Love. An explanation.

Mom and dad on wedding day

What is love? It depends on who you ask.
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My dad once told me that he didn’t believe that there was just one person for everyone. I was sitting shotgun in the pickup as he drove us somewhere. He likely asked me about my boyfriend, and I think I responded with a sort of fed up answer.

I was in that transition from teenager to adult, heading off to college and thinking I might be in love. And I was wondering if I should break it off, because that’s what most people do. And at that age, what most people do sort of means something.

“Think about this,” he said. “What would it be like for you if you couldn’t talk to him tomorrow?”

From there he explained his theory on love and how he believed it was more about timing and choices and kindness than it was about destiny. And it wasn’t romantic really, but hearing that there were more people out there I could love, or who could love me, helped take the pressure off, even if the teenage poet in me didn’t appreciate the practicality of it at the time.

Anyway, it turns out that particular relationship did work for me. My husband and I became one of those couples who found each other as teenagers and hung on tight, not because of big romantic gestures or a dramatic series of events, but because, I think, neither one of us could imagine not being able to talk to each other every day. And although it’d be more passionate to say we were destined to be together, the truth is, in the end, it was a choice.

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Last month, I asked a group of preschoolers to define love. I wanted a few cute quotes in the name of Valentine’s Day for the parenting magazine I edit. I don’t know what I expected, but it got me wondering how I would respond if someone pulled me away from my Lego tower and asked me.

One little boy summed it up perfectly when he told me, confidently, that he shows his mom he loves her by “cooking her turkey.”

I smiled as I wrote down his answer, thinking how refreshing it is to hear such an uncomplicated take on what we grown-ups come to muddy up along the way.

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Then I thought of my mom sitting by my dad’s bedside day after day after day while he was in the ICU and unable to speak, not knowing if she would get to talk to him tomorrow, the choice no longer hers to own.

There will be a time when my girls will need me to talk to them about head and heart, and I hope I’ll be able to remember what it felt like that day in the pickup, to be a teenager on the edge of a wide open life, reminded that love looks less like Prince Charming and more like turkey dinner turned into turkey sandwiches turned into a lifetime of conversation with the someone you can’t bear to lose.

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Motherhood, you’re a mess…

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I’m telling you, this winter deep freeze is starting to get to us. Couple that with the fact that Edie is on a daycare hiatus and we’ve been sorta sick and stuffed up for a week or so I admit, I’m digging deep here.

Today in particular.

Because as a sweet test from God I woke up this morning without a voice. Like, I’m not just a little scratchy. No. I can barely make a squeak come out of my mouth, no matter what I do. And it turns out a mom who can only whisper is fun for a two-year-old. Because if a kid jumps up and down on the living room couch and there’s no mom-voice there to tell her to get down, is it really happening?

Apparently not.

 

This kid is driving me nuts today, it’s like she knows I’m weak. Because the other one gave me no chance to get some rest and avoid this last night. Sleeping in 1.5 hour increments is another form of torture.

Anyway, to get me through the morning and keep Edie from trying, repeatedly, to feed Rosie her baby doll bottle full of water before attempting to lift her out of her seat,

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I decided I would sacrifice cleanliness and make this Moon Sand I’ve been seeing my mom friends do for their toddlers.

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It’s an easy to make, sensory activity for kids. I used the recipe off of happy-mothering.com because I figured with a URL like that, she must be on to something.  I mixed 8 cups of flour and 1 cup of baby oil together in the mixer long enough to get it all combined. I then poured it in a long, flat Tupperware container, thinking I was being really proactive about the mess by putting newspaper down on the table underneath. But it didn’t matter. By the time she was done the stuff was in my hair, under everyone’s fingernails, in Rosie’s ear as she slept in her swing across the room and the dog’s fur in the garage.

So, yeah, it’s more of an outside-on-the-porch kind of activity, but parenting up here in the great white frozen north where it was like twenty below zero here this morning is no joke. We make sacrifices in the name of our sanity. Today my sacrifice was my floor.

But it did keep Toddlerzilla engaged for a good 45 minutes or so. And she loved it. So I think it was an ok trade off for the 45 minutes I had to spend cleaning up the mess she made.

Ugh…Spring, you can come anytime now.

Until then, here’s this week’s column on the other messes I’ve created in my attempt to make it through this season with young kids…

Not all messes in life are created equal
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“Sorry for the mess,” my friend’s husband said as he opened the door to the pickup he was letting me borrow during the week I was waiting for my new baby to be born in the big town.

I looked around to find an orange hunting vest lying on the back seat and (GASP!) a stray penny on the floor. And that was it.

Clearly, we have opposite ideas of what a mess is, I thought as I wheeled around town in that spotless pickup like a fancy pregnant pageant queen, careful not to spill any crumbs from my occasional muffin pit stop on the seats and making sure to bring my water and juice cups inside when I parked it.

