Defining Moments

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Camp Wi-ne-ma

If you’ve ever seen the movie Yes Man, with Jim Carrey, then you might relate to this bizarre phase of grief and healing I have been going through.    In the movie, the main character has suffered the loss of his marriage and has a negative outlook on himself and life in general.    He attends a seminar and is inspired to say yes to everything and besides some minor chaos, he changes his life and the life of random or not so random strangers lives, even to go so far as to save a man from suicide.   I didn’t really have this movie in mind, but honestly, I was fighting for my own life when I determined this might be the way to save it.

After the tragedy of losing my daughter and one of my best friends who we shared so much in common, I could barely breathe, and still have moments where I have to focus on just putting one step in front of the other, one moment at a time.   It has felt at times like I have been struggling to hang on to everything I hold dear like it used to feel when I would attempt rock climbing and would decide to stick my hands between a crack to hold myself on a narrow footing.

The first “thing” I said yes to was a walk for suicide prevention.  It didn’t make everything better, but it was like putting ice on a bee sting, doing something positive in her name took the sharp pang away, even if for a little while.  Then we did the first Hike for Hope, and the nonprofit, the http://www.MikennaVanekProject.org with ongoing projects, then the Mexico mission with my family and church and then recently  I was asked to be the camp nurse while in Mexico.  I didn’t want to say no, I wasn’t sure the reason I needed to go, especially two weeks later after my Mexico mission, but like the Yes Man movie I went.

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Heart shaped clouds the entire drive even my daughter notices 💜

My thoughts were that I would pass out a few bandaids, I hadn’t been a camp nurse in a long while.   The first night I was there, a young girl came in extremely upset for the physical health of her sister.  We talked for a while and she left.  I remembered nights past of my daughters worried for one of their sisters, and it broke my heart for her.  I hoped that telling her some resources would be enough.  I also wondered was this an isolated thing or would more campers come to talk?

Over the week I got to know kiddos with different mental health issues, relationship issues, transitional living type situations and in general, as a nurse, emotionally a lot more difficult to treat than a just an icepack or a bandaid.  They came in for their meds or vitamins, or feminine products, ice or bandaids, looking for candy or snacks and stayed just talking life with me.  I then watched as some of them formed friendships with each other, interestingly enough, the kids with the most difficult hardships seemed to find each other and connect.

During my time as a camp nurse, two of the campers who were best friends got into a fight.  Emotions ran high and in the heat of the moment, one of the boys hit a wall.   After Xrays, ice and Advil he was extremely remorseful.  He was ashamed of himself and wanted to go home.  In another situation just a couple days later after another angry outburst, a different also embarrassed wanted to go home.  In both situations after they cooled off and with major coaxing from different counselors, they both stayed and went on to enjoy the rest of the camp.  I heard one counselor say, “one impulsive act does not define you”.   I  contemplated that statement for days.  The truth is, one defining moment does not define you, it may change your life forever, but it is not the definition of the person you truly are.  It is one moment, one choice.  I think about the beautiful soul my daughter was and how one tragic moment ended her life, but it did not define the beautiful person that will always be her.

From hugs to the brokenhearted, that I felt so deep it broke mine also, to gathering personal hygiene items for teens in need, to a nap in a quiet area for the anxiety-ridden camper labeled as being “drama” by other campers, to explaining to the neurodiverse (not neurotypical) teens that they aren’t alone at camp or in life.  I didn’t have a sign like Lucy in Peanuts but the campers just came and needed me to be present and listen.  I will be honest after the first young lady visited, I thought to myself this isn’t what I signed up for, but it was what they needed and ultimately what I needed to give.

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Above my door a mama bird tucks her baby bird in while watching me closely. Oh how I relate mama

One of the first moments there I found myself face to face with my daughter that passed away’s, youth leader.  He reintroduced himself.  What he didn’t know is that I harbored some unresolved feelings towards him.  Why hadn’t he connected in the last 18 months?  As he fumbled for words of telling me how sorry he felt, the words forgiveness filled my heart.  I struggled with questions of what-ifs.  I knew that before this event I would also struggle with reaching out to someone in my shoes.  I now know that any effort is worth giving and I feel like it’s my life’s mission to make that effort when I see the need, but I would have struggled in his shoes before the tragic event of losing my daughter.  I was thankful he had finally talked to me and thankful I was able to not let that hurt define me, and I was able to let go.

 

Below is a craft of beach shells my daughter had gathered and a few I added from the dollar store:

Supplies:

two pieces of small scrap wood

two nails

shells assorted

hot glue

staple gun

attach the two small pieces of wood into a cross with the two nails and hot glue all of the shells until all the surface is covered   Attach a step in the back with the staple gun if you choose to hang it or place in your garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deer Hope

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Deer wait outside my daughter’s place of work

The day before we left on our mission trip as a family, I wondered what on earth possessed me to consider taking four of us on a mission trip at the same time.  We were working, playing sports, and wrapping up the school year, along with getting ready for our exchange student, starting our nonprofit and managing life.  Frantically running around packing and arguing with each other, tying up loose ends, we left at 3:30 in the morning on our ten day trip over the border.

We arrived and at first, I felt the tiredness and homelife responsibilities tugging at our mission.  I was worried I had made a mistake, but I had gone out on a leap of faith that this was something that would be healing for our family.  Serving others would give us a break from the constant torment balancing our grief with the daily grind.

When I had the idea over 6months earlier, I had asked for a sign I should take my family to Mexico to help those less fortunate than ourselves and was answered minutes later by a family donating a large portion of our financial portion so we all could go.  I knew that gift couldn’t be wrong, I just needed to believe and keep pushing on.

After the first couple of days, I noticed a change in my husband.  He was smiling.  He was also sweating as he hand-nailed and framed along with 14 other people on his work site, but he seemed genuinely happy working and focusing on his project.  He had learned about the father on his site who was providing for his children by working in a restaurant in the kitchen.  He took time off work to make sure he could be there for the building of his house.   My husband worked in a kitchen when we were first married also as he finished college with small babies and a wife at home.   He had also taken this week off work to build this man’s home.

