Setbacks and Moving Forward

I guess there are bound to be setbacks. This one caught me very much off-guard. I’ve been feeling different for the past two months. I realized I was spending a lot more time just really missing Jake and a lot less time obsessing over every last minute of that tragic day and the days that surrounded it. I noticed I was focusing better and more often. I even found myself singing in the car with the kids!

Then the other morning I got a phone call that my dad had been admitted to the hospital and it felt like I was reliving August 27, 2014. My mother was saying a lot of words to me and I couldn’t even put them together to have them make sense.  Anyone who knows me, probably knows my dad and knows what an incredible person he is. I can’t even think of an adjective superlative enough to describe my dad. For the past few weeks he has been in horrendous pain and unable to leave his bed. My mother has been taking care of him and watching him continue in such pain has really taken its toll on her. He had been to the ER once already, but this time they admitted him because he had pain with breathing.

I now can truly tell you what a flashback is and how it is different from a terrible memory.  A flashback is the feeling of being in the moment of a tragic event. My heart racing, my body shaking, visions of everything I saw and did that day in the immediate AFTER. I had to pass by Harborview on the way to the hospital and that is an area I have avoided. I vividly saw myself jumping out of the car of the wonderful stranger who drove me there that day and running into the ER. As I walked through the hospital to my dad’s room, I felt myself walking through the halls of Harborview, not knowing much (because the police were assholes…have I ever mentioned that?)–not understanding that when you are taken to a private room for your family by a social worker–that means something very, very bad has happened. It seems like all hospitals have that same smell. I lived with that smell when I stayed with Jake and I didn’t even really smell it. But, it hit me like a brick wall when I went to visit my dad and I saw and felt everything-Jake in the bed hooked up to many machines and not even looking like my husband, all the blood, the crushing feeling that dropped me to the floor in the worst emotional pain I have ever felt. It was all happening again. Except that it wasn’t.

I was able to speak with my dad’s doctor, who explained what is going on and the plan of action.  My parents were happy that it turned out to be something less serious than they had originally thought.  But, sitting in that hospital room was torturous for me.  I was back living in the Neurology ICU at Harborview, numb, shocked, traumatized.  Cleaning the blood off of Jake’s face, holding his hand, making crazy promises to the universe, and wondering how I was ever going to leave that place–how I was ever going to leave Jake and walk out of that hospital without him.  I texted people from my dad’s hospital room, trying to bring myself back to the present moment.  It helped, temporarily.  But I had also spent a lot of time texting, and making phone calls (or having other people make phone calls for me) from Harborview.  I was there again.  My phone never stopped ringing, the texts never stopped coming.  As much as I adore my dad, I couldn’t wait to leave that hospital.  How awful is that?  My dad–who made sure I was never alone when I was living at Harborview with Jake for four days–and I couldn’t wait to leave.  I’m wondering what kind of person I really am.

I nearly fell asleep driving on the way home from the hospital.  I was so completely drained.  I was back in those first days and weeks in the AFTER where all I could do was climb into bed.  I couldn’t even pick up my boys from school.  I had made fun plans for the Memorial Day weekend.  I had to cancel the first days’ plans.  I couldn’t leave my bed.  I almost cancelled my evening plans, but told myself I had to play grown-up.  I needed to pick up my own little ones from school and proceed with my plans.  So, I did.  I’m glad I did.  It helped me to return to the present and get “un-stuck”.

I’m not completely back to where my mind was the morning before that phone call-but I know I will get there again.  Although doctors, nurses, and my mother insist that this surgery my dad will have is very common and he is going to be so much better afterwards–I am very skeptical of doctors and health care in general these days.  I don’t have faith that everything will be okay.  I don’t believe in happily ever after or that life only throws at us what we can handle.  I’m jaded and probably will be for the rest of my life.  I know bad shit happens and I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason.  However, I do truly understand that life is most definitely short and people should take advantage of every exciting opportunity that comes their way.  Sometimes, I dwell on all the stuff Jake really wanted to do, and will never get to.  But, more often now, I am so grateful for all the stuff that Jake did get to do. The list is too long.

