The magic of childhood

On the podcast Chad and I reminisce about some of the most magical times of our childhoods after Edie’s birthday reminded us of how exciting the little things can be when we’re young. Then I confesses some of my most embarrassing moments in the recent weeks while Chad cringes in the corner and questions his life decisions. Then stay tuned for a sweet little interview with the birthday girl!

When’s the last time you’ve been so completely excited about something that you couldn’t sleep? Like, not nerves, but the kind of happy anticipation that makes it impossible to switch your mind off. Body wiggling, so completely pumped that you wanted to close your eyes and skip days to get the thing that you could not wait for?

It’s been a while for me. I didn’t think so. If you were to ask me this question a couple months ago I’m sure I would have been able to come up with an answer to an event or activity or vacation or something that had me energized in recent years, but then last week happened and now I’m convinced that adult excited can’t hold a candle to almost-7-year-old on the night before her first sleep-over birthday party ever excited.

That kind of kid energy, it’s palpable, and for the last couple weeks we have been in a countdown to the big birthday party. With each passing day, my daughter, she leveled up, until the last two nights before the party we were left with the kind of emotion that the little darling could hardly manage. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and she certainly wasn’t going to fall asleep without checking and double checking her mother’s work, popping up out of what I thought was a dead sleep multiple times to ask me things like “Did you get the cupcakes?” “Did you call the other mommies and tell them to tell the teachers we’re picking my friends up after school?” “Do you think we should go to the pool first or just come home to play?” And then, “I’m so excited I might cry.” And then she did a little and so did I, wondering if either one of us was going to get any sleep and suddenly nervous that I was going to somehow screw something up (I mean, she has such little faith!)

So now I’ve concluded that probably the last time I’ve ever been that excited was when I was eight or nine and I was decorating our kitchen with homemade construction paper cutouts of fish and seaweed and blue and yellow streamers and planning the water balloon fight my friends and I were going to have when they came over to celebrate. And then I got a brand new bike to boot and I was over the moon.

Or the Christmas Eve night when I was right in the sweet spot of childhood and also my neighbor asked me to babysit a tiny baby goat for the holiday weekend named Filipe. And I had that goat in a box by my bed and a lit up cedar branch of a Christmas tree in my room that kept falling over with the weight of all the ornaments and lights because the little coffee can stuffed with wet newspaper didn’t stand a chance and I was anticipating the beanbag chair I’d asked for and Santa delivered…that was something. That was a memory.

And it was simple as that. A tiny baby goat in diapers and a beanbag chair on Christmas morning.

And then there was our wedding, of course. I was absolutely excited about that one, but big days like that as an adult get complicated a bit with grown-up expectations and responsibility. So much of it is in our hands then. But kids? Kids keep it simple. It’s all about the play. It’s all in their heart.

And so I hosted my first ever 7-year-old birthday party sleepover as a mom. And, to Edie’s relief, I remembered the school pickup protocol and I remembered the cupcakes. We got her the toy on her wish-list and we had tacos and did all of the things—dress-up, nail painting, charades, dance party, played house, Barbies, crafts, movie, popcorn and staying up too late. (I even let them use glitter because I’m wild and crazy and one of the girls called me fun and so it is worth sweeping it off the floor for the rest of my life.)

When we finally had to bring her friends back to their parents, I apologized to the mommies for the sugar rush and late bedtime and the glitter ornament I packed up in their bags. One of the moms even thanked me for the purple and green hair chalk in her daughter’s blonde hair. She said it was perfect for their family pictures that afternoon, but I’m not sure she meant it. I told her she’s just lucky I didn’t send a kitten home as a party favor. That was a real option…

Anyway, I asked Edie if her birthday party was everything she hoped it would be and she said she wished it lasted longer and so I took that as a yes. And I’m taking her as my inspiration going into this holiday season to strip off a few layers of adulthood-induced stress and channel that good old-fashioned childhood energy.

Anyone have a baby goat that needs babysitting?

