so glad we decided to put up our Christmas tree in her absence. The simple ritual of putting up the tree helped remind me that, even in my grief, I’ve been blessed with so much in my life.  I’m glad we were able to continue a family tradition — even during this difficult season.  Thank you, Mom and Dad, for teaching me the importance of family and tradition.  And thank you, Joel, for giving me some mother-son time when I needed it the most.  You’ll never know how special this small ritual was to me.

*Note:  I mention my daughter Ally a lot in my blogs.  She died in May 2020 of glioblastoma.  She was 15.  I will most likely write more about this when my mom heart feels the time is right.   I wanted you to have a little backstory to better understand my journey. 

My Word

“For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience.”

—Ingrid Bengis

Every January,  at least for the last several years, I like to choose one word to focus on for the year.  One year it was authenticity; one year it was resilience.  This year I decided upon discernment.  I really like that word.  To me, it means problem solving in a calm and unhurried manner.  It aligns with mindfulness and intention.  And I knew this year would be one where I would need to make some difficult and very intentional decisions.  2020 began and quickly threw the world for a loop; pretty early in the year, I realized that my word should change.  It had changed.  Thus, discernment morphed into connection.  

In March, I began to get outside and walk with friends.  I did this for sanity, health, an excuse to leave my house, human contact.  Connection.  And for a while during this crazy, global pandemic, I had a pretty good walking streak going.  65 days without pause.  65 days of tying my shoes, meeting my friends in the cul de sac, and hitting the side trail where we could space and be together.   During this time, I was experiencing a personal trauma.  I was losing my sweet daughter to cancer.  So this walking, this connection with a small group of neighbors and friends, carried me through a difficult time.  

Since the pandemic began, I’ve experimented with different ways to connect to friends and family.  Zoom.  FaceTime.  Google Meet.  You all know the drill.  Though it’s not the same as in person contact, the purpose is the same — connection.  It is good to talk to loved ones, hear their voices, see their facial expressions.  I’ve zoomed with high school girl friends, my family, book clubs, church moms and more.  These virtual sessions have sustained me.  For me, being with people, even virtually,  fills me up and keeps me going.  

This year, I have also been lucky enough to get to connect at work.  I teach at a Pre-K – 4th grade elementary school, and we are in person with kids.  Yes, there have been adaptations.  I’m masked.  The students are masked.  We distance.  We check temps upon arriving at school.  But folks, I am IN PERSON with kids doing what I do!  (I teach library and computer.)  I get to work with my teacher-friends and teach and laugh and learn and be with people.  And though teaching during this pandemic is both physically and emotionally challenging, I’m just so grateful to be connected to my students, their families and my co-workers.  My connection at work is a gift.

Aside from being a teacher, I’m an outgoing human – an extrovert.  I like and need people.  This global pandemic helps remind me of the importance of connecting with people.  My husband and I have hosted many small, outdoor gatherings, even when the temperature outside dropped, just to be around our friends.  We’ve watched movies on our patio, huddled by fire pits, hit up some restaurants that feature outdoor eating areas just  to be with our people.  Again, connection.

In so many ways, this pandemic has affected us all.  We’ve all struggled, and we’ve all learned a  wealth of lessons.  Like the rest of the world, I’m ready to go back to “normal.”  And yet, I hope we don’t forget the lessons of 2020.  I hope we remember to get outside, as Covid has forced us to do.  I hope we remember how much we missed hugs and to disperse these freely once we can safely do so.  I hope we  remember that we humans are built for connection, companionship, contact.  And I hope we continue to reach out to the people around us.  

Meanwhile, as we embark upon a new year, I encourage you all to think about 2021.  What will the year bring?  What will we learn?  And what will our new word be?  What is the one word that will capture our intentions for a new, hopefully better, year?  I look forward to finding that just-right word.  