After Jake died, my parents stepped in and took over for almost everything that Jake had taken care of.  I learned about things like probate, our monthly finances, budgeting, etc.  Both of my parents took care of the kids.  But my dad took over pretty much everything else–taking out the garbage, fixing stuff around the house, mowing the lawn, dump runs, etc.  All of a sudden, my dad couldn’t help me anymore.  He was too sick.  I called my brother and asked him if he had a handyman to recommend.  He looked at me blankly and said “Dad”.  I decided I would need to find and hire a handyman for such things and started looking into it.  But yesterday morning-something happened which required immediate action.  In the early morning hours, my two youngest (ages 5 & 3) disappeared from the house.  My oldest found them down the street, in pajamas and bare feet–looking for slugs.  It was early-the time of day when there are a lot of bear and coyote sightings.  They could have been hit by a car.  The worst possible scenarios ran through my head and I did my best to make it clear to them that they could never do that again (e.g. punishments, long talks, explanations, etc.).  But, they are only 5 & 3 years old.  I know they didn’t really get it.  How to handle this?  First–I freaked out.  Second–Contacted my friends and asked their husbands to come and install something on my doors (e.g. locks way up high) so my children could no longer escape unnoticed.  Third–Calmed down and decided I had to learn to do these things on my own.  My girlfriend was on call–ready and waiting to send her husband over to help me.  But I was determined.  I was going to be brave and figure this out all on my own.

Guess what?  I did it.  I went to Home Depot and spent way too much time (without asking for help) determining the best option.  Scoured my garage for tools and drill bits (didn’t really know what they were–but I figured it out!) Finally, I installed those locks on every door leading to the outside (4 in total).  Using power tools and non-power tools and 3/32″ drill bits.  I did it.  So, although I spent a few days feeling low and drained because of the flashbacks and worries about my dad–I also was able to pull myself out of it, put on my tool belt and move a step (or maybe more) forward.

That started me thinking of all the other things I have started doing on my own.  Like killing spiders.  Putting out the garbage.  Paying bills.  Budgeting.  Going to Costco (ugh….possibly the absolute worst thing I have had to do on my own…).  I may get stuck in the past sometimes, but I am also moving ahead.  Most of the time without even realizing it.

My dad’s surgery is tomorrow.  Send good thoughts to him–for a successful surgery and speedy recovery.


How Do You Do It?

I get asked this question a lot. I hear comments such as “I don’t know how you do it” and “I can’t even imagine” on an almost daily basis. My typical retort is something along the lines of “I don’t do it very well”.

Here’s the thing. In a million years, I never would have pictured myself in this situation. If you had told me a year ago that I would be HERE..NOW…I would have landed in the looney bin from thinking I could never do it–never handle it. However, shit happens in life and people discover that they adapt and just keep on moving. During my last run up the HILL FROM HELL, I thought a lot about how I actually manage being a grieving, widow with four small children.

Loads and loads and loads of help.  I do not do this alone.  I am so blessed to have family, friends, neighbors, and even acquaintances that I feel comfortable calling on a moment’s notice and asking for help and knowing they do not expect me to reciprocate.  I wasn’t a person who liked to ask for help before.  Now, I have no choice.  I’ve become accustomed to it.  In answer to the question “How do you do it?” I would say–“I don’t do it.  We do it”.

Is this a big deal?  I let a lot of stuff go.  A lot.  Things that would I freak out about in the BEFORE with my kids–in the AFTER, I just let it go.  If my 3 1/2 year old son wants to go to school in a tutu and pink beach hat-fine with me.  When my 10-year-old son has started experimenting with hair gel and ends up resembling a hedgehog, but he’s happy with it–I let it go.  When I see my 5-year-old daughter’s white hiney all the way from across the baseball field as she pees on the playground–I think to myself “That’s not my kid”.  When my 7-year-old has had enough of another kid bugging him and turns around and bops him in the face–well, is that so bad?  I try to ignore as much as I can.  When my kids wrestle, scream, tantrum-I do my best to stay calm and walk away.  Sometimes I lock myself in the bathroom for extra long periods of time.  My parents think I don’t “punish” my kids enough.  I don’t know if that’s the right or wrong answer.  I just know that for me–“time outs” take a lot more effort and energy than I have to give, and most of the time there are natural consequences to their actions.  So I ask myself, “Is this a big deal?” and most of the time, the answer is “no”.