To get away, and be glad to be back…

It was spring break and so we let loose two little pale-as-our-snow Northern prairie girls in Florida. They swam with dolphins, caught a lizard, came face to face with a couple of sea otters, snorkeled and rode a roller coaster and jumped in the backyard pool approximately 3 million times, which is about equal to the amount of times they yelled, “Watch this!”

And so we watched. We, the parents who clearly overpacked, realizing our two little girls had no intentions of ever removing their swimming suits. And so we had to drag them out of that pool every night for the entire seven-day vacation, wondering if fingers can be eternally pruned. Or as Edie used to say, “sprinkly.”

We got back to the ranch and woke up to the official first day of spring. Which doesn’t really mean that it’s going to feel like spring around here, except now we can leave the house in the light and come home in the light and therefore we can see the light at the end of the winter tunnel. And that’s why Northerners need places like Florida. So much so that in the mix of a bazillion people at SeaWorld, Rosie spotted one of her preschool friends.

And then, the next day, we ran into folks from a neighboring town and so Disney is right, it’s a small world after all. Especially when all the frozen people are planning to head south at the same time.

What a blessing it is to get away for a bit. This vacation was one that was supposed to kick off, quite literally, the day the world shut down in 2020. It was a gift from my husband’s family, the kind that has aunts, cousins, sisters, brothers, grandkids and Gramma and Grandpa scheduling time to live in a house together for a week and do nothing but the fun things. Who would have thought that it would take two entire years to actually get us there? The last time we did something like this as an entire family, my daughters were just a dream and my now-teenage nieces and nephew were much shorter, much younger and found me less embarrassing.

Which I proved wasn’t such an unreasonable sentiment when I took that nephew along to help me deliver our leftover boxes of beer and soda to the neighbors at 11 p.m. the night before we left our Airbnb because I “would just hate to see it go to waste.”

Those neighbors opened the door slowly to a woman in PJs and humidity hair and they looked as cautious and confused as they should have been and suddenly I became overly aware of my nerdy North Dakotan accent. I’ve never felt more Midwestern in my life, except for moments later when the poor woman finally took the boxes and began to close the door and I couldn’t stop myself from popping my head in to elaborate: “There’s just a few beers, some pop, I mean soda, and a juice box or two, you gotta dig for those, sorry… you know, we heard you back in the pool and thought you might put it to use. Hate to see it go to waste! Enjoy! Enjoy your vacation!” Because when in doubt, just keep talking. That seems to be my motto. Lord help me.

My nephew couldn’t get out of there fast enough. He literally ran himself into our glass patio door and we both laughed harder than we ever have together. He said it was his favorite memory of Florida, beating the dolphins and his shark-fishing excursion, me embarrassing myself.

And isn’t that how it goes if you do it right? My dad asked Rosie, my 4-year-old, what was her favorite part of the vacation and she said it was swimming in the backyard pool and staying in the same house as all her cousins and her Nana and Papa. No dolphin jump or roller coaster ride or new princess outfit complete with a sword beats any of that, the actual time spent. Sometimes we just need a few plane rides and a four-hour wait in the rental car pickup line to get us there.

And now we’re home. And it’s spring. And soon the calves will be born and the crocuses will bloom and my daughters will be riding their bikes on the lone piece of pavement on the ranch, fingers fully dried out and “unsprinkled.” To be gone long enough to miss it. To be away in paradise and be glad to be back, well, what a gift. What a blessing.

7 billion hours until chokecherry jelly time

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7 billion hours until chokecherry jelly time
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Do you know how many chokecherries it takes to make six jars of jelly? Seven billion.

Do you know how many hours it takes to accomplish this task? About the same, give or take.

Depending on whether you decide to bring most of the small children on the ranch with you when you pick them. Which I did.

And a grandpa, too.

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And when you take small children with you to pick chokecherries on a warm (OK, hot) August afternoon up in the fields where the cows haven’t had a chance to graze yet, you lose those small children in the tall grass.

That’s an actual thing.