2932DC27-B63D-4512-85CB-5C739FA9B3DE.jpegMy youngest daughter doubted her purpose of being there.  She was teaching kids in a language she didn’t know.  She struggles at home with being an introvert and communicating with others sometimes in her own language.  By the end of the trip though, she was engaged, crafting and playing with the kids near the work sites.  As I walked by the local store near our camp I spied her smiling and sharing a coconut with another mission friend and my heart melted a little.   It was not a mistake for her to come.

My middle child has been struggling (like all of us).  Life can be hard even for the happiest of kids.  I catch her on her phone hiding away from our tent.  She seemed homesick and I became worried.   It’s not something she shows others, its what I can see.  I cry and pray for her heartaches.  I need her to connect.

The next day is a long work day.  I see my same daughter as I walk from site to site passing out band-aids and Advil for mild injuries.  She’s working hard and everyone says she’s a trooper.  Later I notice shes spending more and more time with the two young girls on her site and the next day she takes a soccer ball and her water backpack for the girls.  She also askes for me to look at one of their rashes and listen to their chest cold.

The following day our pastor tells me how she just shines in this place.  I wonder how I can help her keep it if I can, and I am very thankful for it, that shine   I asked her about how she is doing and she tells me how she has made a very strong connection with the family, especially the two girls.  The little girl sits in her lap and tells her how she is very sad, how she misses her sister.  She tells her in Spanish that her sister is in heaven and she misses her very much.  My daughter tells her in her high school Spanish, that her sister is also in heaven and that she also misses her very much.    When I hear this story and I see my daughter I know in my heart it is no coincidence.  How many families applied to have their homes made this year by the mission group, and out of those that applied then this family was chosen? They could have been on 9 other sites, my daughter might have decided to work with the vision clinic or the children, but the family and my daughter were put together. My daughter talks more to the young girl and learns that not only did they also lose their sister, but they lost her the same month and the same year.  God uses broken pieces.

my daughter with her sweet gi

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My daughter with the sweet girl who lost her sister also and who is getting a new home

I came home and my oldest daughter who was unable to go with us, tells me about a baby deer that a mother deer has given birth to a couple days earlier.  (if you’ve read from blogs past since she lost her sister, deer follow her a lot, even look in her therapy windows.) She tells me the mother deer hangs out somewhere nearby waiting for the dear to stand up on her wobbly legs.  My daughter passes by the deer day after day and calls the local animal group to ask anything can be done.   My daughter is concerned the baby deer is ill.  The mother deer still hangs nearby.    Today I talked to my daughter and she tells me the baby deer is gone, but the mother deer still hangs in the same spot, with her other slightly older deer babies, waiting and watching where she left her infant. To be honest, I cried and I pray the vet has the deer.

I got off the phone with my oldest and notice my youngest is keeping herself busy by painting a bible cover she got at GoodWill.  She hasn’t been in the same room with me when I was having the conversation.  She finishes her painting as I walk in the room and I see she is adding a deer to her painting, along with the verse from Psalms 121:1-2  I lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord the maker of heaven and earth.  

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Summer craft 

Before I left Mexico I had a sign language conversation of sorts with the mother.   I asked her how many children she had.  She told me three as she pointed at the two in front of me and then pointed to heaven for her third.  She asked me the same question and I said four as I pointed to mine and pointed to heaven.   I watched her grab a jacket and place it on her youngest, maybe concerned she might catch a cold as the weather had turned.  I don’t need to know Spanish to understand.

I look back at that moment and I know she could also relate to the mother deer if I could tell her the story.  As parents that have lost their child, we cannot lay down, we cannot give up though our heart stays in the same spot where we left our baby.  A piece of it will always stay there, with our child.  We continue on while we simultaneously stay close and hold tight to what we hold dear.   (Pun intended.)   I am fascinated that God sent me hundreds of miles from home to meet another grief mama.  I wonder if I’ve somehow lessened her pain a tiny bit or at least let her know she doesn’t walk alone.  (Now if I could only speak in deer, I would tell that deer mama the same thing).

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Praying Hands

377EAF23-01BB-4877-AD61-09E80CA56139.jpegIn the soft light of the small massage room the angelic hum of the tuning forks rang in my ears.   My gentle friend whispered kind and humble prayers over my heart, hovering over the suspicious lump that I had earlier confessed my stress of finding and had been confirmed on a recent mammogram.

Just 16 months earlier I had dropped everything that was important to my health with the loss of my daughter.  The dentist appointment, the mammogram, the colonoscopy, daily medication, exercise, makeup.  When one of the most precious gifts I had been given was taken from me, I lost the ability to care.   In the first few days, weeks and months, it took enough effort just to shower, brush my teeth, and eat.

As I sat and watched my youngest daughter getting her nails done for prom last month, I impulsively got mine done, only later to determine it wasn’t something that I wanted to maintain.  It has become clear to me that I like control in my life, and I didn’t  like having to be tied to a nail appointment schedule every three weeks, it seemed high maintenance

After my nail appointment though, the dentist office called and asked if I was ever going to grace them with my presence again.  My yearly cleaning was almost two years overdue.  Since I couldn’t hang up with them without making an awkward excuse, I went in the following day for the masochistic dental cleaning treatment of someone that hadn’t been flossing or caring for over a year.

The following week I had to walk by the walk-in mammogram clinic at work.  I felt a nagging sense that I needed to go.   It was time to care, just a little about my own needs and I knew my daughter would want me to start taking better care of myself. I was escorted into a dressing room, handed a cape and a bathrobe and was seated in the uncomfortable sterile looking sitting room.  All the chairs were turned in so we could all stare at each other and wonder who was there for a screening and who was there with something more serious but instead of talking about the elephant in the room, we all sat silently waiting for our name to be called like we were waiting to be called into the principal’s office.  You’d think they would personalize the room to feel less hospital like, the art around the room staring at me as if to say, “well we tried.”