Yell a lot.  Despite what I’ve written above, I yell a lot.  I need to yell in order to be heard in this house of chaos and craziness.  Anyway, it works in the military, right?  Sometimes I just imagine I’m a drill sergeant.  Shower/bath nights are when my neighbors are most likely to hear my voice up and down the street.  Shower/bath night is akin to herding and bathing cats.  I dread it.  Also, when I first walk in the door from work and am still holding all my shit and haven’t taken off my coat and I see the littlest one running around the backyard buck naked and there’s a chorus of “mom mom mom mom mom mom mom” (like the seagulls from Finding Nemo) and the dog starts barking for no apparent reason and the Mormons who think I need saving start ringing the doorbell to read me bible passages–you might hear me yell.  The scene I just described is a daily occurrence.  So yes–I yell a lot.

Electronics are my friends.  Say what you will-I don’t actually care what anyone has to say about this.  Video games, computers, TV–best things ever.  I get regular lectures from my pediatrician about how kids these days have “Nature Deficit Disorder” because of all the electronics.  I used to freak out and spend a few weeks after a well child check up banning electronics.  But you know what?  Doing that makes my life harder.  My kids play sports and spend time outdoors.  Jake and I used to take them “hiking” on the weekends, but that required two of us.  One to stay with the bigger kids who want to run through the forest and one (usually me) to stay with the littlest who stops to point out every stick and rock on the ground.  I can’t do that alone.  I have a big backyard so they can go out there and shoot hoops, ride bikes, and examine slugs.  They get exposed to nature on the walk from my car into their classrooms.  I do take away electronics when they start to cry or throw tantrums out of frustration with the game.  “If it’s not fun anymore–we don’t play it”.  But otherwise, electronics and I–BFFs.  So now when the pediatrician starts lecturing me about too much exposure to electronics, I zone out, nod, and go to a happy place in my head.

Fantasize about fleeing.  I hesitate to write about this in case I ever really give in to the urge to run away from home 😉 But I have elaborate fantasies about changing my identity and running away from home.  Where I go and what I do in my fantasies varies all the time.  Sometimes I flee to Europe and sit on patios drinking coffee and doing yoga in nature everyday (despite the fact that I hate yoga).  Sometimes I disappear into the woods to live “On Walden Pond” like Henry David Thoreau.  Sometimes I flee to L.A. where I end up running into Matt Damon and we fall madly in love and go travel Europe or live “On Walden Pond” together.  My fantasies get me through the really hard times (refer to daily occurrences in Yell a lot section).

Beating myself up.  I don’t do this anymore.  At least I try not to.  I am not the mother I always pictured I would be before I had kids. My life didn’t turn out the way I expected.  Sometimes I feed my kids Gogurt and Teddy Grahams for dinner.  I don’t force them to eat vegetables. I leave my kids in the car when I have to run into a store quickly (WHAT?!?! Gasp in shock! I’ll probably end up on the news someday).   I set my expectations for myself as a mom pretty low now, so I never beat myself up over what a failure I am as a parent.  Let other people talk.  “There go the Milnes’ kids screaming through Safeway” (or peeing on the baseball field).  I don’t care.  My kids know I love them.  That’s what matters.

Keep it simple.  As much as I would love for my kids to be involved in every activity they want to be, I just can’t do it-financially or practically.  The kids need to prioritize and I keep it as simple as I can possibly can with four different kids.  I don’t volunteer to be class mom or attend PTA meetings.  I don’t chaperone field trips.    Meals are simple.  I don’t try to conceal pureed veggies in their macaroni and cheese.   I no longer refer to Parent Map for activities for the kids to do on the weekends. I don’t plan big adventures (or even small ones). I am not a bad mom because I don’t do these things.  I personally think I am a smart mom-because I know my limits and my priorities.

