Happiness vs. Despair

heart-shaped black stone on green grass

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

a woman rests her head on another person's shoulder

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.

Letting Go

Last August, I handed my first born over to the U.S. Army.  Joel had just graduated high school, and he decided that he’d like to join the U.S. Army Reserves to serve his country and to help pay for college.  I went with him to talk to the recruitment officer, and Sargeant Jackson sold us both on the plan.  But still, on the day he was to head off to basic training followed by AIT, I broke down  I cried through our entire going away breakfast and finally, I regained my composure as we left him at the recruitment office.  Why was I sad?  Well, if you’re a mama, you probably understand ALL of my worries.  But one thing that struck me was this:  This isn’t what I planned for my life.  I never imagined my baby boy training to defend our country, learning to use high-powered weapons, enduring  drill sergeants yelling at him and actually liking it. 

Upon returning from his Army training in January, Joel spent a semester at a community college near home as he planned to transfer to KSU. This August, we delivered Joel to Manhattan, Kansas with much joy.  Joel has always wanted to go to K-State; he’s basically bled purple since he was in the womb.   This was always the plan — Joel would attend KSU.  So we happily moved him into a musty old dorm room, as his father and I believe that everyone should live in the dorm at least once.  And yet a day later, Joel, new to a KSU fraternity, moved to the frat house when a spot suddenly opened up.  This was definitely not the picture I had in my mind when I was snuggling my newborn son in the middle of the night after a feeding.  My son — in the Army and in a fraternity?  This wasn’t what I planned.

The thing is, I get caught up with pictures in my mind.  These pictures — visions of what my kids should be like, how a family should operate, what parenthood should look like — trip me up.  Instead of enjoying what I do have, these visions sometimes make me crazy.  But the past nineteen years of motherhood has taught me to let go of my preconceived ideas or even societal expectations.  There are many ways to be a good mom.  There are many ways to have a happy family.  There are many ways to grow a son into an amazing man.  For Joel, his way to manhood has been paved by the Army and by his new fraternity.

Before he left for basic training, Joel had a pretty typical 18-year-old cockiness.  Don’t get me wrong — I loved his quick wit and his confidence.  But hiding out behind this confidence was youth and inexperience.  When Joel returned from the Army, the changes were shocking.  Joel came back with real confidence. He had skills. He could shoot military weapons  with accuracy.  He successfully passed PT tests, putting his high school cross country skills to good use.  Joel learned to drive a Humvee and trained in the military police.  He came back with a love of fitness, believing that exercise is an important component to a healthy life.  Basically, Joel returned more of a man and less of a boy.  He came back disciplined and focused.  And though I worry daily about him being deployed, I am glad that he became an Army Reservist.  I think that joining the Army helped Joel understand how to reach his full potential, and I’m not sure this would have happened as quickly if he’d gone to college right after high school.

Another thing that has pushed Joel toward manhood is being a part of a fraternity.  To be fair, Joel’s dad and I were GDI’s (gosh darn independents).  We were not Greek.  I have always had preconceived notions about fraternities, I must admit.  And yes, some of my notions are true.  But a few weeks ago, Rich and I drove to Manhattan for a Covid-safe, outdoor Family Day.  When we got there, Joel was selling beads to raise money for the fraternity.  He was absolutely in his element, socializing and chatting people up.  (Yeah, he’s an extrovert, like his mom.)  I could tell that he enjoyed living in the house with the other guys.  The fraternity has daily study hours, so Joel’s grades are in check.  He has some great friends.  He seemed really happy and healthy and focused.  During our visit, there was a short fraternity ceremony; after hearing about the accomplishments within the fraternity, I realized that I had been wrong about fraternities — or at least this one.  I could see how this experience (even with the typical frat-boy shenanigans) could be beneficial for Joel.  

These past nineteen years of motherhood have taught me so much.  I’ve finally learned to ignore the pictures in my head of what a “proper” child (or family) should look like.  I’ve tried to let my children grow into who they were meant to be.  I can’t force my path on Joel.  I have to let his life be his own, and I have to trust his choices.  There are many ways to grow into manhood, and so far, Joel’s on the right track.  He is happy, healthy, and figuring things out.  That’s all this mama could ask for.

