An Unusual Term for Death that Helps Me Live Fully in Today

DSC_0219“It’s the perfect time of day
It’s the last day of your life
Don’t let it drift away
While your heart is still racing
It’s the perfect time of day.”
Howie Day

I avoided a particular closet in my house for two years. Stacked inside were five large, plastic bins stuffed with loose papers, writing notebooks, and keepsakes I didn’t have time to file before we moved two years ago. Coincidentally, the items inside the containers were collected during the first four years of my journey to a less distracted life.

For the past two years, I’ve wanted to go through the massive collection piece by piece, determining whether it should be filed or discarded. But the task was immense and intimidating. It was much easier to avoid the closet altogether and plan on doing it another day.

‘Another day’ finally arrived in July when I was taking a month-long break from blogging and posting online to spend time with my family and focus on an on-going physical pain in my body.

I was only halfway through the first container when I was generously rewarded for taking on this monumental task. There, among the disarray, was something that didn’t belong to me. It was a booklet of poems addressed to my dad. I’m not sure why I had it. I’d never seen it before.

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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.

Image 17

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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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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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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Hope for the Angry Child

heart inside you HFM

“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”
-Emily Dickinson

I haven’t spoken of this experience for over fifteen years; I have definitely never written about it. Yet, when the memories of this time came rushing back, I had to pull off the highway and find a gas station where I could scribble my notes. It’s taken four weeks to transform my notes into readable form, but I have no doubt the timing of this message is perfect for someone reading today. This is my story … and Vince’s* story …

*Name has been changed

I had just one year of teaching under my belt and was taking classes towards my master’s degree in special education. Though barely qualified to teach students with challenging behavior disorders, I quickly assessed that academic training wasn’t going to make me a successful teacher–it had more to do with the connections I made with my students.

The way this particular school set up its special education program for behaviorally challenged students allowed me to form lasting bonds with my students. Rather than having a self-contained classroom, I had one-on-one time with each of my sixteen students throughout the school day. By providing direct support to the children and their teachers, the school district believed these exceptional students could be successfully mainstreamed into a tradition classroom. Furthermore, it was not unusual for me to work with a particular student for multiple years.

Such was the case with Vince*. Vince had compliance and anger issues but we had made significant strides in our first year together. Vince was an adorable child who looked forward to our one-on-one lessons and my frequent check-ins to his regular classroom.

On this particular evening, a typical event for a new school year was taking place. It was “Meet the Teacher” night. All the teachers were lined up, preparing to walk across the stage as we were introduced. As we waited for the principal to take the podium, I noticed Vince’s mother making her way through the crowded gymnasium. She was coming straight toward me in breathless haste.

When she spoke, I thought I did not hear her correctly – there was no way I could have heard her right. As the blood drained from my face, I leaned closer praying I had misheard. Vince’s mother repeated the words that seemed incomprehensible, unbearable, and repulsive to my ears.

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Note to Self: You Don’t Have to Have the Answers Today

note to self

“We are all ready,” my 12-year-old daughter messaged me with a picture of two smiling early morning faces. Days before, she’d assured me that she and her sister didn’t need anyone to care for them when their dad and I left at 5am to go to the hospital. She assured me she could get them up at 6:30, fed, and ready at 7 o’clock. I had faith in them; I said okay. And like any good Type A list-maker would, I left a checklist, being sure to mention the importance of waking her little sister up gently.

So there I was donned in my surgical gown and ghastly cap—teeth chattering, no less. But instead of worrying about my impending surgery, I thought about how things were going at home. Would they get themselves off to school okay?

With one message and photo, my question was answered. One big fat tear ran down my cheek. They could do it. They could do it. What a beautiful answer I’d just received.

Shortly after I received the text, I was wheeled into the operating room. I was greeted with cold air and lively music. I was usually good at ‘name that tune’, but I couldn’t remember the title of that familiar song. I knew I liked it though. It was a good dance song.

