A Comeback Anthem for the Fighter Within

DSC_0831“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”
-Helen Keller

I was a few months late coming in for my follow-up x-ray, but as soon as the technician began speaking, it was clear I was right on time.

“How long have you had the pain?” she asked, ready to jot down my response on the form in hand.

“Over a year,” I said matter-of-factly, sounding oblivious to the fact that a year was a long time for such a thing.

She stopped writing on her clipboard and looked up. “Oh honey. I am sorry,” she said like a dear friend would to another.

I wasn’t expecting that—that human response in this sterile room with ominous machines and cold floors and exposing gowns that made me feel small and scared.

“Do you think you need a new doctor?” she asked.

“I’ve been to many doctors and there have been many tests and scans… but everyone keeps saying they can’t find anything wrong,” I explained. “We were hoping that once my body recovered from the two kidney surgeries I had last July, things would go back to normal … but they haven’t. Lately, it’s been getting worse,” I admitted.

I thought she would give me that look – the disconnected one that said “on to the next patient, there’s nothing to be done here.” Instead her voice got strong and feisty, and she leaned in a little. “Keep searching until you get answers,” she said adamantly. “Don’t give up on this, okay? This is not over. You can’t live like this.”

“Okay,” I promised. “I won’t give up.” I detected a hint of determination in my voice that I hadn’t heard in awhile. I was certain I was being fueled by this woman’s unexpected support. In all my past scans, this had never happened before. It felt providential, like divine oxygen to my lungs, like an added boost of confidence to my shaky soul. “Thank you,” I said as I laid back and held my breath.

My pain is real. It’s time to gear up for the fight. I am not done. I thought to myself for the first time in many months.

Back in December, my doctor performed a cystoscopy in an attempt to figure out what was amiss. Unfortunately, I came home from the hospital that day with more questions than answers. After careful consideration, I decided it was time to surrender, at least for a bit. I’d experienced many months of hospitals, scans, tests, unanswered questions, and hopeless faces. I decided the best thing to do next was gather myself, be still, and trust that in time I would know what to do next.

And now, in the confines of a small, dark room, I was given an empowering message: It was time for a comeback. I was not finished yet.

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As I drove home from the hospital I thought about an exquisite piece of writing, perhaps one of the most powerful I’d ever read, entitled, “She Was Done,” by Adrienne Pieroth. When I shared it on The Hands Free Revolution Facebook page, I asked members of our community to use comment boxes to identify which line in the piece most resonated with them. That’s when the piece rose to a whole new level. As I read each reader’s highlighted line, the selected declaration became a masterpiece of its own. Some lines made me breathe easier. Some lines took my breath away. Some made me nod in agreement and feel less alone. Some made me feel like celebrating. But all of them made me feel like living, as opposed to simply existing. And it was clear I wasn’t alone.

As lines were posted and readers liked and shared, I could see people rising up … I could feel ah-ha moments happening … I could sense weary souls being resuscitated. A few of the most shared lines from Adrienne’s piece were these:

“She was done beating herself up and being so hard on herself as if either of these things led to changes or made her feel better. She realized kindness and compassion towards herself and others accomplished more.”

“She was done seeing hurt as something to be avoided, foreseen or somehow her fault. She realized hurt shaped her as much as joy and she needed both to learn and grow.”

“She was done trying to figure it all out, know the answers, plan everything and see all the possibilities before she began. She realized life was unfolding and that the detours and unexpected moments were some of the best parts.”

“She was done with regrets. She realized if she’d known better, she would of done better.”

“She was done being tired. She realized it came from spending her time doing things that didn’t bring her joy or feed her soul.”

“She was done not following the desires that yelled out in her soul every day. She realized if she did nothing about them, they died a quiet death that took a piece of her soul with them.”

“She was done being something she was not. She realized the purpose of life was to be truly, happily who she was born to be…and if she paused long enough to remember, she recognized herself.”

The sheer volume of comments magnified the hope of the piece. It was as if someone gave the readers lyrics to the song of their hearts and they all began singing in unison, voices strong and triumphant.