You think they’re following you to the low hanging branches, but then you turn around and they’re gone. Don’t worry — you can still hear them, which is helpful for the rescue.

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I have so many memories of chokecherry-picking throughout the years growing up out here in western North Dakota, monitoring the blossoms in the spring, hoping a late frost didn’t kill our chances at jelly.

We would stand in the bed of the pickup backed up to the tall bushes to reach the clusters of ripe berries on the top, or I would scour the scoria road ditches with my best friend, trying to meet our goal of a full feed bucket. I can feel the horseflies biting my arms, the grass itching my legs and the sun scorching my shoulders just thinking about it.

Last week was my first time making those sort of rustic memories with my daughters and niece in tow. And given the amount of time they spent lost and tripped up in the tall grass, I think I accomplished making them appropriately itchy.

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The oldest two bounced back up pretty well, though, and with a lot of praise and Papa Gene basically bending entire bushes down to meet them, they kept to the task.

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My 2-year-old? Well, it was over for her as soon as that grass touched her armpits, and so she spent the next 45 minutes in the side-by-side yelling various versions of “Are you done yet!?” into the sky and bushes during breaks between singing at the top of her lungs and trying to figure out how to get the thing started.

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We called it quits when both my girls were whining enough to scare the horseflies away, but I think my little niece and Papa Gene would have stayed out there until every branch was bare.

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Did I tell you about the time we thought we lost my dad entirely picking chokecherries a couple years back? Sent out a search party and found him basically in the next county, because apparently the berries keep getting better one bush over…

Anyway, so that’s the first step. The next? Put the 2-year-old down for a nap while I try to convince the 4-year-old that sorting the sticks, leaves and bugs out of the berry stash is a fun game. And she believed me, but only for like 15 minutes.

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Then she needed to go put on some lipstick or change her princess ball gown or something, leaving me alone with the task of sorting, washing, boiling, straining and juicing these berries — all while breaking up sister fights, finding snacks — and, oh shoot, it’s suppertime.

Do you know what you shouldn’t do? Work on a chokecherry jelly project while also trying to make pork loin and rice. To my credit, I thought I started this project with plenty of time in between. But it’s been years since I tried to be this domestic. Like, before I had children.

And it turns out time moves a bit differently when you have small children in the house and I didn’t recall that it takes 7 billion hours and about the same amount of kitchen utensils to make six small jars of jelly.

And so this is your reminder, in case you were thinking about taking on the chore, to make sure you clear your schedule. And all of the surfaces in your kitchen. And when you spread it on your toast or pancakes, you better not spill a drop…

Maybe next time I’ll try making wine.

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The heartbeats in between

The heartbeats in between 
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My husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary in my surgeon’s office on the fourth floor of Mayo Clinic, almost 700 miles from the oak tree on the ranch in western North Dakota where we were married 14 years ago when I was on the edge of turning 23. We vowed for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, as if we really knew what that meant at all.

But we never know what’s coming, do we? We’ve sure learned that lesson in these 14 years, watching our plans try their hardest to fly out the window while we hang on for dear life. Turns out, even when you think you might never come up for air, there’s always the surface, the other side of the hard things. We just have to wait for it.

And so we treated our latest visit to Rochester as if we already knew the news. Eight weeks out of a sternotomy to remove a cancerous tumor attached to my airway, I was feeling a bit more like myself, a bit more like laughing, a bit lighter from the weight of pain easing. After dropping the kids with the in-laws we took to the road like we were going on vacation. Because why not? We were together. We were OK. We were driving along Interstate and highway surrounded by sunflower fields reaching toward the sky and corn taller than two of us stacked up.

We spent the five days between doctors and tests eating as much as we could and finding shelter from the rain and sun under Minnesota trees and patio umbrellas. Once, as we were indulging in a 2 p.m. cocktail and late lunch, the woman a table over stood up to tell us that we really know how to live. We didn’t know if it was the calamari, the drinks or the loud laughter, but we decided it was the best compliment we could have received.