Say the Name, Harry!

If you know me at all, you know one of the great passions in my life is reading.  You should also know that one of my all-time favorite book series — okay, my FAVORITE series — is the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.   One thing that struck me on my first read was that Harry always called Voldemort (the force of evil in these stories) by his name.  He did not fear saying Voldemort aloud, as the other characters did.  In fact, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore said this to Harry:  “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” 

I’ve taken this advice to heart.  Yes, I know this is a fantasy series, and the characters are not real.  But the characters who reside in the Harry Potter series offer great insight into humanity.  They teach about bravery, love, kindness.  And Harry, most of all, teaches readers how to face the hardest of things in this world with great courage.

The past few years have been hard on my family.  On December 2, 2016, my beloved daughter was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very aggressive type of brain cancer.  She was twelve.  Her illness, her brave fight and her death have taught me the  same lesson as in the Harry Potter books:  Say the name — the name of what you’re facing, the name of what you’re feeling.  So here goes.  Here are four words that I refuse to talk around, to use a euphemism for — cancer, grief, love, death.  These are words that I choose to say aloud, even though they sometimes breed discomfort.

When Ally first came home from the hospital after two brain surgeries within one week, we had a new word in our family:  Cancer.  I hate cancer.  I wish we could abolish the word as well as the disease.  However, I immediately felt that if we could say the word cancer aloud it would reduce people’s fear and give the word some normalcy.  Cancer.  Yeah, we’re dealing with cancer, but we are still getting up, living life, trying to be decent humans.  When people asked me what was wrong with Ally, I told them she had cancer.  I didn’t — couldn’t — sugar coat it.  She had cancer, and we were fighting it.  That was the truth, and I didn’t see why I would want to hide it.  

Another word I have come to use regularly is grief.  People don’t really like to talk about grief, but I use this word all of the time because it is true to my life at the moment.  To be fair, I’ve been grieving for nearly four years — for the loss of Ally’s childhood, for our family’s sense of normalcy, and now — for Ally’s death.  Turns out, you’re not exactly the most popular person in social circles when you go around explaining that you are wrestling with grief and that you try to walk through it every day.  This conversation is uncomfortable.  And yet, I think it’s important to let people know that GRIEF is what I’m experiencing.  It’s grief that tries to keep me in bed; it’s grief that makes me cry as I sit in the parking lot preparing to go into work.  I feel like it’s inauthentic to avoid the word.  I am grieving, and I refuse to lie about it.  

My next word is love, and perhaps this is the one bright spot of this piece.  When you go through an unprecedented tragedy in your life, you realize how fleeting life truly is.  You realize the importance of love — love of self, love of others, love of life.   For me, this manifests in how I talk to the people in my life.  I tell pretty much everyone that I love them because…I do.  Tragedy sometimes allows for the strangest of emotions, and when you lose someone you loved, you want to hold on that much harder to the other people in your life.  So I tell my parents, my friends, my co-workers, the guy that carded me at the liquor store that I love them, and I mean it.   I am no longer willing to use this word sparingly.  

Death is another word I use with regularity.  I speak of Ally’s death.  I try not to say “my daughter passed away” unless I’m talking to children because the truth is, my daughter died.  I hate this word, as it is a constant, sad reminder.  But it is true.  And I made a decision a long time ago to speak my truth.   I try to speak of Ally’s death with courage and honestly as it is part of my journey.  It makes no sense to me to try to soften the blow of my loss by saying Ally “passed away.”  She died.  She fought.  She was loved.  And I’m not going to discount her short life by using politically correct terminology.    

Thank you, Harry Potter, for teaching me to be honest, to say the precise word, to look fear in the eye and not cower.  And thank you, Ally Baier, for teaching me the same things.  My life will continue to be better — more honest and truthful and courageous — by your examples.