I’m pretty sure you could make a dozen new muffins from all the crumbs that are residing on the floor of my vehicle these days. And don’t get me started on the extra cups. And I know I’ve explained my car situation here before, how living 30 miles from any civilization means that a girl accumulates things, just in case — like extra socks, a stash of snacks in every available crevasse, lawn chairs, spare gloves, napkins upon napkins, a 2012 issue of Glamour magazine, a talking Elmo doll and a partridge in a pear tree. But if I thought I had an issue before I gave birth to two small children, well, I had no idea what was coming.

Like two, 75-pound car seats that come with said children.

Do you know what also comes with children? Stuff. So. Much. Stuff. Like all the extra things I thought I needed for those miles when it was only me? Multiply that by three and then add a giant stroller, a Pack ‘n Play, a couple stacks of kid’s books, a stash of fruit snacks, burp rags, baby dolls and at least one dirty diaper changed along the side of the road. Oh, and Edie’s lifejacket just in case.

By the time I get the car loaded and both girls out the door and buckled safely into their seats, I’m sweating like I’ve just come in last place at a Texas marathon.

Last week we finally did get around to going to that indoor swimming pool. I slowly made the trek from the parking lot to the door with a diaper bag backpack on my back, a swim bag overstuffed with suits, clothes and towels dangling off the stroller with a car seat and the baby inside, stopping only to pull my toddler in her puffy coat out of the snow bank where she decided to lay down for a half-way break. If it wasn’t so cold, I might have joined her and if you were flying over Watford City that day, I’m pretty sure you could see us giving up on it all from your window seat.

Three days later, when I went searching for that swimming bag, I found it, of course, in my car, stuffed full of very frozen swimsuits, towels and an ice cube of a life jacket.

And that, my friend, is the sort of mess worth apologizing for…

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Northern Lights

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As I write this, the plane dad’s taking to get him home from a three month stint fighting for his life is likely landing on this frozen tundra of a place. He won this battle, and four years ago at the beginning of a frigid January, he miraculously won another one, when a valve in his heart tore open and, against all odds, he made it home.

I wrote Northern Lights, a tribute to his will to live, in the passenger seat of a long drive home that winter, watching the lights of the aurora bounce and dance across the back sky, offering a flicker of hope in the longest, coldest season.

Dad and I recorded the song in Nashville the following year and have played it at select shows since its release.

For some reason, it’s taken almost three full winters to finish and release this video. How fitting, on his homecoming, it is ready to be shared today.

Welcome home Dad. May you live to be that old cowboy they said you’d be.

This life, it’s a mess.

Happy Monday. I hope your team won last night.

I’m sitting on the bed upstairs with my laptop, working on emails and preparing for a meeting this evening, sort of furiously trying to manage my work before the toddler wakes up. She’s wiped out from the party she hosted last night and there’s a big ‘ol mess of leftovers, dishes, toys and tiaras (yes, we pull those out for the Super Bowl around here) that I’m avoiding. Our daycare situation has changed, and this is our first week without it. I’m panicking a bit, cause momma’s still got work to do, but my mother-in-law is coming to the rescue to ease us into it and I’m grateful.

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Making cookie bars for Super Bowl

My mom was able to come home late Saturday night and spend the evening with us. She’ll be here for the rest of the week while my uncle stays with my dad in Minneapolis. It was strange to watch the Super Bowl last night and know that he was there, in his bed in a rehab facility, wishing he was home. When they zoomed out on the lights of the city during the halftime show I couldn’t help but think of him as one of those millions of lights so far away and I missed him.

When I wrote this column last week we planned on having him home by now, but a minor set back has him there waiting for a bit more healing without a definite timeline. The difference though, is we know he’s coming home now. The difference is, he’s no longer dying. He’s on his way to a recovery, a slow one, but a recovery nonetheless. And we’re grateful.

This mess of a life will be easier to tackle with him back beside us all.

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Searching for calm in this mess we call life
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After three long, agonizing months in and out of ICU in a Minneapolis hospital battling pancreatitis and fighting for his life, my dad is set to come home to the ranch in a few weeks.

Friends are calling wondering what they can do, making plans to clear the driveway, buy groceries and welcome him back, and we are so very grateful.

And while I want to say that we’re all finally able to let that breath out that we’ve been holding in all this time, I’m not so sure that it’s entirely true yet. When a loved one has gone through such a traumatic, life-threatening experience, I’m not sure when you begin to trust that that it’s truly over. He’s coming home, but he’s got a long road to recovery, one that will be done out here, so far from the team of experts that saved his life.

It’s times like these the isolation of rural living sinks in. And it can scare you if you let it. The fact that my dad made it all those miles between the cold buttes and coulees of the ranch to a place with skyscrapers and sidewalks that could save him is truly a miracle that wouldn’t be possible in a different time. And now, somehow, it feels like years since we had him here, home and healthy with us. These months have passed slowly.

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Last weekend my great uncle stopped by the house to visit. He’s one of the three remaining children of 12 born just down the road from the ranch.