To know how to live.

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I’ll tell you now that the doctor, on our 14th wedding anniversary, told us I am going to be OK. He said he couldn’t have done a better job repairing my airway. And that the cancer? Well, he got it all.

Life will now look like a big scar down the middle of my chest and a CT scan every six months for the foreseeable future to make sure the cancer stays gone, moving it to the back of my mind, instead of the center of our worries.

And for that we are the lucky ones.

Fourteen years ago I carried sunflowers in my bouquet as I walked down the “aisle” in that cow pasture, toward the man who would become my husband that day. Little did I know that it takes so much more than a wedding to make a marriage. Little did I know that the only thing you can really count on is that things go wrong.

And then, right again.

As we headed west out of Rochester and toward the rolling buttes of home, I imagined those fields of sunflowers waving us on into a new year, a new season, spectators with encouraging smiles, reminding me of the love and support we’ve received from our family, friends and community during these past several months.\

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Reminding me that life is just a series of triumphs, roadblocks, joy and heartache. But my favorite times have always been the millions and billions of heartbeats in between.

A man needs a haircut

A man needs a haircut

My Grandma Edie used to give the neighborhood men haircuts. In the middle of her tiny kitchen at the end of a scoria road in the most rural of North Dakota places, she became a sort of pop-up barbershop to her brothers, cousins, neighbors and, in the old days, her husband and sons.

The phone on the wall would ring and she would pull a kitchen chair out to the middle of the linoleum floor and set her clippers and scissors out on her old kitchen table, the one she just cleared of supper.

Or maybe, if it was a summer evening, she would pull that chair out on the deck or the stoop and wait for the pickup to kick up dust on the road to unload a scruffy-looking man who was just on the other end of the telephone line.

Gramma giving Grampa Pete a haircut in her kitchen

I wasn’t there for all those haircuts, of course, but I was there when I was 7 or 8 or 9 and she was still alive and laughing, and I remember.

I remember the way she draped and fastened an old peach bath towel around the wide shoulders and snapshirt of our neighbor, Dean. His hair was thick and sprinkled with salt and pepper, and maybe, this was the only time I saw him with his hat off. And so I noticed that his forehead was white and smooth, just like his teeth, pushing up his tan and weathered cheeks in a story with a punchline and his big, deep laugh.

Summer days spent on the back of a horse or in the hayfield turn a man like that into a sort of windswept patchwork quilt. I noticed that then, at 7 or 8 or 9, and then I noticed that man, without his hat, half a head of hair on the kitchen floor, defenseless under my grandmother’s clipper and peach towel, the way I’d never seen a man out here before.

But a man needs a haircut, even when there’s calves to check or fences to fix. And maybe they didn’t want to make the long trip to town, maybe they didn’t have time, or the money, or they had a wedding the next day and time got away from them, and so they called my grandma down the road. She did a fine job. They had coffee or sun tea and a good visit.

I gave my first haircut at the ranch the summer we first moved back. I took the dog clipper to my husband’s mane in that very same kitchen where my grandma set up shop. I clipped a towel around his shoulders and watched his hair fall to the same linoleum floor, freeing his neck up of the curls that formed in the sweat of the August heat.

I did a terrible job, but my husband stood up, put his hat back on and thanked me as he headed out the door to fix a broken tractor.null

This spring, my dad came in from checking the cows and was desperate to tame the scruff of his wild white hair. It had been years, but I dug out those dog clippers again and shaved it all off in the kitchen, just as my little sister walked in to gasp loud enough to cause concern. “It’s just hair,” he said, and he was glad it was gone, grateful for his hat to fit right again as he headed back out to fix a fence.

The next day, I sat my husband down on the deck, poured myself a drink and spent the next hour trimming, shaving, clipping and obsessing over the shape of his hair with his beard trimmer and my daughters’ safety scissors.

The white of his forehead and salt and pepper in his hair reminded me of Dean, and I decided that if I was going to provide this service, I might as well learn how to be good at it. Because not only did it make the men in my life feel a bit lighter, it made me feel glad for another way to take care of them.