Selfish.  I am selfish.  I make sure I don’t miss my workouts or runs.  I try to get out on the weekends if I can.  I try to go to the grocery store by myself.  I tell my kids what I need.  When I sit down for dinner, I’m not getting up until I’m ready, so if you want anything, you either tell me now or you’ll wait. If I do get a spare few minutes in a day where there are no kids around and I am home–I do not utilize that time to get laundry done.  I climb into my bed and cuddle under the covers and treasure being in my bed alone, warm, safe, and without kids climbing all over me.  I let my kids know I need to sleep/eat/run/ etc.  I don’t know if this is teaching them to be selfish, or compassionate about the needs of others.  But I wouldn’t survive if I spent all my days and nights sacrificing everything that is Kristen for my kids.

Run, run, run.  I don’t run for vanity purposes.  At my pace and mileage logged each week, I am not going to get skinny or develop gorgeous runners’ legs like the girls have on the cover of the running magazines that I get but never read.  I run for my brain and to fight my family history of heart disease.  But mostly I run for my brain.  Running and working out are better for my brain than any drug could ever be.  Maybe it’s just because it is time away from my kids.  I don’t know–but it does something to my brain that helps me get through the rest of my day and onto my next run or workout. My playlist has songs with a lot of swear words.  That helps too.

So there it is.  I’m not the Supermom I imagined I would be.  I don’t even always put forth the best effort.  So, in case you’re wondering–that’s how I do it.




The Color-What Helped

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog complaining away about things people did or said that although well-intentioned, were not helpful. A friend recently sent me an article on grief and I am so glad I read it. I was surprised to notice that the author was able to come up with some positive outcomes from her very tragic loss. Given my newest attitude about seeing the world through color, I’ve been thinking a lot about possible silver linings. Although that is still too hard right now, I have been able to think about things people did or said that were and continue to be so helpful.

My parents, brother, his wife, and family from across the country.  There is no way to explain how they’ve all sacrificed to help me when I needed it most.  Help came in the form of taking care of my very basic needs, like picking my kids up from school so I wouldn’t have to see anybody to bathing my kids because the very thought of it overwhelmed me (and still does sometimes).  My parents cancelled a dream trip to Ireland so they wouldn’t leave me (the company never gave them their money back despite the fact that they had travel insurance but that’s a rant for another day). My brother left his restaurant in the care of his wife and staff who took over for him (the goodness of people extends so many degrees of separation) so that he could take care of me.  My aunts, uncle, and four cousins traveled from NJ to take care of me.  They were careful to spread out their visits because they all knew that I would have a ton of support initially–so they visited in spurts over the next few months.  One aunt was there at the very beginning of the AFTER to navigate me through my days.  Days when I couldn’t think, hold a conversation, remember small things, or even return to my home.  She was there for me step by step.  Reminding me of what I needed to get done, who I had to call, where I could stop and use a restroom (because I kind of lived out my car initially during the days while my boys were at school–not ready to go to my home yet).  My cousins separated their visits in the couple of months that followed–taking my kids to birthday parties (because I still couldn’t bring myself to do things like that), organizing my home (especially certain rooms), cooking for my kids, making sure my kids got homework done, etc.  They both literally said “I am here for you.  Tell me what to do”.  When I still couldn’t think at that point, they just took over.  I needed that.  I’m not saying this would work for everyone–but I really needed my loved ones to come in and just take over.  My uncle, aunt and other cousins came together around Christmas time.  I couldn’t even think about Christmas.  They put up my tree and decorated it while I sat in another room and sobbed.  I don’t even know if they know what a big deal that was.  It was everything at the time.