“I forgot you played music in the operating room!” I said to the nurse as if we were walking into a club. Music is my thing. It often serves as my warm blanket in trying times. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about this little operating room “perk”.

“Some patients don’t like it,” the nurse said. “But many do.”

“Well, I love it,” I said enthusiastically hoping she’d turn it up. Instead she instructed me to transfer myself from the bed to the operating table. I knew exactly how to do it. I felt like a pro.

Within minutes, the anesthesiologist was giving me information and a cool rush was felt in my IV.

“It’s too tight on my arm,” I said in a shaky voice that felt like it might crack.

“It’s because I gave you some medicine. Don’t worry. We’ll take care good of you,” said a voice of calm.

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Clues to Cling to When Facing Life’s Mysteries

cookies

On Sunday I woke up with the feeling of angst. Monday was the day I was going to my urologist’s office to learn the findings of my recent CT scan. I’d done a really good job of not thinking about this day over the Thanksgiving holiday. But on Sunday morning I could not keep the anxiety at bay. I kept envisioning what the doctor would probably say.

I’m sorry, but we didn’t see anything.

 Because those are the words I’ve been hearing for many months now from several doctors despite many tests.

I decided that preparing myself for no answers would be the best route. At least I won’t be any worse off when I come out of the office than going in; I told my shaky heart over and over.

But uncertainty is hard. Uncertainty is uncomfortable—especially when you are one who likes to know, plan, and prepare.

I went to my paper calendar and reviewed the week’s appointments and events. My twelve-year-old daughter walked up and lovingly leaned against me. “Tomorrow you go to the doctor, Mama,” Natalie said knowing this was an important day. “What’s he going to say?”

“Well, he will tell me the results of my CT scan, and then we’ll go from there,” I explained, not really knowing what else to say.

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One Thing I’ll Never Stop Doing

will never stop doing #HFM

My husband records The Jimmy Fallon Show and if we like the guest or musical performer we’ll watch it after the kids go to bed. Sometimes I’ll show one of Jimmy’s hilarious lip sync videos to my daughters, and we’ll laugh ‘til our sides hurt. What I never expected was to see my younger daughter watching the show without me. But there she was, curled up on my side of the bed wrapped in my favorite lavender blanket.

“I thought you were getting ready for bed,” I said stifling a chuckle at the sight of her looking like such a mini Rachel.

“I’m watching Jimmy Fallon,” she said matter-of-factly, as if this was common behavior for a nine-year-old child.

I couldn’t help but shake my head and smile. “Watching Jimmy Fallon … in my bed … with my blanket!”

My daughter giggled. “I wanted to see Justin Bieber perform his new song.”

Now it made sense. “Well, we can watch it together tomorrow. C’mon, it’s time for bed.”

My freckle-faced girl with curls in disarray crawled out of my bed, her legs looking unusually long. She obediently clicked off the antics of Jimmy Fallon and made an announcement—almost as if she’d been reading my mind.

“I’m growing up!”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Just in the last few weeks, her grown-ness has been very apparent. The way she neatly organizes her excessive collection of Bath & Body Works products on her desk … the way she puts her completed homework back into her folder each day … the way she strums her guitar and sings with more confidence than ever before … the way she reads thick chapter books and rarely needs help with the words. And the obvious one—the way she comes up to my chin when she hugs me.

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A Relationship Worth Protecting

relationship HFM“Can you see your love for me shining through? Cuz what you see in me, I can see in you. And soon enough, you and me we’ll be out of time. And kindness will be all we can leave behind.”

- Nimo Patel

My younger daughter rushed upstairs, her face wet with tears. She said she was having trouble putting together a Lego structure and couldn’t figure out what to do. When she asked her big sister for help, she cut her down—her words sharp and pointed and straight into the heart.

Yes, it had been a long summer. When you move to a new state, your sibling becomes your full-time playmate. My children had been in the company of one another for two solid months, no reprieves. But I’ve noticed that as my older daughter becomes more tween and less child, her patience is thinner … her sass stronger … her tone edgier. And there’s something about her little sister’s laid-back, leisurely nature that pushes her buttons. But something needed to be said before irreparable damage was done.