“Come on in, it’s a mess, but that’s life,” I said as I hugged him with my free arm, my sleeping baby in the other, my toddler behind us with the door open sitting naked on the potty.

I replayed those words in my head for days since I blurted them. It’s a phrase I’d never uttered before and one that may have resonated with him had I not said it with such haste in an attempt to explain away my housekeeping skills.

Because he just recently lost his wife after a long health battle and he came home for a visit with his brothers.

“It’s a mess, but that’s life…”

He stood in my kitchen, surrounded by the remnants of breakfast and Edie’s art project and our small talk about weather turned to a story about his immigrant father and how he rode his bike 80-some miles across the prairie to borrow a wagon to pick up his bride.

“Can you imagine what my mother was thinking? I don’t know if she knew what she was getting into…”

I couldn’t help but think then, that what she got herself into brought us to that moment in my kitchen that day, comforting one another, worrying about Dad’s homecoming and smiling as that man, who has known much more mess in this life than stray socks and spilled orange juice, called my daughters beautiful.

These are the reasons we stay here, standing brave, holding our breath, in this mess of a life.

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Mother of daughters…

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On Sunday my Little Sister came out to the ranch to visit. The weather was nice, like 30 degrees, which is like 60 degrees warmer than it was last week, so we were anxious to take our girls outside and get a little fresh air.

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And that’s where I pause a second. Saying “our girls” still feels so fresh to me. I have two young daughters now and my Little Sister has been a mom to her own for seven months.

Just a few short years ago it would have been just the two of us out and about at the ranch, maybe taking a hike or going along to feed cows, mixing a Bloody Mary for an afternoon treat, not knowing how completely different our lives would soon be.

I don’t know if we ever envisioned it, with the big age gap between the two of us, that we would be exchanging little girl clothes and rocking our babies side by side.

“Did you ever think we’d be doing the ‘mom bounce’ together,” my little sister asked yesterday after we came in from pulling the older girls on the sleds and watching Edie try to comprehend why the sand in her sandbox wouldn’t budge.

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I had a little bit of a flashback then, of the things my little sister and I would do out here on the ranch to pass the long winters as kids. On a day like this you could find us building a snow fort or finding somewhere to sled or ice skate. And we would probably, eventually, get into a fight like siblings do, about something stupid, but not stupid enough to send either one of us inside.

Because who wanted to be inside on a rare, nice winter day?

Not us.

When Edie came into the world I couldn’t help but wish for her a sister. And when my little sister gave her a little girl cousin, we were both thrilled that at least they would have each other. And now Rosie is here and we get the privilege of watching the beginning of a sisterhood that has the potential to be powerful and wonderful and challenging and all the things these girls will need from each other as they grow up.

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I remember what it meant to me, to have my older sister spend time with me, dressing up and dancing to pass a long winter night. Or teaching me things I found so embarrassing, like how to shave my legs or what bra I should wear.

I’m not sure if I did the same for my little sister, you know, teaching her the gross girly stuff. That’s never really been in my wheelhouse. But I remember teaching her letters and numbers and sounds to make words, I remember building her a fort across the creek from mine, close but far enough away for a tin can telephone. And when I got older, I drove her to her orthodontists appointments and took her and her friends to a concert in the big town. I watched her play basketball and I cheered her on and she inspired me with her determination and confidence and made me proud.

Out here, in the middle of nowhere especially, I think girls need each other. Because it can be lonesome. Because it can be intimidating. Because girls just need other girls to remind them that they have muscles too and that they can do it, and if not, they have help.

My sisters have been gifts to me and I can’t wait to see what our girls become, with each other and on their own.

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But then there’s a little piece of me that’s nervous for them, knowing the unique challenges girls face in the big wide, intimidating world. Because there was a time I was scared to grow up to be a woman in it. And I don’t want that for them. I don’t want them to question their strength, but to flex at every possible moment. I want them to howl and sing and back up the pickup to the horse trailer like a champ. I want them to wear what they want and pursue what they want without that voice in their head wondering what people will think of them. And if Edie’s being an idiot, I want Rosie to have the brains and strength to tell her. And I want Edie to trust her enough to only be pissed for a few days about it.

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And the other way around, of course. Because we’re all idiots sometimes. That’s the point here I guess, I want them to feel safe enough in their skin and in their relationships to make mistakes. Big, giant, mistakes if they must.

Because being a woman in this world, it’s a mess. A big, loud, glittery, dirty, grass stained, complicated, scary, wonderful mess. And I want them to be proud of it. Proud of themselves. And proud of each other for it…

 

Dear Daughters: Be anything but afraid of growing up
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My two-year-old stood before me, her little pastel jewelry set draped around her neck and wrists, and took a bow. “I a queeeennn!!!” she declared as she bent down to the ground and stood back up, beaming before sprinting down the hallway for more props.

Queen.

