The ranch and the weather

Hoping for the weather to cooperate
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Last Friday a grass fire began to rage up north near our neighbors’ house. I had planned to have our Arizona-turned-North Dakota friends over to help feed the bottle baby calf, pet the horses and make them a proper Tater Tot hotdish.

They were coming over at 5, and my husband left to fight a fire at 1. I asked him, stupidly, as he was rushing out the door, “Do you think you’ll be home by 5?” And of course, he replied, “I hope so!”

And I hoped so too. Not just because I wanted him home in time for hotdish and friend-hosting, but because it would mean that they would have that fire under control by then.

The face of a fireman

On Saturday, the wind died down and the sun shone so bright that my oldest daughter couldn’t help but strip off her shirt and play in the dirt left waiting for the spring petunias in our flowerpots. I sat my husband down on a stool on the deck, he pulled his shirt off as well and I started to clip and buzz and cut the winter hair that had grown long on his head, shedding another layer as we moved slowly into a new season that was feeling so different than all the springs before it. Crocuses and muddy puddles, plum blossoms and new grass blades evaporated by a sky that just won’t give up the moisture.

That afternoon, looking a little less like a mountain man, my husband went out to check the cows and found a tiny calf, just barely over 30 pounds, left trying to get milk off her sick mother. He scooped her up in his arms and brought her down to the barnyard where I was brushing out horses and the girls were taking turns seeing how high they could climb the corral panels before they became too scared to jump off.

The tiniest calf we’ve ever seen

I just helped Rosie up on Tootsie and was watching the fluffy, old, partially blind mini horse wander around the barnyard with my youngest on board, when my husband arrived with a calf the size of a small goat — and just like that, the ponies were old news. The girls squealed and sprung to action with pets and snuggles, concerned looks, bottle-holding and more questions about calf poop and umbilical cords turned to belly buttons.

Little Mommies

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Chad and I quietly hoped that poor little baby and her mom might make it through the night and told the girls to be careful now. Not so high. Why don’t you come down and help get these calves some fresh hay to lie on?

With my niece, the animal whisperer

The next day we woke up to rain, just enough to coat the ground and make us dare hope for more. We mixed up three big bottles for the two calves and the girls dug for their rain jackets and rushed out the door to dance in it. “Rain!” they hollered. “It’s raining!” And they twirled and ran and jumped and danced as if there was no way to contain themselves. As if, in their tiny little bones, they understood what a miracle it was.

If I wasn’t holding three big ‘ol calf bottles with a mission to finally get to the barn after two pancake refills, a hair-brushing argument, a hunt for the right mittens, two boot changes, two coat changes and a trip back for a snack for the way, I might have danced, too. And alongside the road on our way to the barn, the baby calves kicked up their heels, running and bucking and playing just like my daughters, thrilled for the drops on their backs.

We tucked our girls in that night too late and we both fell asleep beside them while our muddy boots worked on drying off in the entryway, our cattle bedded down in the draws and the rain quietly turning to snow to pile up to 3 inches on our thirsty land.

And so on Sunday, we dug out the snow pants, caps and mittens, fed a little more hay and found another stray calf, maybe the twin to the tiny one we’re still fussing over. And hoping for… just like I hoped, on Friday, when the land was burning up, that my husband might be home in time for supper…

Answering the call

Answering the call, because someone has to
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Last weekend, my husband had plans to work on the house addition that extends our living room and gives us a main level master bedroom for when our joints start to get too creaky to carry laundry and our bodies up and down the steps to our loft.

When your husband’s a carpenter, the renovation ideas never stop, and so we were looking forward to the progress he was going to make in two days of uninterrupted carpentry work on our own house. Except that uninterrupted thing lasted only a few hours into Saturday morning before his phone sounded the alarm.

If I didn’t hear it myself, I know immediately by the way he strides, big steps through the house, grabbing his coat and his hat and that big duffle bag in the entryway. “Going to a fire,” he says calmly as he swoops past me in the kitchen or out in the driveway where the girls are practicing riding their bikes on the only patch of cement for miles.

If I think he can hear me, I might ask him “where?” because for some reason knowing the general direction he’s heading in such a hurry puts me a little more at ease with the idea that he’s literally running into a fire.