The mammogram took extra long as the technician made unneeded small talk while she grabbed and maneuvered my breast into the cold plastic vice grip.  As I turned my face and raised my arm so my breast could be flattened like a pancake, I heard her say someone would be calling me in the next couple days. I’d never heard that said before.  I’ve worked in the operating room long enough to know what they are look for, so I looked over at the images on the screen.  I could see an egg shape image. with solid white in the center.  I got dressed and headed back to work.  I knew they would call and I knew I’d be back.

A few days later I was shopping zombie style at the corner store after a long day at work, just wandering aisle to aisle randomly throwing things into my cart.  My phone rang and the nurse asks me to come back in for two more tests.  I told  her I’ve been waiting for the call, I saw the images.  She seemed relieved that I wasn’t hysterical.

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The next day is when I visited my friend at her massage office and I told her about my lump.  I told her about how two years earlier, 6 months before my daughter passed, I had no lump visible on any imaging.  In a similar amount of time as the time I have been without my daughter, I have grown a lump, but not just anywhere, directly over my heart right over my chest muscle in the breast tissue.  I know because I read the measurements, and somehow thought it poetic that my body found that spot as a place to grow an odd-ball lump, right over my broken heart,

I’ve never met a more real person than my friend and massage therapist.  There is nothing pretentious about her and I truly believe she has faith to move mountains.  After my massage, she placed her hands where my lump was said to be and she prayed.  She didn’t just pray like a quick “our father,” or something similar to grace at a Sunday dinner, but whole-heartedly prayed for a very long time.

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My drawing (and I can’t draw) a year ago with a cut over the same spot 💜

Before the additional tests I envisioned the process of cancer treatment, of surgery and medications. I thought of the things I felt I still wanted to do in this world.  I hadn’t thought about any goals or a future in 16 months.  I decided I needed to commit to caring about myself and to do the things I needed to do even if my heart still remains broken.  A couple days later I sat nervously waiting after my ultrasound. The radiologist came in and showed me my images   What was a round image with white inside was now a scattered layered mass on top of the muscle   It did not look cancerous    They would watch it   I’m thankful for the desire to care again, and thankful for the praying hands.

 

Come Closer and Stay Away

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Along the Oregon City side of the Clackamas River

Isolation, the result, and the enemy of most of us, is also sort of a commodity.  To not have to answer questions about how you are feeling, what you plan on doing or what you did over the weekend.  The truth is that my feelings changes from day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute. For instance, over mother’s day, I couldn’t stand to talk to anyone, only to then regret not making plans later that day.  

 

Did I isolate myself, by not having the energy for small talk, by sitting alone at lunch, (if I even took my lunch)? Did I isolate myself by not reaching out to relationships that weren’t in my immediate small circle or was I isolated by being softly pushed away by those around me that felt uncomfortable with my loss, my trauma?  It has been 16 months, but the first few months, I wasn’t really up for lunches and coffee dates but I was asked. I realized recently that unless I reach out, I am no longer being asked to social engagements. I am not complaining, I am just noticing the results of going through something traumatic. Honestly, I don’t really mind not doing things for the most part, things that now can seem meaningless, at times.  Like I used to go to every event I felt obligated to go, versus only going to things  I really want to go to. I used to care more about what I wore, now I wear only what makes me feel comfortable.  Things that I used to not make time for, now seem extremely important like walking, writing, and working on my projects.  Worrying about what others think of me, if I was invited to go to a social gathering or not, seems unimportant now, though it would be nice to be asked and to at least consider the event.   Oh well, as my husband says, “I know who loves me,” and that’s all that matters.   (Sometimes he’s so smart.)

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My favorite path is blooming purple flowers

The other day, my nurse anesthetist and I had a case cancel and had downtime. (I work in the operating room at a nearby hospital)  She started talking to me about the trauma she has been in over her daughter’s critical health condition.  The condition was life-threatening and her young child had to undergo intense surgeries. During the process she realized she felt somewhat alienated from others, She also felt co-workers might not understand the ongoing stress of the condition.  I completely related. The PTSD I still battle with over the loss of my daughter has had me miss random days, including therapy for myself and my other children. I have stepped down from many of my leadership positions, I don’t pick up extra shifts or take others shifts.  After a while, the feeling of guilt tends to make us trauma mammas feel like we are supposed to soldier on, pretend everything is fine, we don’t want to be viewed as a slacker, pitied and avoided.

 

I was thankful for the conversation.  It was like a sense of relief to talk to another mom about how stress affects your career, your family life, and your relationships.  She has written about her experience through online journalling and I am thankful for people like her that aren’t afraid to be open and to share their experiences.  We cannot empathize or help each other if we have no idea what others are going through.  

Loss, grief and trauma does strange things to people. We in some ways become the most empathetic people in the world, but in other ways we are so engulfed in our own stuff, that we have a difficult time seeing someone else’s circumstances.  For example, my neighbor just had a baby. My old self would have made something for her.  In the aftermath of loosing my daughter, I’ve had a difficult time paying attention to what’s going on next door. Another example being my friends child was recently diagnosed with a severe learning disability.  I know that’s difficult and I empathize having a child that has some learning challenges myself, but I haven’t been able to reach out yet, and I’m not sure why.  

One connection that I have to other parents that have also lost children, is that many of my online friends in the support groups, look for signs.  It is a common understandable thing to do when your heart has been ripped to pieces.  They look for signs from God, for comfort, messages from their children or loved one, anything to ease some of the stabbing pains of loss.  Sometimes  I read about the most amazing signs, and I have found myself feeling happy for them but down for myself, that I wasn’t getting the same types of signs.  Looking back on my blog posts, I have been given many moments of comfort (signs) and I am thankful, I’m not sure why we instantly forget them.  I realized that all of our Spiritual relationships are different, and all of our relationships with our loved ones were different, so any messages, thoughts, or feelings of comfort, will also be different.

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Four purple flowers cut and laying one at a tome along my path.

Last week I was waking with one of my daughter’s best friends and I looked down and there were four purple flowers along our path.  It gave me a little heart squeeze. It could be Coincidence that I have four girls and my daughter’s color was purple, or not, it still made me smile. As we were walking I had just finished telling him about going to get my nails done the day earlier, for the event we were having for her birthday, and telling the nail guy to choose any color out of his 100 different colors.  He chose purple.