She Was Done” was an anthem for renewal … recovery … rejuvenation … and revival.

She Was Done” was a comeback anthem for life.

And I felt I had stumbled on it at just the right time.

I got home from my x-ray to find a hot meal prepared by my husband waiting for me. Sitting around the table with my three favorite people was just what I needed. My daughter Avery said grace. As per the last 22 days, her prayer involved cats.

“Dear God, thank you for helping Natalie write the note that made Daddy say yes to us adopting little Paisley. Thank you for letting us save the lives of all 6 kittens. Please let us find homes for the remaining 5. Please don’t let them have to go into the PetSmart shelter. And please let Mama be okay.”

“Thank you,” I said to her.

“I am not done,” I said to myself.

After dinner my daughters and I prepared six tiny syringes of medication for the kittens. I was quite the pro by now. I held up little Lacie first. She had not been with us originally. When the mother cat and her kittens were rescued, Lacie was so weak and unresponsive that she needed immediate medical treatment.

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I then lifted Madras and Clover, the nearly indistinguishable two who I found lifeless one night shortly after their arrival. I remember crying as the two kittens drug themselves across the floor to get to the food I’d set out. I remember how the cat shelter owner came immediately to take all the kittens to the emergency vet. I remember her warning me that those two probably wouldn’t make it through the night. Something told me they would survive. I could see they were fighters.

And now here we are, watching all six of the kittens run, jump, and play … so full of life.

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I don’t think it’s any coincidence my family has spent the first month of our summer giving life to these amazing little beings. At just the right time, they’re serving as a powerful reminder of the lesson I most often forget. I must care for myself as I care for the ones I love. What this means is, I need nourishment. I need rest. I need playtime. I need love. I need medical attention if something’s not right. We all do. And sometimes this critical reminder is given to us through the words of a kind stranger working in an imagining center or through an author on the Internet. And somehow these words become an anthem of renewal … recovery … rejuvenation … and revival.

These words become a comeback anthem for life.

My anthem sounds like this:

I’m not done. I have so much yet to do. There are things I have not seen. There are moments in my children’s lives I want to witness. I want to grow old with my husband. I want to write more books that help people. But I must fight. I must refuse to accept there is nothing wrong. I must be my own advocate. I am determined to find someone who can help me get past the pain so I can truly live.

As I reflect back on our time ministering to these precious kittens, something stands out. Oftentimes Avery would just sit with kittens and sing. Apparently they had a favorite tune: “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten. Quietly, yet fiercely, Avery would sing these lyrics over and over to the kittens:

“This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
My power’s turned on
Starting right now, I’ll be strong
I’ll play my fight song
And I don’t really care if nobody else believes
‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.”

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Perhaps the kittens took those lyrics to heart. Perhaps there’s a little something in that song for all of us. Perhaps if you don’t have an anthem, you can start with Fight Song. Avery sings it so beautifully here.

My friends, if today finds you weary, confused, burdened, joyless, hurting, or empty, I have a message for you:

Don’t give up. You are not done. There is so much life yet to experience. Start by giving yourself some nourishment—perhaps a decent meal, a short nap, a walk around the block, or a chat with a trusted friend. Seek professional help if that’s what you need. Put yourself first on the priority list. Your people want you to be well and happy. They want you around for a long time. You must care for yourself as you care for them. Come back to life. Come back to joy. It’s time to run and jump and play like you once did.

You’re a fighter. I can sense it. Hold my hand. I’m a fighter too.

Together we’ll lift our voices high, and let the world know we are not done.

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My friends, you may have noticed in some of the photos I’m wearing beautiful metal cuffs that read “only love today” and “come as you are.” These phrases and metal cuffs were suggested by YOU as items you hoped to see in the Hands Free Shop. I can’t tell you how grateful and strengthened I feel when I look down and see these anthems on my wrist. Although “see flowers not weeds” quickly sold out when I showed it on the Facebook page, it is back in stock today (quantities limited).  The following three phrases on copper and aluminum cuffs can be pre-ordered now and will ship to you in mid-July:

ONLY LOVE TODAY

COME AS YOU ARE

TODAY MATTERS MORE THAN YESTERDAY

SEE FLOWERS NOT WEEDSThis cuff is currently available and was requested by readers after I posted Taking Away My Daughter’s Smile.”