Girl Power, ANB and RBG

Ally and I believe in girl power.  We believe that girls (and women) can do anything they want to do.  I used to tell Ally:  Girls can do anything boys can do, except pee standing up (which isn’t exactly true, it’s just a bit complicated).  When we lost RBG on Friday, we lost a champion for equality, a champion for women, a role model for all.  I really like thinking that maybe Ally and Ruth are in heaven chatting it up about politics and women’s rights.   Maybe Ally ran to Heaven’s gates and welcomed Ruth, told her that her mom admired her.  Maybe Ally showed Ruth the picture of me dressing up like her for Halloween, and maybe they are both talking about how this is the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote and acknowledging the shame that we’ve only had this right for a short time in our country’s history.  These images bring me comfort   Either way, two of the strongest females on the planet are no longer suffering, and I am reminded of how thankful I am of all the people in my life who have inspired me to live fully –regardless of my gender. 

I’m thankful for my strong mom, who raised me to be an independent thinker.  Although she didn’t go to college herself, she basically put three of us (me, my Dad, my sister) through college, quizzing us and encouraging us, typing my Dad’s papers.  She never complained, and she always worked as long as it took to do  what she had to do.  She stayed up late many nights making homecoming dresses and my sister’s wedding dress. Mom was basically the glue to our family, always loving us and letting us know we were special and loved. She made us feel like we could do anything.  In fact, she still makes us feel like that today.

I’m thankful for my Dad, who never made me feel that girls were second class citizens.  When I was in high school, he tried to talk me into applying to West Point.  I didn’t, but he believed I had that potential. Dad had two girls.  I used to wonder if he wished for boys, but now I know that he didn’t. He was a great girl dad. Dad loved sports, and he loved to coach and work with kids. Growing up, he never once acted like he missed coaching boys.  He worked with us on running, softball, basketball, and he never ever gave my sister and me the impression that women’s sports were inferior.  Thanks, Dad, for showing me that I could do anything I wanted.  And although I’m a teacher, which is historically a more female-dominated career, I chose this career because it is what I wanted to do. And of course, my Dad always encouraged me, even on my hardest of teaching days. 

I’m thankful for Mrs. Teegarden, my elementary librarian.  When I was a kid, I was an avid reader.  Mrs. Teegarden encouraged my love of reading.  She gave me big books, books that were probably too hard for me to read.  She tried to challenge my curiosity and intellect.  She gave me Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Women, and other challenging books.  When I wanted to read about famous suffragettes, she helped me find books about them — Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott.  (Yeah, I’ve always been this way.)  Mrs. Teegarden showed me, even at a young age, that a girl could be smart, and that was okay. 

There are countless other people in my life (and in the world) who have encouraged me — people who have made it clear to me that gender is just that — a part of who I am.  But gender does not exclude me from doing what I want to do.  Both Ally and RBG have taught me the importance of girl power, and therefore I will continue to advocate for women as a tribute to  these two amazing humans.  I hope you will, too.

*Note:  ANB is Ally Noel Baier, my beautiful daughter who died on May 3, 2020.  I will write more about her in later blog posts.  She was an amazing kid– smart and funny and kind.  She died too soon, but she will live on in my writing, through the Ally League, and through the many things her family and friends do in her honor.

My Thoughts on Prayer

grayscale photography of praying hands

I read a friend’s post on Facebook the other night, and I was immediately compelled to respond.  He wrote:  “Can you pray for someone without being religious?”  This got me thinking about the nature of prayer and where I stand on this issue.    

The concept of prayer is troubling to me.  I grew up (mostly) in the church, and I grew up praying.  I knew how to recite The Lord’s Prayer when I was five or six.  Back then, my understanding was that you pray to God for forgiveness, or share your sins when you pray. Prayer was like a conversation between you and God, and sometimes God was like your parent more than a friend.

  Many people I know today really, truly believe in the power of prayer — the power, that is, to change the outcome of a difficult situation.  I am not mocking this position.  I wish I could believe this.  I’ve recently gone through a pretty tough life event, thus my thoughts on prayer have changed.  Today, I feel that expecting prayer to magically solve a problem is negating the true power of prayer.

Lately, when I do pray, I don’t talk of sins or forgiveness or any of that.  I figure if there’s a higher power out there, he/she/it knows what I’ve been up to.  He/she/it knows I’m trying to be a decent human and that I also make mistakes.  Instead, I just talk.  I express gratitude.  I ask for help or strength or compassion.  I never ask for things.