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I said choose any color

Sometimes I think that the types of signs  I get are ways to encourage me to keep going, messages to keep working towards reaching out to others no matter how difficult it might be.   Sunday I got a call from a friend of mine that someone posted in the Portland and neighboring cities neighborhood news that they were selling their daughter’s dresses and donating the money towards the American Foundation for suicide prevention. This is the same group we have been working with and donating to also.  My friend said I should reach out to her. I did so at first reluctantly, wondering if this was now my mission, reaching out to other parents that were dealing with loss. (I didn’t really ask for it) I sent her a message and then my youngest daughter and friends wanted to go get tea in the neighboring city so I decided to take them forgetting about the message I had sent.

As we were leaving the tea shop, I remembered messaging the gal with the dresses and looked at my phone to see what the address was, what city it was in and how long it would take to get there. I realized we weren’t driving distance, we were actually 300 feet walking distance.  How crazy that the obscure tea shop was a stones throw from the sale address.  We walked to her sale and when I saw the mom, she instantly hugged me with tears in her eyes.  She told me about her daughter, her love of unique dresses, her love of vintage items, her passion for teaching. She also told me that her daughter graduated from the same college as my oldest daughter and had lived in the same city.   I wondered how often she was given the chance to talk about her, to say her name, to show her picture. I thought this was the best sign of love I could have been given on this day. To witness a mother fighting to survive and give back after loosing her precious daughter. That is what inspires me I thought to myself, maybe I don’t need small talk and coffee shops anymore. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could just be real, vulnerable, and open? Imagine the things we could learn from each other.

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Deer seem to visit my oldest daughter in many different places 💜

 

One of my few and closest friends joined me on my walk today.  For some reason I found where I walk so much more beautiful today with all of the wildflowers blooming.  I felt like the purple flowers bloomed just for me. I know that I may not feel this way tomorrow. Tomorrow I might  not like being around anyone, something might make me feel extremely sad, or maybe it won’t, I never know.  For today though I appreciate the beauty around me, and for now, I can just breathe.

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Wildflowers amongst the weeds along my path.

Kora Vanek, Mikenna Vanek Project

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If We Loved People Like We Loved Trees

 

 

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Mikenna goofing around in the trees

Staring at the rhododendron in my memorial garden I realized it was going through stress.  My neighbor, concerned a limb would hit his roof, had cut some of the limbs from the large oak back to the main branch.  The tree was not harmed, but the purple bush below it now was exposed to the full sun.  The leaves drooped, the bush leaned toward the shade, and the stems of the bush became longer with new growth somewhat stunted.  I couldn’t stop contemplating the similarities of a tree or bush in shock or stress compared to humans.  The slowing of new growth and the withering of leaves being two of the main symptoms.  One of the most common reasons for shock is that the tree loses part of its root system.   A tree affected by severe stress such as drought, improper planting, improper fertilizer, or any severe weather condition, can take two to five years to recover!  When I read this I thought, If we can allow a tree 2-5 years to recover from stress, shock and losing part of its root system, why can’t we allow humans?  One online friend said she was told to move on after 8 months?! What is wrong with people????

Why can’t we allow our friends, our families, our co-workers time to overcome the stress of trauma, loss, or injury and the time it takes to adapt to an unfamiliar world.  A world where your dreams and expectations are all different now, a world possibly without a loved one, a world seen differently because bad things really do happen and it cannot be controlled.  That perceived control of your world bubble has been burst.  Can you imagine?

Why do the people who have not experienced the same kind of pain feel the need to insert their opinion and lack of empathy or patience towards those trying to recover from an unimaginable barrier?  I pondered this thought over and over for weeks.  Rolling it around in my mind.   I even posed the questions to my online groups.   Have you been told to stop talking about your loved ones, to move on, to put all their items away?

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Our family running Hike for Hope suicide prevention on Mikenna’s Birthday 💜
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My youngest daughter’s northwest hope rocks leaving inspirational messages in urban areas #nwhoperocks  some of these were in remembrance  of loved ones at the hike

In all four online support groups, there were a few people that had family members walk away from them, who couldn’t stand to see them grieve anymore.  Thank goodness for support groups! Many people believe it is our own culture problem.  If you think about other non-western cultures, grieving is embraced, expected, and not talking about their loved in most other cultures would be odd.   Everyone has their own way to work through it and it may take years or maybe a lifetime.  What some outsiders may not realize is that losing a loved one puts you in a category of losing your own life.   Finding a way to move through the pain is necessary to survive not just physically but mentally.  To criticize how someone tries to cope with their pain to me is almost cruel.

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I am one of the only females in this group for leadership training if you can find me.

What if we lived in a more empathetic world?  My friend from high school lost a fellow soldier to suicide from PTSD.  When I read his story I thought back to when I came home from Desert Storm.   I was alone, no one understood my sadness and it took a couple years for me to really transition back to civilian life mentally.  I look back and I really could have used more support.  Counseling, group support, military support and people around me giving me grace, anything.   I felt awkward when I first came home like I didn’t fit in. Everything around me felt strange.  I had lost the people around me that I had lived with for a year, learned to sleep through the sound of Scud missiles, learned to eat the same thing every day, wear the same clothes, look at the same terrain.  This was only with one tour, our soldiers have been going for multiple tours.  They come home to an impatient world, but the human mind and heart take time to heal.  Could we just learn to emphasize more and for longer even to situations we do not relate to? When people are in stress and shock they need more support, not avoidance and isolation. We tend to scoot away from unpleasant people and situations as if we will catch their sadness or their pain.  Like I said, we give a tree in shock two to five years of support and nurturing to return to thrive.