December 2nd Can Suck It OR Days to Remember: You Pick the Title

Dear readers, this is practically a Choose Your Own Adventure post because (lucky you) YOU get to choose the title, maybe even the main theme.  Should this be called December 2nd can Suck It?  Or do you prefer to read a post titled Days to Remember?  Maybe it depends upon the day you’ve had today or how tired you are.  Or maybe it depends upon your inclination for pessimism vs. positivity.  Maybe it depends on how you look at unforgettable dates.  Either way, you get to pick.  What is my blog today really about?  What’s the appropriate moniker?

I’m writing this because a Facebook memory popped up today.  Here’s what the memory said:  Dec. 1, 2016:  Feeling worried.  

I remember that time in my life.  I was worried.  More than worried, to be honest.  You see, four years ago on this very day, my daughter Ally was scheduled to have an MRI the next day (December 2nd) as a precautionary measure.  We had seen the pediatrician earlier in the week about her recurring headaches, and our doctor ordered an MRI. I assumed everything would be all right, but still…I worried because that’s what moms do.  

Flash back to today.  After reading this post, I got to thinking about the weird days that we can’t help but remember.  Days that stick with us even though time has passed. Some of these days are good.  Some are heartbreaking.  And yet we can’t get these dates out of our heads.

Here are the days I remember:

July 3: My grandpa died.  I was not prepared to find my parents and my sister  returning home to tell me that Gramp’s heart had stopped.  

August 1: My grandma died.  Gram lived with my family for many years, and this was a hard blow.

December 23: Rich got down on a knee and asked me to marry him.  That was one of the best nights I can recall, even though I’ve now forgotten the proposal itself.

December 2: We found out that my daughter had a “mass” on her brain and we should immediately head to Children’s Mercy Hospital.  We quickly packed a bag as surgery was imminent for Ally.

July 1: Joel was born AND Rich’s dad died.  Same day.  Same year.  The universe never ceases to teach about joy mixed with sadness.

June 28: I delivered my sweet baby girl.  I remember feeling so happy to be a mother of two.

July 10: This is the day CMH told me Ally’s cancer was terminal.  I was alone at the hospital with Ally.  Rich was traveling.  One of the three worst nights of my life.

April 3: This is the day we knew for sure Ally would not get better.  Up until then, I was so sure we’d find a way to beat this thing.

May 3: Ally died.  And the universe again wanted to teach me about joy mixed with pain.   We lost our beautiful, kind, happy, beloved daughter.  But at the same time, her suffering ended.  She was “read into heaven” by her two best friends, and she died listening to Harry Potter, her favorite book series.

See what I mean about dates?  They get me every time.  These dates sneak up on me and remind me of the most deeply meaningful moments in my life.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve been hit in the gut.  And sometimes I laugh as I cry.  Sometimes I brace myself for the pain that resurfaces no matter how much time has passed.  I understand at my core that life is a mixed bag filled with happy times and great losses.  Still, I will forever wish to shout to the void, “Suck It, December 2nd!”  It’s a day that I wish I could undo, omit, recant.  I can’t, and I know it I can’t.  Going forward, December 2nd will always represent a shift in my life.  I am no longer the version of myself I was before Ally’s diagnosis.  I am sadder, I am wiser, and I am trying to be kinder.  I am more aware of the value of each and every day, ordinary or extraordinary, happy or sad.

30 Things

black flat screen computer monitor

Today is November 30, the last day of a month that many people spend reflecting on the blessings in their lives.  For me, November was the 6th month of living life without my daughter.  So in ways, November has been hard for me.  And yet I’ve found that my own great loss — the loss of my favorite girl on the planet — makes my gratitude feel bigger and more profound.  It’s a kind of gratitude that starts in my heart and pulsates outward.  It’s a gratitude meant to be shared.  So here goes.

I’m creating a list for you, and I’m calling this list 30 Things.  It’s basically a list of 30 things that kept me going during this difficult year.  It’s meant to be a love letter to life, a love letter to my tribe, and a way to show you how I experience both joy and grief.  In fact, I think now that grief and joy are intertwined.  You can’t have one without the other.  And maybe that’s the beautiful oxymoron of our life on this planet.  