I went downstairs to talk privately with my older child. She was aptly securing the final pieces to an impressive Lego tree house. Pushing stray pieces aside, I sat down next to her. “I have something to tell you,” I said my voice low and serious. My daughter knew to stop fiddling and look into my eyes. “Whether you like it or not, you are shaping your little sister’s self-esteem. The way she feels about herself will largely come from how you treat her. In fact, your opinion of her may be even more important than mine.”

I paused to let my daughter absorb this information. When I continued talking, I surprised myself by divulging something I hadn’t fully appreciated until that moment. “Do you know why I know the impact your opinion has on your sister’s life?” My daughter shook her head. “Because I was the little sister. Yes, my sister and I fought over clothes, music, whose turn it was to feed the cat, the bathroom, and other silly things, but never once did my sister shame me or put me down. Not once. Just imagine what that gift did for me.”

By now I was crying. Surprisingly my daughter wasn’t looking at me strangely or searching for the nearest exit. With a mixture of interest and sadness, my daughter looked like maybe what I had to say was something worth listening to. I swallowed hard, attempting to regain control over my unexpected emotional breakdown. “We all need someone in our corner, to have our back, to believe in us when we don’t believe in ourselves. If you haven’t noticed, your little sister looks at you like a hero. And when you criticize or belittle, it hurts. But when you compliment or encourage her, she soars.”

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Sweet Release From the Judger in My Veins

release #HFM

I’ve come a long way since the days of tearing myself down in front of a mirror. But once in awhile, certain life circumstances cause doubt to creep in and I feel myself going down a slippery slope. For the past several weeks, I have been sliding. You see, I’ve been preparing for this momentous day, September 8th, for many months—years, actually. It’s the day my new book, Hands Free Life, releases. And as this day has gotten closer, the Judger in my Veins has gotten louder.

I have been working longer hours than usual. I have not been getting proper sleep or engaging in self-care practices that are critical for my health and wellbeing. And even though I know this feeling of overwhelm is only temporary and life will go back to normal soon, the Judger in my Veins has been hitting all my vulnerable spots. Like a heckler from the crowd, there’s a judgmental comment on just about everything:

A good mom would have said yes to that request.

A good friend would have picked up instead of letting it go to voicemail.

 A good spouse would be listening better right now.

 A good writer writes about current events.

 A good daughter would ask her parents more questions instead of just talking about herself.

 A good post-surgery patient would not be up at one o’clock a.m. writing.

For the past several weeks, the list of judgments against me has been long and relentless. And it was only five days ago that I fully acknowledged what I was doing to myself and how imperative it was to stop. I was in the middle of responding to a blog reader who was going through a challenging time. In her message, she confessed to reacting to her daughter in ways that were damaging and hurtful. Although the reader had recently experienced some success with being more positive and calm, she felt like a failure. This was my response:

I know it does not feel like it right now, but you are doing many things right. You are asking yourself hard questions. You are asking for help. You are staying calm in the face of extremely hurtful words and reactions from your child. I am certain you will get through this difficult period because your love and commitment to your daughter is evident in the words you write. I have something to help you get started. This is your homework tonight: I want you to notice all positive interactions you have with her and any positive actions she does. Do it for yourself. Do it for her. And then speak of them. “I appreciated the kind voice you used to talk to me just then.” Or “I love the way you dug into that meal I made! That makes me feel good.” Or “I love how you treated your sister/brother just then. You are good at figuring out how to help.” Notice her face when you say these things – even if it is not a smile, look for a more relaxed expression or a sense of relief. Anytime you to see a tiny glimmer of light on her face, grab it. Hold on to it. Let it give you hope for the next five minutes. Let it give you hope for better days. They are coming. 

It was while proofreading my message before sending it that something struck me. This message was not just for my reader, it was also for me. I began to cry as I whispered a prayer of thanks to the One who had started me on this Hands Free journey and continues to guide me when I lose my way.

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