So I ordered myself some professional scissors and my sister’s sending her husband over here next week. If you need me, I guess it’s official: I give the neighborhood men haircuts.

The adventures of tiny ranch girls…

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The adventures of tiny ranch girls
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My little sister has been living in a new house on the ranch over the hill with her family for a year now. In the fall, her family welcomed a new little girl, Emma, who is now 8 months old. Her oldest daughter, Ada, is 3.

 

This means at any given moment, you could drive into the Veeder ranch and likely see a swarm of wild blond hair, glitter, flowing dresses, skinned knees, pretty chaos running down the scoria road squealing, with my sister and me trailing behind, occasionally hollering things like “Be careful!” or “Don’t push!” or “OK, OK, let the frog go now…”

Yeah. Right now, there are four girls between us — aged 4, 3, 2 and 8 months — roaming the barnyard. Which means in addition to six cats, four dogs and 10 horses, we also now have two little ponies.

Two ponies, named (you could probably guess it) Sparkles and Tootsie.

Of course.

Along with the kittens, the backyard sprinkler and endless Popsicles, these ponies have been the center of our life at the ranch this summer. Every morning my little sister puts her roly-poly baby in her pack, grabs her 3-year-old and goes down to the barn to brush, pet, pamper and, of course, feed the ponies who could care less if there’s a little girl hanging on their necks, pulling on their tails or brushing their bellies, as long as they get treats.

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And after supper, if the weather is right and they’re all behaving well enough to brave it, I call my sister and we meet them at the barn to saddle up the ponies and teach the girls to ride.

I could weave you a magical tale right now about the bonds between little girls and horses. I have plenty of firsthand experience falling in love with horses out here myself. And yes, there have been dozens of sweet moments captured between these little girls and these mini equines — but mostly it’s a firestorm of lesson upon lesson packed into a pink, noisy, explosion at the barn.

And it sounds a lot like: “OK, don’t scream around the horses remember? No, no running behind them… calm, remember? You’ve gotta stay calm… OK, OK, that’s enough grain. Woah, enough I said!”

“Edie, don’t drop the reigns. You have to hold onto them when you get off.”

“Oh, you’re trotting! Good job, good… woah, woah, woah, you’ve gotta hang on!”

“Where’s Rosie? Rosie!? Oh Lord, is your head stuck in the gate? Wait there, what the heck girl? How in the world… Daddy! Rosie’s head’s stuck in the gate!”

“OK, it’s Ada’s turn! OK, it’s Rosie’s turn. OK, it’s Edie’s turn. Yeah, you have to take turns. Yeah, you can lead her… no she doesn’t want to run… girls, no screaming around the ponies.”

“OK, no crying either. It’s OK…”

“Rosie! Rosie, don’t climb so high on the fence. Where’s Ada? Ada, enough splashing in the water tank… Edie, Edie, slow down now. Pull back and say ‘woah!'”

And on and on like this until someone gets an owie or the adults and the ponies in the pen wear out. But the adventure doesn’t end there — anything can happen in that quarter of a mile back to our houses.

Last night? Well, it was a detour to inspect a grass snake…

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followed by heroically freeing our dog, Remi, from my little sister’s sticky fly trap…

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Yesterday, it was a ladybug and a handful of sunflowers…

And today? Well, in this magical place, with these girls running wild, anything is possible.

And my sister and I, well, we’ll be right behind them, yelling “Be careful!” and saving the frogs and salamanders from their tiny dress pockets and purses.

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On the other side of this…

On the other side of this…
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Water park visits, youth rodeos, T-ball games, street festivals and fairs, performing music almost every week in a different community, a state fair visit, backyard gatherings with friends and camping trips and work on the ranch, work on the house, work on planning community events…

That’s what summer looked like last year, and the year before, and the year before… a calendar full, the weekends penciled-in, not enough time to get to the lazing around part, the slow parts, the parts we stay home, bring Dad lunch in the hayfield and fight boredom with a homemade slip-‘n-slide — the summers I remember as a kid growing up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Those summers looked more like mowing, barn painting, bareback horse rides to pick Juneberries, running through the lawn sprinklers with my best friend, bike rides, the county fair and an occasional trip to the outdoor pool.