I don’t like to throw around the term “I’m praying for you” because it seems insincere — at least when I say it.  I may not “pray” for you in the traditional sense, but I will send you all the love and good vibes I have.  I will come visit you in the hospital.  I’ll text you and see how you’re doing or take you out for coffee.  I’ll bring over a meal.  This is because I think prayer without action is worthless.  Mindless prayers to a God who can’t control the outcome anyway seems pointless.  People who offer “prayers” but can’t even bother to text you to check on your welfare seem inauthentic.   I know that for many Christians or spiritual folks, this seems harsh.  But let me explain.

On May 3, I lost my favorite little person.  I lost my fifteen year old daughter.  I had hundreds of people across the country, people I knew as well as strangers, praying for her.  I prayed.  My church prayed.  Her friends prayed.  But still, cancer would not desist.  Prayers didn’t work — at least not in sparing her life.

During this challenging time, I didn’t always pray in the way that I did as a child.  I didn’t ask for tangible things. But I did pray for strength.  I prayed for her to know she was loved.  I told God or the Universe or the Divine —  whoever is out there — that I was grateful for the love and kindness of people who were supporting us through this challenging time.  I prayed for peace — for my daughter and for our family.  During this time, instead of just praying, people brought food.  They sat with us.  My neighbors walked with me every day for several months.  Friends called and texted and emailed and sent cards.  These kindnesses were all forms of “prayers,” even if these prayers aren’t what we were taught about in Sunday School. 

Prayers are more than just words: prayers are actions.  Prayers are acts of solidarity, support, and empathy — love sent out into the universe on a person’s behalf.  So back to the initial question:  Can you pray and not be religious?  Here’s what I think:  Yes. Absolutely.  Because sometimes even the smallest gesture is a prayer, letting you know that you are loved and you are not alone.

Why Write?

I think I first recognized the power of writing in 3rd grade.  My teacher, Mrs. Erickson, assigned a creative writing assignment — a story starter.  I don’t remember what I wrote about, but she liked it.  And she called me to read my story aloud.  Well, back in 3rd grade, that was tough.  If you know me today, you wouldn’t believe it, but up through high school I was shy — sometimes even painfully so.  My fear of speaking out made reading my piece difficult, but I did  it and enjoyed the accolades as my fellow students laughed at my story.  After that, I was hooked on writing.

Fast forward to 6th grade.  As a pre-teen, I faced the typical girl drama and emotions.  I got mad at friends (okay, usually over boys) and didn’t know how to deal with these feelings.   I don’t remember the specifics of this particular incident,  but I was fighting with my best friend.  To be fair, I wasn’t really fighting.  I was nursing a wound that I hadn’t shared with her.  I was too timid back then to be honest and say, “Hey, you hurt my feelings.”  So I wrote her a note.  I said everything that was in my heart.  I let her have it — said all the silly and irrational and painful things a 6th grader represses.  I folded that note (the way we folded notes back in the 80s) and I saved it.  Later, I ripped it up.  I eventually got over being mad at my friend, but I remembered how cathartic it felt to get out all of my feelings.  The process of writing — getting all my feelings out — helped me.  

As I grew older, I decided to major in English.  I believed what John Keating said in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  I still believe this.  I remember sitting in my college dorm room, reading the YA novel Running Loose by Chris Crutcher (still one of my all-time favorite books) with tears running down my cheeks.  Although I had grown up loving books, this was the first time a book touched me in this way.  But I think that the best writing moves you, makes you laugh, makes you think, and inspires.  And for me, writing is the way I understand and process the world.

Today, I use writing in many ways.  My work requires me to write.  I write short social media posts that are meant to be funny.  I share anecdotes about my family to not only vent but to also make my friends understand that they are not alone in their family fails and mishaps.  I write educational blogs because I’m a teacher and I’m extremely passionate about the importance of education and educators.  And I write to work through the deep pain that I’m trudging through every day.  (More of this in later posts.)  Writing has always been like therapy for me.

I started this blog because I feel myself about to burst.  I feel I have words that can no longer just rattle around my head and heart; instead, these words are meant to be shared.  I  have experienced unique joys and hardships in my life, and I hope that I can reach someone out there if I’m brave enough to share these stories.  Thank you for joining me, for checking out Crysta Clear.  I hope that my experiences may resonate with you in some small way.