It was a Monday night, and I was teaching a restorative yoga class. I was sitting cross-legged in the dimly lit yoga studio gazing at the sun mural. My students were resting in savasana, corpse pose, the last pose in any yoga class. The room was quiet, and I was trying to stay present while my students rested. I was running my thumbs over each finger over and over while I focused on my breath. I listened to the ticking of the clock. I tried to be still.
It was mid-breathe when my mind started to wander. And then a thought emerged: Crysta, you are living the life that you have dreamed. You’re a teacher (I’ve wanted to be one since 4th grade), and you’re a yoga instructor (I’ve wanted to do this since I was in my thirties). Even on the hardest of days, you are doing what you always intended on doing. All of my being began to feel and hear these words: Thank you, thank you, thank you. These words became my unspoken prayer to whatever higher power there might be.
That being said, I don’t really pray anymore. There are several reasons for this. First of all, I don’t believe in prayers of petition. I don’t think that prayer works in that way. I also don’t believe in praying for things like a new car, a job, or a relationship to work out. I don’t pray for these things because I don’t believe this is how the universe works. I believe in a higher power. I am constantly questioning what this higher power is, but I do think that he/she/it is filled with love. This higher power doesn’t grant wishes like a fairy godmother; instead, I think that he/she/it is with us always, giving us strength. I think that this higher power knows our deepest longings and our deepest worries. This power is always with us, even when we feel the most alone. I don’t need to pray, because my prayers are already known.
I do believe in gratitude. Expressing appreciation for the many beautiful things in my life is a form of prayer. My life has been far from perfect. I have regrets. I’ve made mistakes. I have experienced deep loss. But I believe with all my being that there is always something to be grateful for. My daily prayer practice is to write in my gratitude journal, to document the experiences and the people who make my life better. I am grateful for beautiful sunsets, books that I don’t want to put down, friends who keep me going, my family who supports me, a steamy cup of mint tea, an afternoon at my favorite coffee shop, memories of my children, a job that sustains me, a hug from a student. Gratitude is a prayer to the universe, a prayer to the higher power, a prayer of thanksgiving for all of life’s small blessings.
As I sat in my yoga class contemplating my life, I felt fully aware that life, despite its difficulties, is good. Life is also challenging, complicated and unfair. Yet my life feels fuller — richer — when I acknowledge the small, daily things that bring me joy.
The universe is filled with mystery — with things I will most likely never understand. Here’s one example we’ve all seen play out in the world: Sometimes good things happen to bad people, and sometimes bad things happen to good people. This sounds like a trite expression, but it’s one I’ve found to be true. You see, when my daughter Ally was diagnosed with glioblastoma, I didn’t blame God, even though that is a reasonable reaction. Instead, I attributed her illness to the randomness of the universe. Or maybe, to be a bit more coarse, I just understood that “shit happens.” Even the kindest of humans get cancer. Even the most loving people die much too young.
That being said, sometimes in the midst of a really difficult situation, a person is able to find some bright spots — small blessings that were gleaned from said horrible event — small gifts from the universe. This is true of my daughter’s illness and death. I know that losing Ally is the worst thing I’ll ever have to go through, but at the same time, I’ve met some amazing people through our family’s horrific journey.
I remember walking into the KU Cancer Clinic the first day Ally had radiation. It was a horrible day. I tried to be optimistic and stay strong for Ally. Her dad had to leave the room. And Ally — my amazingly tough girl — remained steadfast and strong. Afterwards, as we were leaving, we were stopped at a check out desk. The lady behind the desk handed Ally an envelope containing a dollar bill. You see, a donor whose wife had struggled with cancer noticed the number of kids who were fighting this disease too. This pained him. He decided to donate money so that each child received a dollar each time they came for radiation. He wanted to provide encouragement and hope. I don’t know this man. I’ll probably never meet him. But I admire him and his kindness. I feel like his seemingly small act is something that will impact me forever. I want to dole out acts of kindness like this anonymous donor did.
After Ally died, I’ve been able to connect with several other mothers who, like me, lost a child. I know that this connection probably sounds sad and maybe even morbid. But I feel like we’re all in the same club — the club that no parent wants to be in. If we must endure this loss, we may as well survive it together.
This summer, I was invited to speak at a children’s hospice inservice along with several other parents. We were talking to hospice nurses (angels on Earth) about our experiences during our child’s illness and death. It was a hard, but important thing to do. My words could potentially bring change to a program that will impact mothers just like me. My social worker friend Karen accompanied me so I didn’t have to do this alone. I listened to other stories, similar to my own, and I spoke about my beloved Ally, her life, and her time in hospice care. This event, even though challenging, was also cathartic. Afterwards, a mom asked if she could give me a hug. We hugged tightly, and without words, we shared a poignant connection. I will not forget this mother, even if I never physically see her again. I will not forget her daughter, even though I never knew her.
Recently, I met another mother who had lost a child. This is a new co-worker who I predict will also be a new friend. This woman overheard me talking to another parent about how I’m holding up. A day later, my co-worker came to me and asked if I had lost a child. She then said that she had lost her sweet son nearly 25 years ago and asked if I’d like to get together and talk.
This week, we met at a coffee shop. I’ve only known this woman for two months, and it feels like it’s been a lifetime. We have shared experiences — trauma, grief, mom guilt, and finding joy despite our circumstances. Again, it probably sounds weird to befriend another bereaved mother, but to me, these friendships feel like a small gift from the universe. There is another mother who feels what I feel and stands in solidarity with me through my pain.