Yesterday I made the girls homemade bubbles, the same way my grandma used to make them for us, and just like my daughters, we would go dancing across the lawn in the heat of the day with a string of sparkling orbs trailing behind us.

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Watching them brought me back to that little brown house next to the barnyard and eating Schwan’s push-up pops on the front steps.

I haven’t spent so many summer days (or any days) consecutively at home at the ranch since then, it seems. But with COVID canceling every singing and speaking job for months and a cancer diagnosis derailing and bypassing every other plan we made for ranch, business and housework, here I am shuffling around the house and yard, tossing feed to the animals and placing my lawn chair next to the sprinkler as the kids run, squeal and jump through this unexpected summer, seemingly (and thank goodness) no worse for the wear.

If you would have told me last year this is where we’d be, no one would have believed it. But I see now in so many ways that I was yearning for it. Not the cancer part. Not the terrifying, life-threatening, business-ending pandemic part. No. Not that.

But a chance to take it down a notch, to step back and remember why we live here. Why we built this family on this piece of land and what it really means to exist here.

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And I’m going to preface this by saying we are the lucky ones here. We are still working. We have land in which to social distance while we raise animals to help feed the nation. We have family close and we take care of one another. We are not on the front lines. We are keeping healthy, so far, and it’s because of that perhaps that I have the luxury of looking for lessons here.

But each day that passes in my recovery as a cancer patient (and a rancher, and a musician, an event planner and a mom and a daughter and a wife) in the time of COVID — each day that keeps us watching the news, arguing and discussing, staying close to home and riding the ponies and taking long walks to the grain bins — I’m looking and listening for how it’s speaking to me, how it’s changing me and my family, how it might affect our communities, our country and our world.

Because the greatest tragedy of it all, to me, would be that all this suffering, uncertainty, loss and worry at this moment in history and in my personal trials, would be in vain.

And that could send me into a panic, because there’s so much that needs to change…

But then I watch my girls run across the yard, bare feet, wild hair and bubbles flying against a blue sky, and I think — even if all we learn from this is how to sit still long enough to make homemade bubbles and eat push-up pops on the front porch, and turn the backyard sprinkler on in the heat and take good and better care — maybe, on the other side of this, we could be on our way to being OK…

 

It takes a village to heal

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It takes a village to heal
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It’s been over four weeks since surgeons at Mayo Clinic cut open my sternum, moved my ribs and lungs and heart valves (and whatever else was in the way) so they could remove the cancerous tumor attached to my airway.

And so they cut my airway, reattached it, then put my lungs back where they belonged and pulled and stapled my ribs back together.

They stitched my chin to my neck to make sure I didn’t move my head too far back, and then, day by day, during my stay in the hospital, a new tube or IV came out. And then the chin stitches were removed, and then three X-rays, one bronchoscopy and five days later, I was released back into the world that keeps on turning even while we hold our breath.

They think they got all the cancer. They think, but we’re still waiting to hear for sure.

I’m back at the ranch now with what I hope is the worst part behind me, slowly feeling a bit better and stronger each day.

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Time will do that for you if you let it. It will get you to where you need to be. I’ve learned this lesson in my life before, but I’m still humbled by how helpless I feel in my own home, surrounded by the mess and the laundry and the projects we’ve made for ourselves.

All of that has to wait now the same way I have to wait to be able to grab my young daughters, lift them up, hug them tight or push them on the swing. Every morning, little Rosie asks me if my “owie” is better, which is code for, “Can you hold me yet?” And when I tell her I can’t, she sits beside me and we hold hands.