Jake’s friends.  They took over all the things that needed to get done in the immediate AFTER.  They wrote his obituary, planned the service, and set up/cleaned up after the service (because I was just a hysterical mess–there was no way I could have folded a chair).  They even paid for all of it–which was a huge deal.  In the AFTER, money and finances became a really big concern, so any help in that area was needed.  More about that in a minute.  Despite their own grief, Jake’s friends checked in on me, sent me packages, helped me figure out things that needed to get done that I never would have thought about, made sure I had Jake’s outgoing voicemail message saved to my computer so the kids and I could still hear his voice, patiently took many, many phone calls from my kids, and one of his friends even gave me a car!

My friends.  This subject could be a book all on its own.  I’m not even sure where to start or how to organize my thoughts about my friends.  While I remained at the hospital with Jake during those four days and nights when time stood still, there were several exceptional people who made sure I was never alone.  Friends who didn’t ever ask me if they should come (because I would have said no).  They just came and stayed.  They didn’t care that I wasn’t very good company.  They just stayed with me.  One friend spoke with nurses and doctors and asked all the right questions and wrote down detailed information for me because I was unable to think about anything.  Other friends brought me toiletries and changes of clothes (desperately needed and probably not so subtle hints) and spoke with whomever necessary to find me a place to shower.  Another friend went out to my parent’s house to help my mother manage my four crazy children who had no idea where either of their parents were.  Her husband took the school supply lists and went out and got all the things my boys needed to start school in a few days.  She even ran a half marathon in Jake’s honor that weekend.  Another friend did all the work with the organ transplant people in getting Jake’s handprints made so we would have those forever.  That was not an easy task–and very messy.  I really didn’t want to have anything to do with it–but my friend knew that I would appreciate and need those handprints  later.  So, she did all the dirty work.  My friends talked with hospital staff and helped me climb into bed with Jake to sleep with him one last time–something I would have never even thought to ask.  Friends who previously didn’t know each other, exchanged contact information with each other and with my parents, in order to coordinate the “care and handling of Kristen”.  They made sure I was never alone in that hospital that became my whole entire world.

Once I was back at my parents’ house and my children had been told, friends came from all over the place.  They brought kid friendly food, they brought their own kids in order to play with and distract mine, they brought me my favorite coffee, but most of all, they came and sat with me.  I couldn’t hold a conversation.  But they came anyway.  Unbeknownst to me, they worked to pull together an online sign-up sheet to bring my family meals for the next couple of months. People contacted this group of friends to find out what I needed (because I had no idea what I needed and people sensed that). A friend had her husband make Costco trips for me for months and then deliver to my house. One friend had someone from her church come to my house several times and clean my house for free!  Once I returned home, I would sit outside and people would just show up, kids in tow.  They sat with me and fed my kids and forced me to go out to lunch.  I wasn’t ready to stay in the house by myself for a very long time.  My parents often stayed with me, but it took a toll on them.  Some friends came for sleepovers so that my parents could have a break and I wouldn’t be alone.

Close friends from high school flew from around the country to visit.  I hadn’t seen these friends in ages.  I don’t think I’d seen one of my friends since my wedding in 2003!  But they left their kids, husbands, jobs..their lives to come and be with me.  They hung out with me and slept in bed with me  and ran with me.  They took my car and went food shopping and cooked for my kids and played with my kids.  They fixed their own meals.  These types of help may seem so small to someone reading this.  But they were not small.  They were so significantly huge–I can’t even find the right words.  Although I’ve been friends with these people for many years, my friendships with them have deepened and changed because of the things they did to help me.

New friendships developed as well.  People who continue to want to spend time with me (despite the fact that I am completely self-absorbed still).  Friends who keep me running–literally.  These girls have run with me through the fall, winter and now into the spring.  They have run with me in 20 degree weather.  They have run with me during downpours.  During these runs, these ladies have become my “color” (which makes sense if you read my previous post about shades of gray).  I look forward to being with them.  They are willing to try new things with me.  We laugh….a lot.  But they’ve cried with me as well.  They also never hesitate to give me a big sweaty, smelly hug at the end of a run.  They helped me develop a “life”, when I was convinced mine was pretty much over. They are the ones who stayed.