That was Saturday. Sunday sent him out until past supper. We’re having grass fires in March. We desperately need rain.

When my husband and I first moved back to the ranch about 10 years ago, we lived in my Grandma Veeder’s small farmstead house while we built a new house over the hill. One hot summer evening, we arrived home to a blown breaker. Chad went down to the basement to flip the switch and just like that, the inside of our wall was on fire.

“Call 911,” he said calmly as he emerged from the basement and started handing me things to throw out on the lawn. Within minutes our neighbor, a volunteer rural fireman, was at our side, telling us the trucks were on their way. And under a calm, starlit sky, standing surrounded by my guitar, piles of clothes still on hangers, photo albums and paperwork, our computer and all the material things we could grab in armfuls from the house before it was no longer safe, I watched as the men and women of our “neighborhood” that spans dozens of square miles worked to save my dad’s childhood home from flames.

And they did. The house wasn’t grand, 650 square feet of wood and a crumbling foundation, but it was sentimental and it was one of the most helpless and lonesome feelings I’ve ever experienced, standing back and watching the flames rise. Those volunteer firefighters, my neighbors and former schoolmates, they managed to successfully put out the fire so that we had a chance to walk back inside and sift through the damage, gather the rest of the things worth saving, and shut the door for good.

That moment, my husband decided to become a first responder. I’m certain he would have made that decision without the upheaval, but true to the way we learn lessons around these parts, I know he made note of what those people meant to us in that moment. And he knew, at the very least, he could try to do the same where he was able.

I didn’t understand then, standing under that black July sky, what it really meant to be a rural firefighter. I didn’t know it meant, years later, that they would be the first on the scene to help my dad on the stretcher in the middle of the night — neighbors seeing neighbors at their most vulnerable.

I didn’t know it meant monthly meetings, training sessions, suppers interrupted, weekend plans paused, hammers dropped, doors left open, jobs left undone, breath held until the coast was clear. Until they’re out of the woods. Until they’re needed again.

And it certainly isn’t for the money — they volunteer, after all — or for the accolades. It’s 100% because that’s what living out here in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of everything means — to be on standby. To be there when the call comes.

And my husband, he will be the first to admit that he’s got work to do, that he could be better, take more trainings, get to more calls, that he’s working on it, that he’s doing what he can. But to know there are people like him out there with the call to action in their front shirt pocket, it makes that big black sky feel less lonesome, those county roads less desolate, nerves less shot.

It makes us feel so much less on our own to fight the flames, the out-of-nowhere crashes, the unexpected pains or slips that threaten to change it all in a blink…

To know, Sunday dinner or house project be damned, someone’s running when we call? What a thing to do. What a thing to be.

My sister over the hill

My sister over the hill
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My little sister, her husband and their two young daughters have lived over the hill from us at the ranch for over a year now. When they sold their cute little home in town and moved into the cabin while they built a house out here, Alex was pregnant with her now one-year-old, her two year old was climbing the walls and neither one of us could have understood how much the two families would come to rely on one another in the coming months.

Not many people predict a cancer diagnosis, let alone a global pandemic over the horizon waiting to make us all feel isolated, helpless and utterly disorientated, but here we are, all more grateful than ever to have backup.

We celebrated my youngest’s third birthday last night, and this morning my little sister texted me: Let me know if your girls’ poop is blue from all that frosting!

Only a best friend/sister would want to know a thing like that, if only to laugh together about the absurdities of parenthood.

Being in the middle of this season of raising our daughters together is one of those unexpected gifts that all of those years of infertility struggles gave us. If my husband and I would have been able to start our family the way we thought we should almost fifteen years ago, our children would be babysitting their cousins instead of growing up alongside them like sisters, eating blue frosted cupcakes together in their leotards after gymnastics on Tuesday nights and fighting over baby doll strollers and Play Dough rolling pins. And while Alex wouldn’t turn down a couple babysitters living down the road, I think we all feel pretty lucky (not to mention outnumbered) around here.

And the thing is, while raising children on the ranch thirty miles from the nearest structured entertainment comes with so many blessings—the wide open spaces, the life long lessons, unlimited pet inventory and an abundance of big rocks and hay bales to climb—there’s plenty about it, especially as a parent of young kids, that can make you feel pretty isolated. 