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I wish I could tell you I’ve taken time to read the books I haven’t had a chance to read, or written some profound music or poetry, or had some major revelation, but mostly, when you’re healing from something as traumatic as this, it seems like it takes about all the energy you have to mend. And lots of terrible shows on Netflix.

I can tell you I have never been more physically vulnerable. And when you find yourself so helpless, your family, friends and community, they are illuminated. All of a sudden you see them, and the way their hearts open, because you can no longer afford to say, “Oh no, that’s OK, we got this.”

Because in times like these, without your village, you don’t have it. To survive it you have to be gone, displaced, completely distracted, and it takes all you have in you to get through days of pain and healing, let alone continue under any kind of normal. At least for now.

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First family photo, halfway home after surgery…

And so you can’t do it alone. You need someone you trust to take care of the kids. You need your sister to feed the pets and plants. You need all the prayers and the well wishes and meals sent to your door. And while you don’t need that Juneberry pie, or gift cards and cash for gas and hotel stays and hospital bills, it sure helps ease one part of the burden of worry.

And you need your husband or your partner to get you dressed and open your pills and wash your hair and shave your legs and try his best at a ponytail and give up all his pillows in the hotel bed to make sure that you are comfortable. You need him to sit next to you in the hospital for five days wearing a mask and not complain once.

And so here I sit, feet up, a little worse for the wear, but on the other side of the scariest thing I’ve done since parachuting out of a plane over the ocean.

I am a lucky woman, so even if they call tomorrow and tell me I need to undergo radiation to become cancer-free, I know I can do it. Because this world we live in, while so genuinely heartbreaking, gives us miracles every day.

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And to me, those miracles look a lot like my children laughing, or the purr of a kitten, the smell of the ranch after a storm or the crunch of a garden pea. To me, those miracles wear scrubs and masks, take my kids for a tea party, come to live with us while I recover, send cards and raise money and call to check in, pick up my medicine and teach me what it means to truly take care of one another.

And now that I know how it feels to be on this side of things, I understand better the ways to take care, too.

But for now, if you need me, I’ll be here, holding my daughters’ hands, eating casserole, walking slowly to the mailbox and healing up…

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Where we float

Lake Sakakawea Sunset

There’s something about having access to a lake like Lake Sakakawea that makes a 16-year-old feel simultaneously invincible and terrified. Jessie Veeder / The Forum

Where we float
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Recently, I loaded the girls up in the car for an impromptu trip to the shore of Lake Sakakawea, where my husband was finishing up a carpentry job on a cabin.

Our ranch is only about a half-hour drive to the shores of that big rustic lake surrounded by buttes and ranch country with more shoreline than California. As teenagers, my boyfriend and I would take every chance we could get to load up his dad’s old pickup with the canoe, or, if we were lucky and could get it running, his fishing boat, and head down to her muddy shores.

There’s something about having access to a lake like this that makes a 16-year-old feel simultaneously invincible and terrified. Like kings of the universe, but insignificant enough to understand that there are things in this world that could swallow us whole.

I stood on the edge of that water with our young daughters as we watched that boy I loved then, now a full-grown man, skip rocks halfway across the bay. The sun revealed a glint of white around his temples where his dark hair used to bleach in the sun, the same way our daughters’ hair is turning white under the first rays of summer.

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I felt the cool clay on my bare feet, the same bare feet that I used to prop up on the dash of his gray Thunderbird going way too fast with the windows rolled down, on our way to find a spot where we could fling open the doors of that old car, strip some layers off of our hot skin and run into the water, frantic and young and splashing until that lake did, in fact, swallow us up, just like it promised. But just for a moment, before we had to come up for air.

And the thing about love is that you can fall into it with anyone, anywhere. And maybe I fell in love with him in the halls of that high school when everything else was awkward and uncertain, except the boy who showed up each day to walk me to science class. But the campfires he built and the fish he caught and the cool water and the laughing and the way that he kissed me in that Thunderbird kept me there with him to see what the next summer might bring.