This is not a label we parents have given to her, but one of many she’s picked up for herself as part of the pretend world she’s creating, the way a 2-year-old should.

Better a queen than a princess, I thought to myself. She might as well pretend to be the one in charge. And just as I completed the thought, the little queen came flying out of her room, transformed now into a big, scary, growling monster, proving that in the mind of a toddler, you can be anything. The very same day she was also a tiger, a bear, a guitar player, a dancer, a cook and “funny.” I know, because she told us. And then she laughed and laughed.

As for me, well, it’s starting to sink in that I am now the mother of two girls. It’s a responsibility that feels a bit heavy and significant these days as I watch the news and am reminded what being a girl in this world can mean. I listen to my daughter who is just learning language, point to her dad and declare him a boy and then to me, a girl. Her sister? A baby.

She’s learning the difference already, if only by length of hair and lack of whiskers, and it reminds me of the time in my life when I was convinced femininity wasn’t something to be proud of.

I suppose I was staring puberty in the face and knew enough from watching my older sister to decide that I didn’t want the burden and fussiness that came with that sort of transition. The bras, the boys, the maintenance of pretty — it was scary and unfamiliar territory I wasn’t ready to navigate.

I was convinced that it would all be easier if I had been born a boy, for those reasons and because I thought that it would make me fit better out here at the ranch, that I would have more muscle to open the gates, or that somehow being a boy would make me braver or more capable, more trusted with things I wanted to be a part of, like horses and chores.

I didn’t want to face the pressure of the “girl” stuff. And so I worked harder to show those muscles, so much so that there were times I faked interest in things I had no real interest in and probably missed out on things I would have liked to be a part of.

Eventually I came into my own — that’s part of the process — but, darling girls, I don’t want you to be afraid, like I was, of growing up. I don’t want you to be afraid of being a girl.

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No.

Because girl or boy, you’re in charge of your identity and your body. You have the power to create you. So today you might be a queen, but tomorrow you can be anything.

Defining a good life

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January’s the longest month up here. It’s the coldest. The days are short and the nights of darkness drag on. If you’re prone to depression, this is when it hits you hard. The holidays are over and the appeal of the fuzzy sweater sort of hunkering down has worn off, making you crave a tropical vacation, or at the very least, a warm up to above zero so you can throw a proper sledding party.

These past few weeks have ticked by slowly for us. With a new baby, it’s not so appealing to bundle everyone up and head out on an errand, a visit or for activity that’s not necessary, although I have made a few trips to help avoid cabin fever. And, since dad’s been in the hospital since Halloween, it’s been strangely quiet around here. My husband has taken to the chores and ranch management alone, with the occasional “help” from his little family when it’s warm enough for us to come along for the ride.

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Feeding cows happens for him when he gets home from his day job after the sun has set. Depending on how our timing works out, he may or may not have supper with us and he may or may not be home in time to say goodnight to Edie.

When my dad’s around some of the chores are split a bit, helping to ease the time burden that comes with a full time job.

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Since dad’s been sick, and on his worst days teetering on the brink of death, we’ve had a chance to realize what it must have been like for my family out here after my grandma and grampa died. It explains why my parents haven’t spent much of their time sitting still. And it explains why most of my memories are of riding along with my dad, on a horse, or in an old feed pickup. Because that’s the only chance we got to spend time together. And we’re so lucky that he didn’t see us kids in the passenger’s seat or on the trail behind him as a burden and even more lucky that he made watching him and helping him work a fun adventure, full of laughs and appreciation for the beautiful place, even when he was armpit deep in fixing a plugged water tank or up to his neck in bull-berry brush fixing fence on a 90 degree day.

I realize now that for every time he took us along he was sort of sacrificing his time, slowing down his pace to have us there beside him. I didn’t realize how much value time held out here until coming home as an adult and trying to make it all work, fit it all in, family, work and ranching. Each minute of daylight is gold and it can be maddening if you let it take you over. But I don’t remember noticing.  I guess that’s a testament to the way I was raised and the good memories I chose to keep close.

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I can only hope we can do the same for our girls, to take them along and take the time to point out the grouse in the brush, the deer on the hillside, the way the moss grows on the rocks and the frogs croak at night. That’s the only way they’ll love it the way we love it, is if we show them why it all matters so much.

But if we falter, I’m happy to report, we will soon have Papa home to set us straight, to show us the things we haven’t learned yet, to set us on the right path and to teach his grandkids about the backs of horses.

Yes, after nearly three months of hospital stays, and a long, scary stint in the ICU, dad is in recovery, working on building up his strength to come home. And we’re so thankful, knowing how easily it could have turned the other way.

Thank you for all of your thoughts and prayers. We will be so happy to have him here to continue to live this life we call good.

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Coming Home: How to define a good life
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I woke up to the sun slowly appearing over the big hill that faces our tall windows.

“One ribbon at a time” is a quote I read somewhere describing the sunrise, and I recite it in my head as the pinks, purples and golds appear in the sky just long enough to transform and fade into blue.