Friends from near and far called me, texted me, and emailed me.  For the most part, I never responded.  It wasn’t about them–I really appreciated the fact that they were reaching out to me.  I just couldn’t talk or write.  My brain did not work well enough for me to do these basic things.  Thankfully, those friends have persisted in their calls and texts–and only recently have I started responding.  I even have a friend who sent me letters–long letters–in the actual mail!  I don’t think I’ve received letters like that since college.  That takes a lot of time and effort in this day and age.

Then, there is social media.  Say what you will–but for me, its been an incredible way to stay in touch with people I’ve frequently wondered about, but thought I would never see/talk to/know about again.  People from my childhood, high school, and college, who continue to send me messages letting me know that they still think about me and pray for my family–they check in on me.  These check-ins mean so much.  The people who plainly state “I don’t have the right words to say-but I am thinking about you”.  That’s all it takes for me.  When I posted about a beer I had fallen in love with, friends from near and far (including friends’ husbands) researched high and low to try to locate this beer for me.  When I mentioned my love of cupcakes, an old friend from high school actually had a dozen delicious cupcakes delivered to my door.  Friends have reached out and because of that, I’ve made deeper connections with people and sometimes brand new connections.  It makes me feel like the whole world is my friend.

My job.  My boss is absolutely incredible.  I am fortunate enough that she is also my friend.  She taught me about the “Kristen Suit” and has had many wise words of wisdom that really have struck a chord with me.  She gave me space and never pressured me to return to work.  She made gentle suggestions that encouraged me to start back to work slowly when I was ready.  She assured me that going back to work would be the easiest thing I had done in months.  She was right.  She continues to work with me, to help me get everything I need out of my job.  I swear there are some months where I only work 50% of the hours I am supposed to work because of sick kids at my house, or other things that come up.  A lot of times, I still have problems with focus and attention and tend to forget basic things (like my timesheet).  She has been remarkably patient and understanding with me.  She bends over backwards for me–and I know I am so lucky to be working for her.

The community.  Particularly from the boys’ elementary school–the community supported us in ways I never would have imagined.  People I didn’t even know showed up at my house with meals and offers to help.  The school rallied around my boys.  Every single teacher they’ve had at that school, past and present, attended the memorial service.  I will never forget how I felt when I saw all of them walk in. It was a feeling I can’t describe.  The teachers, the nurse, the principal, the office staff..they all take care of my boys.  That school is like a second home to them.  The PTA sent in a cleaning crew.  They gave us gift baskets at Christmas.  We had “secret Santas”-and to this day I’m not really sure who they were, that left gifts on our doorstep. To this day, all I have to do is ask for help when I can’t be in four different places at one time and people eagerly assist me.   From the younger ones’ preschool, there was also some support.  Several parents got involved with bringing us meals, one of the dads took on a legal matter for me pro bono, and a staff member who is a tax accountant, did my taxes this year for free.  As much as I have the desire to run away a lot of the time, this community keeps me here.

Money.  This became very complicated and I hesitate to even write about it because it’s such a sensitive topic.  Jake and I have always had separate bank accounts.  Jake was very much the breadwinner of the family as I only worked part-time.  Jake paid all of the bills.  To be honest, I didn’t know a thing about our finances.  When he passed away, I was not allowed access to any of his accounts because his name was the only one on them.  Money was a significant cause of concern.  Almost immediately, one of his friends gave me a check to cover a few months worth of expenses.  More of his friends, sent me checks saying they “owed” Jake that money.  One of my friends also gave me money (instead of donating to one of the charities in Jake’s name).  I likely wouldn’t still be in my home if it weren’t for their generosity.  We were awarded scholarships for different activities that the boys wanted to get involved in that I couldn’t have afforded at the time.

I noticed a lot of my posts up until today have had an underlying (or outright) negativity.  For today at least, I believe I’ve turned a corner in also thinking about the positive–the color.  People always want to help–and reviewing the length of this post, it looks like they have. In so many ways-it’s all big.  It’s all significant.  It has all made a difference in how my family has dealt with this tragedy.  So…thank you.  Sincerely.