Like when you’re in the middle of making supper for a hungry family and you realize you don’t have the main ingredient in your pantry. Like beans for chili or, in my case a few weeks ago, cheese for grilled cheese…

You just can’t have tomato soup without grilled cheese. Also, you sorta halfta have cheese….

Yes, my neighbor/ little sister is my extended pantry, sounding board, change of scenery, chicken nugget lunch time date, quick drop off point and, most importantly, a second mother to my daughters, which is my favorite part.

Because everyone needs a fearless backup who isn’t afraid to climb her own auntie/mom butt up to the top of the playground to retrieve your defiant screaming child while you have your hands full helping the other one take an emergency pee in the grass…

When my girls play “babies” together and neither one of them wants to be the daddy, they pretend they are aunties who live in the same pink house together because their husbands are out hunting or working, or, you know, they died….

Yeah, it can get a little dark in my kids’ pretend world. Alex tells me that’s normal, which is another reason I like having her around.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Rosie needs help on the potty and, frankly, now I’m curious.

Cheers to sisters/friends/family/shoulders to lean on in this crazy world of parenting. My wish is you have one down the block or right over the hill.

5 years

5 Years
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This week’s column is all about our firstborn turning five and how fast the years fly. And tomorrow our second born turns three, and officially we don’t really have any babies or real toddler-types in the house these days, considering Rosie has a vocabulary of the old man she used to be in her previous life.

Anyway, it’s been nothing but cupcakes and balloons, baby doll and Barbie gifts, wrapping paper and streamers around here, and we have so much to be thankful for…

But let me know if you need any cake, and I’ll ship you some…

My firstborn daughter just turned 5.

Five. An age that seemed so far away when we brought her home from the hospital on Thanksgiving day, feeling somehow exhausted, excited, overwhelmed and at peace at the same time.

Five is an age that seemed imaginary when I was walking her back and forth on the floor of our room, trying to soothe her and get her back to sleep for the fourth time that night, wondering if I was ever going to have a full night’s rest, thinking this phase might just last forever.

Five is an age that seemed like a lifetime when she took her first steps walking down our hallway on Christmas day and we thought, “Well, now it’s getting real, isn’t it?” The growing-up thing.

That first year goes slow and then fast and then, apparently, every year after that is a blink.

I opened my eyes this morning and that newborn baby was downstairs before the sun, dressed in her new birthday outfit and begging me to help her put together the 370-piece Lego set she unwrapped the night before. Hold on girl, let me get my coffee…

And also, what was I thinking? 370 pieces is a commitment I wasn’t ready for.

Being ready. That seems to be a theme in the lives of parents. The being ready when the little pink line shows up. The being ready when we bring them home. The being ready when they have a poop explosion in the middle of the Sunday school program five minutes before they are supposed to make their debut as Baby Jesus No. 4.

Being ready when they ask the tough questions about where they were before they were born and how many stars are in the sky and when great-grandma got to heaven, did she get to be young again?

I thought these kinds of questions came later. This is only five. Pretty soon she’ll be reading and then she’ll be driving, taking her little sister along on the big wide-open road away from us and toward a life of their own making.

Once I asked my husband his greatest wish for his daughters and he said that if they grew up and felt like they could unapologetically be themselves, whoever that is, we would have done our jobs.

And then he said something that I loved. He said he was excited to learn from them, to get into what they’re into, whether it’s ballet or trapshooting, science experiments or cake-decorating.

Just the other day he proved he wasn’t bluffing when he came up from watching TV in the basement with the girls and said, “You know, those Barbie movies are actually pretty good.” Something I never thought would come out of his mouth five years ago.

The same way I never thought I would be sitting down at 7 a.m. to put a Lego tower together.

But you do it for them, for your children. Because their happiness is your happiness, and isn’t that the greatest gift they can give us, to live beyond ourselves so that they can go out into the world and ask the big questions?

Even if that day seems about as far away as the day we put the last block on this Lego tower…

Happy birthday, Edie… And happy Birthday Rosie! You are our dream come true.

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Sale now until the end of the week!

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…

Kids and ponies
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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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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