30 Things…in no particular order (except for maybe #1 and 2).

  1.  I’m thankful for Ally.  We had the kind of mother-daughter relationship that I had always hoped for.  We didn’t get to have the longevity that I wished for, but still, I have the most wonderful memories of time I spent with Ally.  Ally was smart, kind, funny, and uniquely herself.  I am thankful every day for getting to be Ally’s mom, even on the hard days when we fought her cancer together.  Even though I wish daily that her cancer journey had ended differently, I would not trade my fifteen years with her for anything.
  2. I’m grateful for becoming a mother, for having two children raised in the same way, but with completely different temperaments.  Joel keeps me on my toes.  He banters with me and makes me laugh.  And sometimes makes me want to pull out my hair.  Ally supported my crazy whims and was so proud that I was a teacher and her mom.  She loved me unconditionally, and that itself is a gift.  I wasn’t sure when I was younger if I wanted to be a mother or if I’d be a good one.  I’m sure glad I took the plunge.  I am softer (and yeah, sometimes a little crazier) because of my children.
  3. I am thankful for my parents.  They were my first and best supporters.  When I wanted a pink playhouse, my dad made me one.  When I wanted a one-of-a-kind prom gown, my mom sewed me one.  When I was first teaching and crying every night because I thought I sucked, my mom was the first to come over, sit with me on the couch or drag me out for a Sonic drink.  And now, although they don’t always have the words, they still show up for me when I’m having my saddest days.
  4. I’m thankful for my sister.  I cannot tell you how much Jaime has supported me through life and through this year.  When I was in high school, I went to Girls State one summer.  I was literally just gone for a week — barely enough time to even miss me.  During this time, my sister wrote to me and included the lyrics to “Wind Beneath  my Wings.”  Even then, my crazy little sister had my back.  Friends, this same pesky, blonde-haired sibling of mine who I tormented back in the day has stuck with me in the best and worst of times — through the R.C. years (personal joke), through weddings and college and having babies.  When I knew Ally’s time was nearing an end, the hospice nurse told me to call someone to be with me.  I called my sister.  Sisters always come.  They always know.  And my sister — well, if you know her, you know there’s pretty much nothing that she can’t accomplish.  
  5. I’m thankful for the power of music.  After Ally died, I started playing the piano again.  Being in my piano teacher’s house, relearning the notes, playing songs with meaning — these things all bring me a little peace.  And when I want to escape or recall my past, I go to my favorite bands for inspiration and solace.
  6. I’m thankful for my job.  For the past few years, I’ve had to miss a lot of work so I could care for Ally.  I was glad to do it, and I will always be grateful for this time.  While I was home, my work family helped my substitute in many ways and also encouraged me to put family first.  They encouraged me, brought meals, and showered Ally with gifts.  After Ally died, I was able to return full-time to my job as a librarian/computer teacher.  Even though I’m teaching in a global pandemic, the work I do fills me up.  It’s hard.  There are tough teaching days.  But I love what I teach, who I teach, and who I teach with.  I have been with many of these kiddos since they were in preschool, and I have worked with many of my co-workers going on 15 years in May.  I know that I am lucky to have a job I love.
  7. I am grateful for Nancy, Ally’s hospice nurse.  She helped our family through the toughest of times, and she shared with me WHY she became a pediatric hospice nurse.  I admire this woman to the moon and back and couldn’t have gotten through April and May without her. 
  8. I’m thankful for my in-laws.  They love me like their own, and I’m blessed with many bonus siblings.  But I’m thankful most of all for their gift to me — Rich. The past few years haven’t been easy for our family. It is hard on a marriage to watch your child suffer and know that you can’t fix it. But Rich has been a shoulder for me to cry on, a source of laughter, and a friend. When I returned to work this fall, he took to cooking nearly every night as I was wiped when I got home. He encourages me to write and exercise and spend time with friends. He’s a good man and father and husband.
  9. I’m thankful for the wonderful escape that books provide.  Books offer me knowledge and distraction, a soft place to go to when I’m struggling.