Some mornings I don’t take the time to notice it the way I used to before the babies arrived, but when I do, it always reminds me of the reasons we moved back home to the ranch seven years ago.

Has it been seven years already? That number sounds so permanent to me, as if the house and the kids and the cattle aren’t enough solidification of the decision we made when we were so young to plant our lives here for good.

“For good.”

When I say it that way it means forever, but I look at it here, written down, and I feel compelled to define it.

When we’re planning out our hope for the future, the “good” is what we tally up to help finalize our decisions. We chose our people based on the laughs, the calm and the well-timed casseroles or phone calls they bring into our lives. It’s the good that brings us closer to the imperfect parts of them — the scars, the mess, the mistakes that make up their not-as-pretty storyline. I think the same can be said for the places we chose.

Last summer I participated in a series of interviews for a project that will showcase the unique lives of women in all 50 states. This included a series of long phone conversations with a few female journalists in big cities on the East Coast, answering questions about what life was like out here on a landscape they’ve never seen before.

While we talked, I imagined them in trendy haircuts sitting in a high rise behind a desk in a web of cubicles, photos of boyfriends or children pinned to the fabric of their makeshift walls. Walls inside walls inside walls.

I wonder if they imagined me on the phone during my toddler’s nap time, my belly swelling with a new baby on the way, sweeping the dirt and little pieces of scoria off the floor as a line of black cows trudged by our fence line on their way to the dam for water.

“I suppose it is a lot to take on,” I remember remarking after one interviewer asked why we chose what she called “a hard life.” I just described how we are responsible for the fences and the water, the buildings, the animals and the land. And we have so much to learn as we attempt to fill the big shoes that left this here for us.

But a hard life?

No one out here has ever declared it to be so, not even as it’s all done on second shift, when the sun is going down, or while it’s coming up, a ribbon at a time.

But a good one?

That I’ve heard. And that’s why we’re here.

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Parenting. It’s no joke.

Ok guys, I’ve been trying to get this posted for about 2 hours. Since sitting down to type it while the toddler was coloring and the baby was sleeping in her rocker, I’ve been sidetracked for the following reasons:

1. Edie was putting the stickers I gave her in her mouth. She knows better. She does it anyway.

2. After asking her to stop, like three times, she still thought stickers were a good form of nutrition. So I took them away. She was then done with that project and needed to get down immediately to head to her room to look for a doll. Fine. Great. Go play.

3. Baby needed pacifier

4. Ten seconds pass and Edie’s out of her room. She needs her Elsa and Rapunzel dolls and she needs them stat. They are downstairs in the basement. She can’t go unaccompanied and can’t be convinced to stay where she is. I grab the baby and we go downstairs.

5. The kittens are in the basement. Edie remembered. She needed to go see them. Which reminded me that I needed to change the litter. Up the stairs for a garbage bag. On the way I notice the dishes that hadn’t been cleaned up from an evening with friends. I  proceed with my cleaning tasks while Edie plays.

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6. Baby needs to be burped.  Edie wants to watch a movie. I put on Chicken Little.

8. Baby poops. I convince Edie to come back upstairs with us. We head upstairs.

9. Halfway up Edie realizes that she forgot her play phone. I convince her to stay right there, I’ll get it. I go get it.

10. I change the baby and remember that Edie needs a potty break. I put the toddler on the potty and while I wait I put some things away in the baby’s room and hang a picture that has been sitting on the floor for weeks.

11. I switch a load of laundry.

12. Check on Edie. Still working on the potty thing.

13. Baby needs to be fed. I feed the baby and sorta dose off for a few minutes to the sounds of a cooking show on TV.

14. Wake up and realize that Edie’s still on the potty. She doesn’t want to get off…still working on something and I’m not going to mess with the process…so here we are again.

So friends, don’t let the peaceful family photos above fool you into thinking that we live in a portrait. Nope. I’ll blow that theory up right now: everything that came before and everything that came after these shots were taken was chaos. Actually, let’s be real. There was quite a bit of chaos during as well.

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But today I braved it all and took the kids into town for gymnastics because we needed to get out of the damn house. And nobody had a meltdown for more than a few seconds at a time (not even me) and so I call it a win.

And that’s a small victory on this long road we call parenting. And as of New Year’s Day, I’m officially only one month in to being a mom of two, so I’ll soak up every one.

Hold on…sounds like Edie’s done.

Coming Home: Parenting: The joke’ s on us
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You guys, this parenting thing is no joke.

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I say this as I’m celebrating my first month spent working to keep two kids happy, healthy and out of harm’s way. And by out of harm’s way, I mean so many things. Like encouraging the toddler to be helpful, but not the “pulling-her-infant-baby-sister-out-of-her-swing-to-change-her-diaper” kind of helpful.

Or the “shoving-the-pacifier-back-in-her-tiny-mouth-with-the-strength-and-grace-of-a-hippo” sort of helpful.