I have a friend who lost her son to an illness when our kids were in second grade, about 9 years ago.  I remember when it happened secretly being thankful it had not happened to my family.  It was hard to wrap my head around, it seemed to come out of the blue.  As a parent, you start to rationalize how to keep your own children safe.   You think if I do X, and Y and Z my children will be protected from whatever.   We still need to do those things, we still need to try to protect our families, but I was so wrong, bad things happen to good people.  It’s not contagious, and hiding and ignoring problems in our society don’t make them go away.  Bringing light to the darkness does.  Talking about taboo things like grief, suicide, depression, PTSD has been proven to actually help that affected heal.  I wish I could go back in time and hug and walk with my friend when she went through what she did.  I sent her my condolences, saw that she had people around her so I didn’t think she needed my help, or that is what I told myself.  If you are reading this now Deana, I apologize from the bottom and deepest part of my heart.

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Amor ministries, a newly made house http://www.anor.org/

 

Here’s something not everyone knows or gets.  Helping others actually heals you! http://mentalfloss.com/article/71964/7-scientific-benefits-helping-others

Before I even started the nonprofit, or read the amazing book, It’s ok to not be ok, https://www.refugeingrief.com/book/  a book everyone should skim through that knows someone going through grief, especially family members, I talked to multiple people about how they were coping with losing their child.  The people that were doing more than merely surviving seemed to be finding a sense of purpose or legacy, anything from planting a tree in their child’s name in a much needed reforested area or place they loved, a book drive in their child’s honor, buying a birthday cake on their child’s birthday for someone else or paying it forward.  When talking with Deana, she had spent valuable time and money to bring change to medical procedures for other children suffering from her child’s same illness.  My other friend who lost her six-month-old to SCID runs a fundraiser every year on his birthday.   Their entire family is involved every year, they are helping others with their child’s same disease. I am very proud to know them and their story, I now realize how important it is to talk about and share our stories.  Thank you, James and Stacey, for what you do https://primaryimmune.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/StaceyBarrettTestimony.pdf

According to psychology, helping others helps heal ourselves.   It’s the reason I felt led to take my family to build houses with our church in Mexico next month.  I knew we didn’t have the resources to go, but as I walked into my small group, I asked for a sign or answer if we should go.  Ten minutes later as we talked in our small group, my family was given half the funds needed to go by another couple that couldn’t physically go themselves.   I had my answer.  I don’t expect it to completely heal the root we are missing from our tree, but I believe it will help as we learn to grow a different direction.

Since I have lost my daughter, I have been extremely blessed by the support of most everyone around me, but I have had some things said to me and about me that have been unkind, though I now know, they do not know, how unkind these words truly are.  I have had people, that are my closest friends not utter a word to me, (you can just give me a hug, you don’t have to say anything its ok friend.)  I have been told to put my pictures of my daughter away, (By the way they will be out until I die so get over it), that my blog just throws my grief in everyone’s face, (Um, Don’t read it), that my non-profit for depression awareness isn’t healthy for me or my family. (That’s totally against what all of the psychological community says, but o.k.)  This is where I have to thank my online community. When I asked honestly if these things were healthy or not, you all gave me honest answers and reminded me to follow my heart to heal, and that awareness, even if it only keeps one family out of this grief club, is worth it.  At first, I was angry at these comments, but how can I be angry when in the past I am guilty of it too before I walked this path? Now I know its fear and ignorance to this world I sometimes wish I was also ignorant to, along with people carrying their own baggage, thinking they know what’s best.  They don’t.  Let’s try empathy on first.

I just read that Michael Phelps struggled with depression and in the past suicidal ideation.  https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2838142-michael-phelps-details-struggles-with-anxiety-and-depression-on-twitter When you look at someone so talented and with so many followers we think they have it all.  We think we know what kind of life they have.    The one thing I can say that has come out of all this grief is that I have realized you never know what the person next to you is going through.  The irritated old man in line may be mourning the loss of his wife, maybe today is their wedding anniversary.    The young man in line covered in tattoos buying beer at 9am might be suffering from PTSD.  The lady crying in the flower aisle at Costco, and moments later snapping at the clerk for the mismarked prices of flowers might be trying to decide what color roses to bury her daughter with.

 

 

A New Normal

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One of my daughter’s favorite quotes

A new normal, A phrase to describe life after a serious trauma.   I’ve heard it so much in the grief community I can’t believe I am using it as my title.   Its a phrase for someone to use when they really don’t know what to say to someone that has had a life event shatter their world.  Such as, “I am so sorry you lost your husband, life without him will go on as the new normal.” Something like this seems to completely marginalize what a changed life looks like, or what life without a loved one feels like.   I try and refrain from using it.

In my mind, I like to steal the depression community symbol of a semi-colon.  Wiki says a semicolon is, “a punctuation mark (;) indicating a pause, typically between two main clauses, that is more pronounced than that indicated by a comma.”   If you have read any of my blogs you would pick up that grammar is not my calling.  (I love to write, so forgive all the errors).  A semicolon though says to me that my life before is over or paused.  It will never be the same.  A part of me left the earth when my daughter’s spirit left her body and that is all there is.  I am on the other side of the phrase now, and it will never be the same.  That is a difficult truth.

Every holiday, birthday, day off, weekend, is different.  I find myself re-evaluating traditions, beliefs, and common practices in our home.  For instance, this weekend is Mother’s day.  We normally all go out to brunch.   I really want to all get-together, but I really would rather stay at home and have a nice meal made for me.  I have no desire to be out with crowds of people all celebrating their mother’s and children.  If that is what my family decides though, that is what I’ll do, because ironically as a mother, you do what’s best for your family, even on Mother’s Day.

Recently I had to evaluate all of our daily routines.  I had to fill out an intense form and have a house inspection so that we could host a foreign exchange student next year.  It seems strange that we would contemplate this after only 15 months ago experiencing a tragedy, but my husband and I believe for many reasons, it is what we should do.  First, I believe we should help each other out in this world, If it was my daughter, I would hope she would find a caring family to take her in for her experience.  Second, this would be the third generation of this family traveling to the U.S. to stay with part of our family. Third, I prayed about it and asked for a sign over six months ago.  I was feeling down that day and put the blankets over my head after I asked for a sign about this decision.  I then brought my laptop under the covers with me and decided to distract myself with Netflix, the show I started watching, Manifest, immediately flashed Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”   I couldn’t ignore it, my answer seemed pretty clear.  It may seem silly to some, coincidental or even foolish, but It is all I have to lead me forward and I believe my higher power works this way in my life.