One final note: Beginning tomorrow, this blog and The Hands Free Revolution Facebook page will be quiet for the month of July as I care for myself and spend time with my family. I would be so delighted if you might choose to join me in a media break so you can quiet the noise of the world and hear the anthem in your heart. I leave you with a photo of the newest member of our family: Paisley Stafford. As Natalie said in her letter to her daddy: “I knew I loved her from the moment I saw her.” My friends, I love you all and cherish your hand in mine as we fight to grasp what matters most in this precious life. See you in August.

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From Seeing My Worst in You to Seeing Hope for Both of Us

13

‘Cause I am done with my graceless heart
So tonight I’m gonna cut it out and then restart
‘Cause I like to keep my issues strong
It’s always darkest before the dawn.
-Florence and the Machine

You turned 13 years old this week, my beautiful daughter.

I can’t help but feel celebratory and hopeful when I look at you.

It hasn’t always been that way. For many years, I looked at you and saw the damage I’d done. I saw the traits I didn’t like in myself—ones I’d inadvertently passed down to you.

too impatient

too controlling

too worry wart

too task driven

too rushed

too independent

too overreacting

too secretive

too sensitive

too perfectionistic

too contentious

For many years, I was afraid the damage was done … and could not be redeemed.

But then I stood in front of an audience, baring my soul. You stood off to the side, away from the crowd. I wasn’t sure if you stood there in case you needed to make a fast getaway or because you didn’t want to miss a single word. I was nervous to see your reaction to my honest admissions. Yes, you’d experienced life with a critical, hurried, distracted, and spread-too-thin mother, but this would be the first time you heard my most difficult confessions spoken out loud.

My main concern was that the description you were about to hear about the “old me” – particularly the characteristics I was trying to soften and reign in – would sound an awful lot like you. I didn’t want you to think that just because I needed to make changes, you did too. I didn’t want you to think there was anything wrong with the way you were. One thing was for certain: keeping my struggles and triumphs to myself would not be helping anyone. I swallowed my fear and began to speak.

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A Way for Kids to Learn What the Right Choice Feels Like

DSC_0472 “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” –Helen Keller

The litter of kittens arrived at our house last Wednesday night just before midnight. It was a desperate situation—I knew the minute I heard the emotional plea from the owner of the cat shelter where my daughters and I volunteer.

“The maintenance man at a nearby apartment building was going to kill them if no one came and got them.”

Kill them –

Not call animal control or ask some of the apartment residents if they could help.

Kill them.

Just kill them.

“I can detect empty threats, Rachel, and this is not one of them,” the shelter owner continued. “I know you did not sign up to foster cats, but I already have twenty in my house. I wanted to see if you’d be willing to foster the kittens until they’re old enough to be placed up for adoption.”

While I am usually a planner, thinking carefully through all decisions that impact our family, I answered immediately. “Yes, of course,” I said without hesitation, praying my not-a-fan-of-cats husband would understand.

Very late that night the five-week-old kittens arrived. My older daughter Natalie insisted on waiting by the door and helping me get them settled. It was only their second night without their mother who was very sick from outdoor elements, lack of nourishment, and an infectious tick bite.

But the kittens did not cry. They relaxed when we held them. They purred loudly and nestled in for warmth.

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The next morning I sent an explanatory text message (hopeful plea) to my husband who was out of town at the time of the kittens’ arrival. I also added some adorable photos for extra reinforcement. (Couldn’t hurt!)

A few minutes later, my husband texted back: “You did the right thing.”
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Taking Off the Ticking Clock

 

taking off the ticking clock #handsfreemama.com

It was while watching my daughter eat a sno-cone on a summer trip to the beach that I experienced a life-changing epiphany.