But it’s hard, because 2-year-olds have issues with limits and infants would prefer to be left alone to eat, sleep and poop, thankyouverymuch.

At least that’s the prerogative for this infant anyway, thank the Lord in Heaven. Because the Lord in Heaven knew that if he gave me the wide-awake, must-be-moving-at-all-times new baby that was our firstborn, I would be building my mother-in-law a cabin in our backyard and offering to pay her to never leave.

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But that’s not the case. Our little Rosie has been a laid-back dream, a baby who looks like me but takes after her father. It’s our 2-year-old (the one who looks like her father, but takes after me) who’s been keeping us on our toes by deciding that sleep is no longer an activity she needs in her life and making sure we all know it by staying up and scream-crying about it until 2 a.m.

How naïve of me to think we had bedtime down pat just in time for another round of late night feedings.

Good thing I haven’t really slept in two years anyway.

But we sort of expected retaliation, especially when my overly ambitious husband decided to use the short week he had off to be home with us to work on potty training the toddler.

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He said he was tired of having philosophical discussions with her about the meaning of life while changing her diaper, so he took to task. Which has actually been going pretty well since we got through the first few days of wiping pee puddles off the floor — with the exception of that incident last week where I was nursing the baby and Edie declared an emergency: incoming poop (I’m always nursing the baby when Edie declares emergencies), so I rushed her to the bathroom, whipped off her pants and sent that emergency turd out “splat” on the floor so quickly I didn’t notice it until I squished it nice and flat with my foot.

“At least you had socks on” was my husband’s attempt at finding the bright side, while I stood in the hallway and laughed the hysterical and desperate laugh only a mother of a toddler and an infant can pull off.

It’s the same laugh I used during Rosie’s newborn photo shoot where the photographer posed her all curled up and diaper-less in her dad’s going-to-town cowboy hat, only to leave it full of pee.

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“At least you didn’t put it back on your head!” I said, but he didn’t laugh with me on that one. He just stared blankly into the warm puddle.

So maybe parenting is a joke after all, one you need to be the right amount of exhausted to understand…

Bravery and Compassion in the New Year

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Happy New Year from the ranch where we spent the holidays trying to keep our house and our spirits warm against the chilling sub-zero temperatures. According to the National Weather Service, Hettinger, North Dakota, a small town on our southwestern boarder, reached -45 degrees — and it may have been the coldest recorded temperature on Earth that day.

The coldest recorded temperature on Earth, right in my home state. I’m not sure that’s a record anyone wants, but here we are.

And here we are on the other side of the holidays and one whole month into being parents of two kids.

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And this morning we’re back to the real world after spending the holidays together, keeping up the traditions of pancakes and church on Christmas Eve, and presents and prime rib on Christmas morning at the ranch despite the fact that my parents were spending their holiday in a hospital hundreds of miles away.

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Up until this point in our lives I couldn’t imagine what it might feel like to spend Christmas with my family anywhere but together, safe and sound. Now I know. Now I know what that feels like, a lesson I’ve taken from all of the hard times we’ve endured as a family along the way, suddenly so aware that, sadly, we’re not alone in the story. And  that compassion, I’m coming to realize, can be the gift we take from the hard stuff.

Just a few minutes ago I got off the phone with my little sister who took the trip to see mom and dad in Minneapolis. In a miraculous gift to us, dad was released from ICU before Christmas and after a pivotal procedure, is showing some signs of coming out on the other side of this thing. So we could breathe a sigh of relief and truly smile and laugh as we watched our kids take in the magic of the season.

After lukewarm feelings about present unwrapping at my in-law’s the weekend before, Edie woke up looking and acting like the epitome of a kid on Christmas morning.

My little sister’s husband was working over the holiday, so she spent the night at our house with her baby daughter and we got to sip mimosa, eat caramel rolls and sit on the living room floor helping them unwrap gifts. It was everything we needed and watching Edie snuggle her new sister and help her younger cousin was everything magic can be to adults who sometimes forget that it exists.

My older sister and nephew joined us later and we spent the rest of the day making appetizers, watching the kids play with their new toys and trying not to screw up Christmas dinner, which we did, sort of, but I blame it on my husband’s newfound obsession with his Traeger grill.  But it didn’t matter really and it was sort of fitting that supper was just slightly off, a reflection of how we felt about the quiet day spent being grateful and worried and hunkered down and hopeful in the face of a new year.

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That you can’t predict it is the greatest gift and torment this life hands us. I look at my new daughter’s face this morning and there are no truer words to describe what I’m feeling about life, on January 2nd, stepping over into what we all refer to as a fresh start.

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I’m not so sure about that. Even with this new life in my arms, I don’t feel fresh. To feel fresh I think I’d have to feel less worn. But I’m not sure I want to feel any other way right now. The sleeplessness means I have a new baby, a second child, one I could never even bring myself to imagine…and a toddler with a plugged nose and a newfound refusal to sleep whose existence changed everything. And this worry I carry for the wellbeing of my parents means they’re still here with us for another day, and God willing, another new year.