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That was 20 summers ago. Twenty summers that brought us right back here to the muddy banks where it began, watching our babies strip down to undies, splashing, tossing rocks and searching the banks of this massive shore for treasure upon treasure upon treasure, me with our girls and my darling dear husband, enamored, exhausted and smack-dab in the maddening middle part.

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And sometimes it feels like we were never those kids, like it was a million years ago, but in a million more our daughters will be doing the same. And then unlike us, they will likely fall in love again, and again and again until the timing is right or, more likely, completely wrong, and so then they will dive.

And I will watch them and be reminded about the falling part, the frantic, feet flying toward the freezing water, gasping for air, falling part and be glad for the memories…

And then, when I need to, I will tell them about the holding each other up part. Because that part, well, that’s where we float.

Chad and Jessie

 

How to be grateful

Thank you all for the outpouring of support, well wishes, love and prayers as we take  the next step to get this cancer out of me. I talked to the thoractic surgeon at Mayo on Friday and it sounds like they will open me up at my sternum to get the best look at the remaining tumor. The goal is to remove all of it by cutting my tracheal tract and putting it back together.  They will have a big team of doctors there to make sure they can handle any surprises and will be able to tell right away if they were able to get it all. If they can’t, I will be given the time I need to heal up and then we will proceed with radiation. This type of tumor responds well to radiation (and not well to chemo). 

I feel confident in the plan, nervous, and ready to get it behind me. I’m expecting the surgery to be scheduled in June sometime, but we haven’t made those plans yet. 

We have received such an outpouring of love from people far and wide and we feel your prayers and thoughts lifting us up and we are so grateful. 

How to be grateful
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When my girls walk out the door to play outside, and the sun is shining, and the wind is calm, as they run toward the playground or up the road to the big rocks, they say, “It’s a beautiful day!” Or, “It’s a perfect day for a walk,” or “It’s a good day to ride our bikes.”

And there are plenty of things that I say and do that I don’t want my kids to repeat (because I am a mother, but I’m far from perfect,) but I beam when I hear them have this sort of gratitude for a sunny day.

Because they’re so young, it gives me a bit of hope that the declaration and recognition of the good and beautiful things that they see and feel might become a sort of instinct that will serve them well when life is less than fair, less than perfect or unexpected in the worst ways.

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Since the removal of the tumor that was blocking my tracheal tract this month, and the unexpected diagnosis that it is “cancerous,” I’ve been thinking about what has notoriously pushed me through the difficult times in the past. And I’ve been thinking about gratitude and how it serves me.

But first, I want to share that I’ve been having a hard time saying that I have cancer because I don’t feel like the amount of suffering I am going to endure here warrants that loaded and scary word. Because I’ve seen cancer take its difficult toll on the people I know and love and I’ve seen sickness ravage their bodies and take the light from their eyes.

I don’t know this for certain, but from what I understand, my life with this diagnosis will be short-lived. And because of that, something in me wants to save that word for the warriors who’ve had to fight harder. And the ones that we lost to it.

I realize now the “it could be worse” mantra is one I go to when I’m staring down a fear or suffering with grief or worry. I would say it during our infertility struggle and pregnancy losses, and I would say it when my dad was sick and dying in the hospital bed. He survived. We all survived it. It could be worse. We are the lucky ones.

To recognize others’ suffering beyond our own, I think, is a useful tool. But then, sometimes, so is walking to the top of a hill and crying out “Why?!” In my life, I’ve done both.

But for now all I can think is that I’m thankful to breathe better and thankful for a diagnosis and for good doctors and a supportive community and that it’s a beautiful day to watch my girls drink from the water hose and tear off their clothes to run naked in the sprinkler.

Thankful that, because the stars aligned just right to keep me safe, I can be here for that.

And I’m thankful that all through my childhood, the people who surrounded me pointed out their blessings as they saw them so that I could see them, too.

Even if it was as simple as melting snow on the hilltops, a ripe tomato from the garden, the back of a good horse, enough Juneberries to make a pie or just the sunshine on our shoulders on a perfect day to ride our bikes.

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