Truth be told, it was our second trip to The Sno-Cone Shack in three days. (Believe me, these were not your average sno-cones.) On this particular visit, Avery got a scoop of wedding cake and a scoop of cherry. I don’t think I will ever forget how delicious that unlikely combination of flavors tasted when  my daughter gave me the very last bite.

Because I didn’t hurry her.

Because I said, “Take your time, baby. We don’t have to rush.”

Because that big ol’ ticking clock that I wore around my neck during my impatient Hurry Up Years had been left behind. Without the squeeze of that ticking clock around my throat, I could breathe; my child could breathe. I was all there with my daughter on that unforgettable day.

stopped saying 'hurry up' #handsfreemama

I ended up writing about the sno-cone experience and provided a painful glimpse of what life was like when I pushed and prodded that same little girl through her day. I had no idea millions of people would eventually read those painful truths—but even if I had known, I still would’ve written it—for the people walking around with the heavy clocks around their necks.

I had the chance to edit the story before The Huffington Post published it. I remember looking at the live preview thinking I should probably add something like:  “While it is important to have unhurried moments in life, it is equally important to instill a sense of responsibility and promptness in our children.” After all, I was a teacher for ten years. I know full well the importance of promptness and dependability.

But I didn’t change one word of that story. Not one. I knew I would take some heat, but I was okay with that. I was writing to The Clock Wearers of the World—the ones functioning at one speed and one speed only … the ones “hurry upping” their loved ones through life even when it wasn’t necessary … the ones who’d lost sight of what really mattered by living in constant state of urgency. I knew breathing was becoming labored for those wearing the ticking clocks heavy on their chests. I knew because that is how I lived for so long.

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The Sleep Plan That Eased My Child’s Worries & Made Me a Better Person

DSC_0911“Let me carry your burden
If something’s not right I will let you know
Like the paint that’s drying on a heart that’s poor
Let me carry your burden
Get you back on a high when you’re feeling low
When the weight’s too heavy but you won’t let go.”
Foy Vance, Burden

Last week my daughters and I traveled to the beautiful hills of Asheville, North Carolina to celebrate my precious parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. My younger daughter begged to room with my older sister, Rebecca. This meant my almost 13-year-old daughter, Natalie, and I would be roomies. Although I was thrilled for this sacred time with her, I knew this combination could mean trouble. The two of us are cut from the same ultra productive, list-checking, resistant-to-relax cloth and have the tendency to come alive at night. Whether it’s watching a show, organizing a closet, planning a project, or playing with our cat, we don’t wind down; we wind up. While it can feel like a good idea at the time, there is always a repercussion for sacrificing sacred sleeping hours. It doesn’t take long to see the telltale signs of sleep deprivation in my girl. Within a few days, there are dark circles underlined with irritability, forgetfulness, and distractibility. I can recognize these danger signs in my daughter because I spent two years denying them in myself.

Contained within the two-year period of my intentional sleep deprivation are some of my most painful and embarrassing memories. During that time, I smashed my husband’s coffee pot in anger. I blew through a red light while completely lost in thought, nearly hitting the driver of an oncoming truck. I screamed at my beautiful family one night and ran out to my car, pajamas clad and barefoot, thinking I might leave forever.

There are more stories, all equally difficult to type through blurry tears. But one can be certain my sleep deprivation stories all contain irrational thinking, poor decision making, overreaction, raised voices, and regret … lots and lots of regret.

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That Moment When Your Flaws & Failings Don’t Matter

eyes HFMI see the whole world in your eyes
It’s like I’ve known you all my life
We just feel so right
So I pour my heart into your hands
It’s like you really understand
You love the way I am.”
-Rachel Platten, Better Place

On Monday night, my nine-year-old daughter announced she was going to practice one last time for the upcoming third grade talent show. The following day, she’d be performing “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, which we both knew would be crowd pleaser among her young classmates.