We notified everyone we thought we needed to notify, that we would house our student, and had no idea the process would be difficult to understand and take many months.  We were asked to describe our daily routine, our evening routine, and our weekend routine.   In a way I am thankful.  “Please describe a typical day in your home.”   Let’s see, what do we do again?  Here was my semicolon.  What I did before, what I have been doing, and what we will be doing on a daily basis.  I’ve noticed our family moving forward, in it’s new normal, similar in routine to before but of course always a bit different.   we had many months of barely maintaining our daily life.  My days off were filled with walking, writing, visiting my daughter’s memorial bench and trying to function in reality.  Sometimes just doing nothing.  Before our tragedy, I ran around 100 miles an hour, shopping, making or taking kids to appointments, cleaning, and trying to juggle all the balls in my life.  When they all came crashing down around me, my life came to a screeching halt.  Now I slowly pick those balls up again, examine each one and decide what needs to be part of my life.

For example, we just started again, trying to have our Friday movie or game and pizza night.   We started trying to go back to having dinner at 630 every night or as best we can around our schedules.   During the last 15 months, during our life interrupted, we became the take-out family.  That was never how we were before, but the effort to plan meals, shop and cook on a regular basis, during the first year of devastating grief, was impossible.  I filled out the form with our new/ somewhat old routines, knowing that we are a family in recovery and healing.  A family on the other side of our story.

A loss of a family member causes a loss of identity.  To each individual and the family.  At some point, you sit back and have to re-evaluate your place in this world, your traditions, your beliefs, and your routines.  What you were before, what you have become, and what you want things to be. I truly believe the task of re-evaluating all of these areas of your life is too daunting during the first year or so of a trauma.  I imagine this is why they tell you not to make major changes in your life during the first year of loss.  This, of course, is extremely hard when you want to quit every aspect of your life.  Both my husband and I struggled for over a year with the desire to work where we worked.   I am thankful I was allowed to quit some of my responsibilities at work and no one believed my rantings of ” that’s it, I quit.”

The same went for my marriage.  I am so grateful that we both did the hard thing and gave each other grace and space.   I always thought when tragedy hit, you would grieve the loss together.  That is absolutely untrue.  You grieve in parallel, but you grieve alone.  To make matters worse, men and women tend to grieve differently.   I took a grief class that wasn’t super helpful except that I learned that usually men grieve quietly, where women tend to grieve and express their grief more.  That explains why I find more women in my online groups.  At one point during the most intense moments of my grief, I had to decide if I had the energy, love, and the unselfish ability to keep a relationship going.  I am thankful that I stopped and evaluated those feelings, that I learned how everyone grieves alone and different, and that we both stayed “all in” so to speak.  That doesn’t work for everyone.  Again, it’s life interrupted.  Everything gets evaluated.

I have moments daily that are still difficult.  I only had 4 hours of sleep before work the next morning the other night because of the intense emotions brought on by both my youngest girls experiencing sadness in their lives.   Loss, unfortunately, affects all relationships including my daughter’s relationships with others.    When they lose a friend it can bring back feelings of losing their family member all over again.  I spent the evening wishing I could take all of the grief on myself, that it didn’t have to continually affect my other children and that I could fix it.  Of course, teenagers are not empathetic to each other.  Friends don’t understand how you can still be sad over a year later or how you seemed better, but something else has made you sad again.  (Empathy is a learned and somewhat mature emotion).  Even my own children don’t understand how the loss affects their feelings of no control of events in their lives and how every time they lose a relationship, it triggers the grief of losing their loved one again.  Life interrupted.

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The day I was dealing with all of these emotions from my girls I was also running a good friend to an oral surgery appointment.  It also happened to be the 15-month anniversary of losing my daughter.  The color of everything in her life was purple.  In most of her pictures as a young girl I have her dressed in purple, her phone was purple, even her car was a muted purple color.  In all of my grief posts, I use a purple heart.  I had a pair of purple sandals I had decided to wear this day and as I pulled up to the dental appointment, after being extremely sad over the day and my daughter’s feelings of sadness, I parked next to a purple van called Purple Shoes, with a purple heart.  Coincidence or not, it was a sign for me that was a much needed, a “you’ve got this mom; it’s going to be ok.”

Yesterday I had a moment of contentment.  I won’t say happiness because I honestly don’t know if that is an achievable goal, at least right now.  I found myself taking my daughters to the gym and then afterward I did something significant, I made them a protein smoothie.   It’s significant because it’s something I haven’t done in over 15 months.  My youngest daughter told me when she was little I needed to open a smoothie shop, thinking about that always makes me smile.  (she thought I should give up my nursing job to open a smoothie shop, it also tickled me to think she thought they were that good). As I blended it, I wondered if our student likes smoothies, what kinds she might like?  I had a twinge in my heart as I remembered always making enough for four glasses.  It was just a little thing, but it had made it back into our routine, across the semicolon and into our new normal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Defining Grounded

IMG_5944The conversations around my house for weeks were centered around Prom.  You can blame Disney, social media, or our culture, but being a pretty princess is somewhere in our DNA or at least part of our little girl daydreams.   The talk was on dresses and shoes, clutches and nails, dinner and transportation, make-up and hair.  What we should have discussed with my introverted daughter, was skills for feeling overwhelmed when 250 teenagers are bumping and grinding in a dance circle.   All and all she did well, she spent more time in the bathroom than the average teenager, but she went, she took pictures, she talked to the people she felt the most comfortable with and next year when she goes again, she’ll know what to expect. She will have ideas on how to navigate the dance circles and awkward conversations.  Honestly, the most difficult things in life are the unknowns.