  10. I’m grateful for my friends and neighbors in my cul-de-sac.  We have a pretty great crew of folks here, and we enjoy hanging out.  And how else would I get sugar for a recipe when I’m too lazy to run to the store?
  11. I’m grateful for my “oldest and dearest” friends from high school and college.  K, I know you hate this wording, but it always makes me smile.  And of course, by “oldest” I am speaking in terms of longevity.
  12. I’m thankful for the cards that still pop up in my mail.  Thank you for never letting me feel alone.
  13. I’m thankful for my bonus daughters, who check on me regularly and take me out for coffee.  Ally would be proud of the kindness you show me.  My door is always open to the two of you.
  14. I’m grateful for yoga.  Right now this is an activity that gets me out of my head and lets me feel good and strong and whole.
  15. I’m grateful for the many friends who have walked with me — in life, through our cancer journey, through my grief.  I love you all.
  16. I’m thankful for the Foo Fighters…because, you know, I love them!  Listening to Dave, an authentic lover of music, does make my heart happy!
  17. I’m thankful for finding the Saki Lounge this year, a little place in Olathe that makes the best, prettiest plates of sushi around.  And I’m thankful for a special lunch there with Laurie, Liv and Ally!
  18. I’m grateful for Joel’s success in the military and at KSU.  I’m happy every day to see that he’s found his own tribe and he’s growing into the man he’s meant to be. 
  19. I’m thankful for my hair stylist.  She’s outspoken and smart and fun to talk to, plus she takes fun risks with my hair.  It’s like therapy/coffee with an old friend every time I go see her.
  20. I’m thankful for writing, which allows a place for my thoughts, joys and heartaches to land.
  21. I’m thankful for my “book club” — a wonderfully eclectic group of women who’ve kept me sane the last few months.  We’ve read books, tackled short stories, drank some wine, played trivia, and Zoomed just because we wanted to talk.  I’m glad we formed this group!  
  22. I’m thankful for my church home, St. Andrew.  This has been our home since Ally was a baby, and there is no place more peaceful than its grounds or its sanctuary.  I truly love the building and the people.
  23. I’m thankful for New Girl and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Gilmore Girls.  These shows represent comfort and escape, and the women in these shows are my quirky, TV wannabes.  Lorelai, you know we would be besties if you were real!
  24. I’m thankful for my extended family who have checked on us, donated to causes Ally loved, and supported us through our cancer journey and our loss.  I’m not sure if I’ve told you enough, but Joel and Rich and I love you all and appreciate all that you’ve done.
  25. I am grateful for all things girl-power and Wonder Woman because they remind me of my sweet girl.
  26. I am thankful for the times I’ve had with Joel this year — riding in his car, joking around, watching a show.  He has become protective of me, and whenever I get sad, he immediately comes and hugs me or squeezes my hand.  I love my boy.  
  27. I’m thankful for mornings when Joel is asleep.  He can’t see me sneak into his room and look at him.  He’s 19 — practically a man.  But when he sleeps, I still see the three year old boy who loved to read in the closet and snuggle with his mom.
  28. I’m thankful for Bentwood Elementary School, California Trail Middle School, and Olathe East High School — places that have supported my kids and enriched their lives.  We have built lasting relationships with some of the most amazing teachers and administrators.  These schools will forever be a bright spot in my kids’ upbringing. 
  29. I’m grateful for Dr. Max, our first oncologist.  To be honest, I hated her at first.  You would too if she told you that your beloved child had aggressive brain cancer.  But she took great care of my girl and still checks in on my family.  I will never forget what she’s done for our family.
  30. Finally, I am thankful for all of YOU.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are part of my tribe or you know someone in my tribe or you’re morphing into my tribe.  Thank you for the million little things you’ve done to support us and show us love.  Texts.  Calls.  Cards.  Hugs.  Meals.  Walks.  Cries.  Laughs.  Everything.  

“Joy and grief are never far apart. In the same street the shutters of one hosue are closed, while the curtains of the next are brushed by shadow of the dance. A wedding party returns from church, and a funeral winds to its door. The smiles and sadness of life are the tragi-comedy of Shakespeare. Gladness and sighs brighten the dim the mirror he beholds.”

-Robert Aris Willmott