I am certain that my daughter’s life and death have changed me. I’m not the person I was before she was born, and I’m not the person I was before her cancer diagnosis. But in some ways, I’m better. Stronger. More loving. More joyful. I understand the value of the small but significant gifts the universe has offered up to me, and I am grateful…for the small things, for friendships, for the short but significant life of my daughter.
It was 8:15 on a Tuesday night, and I’m leaving dinner with a friend. I noticed that I missed a call from my dad. My parents are at the age where I’m both grateful for getting to talk to them regularly and worried when I get a call. So as I drove home, I called my dad back to see what was up.
After answering, Dad switched over to the speaker phone so I could talk to them both, and we started talking about our day. Then, like many nights, our conversation reverted back to Ally — my sweet daughter who died in 2020. We talked about losing Ally, but we also discussed the world, grief, age, and how sometimes life doesn’t turn out as we hoped. It could be the cocktail I just had with my girlfriend or maybe just the wisdom of growing older, but I felt acutely aware that our relationship is rare – that not everyone can say anything to their parents. That night, I felt especially grateful. I know I am lucky to still have both parents, and I’m lucky to have parents who love me unconditionally. More than that, as I was hanging up, I could hear love and pride in both of my parents’ voices. Even though I’m a grown woman, it still gives me joy to make my parents proud.
Readers, I’m sure you’d all agree that family is not always easy. I love my family to death, and sometimes they (still) drive me crazy. As a teenager, I felt like we were fairly dysfunctional. And yet as I’ve grown up, I’ve seen some truly dysfunctional families. I know now that mine is only moderately dysfunctional. (Kidding/not kidding!) I feel badly that when I was growing up, I had this inner voice telling me that my family was “wrong.” We didn’t have enough money. We didn’t have the right clothes. We didn’t do the right things. For instance, my Dad wore mismatched running attire when we jogged together — often by a “cool” friend’s house. Thirteen year old Crysta was mortified. You know what 50 year old Crysta would say to these notions? Bullshit. That’s right. I call bullshit on my adolescent views on life. I was young and dumb; I know better now.
I’ve mentioned my parents, but I should also talk about my sister. She drove me crazy growing up. I remember liking a boy in 6th grade, and as we were walking home from school, she went out of her way to embarrass me. I was again mortified. Now I know that she was just trying to spend time with me. I remember our neighbor punching her in the stomach, while I, in a near stupor, did nothing. This is one of my childhood regrets — that I did not defend my sister. If I could redo this moment in time, I would. And recently, I learned that my sister punched one of her friends for badmouthing me back when I was in high school. Jaime, I promise to fight back if “she who shall not be named” holds your arms again so her sister can use you as a punching bag.
My sister and I have had some horrendous emotional and physical fights, as most siblings do. We used to share an apartment, and you can guess how disastrous that was. (Don’t worry Jaime. I won’t share all of your dark secrets here!) But after time passed, we both had families, life went on, and we got past these adolescent spats. At the end of the day, I know she has my back and I have hers. I’m pretty sure I was the first person to know about my sister’s impending divorce and the reason behind it. And even though I have an amazing tribe of friends, I called my sister to be with me when my daughter was dying. Sisters. The most interesting love/hate/mutual admiration/I’ve got your back relationship on the planet.
My parents raised my sister and me to be strong and independent women. They wanted us to have our own opinions, and boy did we. That is one thing that hasn’t changed through the years. I’m sure they didn’t enjoy all of our arguing and debating as kids, but as adults, one of our favorite things to do together is to sit at the dinner table and discuss relevant topics. All of us chime in. And as I tell my friends who know what a talker I am, I am actually the 3rd quietest in my family. I almost have to raise my hand to get a word in. I understand now that not all families communicate like ours does — for better or for worse.
On a good night, my dad will get out a napkin and doodle his view of the world. I know someday I will miss his napkin missives. And my mom, well, as a kid she’s always put a note in my lunch when I’d go on field trips. That used to embarrass me; now, I’d love to have saved one of her notes. I know now what I believe no kid understands when they are young — how devoted and hard-working my parents are and were.
When I was in college, my sister and my dad used to create crazy scenarios just to come for a quick visit. Jaime had to “borrow an outfit for school.” Or Dad was just “driving through town” and thought he’d stop by. During my first years of teaching, on the days I felt dejected and ineffective, my mom would come to my apartment and either sit with me or drag me out of the house to get a Sonic drink. I guess what I’m trying to say is that my parents, like my sister, have always supported me. That doesn’t change with age or with distance or differing opinions. For that, I am eternally grateful.
As an adult, I understand that my parents may not like my choices, but they will support me even if they disagree. I know there’s nothing I could say to my parents that would make them turn me away. I can let down my guard around my mom and dad, and even on my worst days, they will still love me. Best yet, my parents don’t just love me; I think they legitimately like the Crysta that I’ve grown into. Good thing I’ve matured because sixteen year old Crysta was a pain in the ass. They must have worked hard to tolerate her.
I am going to end with a quote from Erma Bombeck, which pretty much sums up my upbringing from my parents’ point of view:
“Someday, when my children are old enough to understand the logic that motivates a mother, I’ll tell them: I loved you enough to bug you about where you were going, with whom and what time you would get home. … I loved you enough to be silent and let you discover your friend was a creep. I loved you enough to make you return a Milky Way with a bite out of it to a drugstore and confess, ‘I stole this.’ … But most of all I loved you enough to say no when you hated me for it. That was the hardest part of all.”