And so I’ll take it. I’ll take what I know to be true for now and be grateful that this year, as each year before, has made me braver, and stronger instead of scared and hard.

Bravery and compassion. Let that be my gift for the years to come.

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Coming Home: Finding compassion is the gift given to us in hard times
 Forum Communications
Published December 24, 2017

Christmas is here. The weatherman on the news this morning is warning us of the impending winter storm, the kind that will blow cold arctic air in from Canada and give us a gift of a white and freezing holiday.

My husband will come home from work tonight after the sun has set and make little tweaks to the tractors and pickups, making sure they’re ready to feed the cattle and plow through the snow banks for the rest of the season. Typically he and Dad would be making plans together to prepare for the snow, but Dad has the bigger task before him of fighting for his life in an ICU in Minneapolis.

And I can’t help but think this holiday, as I wrap presents and struggle to form Santa cookies from the store bought, refrigerated dough so that Edie can slowly and meticulously place an entire bottle of sprinkles on one cookie, what a charmed life we’ve been living here.

The holidays, especially Christmas, can be a hard time for so many people. It was for us for many years before the babies came, because it was a small reminder of the absence of the thing we wanted most. But we were the lucky ones, always grateful for our family and that, because we live so close, we were usually able to be together.

This year my parents will be spending Christmas in a hospital in another state and we will be here at the ranch with their grandchildren celebrating and missing them. It’s a reality that reminds me of the hard things in our lives that we’ve lived through — job losses, baby losses, career fails, health scares and near misses — that have set me back on my heels, forced me to catch my breath and had me declaring out loud, “So that’s what it feels like.”

It’s a simple phrase, but one that is meaningful to me, especially in the toughest of moments. But I declare it. I say it out loud and with intention because it reminds me that through the hardest struggles, if I can find no meaning, no rhyme or reason for the pain, at least the experience will foster in me a newfound compassion for others who have or may find themselves suffering the same fate.

Up until this point in our lives I couldn’t imagine what it might feel like to spend Christmas with my family anywhere but together, safe and sound. Now I’m suddenly so aware that, sadly, we’re not alone in that sort of story.

And I don’t know what to do with that awareness except to show gratitude for the moments we’re given and for a supportive and loving community that has been there for us in numerous ways.

And I can pass on the generosity and compassion in ways that might help families in similar situations, because now we know what to do.

Now we know what it feels like.

Keeping the spirit.

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It’s been a long week at the ranch. I’m not going to lie. We’re still holding our breath, waiting to hear that dad’s condition is improving, but with this sickness, it’s one step forward and one (or two or three) steps back. But we’re trying to stay positive.

And we’re leaning on our family and community.

And we’re trying to keep the traditions and spirit of the season surrounding us, not just for our babies, but to lighten our own hearts.

This week we decorated the Christmas tree with baby Rosie rocking in her swing while her big sister declared everything to be so “bootiful.”

On Sunday we attended our rural church’s Christmas program and were surrounded by the love of our neighbors and the light of these innocent little children who are absolutely cherished.

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Rosalee was Baby Jesus #5 and Edie was a lamb, who wouldn’t perform until the woman in charge gave her a microphone. And so she was declared my daughter (as if it wasn’t already apparent).

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And I was determined then to keep that Christmas theme up for the rest of the day and so we baked Christmas cookies.

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Little Sister and baby Ada brought us the kind that come out of a refrigerated tube and they turned out imperfect and ugly.  Edie spent a good hour shaking sprinkles on her one special cookie, and she was delighted by the whole thing while I frosted the rest and Little Sister worked to keep Ada’s little fingers away from the frosting. But it was something to keep our hands busy while we tried to quiet our minds from the worry.

The worry’s always with us. But this season especially, I’m trying my best to dig deep and stay calm and believe in better days to come.

It’s something I know now that my parents have done for us in our lives when loss and sickness and uncertain times have knocked on their door. I know now what it’s like to want to curl up and cry, but there’s breakfast to make, diapers to change, Jingle Bells to sing and babies to rock.

Because this is life. And it can glow and sting all at once…

Before Rosie arrived I wanted to hold her safe in my womb until our lives were put back in place the way she deserved them to be when she entered this world, as if I had control of such things.

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Now I know better. To be simultaneously happy and terrified is exhausting, but we needed her here with us, to keep us busy, to make us smile and to patch the aching parts of our hearts up with hope.

Last weekend we loaded up the pickup with the girls, my little sister and baby niece to take a drive across the ranch looking for a wild cedar to cut for our Christmas tree. This is a ritual we started with Dad when we were just little girls, and it felt good to be out there, working to keep in the tradition of the holiday. We rolled and bumped slowly along prairie trails and fence lines, stopping to watch a herd of elk cut through a clearing and up along the horizon.