The day after prom I found a post in my feed about grounding.  It was called,  “Tips to Help with an Anxiety Attack.  Look around you and find Five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. The post continues to say this is grounding.  It can help when you feel like you have lost all control of your surroundings” -The Anxiety Therapist.   The first thing I thought was the person that wrote this has never had an anxiety attack.   When you are feeling anxious, your body gears up for a fight or flight response,  your heart beats faster, you can be agitated or restless, and mostly you have impaired concentration where your mind goes blank.  Not to mention in an actual attack, your vision can become narrowed and your hearing can feel overstimulated.   This made me chuckle to myself.  I just envisioned myself at nursing school breathing heavy with my head down asking, “I’m supposed to touch something, or smell something? Five of what and four of what?  I’ve only had a couple of these anxiety attacks, one in nursing school many years ago, and the other when my daughter passed unexpectedly,  I do, however, see the merit of teaching yourself or a friend the concept of grounding, taking your shoes off or holding an inanimate object.  It is supposed to help with bringing you back to the present moment.  I think that might be a teachable concept that someone can remember when they are feeling anxious if you keep it simple.

Later I was dusting and noticing how the dust was everywhere.  It was on every crevice, top, bottom, sides on all the knick-knacks on my shelving unit.  Two analogies came to mind. First, dust is like a loss.  It is everywhere, there is no hiding it.  It touches everything, every part of your life is touched by loss.    Second is that loss and grief scatters a person like dust in the wind.  I have never felt more fragmented than the months following the loss of my daughter.  My thoughts were scattered, my emotions were scattered, and the concept of time was also scattered.  I am just now slowly piecing myself back together. The concept of grounding comes back to me and I think about different forms of grounding.

Months ago I noticed some people, that were years out from their loss, seemed to be doing a tiny bit better than others.  There were some that were still having a hard time functioning on a day to day basis and others that struggled but seemed to be functioning.  I met with a few of them trying to understand what it was I was going through, reaching for someone who understood the terrible pain.   I started to notice a theme.  My one friend and husband organize a charity for children with the same disease as their son, Another set of parent went on to battle in courts to change a law that would save other children, and another couple works around the clock running a non-profit for wilderness therapy.  A father, I haven’t met in person, collects books annually because his child loved to read.  These people were also still married to their spouses after suffering such a loss, I believe the father was a single Dad before the loss, but he was writing and functioning a few years outside of the loss of his child.  One study indicated that divorce rates among bereaved parents are as much as eight times the norm ().  What did these parents have in common?  A sense of purpose, a focal point, a different form of grounding to the here and now.  Their pieces that had been broken and scattered to the wind brought together for a sense of purpose they had found.

Sitting in my Sunday morning coffee bible study group, somehow the subject of grounding came up, (probably I brought it up).  One man discusses the importance of using grounding wire, it keeps you from blowing your circuit and from the electrical current being scattered everywhere. We talk about how having faith is like being grounded.  Faith helps keep a person from being scattered, it brings light to the darkness.

Our group leader then reads Psalm 119 verse 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.” Without anyone near the light switch that we could see, the rest of the conference room lights, at that same moment, turn on.  Luckily, this time, it was in a room full of people, and one of my friends that was with me the last time I had a similar experience, was there.   God has such a funny way of getting my attention, I felt like I got a “right on” and I can’t help but think my daughter’s sense of humor could also be at play here.  

 

 

 

 

Be the Change

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

My day started out as a cleanup day. I meant to clean up the kitchen, run over and help a friend and neighbor for an hour or two to pack and move.  As I started cleaning up, every bag or drawer, or table seemed to contain some sort of change.     I started thinking about something I hadn’t finished writing about.  All the change that I found after my daughter passed.  It was unreal.   Mikenna had over 50 bags.  I am not exaggerating.   She had bags for staying the night at girlfriends, bags for studying,  bags of books, a purse or bag in every color.  In the days after she passed everything was a blur.  I was still looking for a sense of understanding.   At that point, I was hoping I would find something that would explain what happened.  In every bag, remember that’s 50, in her car, in her room, in all her jackets, I found coins.   I found change everywhere, to the point I was laughing about it hysterically.  

In the last 14 months, I seem to still find change, all the time, especially when I am having a difficult day.   I have started picking up the coins when I find them and looking at the dates and states.  I smile when I find coins in random parking lots or places I am visiting.  I’ve kept this to myself until recently, not wanting my family to think I’ve totally gone nutters.   The other day I was just overwhelmed with all I had going on,  I went to grab my stuff for my swim class, and as I grabbed the bag, it turned upside down spilling quarters, nickles and pennies.   I calmed down and I smiled, remembering when I found all the change, in all of her stuff.  All right Already! “Stop sending me change,” I had said at one point out loud.  I am not sure if I had been talking to her, but I had said it anyway. 

Stopping by my daughter’s grandparent’s house the other day, we talked a little about the non-profit, the Hike for Hope I am trying to run, and how I have seen and read that people who have lost children, statistically stay together and move forward more often, they have found some purpose, some mission with the loss of their child.  It’s some way to continue their legacy. 

 I have been told to put my daughter’s stuff away, to not look at it, and that doing non-profit stuff in her name just keeps it all in my face and inhibits healing.  This is just not true.   Maybe it makes some people uncomfortable is my thought. (And right now that is their problem, not mine.)  If death makes you uncomfortable, how do you think it makes the person wallowing in it every day feel?  Try just sitting with that person, you don’t have to say or do anything.  The truth is, that those of us going through grief, want to still be able to say their loved one’s name out loud and that not speaking about an issue doesn’t make it go away. In fact, I am pretty sure that is how different Stigmas develop.  If we don’t talk about issues then no one knows they exist, or how serious they are.  Such as suicide.  I used to believe if I didn’t worry about it, it wouldn’t happen to our family.  

I was talking about all of this with my in-laws and my father-in-law pulls out his collection of coins he’s been collecting in random places since the loss of my daughter.  He had no idea I was doing that also.  It gave my heart a little squeeze.  He showed me one with her birth year and one with a bird.  I had one with a family tree I had just found.  It was nice to know I wasn’t the only one looking for coins all around everywhere I went.

I have been thinking about “Change” a lot.  It keeps bringing to mind a conversation about depression I had about nature verse nurture. Could I change the pattern of depression in my life or someone else’s life? “Be the Change”, I had heard in my mind.  I had heard these words in my mind and in my heart a few months ago. I tried to ignore the words at first, but then decided I would write them down in this online journal, instead of continuing to ignore them.  Even after I started to write, I  left the journal entry as a draft for weeks as I contemplated the words and meaning.