As she began to play, I closed my eyes, imagining for a moment what the children’s faces would look like as she began to strum and sing. Most of her classmates had never heard this girl sing, let alone play guitar. As she shared her musical gift in that spotlight moment, I knew it would be hard for her to contain her smile.

But I would not know for sure because I would not be there to witness it.

“Parents aren’t allow to come to the third grade talent show, Mom,” she’d said matter-of-factly two weeks ago, breaking my heart right in half.

“What? You must be mistaken,” I said feeling inappropriately emotional about this news.

“Nope. No parents. It’s just for kids,” she said doing nothing to soften the blow … that is, until she saw the look on my face. Patting my hand gently, she said, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be fine.”

I knew she would be fine. I’d watched her confidence blossom over the past year. I knew she would take the stage by storm. Selfishly, I wanted to be there to see it. Standing in an auditorium or classroom with shining eyes as my child reads a story she wrote, recites a line in a play, or sings alone or with a group, is my moment of redemption. My child scans the crowd until she finds me, and I look at her with all the love in my heart. In that moment, guilt cannot touch me. Regret leaves the premises. Mistakes of the past completely vanish. All that’s left is proof I have loved; it is written all over her face.

Three years ago I grasped this redemptive gift for the very first time. I immediately knew it was not exclusive to me, nor was it mine to keep. So I wrote it down. Today, it is yours … word for word. May these words be the reminder you need this very moment. May your flaws and failings fall away so all you are left with is hope …

last pic HFM

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What’s Stronger Than a Tormentor

set it free

And I got this love in me.
But it’s not just mine to keep.
Like treasure that’s buried deep.
I come alive when I set it free.
—Judah & the Lion, Love in Me

My daughters and I have been volunteering at a cat shelter for several months now. I knew it would be painful to fall in love with cats we couldn’t take home with us. I knew it would be painful to not be able to rescue them all. But I felt certain that the joy of this experience would outweigh the pain.

I knew this, yet something caught me off guard.

It was an email message from the shelter director to all the volunteers about an obtrusive chain that would be added immediately to the already padlocked cages. Apparently someone was caught in the act of tormenting an animal. The helpless victim was Bob the cat—five-year-old Bob who is already severely depressed because his owner had to give him up. Bob who meows a lot but loves to be free from his cage so he can explore.

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The director’s email went on to list other cruel acts occurring over the past year in this small cat shelter housed in a local Petsmart. I tried to keep reading the email message, but when I got to the part about someone trying to pry a kitten out of the small opening at the bottom of the cage, I could not read anymore.

To be honest, I broke down.

I covered my face in my hands and cried. It may seem ridiculous to some, but my heart for animals is huge. My hope for the world in which my children and future grandchildren will live in is even bigger.

But not then.

Not in that moment.

Suddenly, things looked especially bleak.

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Breaking a Common Barrier to Better Myself & Expand My Child’s Future

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“I didn’t know I was lonely ’til I saw your face.”
Bleachers, I Wanna Get Better

“Instead of riding the bus today, could we go to breakfast and then could you drop me off at school?” my almost thirteen-year-old daughter unexpectedly asked me on a recent Friday morning.

My Type-A, plan-happy brain initially resisted this spontaneous invitation. While my brain began to list the reasons I couldn’t, my eyes saw something else. Standing in front of me was a not-so-little girl in stylish tribal print pants that were just a little long for her small physique. They wouldn’t be too long forever, I knew. She would grow into them; it wouldn’t be long.

“Okay,” I said, suddenly grateful to have an hour alone with this beautiful, growing girl.

After having a nice visit over chicken biscuits, we ran into a nearby store for a piece of poster board. As we stood in the checkout line, a woman pulled her cart up behind us. Standing in the back was a little girl who appeared to be three or four years old.

“Mama, can I get out?” the little girl asked.

No response.

“Mama, can I get out?” she repeated—this time a little louder.

Still no response.

“Mama, please can I get out?” the child politely asked as the woman used her pointer finger to scroll down the screen of her phone, happily smiling to herself.