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“Look at that Edie,” we exclaimed. “Look at the elk!”

“Ohh,” she replied, her eyes wide with wonder before turning to me and asking, “But where are the hippos?”

And sitting side my side the cab of the pickup, dressed up warm for a long, cold season, our frazzled nerves were calmed for a moment as we all let the air out of our lungs and laughed.

And I said a quiet prayer of thanks for these children who remind us to keep breathing.

Today I can do nothing but be thankful for our little lights.

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Time reminds us.

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Rosalee Gene came into this world quickly on Friday, December 1st at 9:14 am. Before she was born she didn’t have a name. We hadn’t found one that we were set on, should the baby we were growing be a girl. We decided we needed to meet her first.

And when I met her I knew. I looked up at my husband looking down at the squishy, wailing, slimy, dark haired little human resting on my chest and he said he knew too.

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“You say it first,” he said.

“Rosalee,” I said.

“Yes. Rosalee.”

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And so we have our little Rosie Gene. Gene named after my dad who has, for over a month, been in a fight for his life, battling a pancreas that is dying on him.

It’s been excruciating, this wait and see. The long hospital stay. The ICU, the terminology, the air flight to Minneapolis, hearing my mom’s tired voice on the other end of the line. Our hearts stopping at every ding of our phones.

As I type my dad’s in critical condition in the ICU in a hospital in Minneapolis known for their expertise in pancreatitis. He is intubated. He can’t talk. They are making plans to remove the fluid that builds up as a result of the inflamed pancreas, a dangerous condition stemming from a dangerous condition and the whole healing process is a Catch 22.

And we can’t be there with them. Because we have to be here. Taking care of our daughters and the ranch and each other waiting on news.

To be so simultaneously happy and terrified is exhausting and overwhelming, but we’re taking it day by day, minute by minute, praying and hoping and dreaming of an outcome that brings dad home to the ranch to meet Rosie Gene. We have so many people, a whole army of community members doing the same thing and we are grateful. And I am so grateful for this family of ours.

I wrote the piece below as I was waiting in Bismarck for Rosie to arrive. Since then dad has taken a turn for the worse and we have had a week at home with our new baby girl. Today is my husband’s first day back at work and my first day home with both of them. We cut our Christmas tree last night off the place, determined to keep in the tradition and spirit of the holiday because that’s what my parents want and that’s what we need to do for these kids of ours, and really, in times like these, what choice do we have but to chin up and be strong.

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Thank you for your thoughts and prayers and casseroles and cards and texts and phone calls and emails and love. They mean so much to us.

Coming Home: Time is a reminder to love one another
Forum Communications

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By the time you read this we will be a family of four.

I’m writing this from a borrowed laptop in the basement of my best friend’s house in Bismarck, waiting on a baby who has shown us that it’s not safe to drive the three hours home, because we might not make it back in time to deliver.

It’s fitting really for this to be the sort of in-limbo news I’m sharing considering the tough and unpredictable month we’ve had as a family.

Since October turned to November, my dad has been fighting for his life as his pancreas does the hard work it needs to do to heal itself. After my dad was rushed back to the big town for another week in the hospital, the Friday after Thanksgiving, my mom called in the family to see him off on a plane ride to seek the help of the experts in Minneapolis.

We left Edie in good hands with my in-laws and found ourselves surrounded by close family and skyscrapers in the big city, not knowing if our dad would come out of this, reminded, once again, what living minute by minute can feel like.

It’s excruciating.

And as we sat with him in the ICU, we slowly sunk into a world so far from the buttes, golden grass and the peaceful calm of the ranch we kept telling my dad to visualize that we barely remembered it existed ourselves, the foreign sound of the monitor beeps and the taste of lukewarm coffee from a Styrofoam cup becoming our new normal.

How many times can you ask a person how he’s feeling before sending you all off the rails?

If we really wanted to know we could ask the people in the room next door who’ve been there longer or are fighting harder, the ones we walked by in the hallway in a weeping embrace, saying they did all they could for her.

And then we can say a prayer of thanks because, for now, we are the lucky ones.

We are the lucky ones who still have some hope here.

My husband and I left my dad with my mom and good doctors to heal slowly in a hospital bed in one of those skyscrapers that lights up the city skyline at night, each twinkle in the rearview mirror reminding me of the millions of stories beginning and ending under the light of the moon, living room lamps, restaurant candles or the fluorescent hum of the hospital lights we’ve come to know too well.

Any day now those lights will be the first thing our new baby sees as he or she takes that first breath in this world. And I will never forget the way it felt to try to hold life in my womb so tight these past few days, terrified to bring a new soul into a world that suddenly felt so unfamiliar to us all.

But time, you see, we don’t own it here, no matter the grip we thought we had on it all.

I think, at the end of the day, the only thing we really have to hold on to is our capacity to love one another, which is even more amazing when you realize you just get more of it when you give it away.

Time is just a reminder that you don’t have forever to do it.