As the little girl continued to ask the same question, her left leg inched higher and higher over the grocery cart until it appeared she was going to get out herself. My daughter, sensing the little girl was about to fall, quickly stepped next to the cart, preparing to catch her.

The little girl looked at my daughter and put her leg back in the cart. She began asking the same question once again, in hopes her mother might respond to her pleas.

We hadn’t even made it to the car when I saw tears forming in my daughter’s eyes. As she shut the door, she quietly said, “That made me really sad.”

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Here, You Can Breathe … Here, You Are Enough

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Hold tight; you’re slowly coming back to life.
I’ll be keeping your head up.
Let go of all your haunted dreams tonight.
I’ll be keeping your head up.
Birdy

*name has been changed for privacy reasons

Six weeks ago, I was feeling unsteady, depleted, and far away from myself. I was finding it difficult to do my job … to respond or communicate … to do laundry … look presentable … and leave the house. I knew my fragility was a result of extending myself beyond reasonable limits and neglecting to give myself proper time and care after multiple surgeries and an intense book-writing period.

It went against every fiber of my conscientious, people-pleasing nature, but I began declining or flat out ignoring the many requests of my time and energy that kept pouring in despite my vow to create some breathing room. The world is not going to give me permission to stop; I reminded myself. I am the only one who can give myself a reprieve. I decided my family and my emotional wellbeing were going to be my focus during this restoration period I called ‘coming back to life’ … my life … as opposed to accepting a depleted life lived according to other people’s demands and expectations.

I knew it was no coincidence that around the same time I created breathing room to reconnect with my heart and the heart of my family, two volunteer opportunities fell into my lap. Even more convincing was they were on my daughters’ “wish list” when we moved to our new state almost two years ago. To be a volunteer at an animal shelter was Natalie’s wish. To “adopt a cute, elderly person” was Avery’s wish. In the busyness of life over the past two years, I’d nearly forgotten my daughters had once expressed the desire to have these particular opportunities.

And now here they were.

At the same time.

When I was trying to create breathing room.

As you can probably guess, my initial reaction to these opportunities was irritation. Really? I am having trouble getting my own cat’s liter box clean right now. How am I supposed to garner the energy to leave the house and clean twelve of them?

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Being Kindest to the Ones You’re Closest To

kindest

“We are love.
We are one.
We are how we treat each other when the day is done.
We are peace.
We are war.
We are how we treat each other and nothing more.”
–The Alternate Routes

Being an author can be a lonely occupation. But most of the time, my introverted self thrives in the solitude. I relish the control I have over work decisions and work environment. But there are times, particularly book deadlines times, when I’d do anything to have a colleague peek over the cubicle and say, “We’re in the home stretch! We got this!” or “You want to take the last few paragraphs of this section, and I’ll run with the conclusion?”

As I neared my recent book deadline, I felt the aloneness, the weight of it all, bearing down squarely on my shoulders. With this being my third book, it was possible most people assumed I had this in the bag. Rachel’s got this—most of my loyal supporters probably thought. But I didn’t. Instead of becoming more energized as I reached the finish line, I became more uncertain, more emotional, and more depleted. I knew I was going to drag myself across the finish line, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. I saw the red flags—the urge to speak in short, snippy responses … the lack of patience … the surplus of irritability. Sadly, my discontent was directed at one person—the person I am closest to … the person who loves me at my worst … the person who knows me better than anyone else.

My husband knew the book deadline was looming, but hadn’t noted the exact day it was due. In his mind, he was doing many things to support me during this intense and challenging time. But in my mind, I was alone in my cubicle. My team had deserted me. The momentous March 1st date starred and circled on my calendar for almost a year was just another day at my house. The team high-fives and clinking glasses I’d been hoping for didn’t happen. As you can guess, my fatigued, weary self did not communicate my disappointment to my husband very well.

The good news was there were no slamming doors or tearful meltdowns. There were no squealing tires or smashed coffee pots like the days of old. But there was a severe lack of perspective. I could only see the situation through my eyes. And because of my fragile state of aloneness, it was hard to let go of my disappointment and see it any other way.
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