Be the change. Be the change. Be the change. I had made the leap of faith to start a nonprofit for mental health with my closest friends and family, (MVP, the Mikenna Vanek Project) and it is somewhat of an unknown.   I have no idea what direction it will go or what it will become, but I know I need to have faith and do it. Could we help to “Be the Change?” I come from a long line of people who struggled with mental health issues. Could I make a difference? Can you make a difference to someone’s genetics? Maybe you can at least influence their path in some small way.  In a world with billions of people, if even one life is changed or saved, isn’t it worth it?

(As I write this I have to stop to answer the door.  The older neighbor down the street has rung the doorbell twice.  At 9am on a Saturday morning and I am alone.  The second time he comes back I decide to answer.   He is holding my daughter’s wallet.  She had dropped it at the park.  I find this ironic as I am writing about being the change, as our neighbor brings a wallet, completely untouched, to my front door.)

As I sit here blogging I wonder if anyone reads these blog posts, if they help anyone that is also struggling with loss or trying to understand someone going through a loss?  I know that I need to keep writing in the hope that it does. I know that I have to try.  I have to try one moment at a time in my own life, and one baby step at a time with my own grief, with my own family, with the non-profit MVP and now the hike I am somewhat blindly leading for suicide prevention in Portland.  I hope to “be the change” that my daughters would want me to be and that I am teaching them to also be.  To not just accept how things are, but to step out and step up, even if you have to do it all on your own.

https://www.mikennavanekproject.org/

To support the suicide prevention hike:

http://www.afsp.org/PortlandHike4Hope

 

Broken Pieces

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I sometimes struggle with the idea of being broken.  First of all, we are all broken in different ways.  I used to say, “no one gets out of this world alive.” What I meant by that was that everyone has their “stuff.”    Years ago, I used to think I was the only one that had issues to deal with.    I then became a charge nurse at work, and boy I figured out I was wrong.

If you are old enough to remember Lucy and her .5 cents for psychiatric advice, you would kind of know what I am talking about.  At my desk, I would sit at a couple times a week, it even had a little window you could slide shut at one point, I would give my .5 cents worth of advice and counsel for whatever it was worth.   A charge nurse not only makes sure the floor they are working on runs well, but they look after the basic welfare of their co-workers while they work.   You would be given confidential information that wasn’t really for management to deal with, and then you would have to discern what was best for the department and your co-worker without breaking their confidentiality.

I would have co-workers with sick children or spouses, injuries to work around,  some personality conflicts and other issues that would come up during the day.  As I sat back one day I realized everyone was dealing with something.  One person has a husband working out of state, one has adult children living with her that she helps support, another takes care of her aging parents on her days off, one was awaiting a total joint surgery, someone else also has a learning disabled child to care for at home. We all come to work with our stuff and we set it aside to get the job done, but on occasion, they need help making that happen.  That’s when I knew that everyone was dealing with something.  Some of us a little more or less or different than the other person.

Some of us have more “stuff” than others, and sometimes our “stuff” is unlike anyone’s around us.   I know in my case, I found it unbearable to share how I was feeling verbally with others around me and I began writing.   I have no idea why I can write so openly about my deepest feelings more than I can talk about them.   My husband had a great statement this morning, “no matter where this all leads you, it’s doing something, it’s not doing nothing.”

I thought about being broken.  I have been broken as if I were smashed, stepped on and swept up and discarded.  That is how broken I have felt with my loss.  I am so broken that I feel like I walk around as a whole person, that has been glued back together and repainted, only to have the surface scratched daily to reveal my brokenness.  The only thing that helps is the knowledge that I still have a purpose, that I will see my daughter again, and that I do not walk this road alone.

Today is 14 months since the loss of my daughter.  It honestly is like a blink of an eye.  When I need a few minute mental reprieves, I think about how she could be studying abroad or on a mission trip.  I guess she is, there’s just no way to text or track her on her GPS like find my iPhone.   I know that I will carry her with me every day and in all things I do. I know that most people that have lost someone close to them, like a child or a spouse, feel the same way.

Yesterday I listened to my pastor take about the miracle of feeding the 5,000 with 5 loves of bread and 2 pickled herrings.   To feed the masses he broke the bread.  It was only broken bread that was blessed and used to feed 5,000 men and their wives and children. We discussed in our group, how in history and in the bible, how broken people were always the people that went on to do extraordinary things.   I don’t blame God for my brokenness, I know we live in a broken world.   I do believe that he takes broken things, blesses them, and uses them for so much more than we can imagine.

Below is a song shared in our group about the story of feeding the masses and being broken.

 

Broken Boots

Going through my daughter’s things I ran into the issues of her boots.   They were her prized possessions.  She loved her Doc Martins and her Timberlines. The problem was no one in our family wore that size and I didn’t want to just give them away.   I decided to make planters out of them for her closest family and friends.   I started with the boots with the broken sole.

 

 

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To make these planters I took a pair of boots that were no longer going to be worn.  These had a large tear in the bottom.  I took out the inside lining and then drilled a few drainage holes in the bottom.  I spayed the outside of the shoe with waterproofing spray and filled with a seasonal plant.  You can keep inside the plastic container or fill the boot with potting soil.  I attached a laminated memorial tag to one and cardstock message to another.  You can cover the cardstock in clear tape to waterproof it also.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watching Heartbreak

When you watch your child’s heart get broken into a million tiny pieces it makes you wish you could do anything for them to take that pain away.

Maybe middle children just learn to be more empathetic, I’m not sure, but my middle daughter has always loved with all her heart.

I’ve watched her forgive unforgivable unkind acts done to her by the same people she’s forgiven many times. I’ve watched her help her sister through the darkest hours when no one else would. I’ve watched her play her best games and never get one compliment and never say a word. I’ve seen her entire team leave and her stand in one place.
Yes, all the platitudes are possibly true: young love never lasts, it will make her stronger, you will meet someone else in college and so on.
But no one knows her heart like I do, and to see it crushed, crushes me.

How do you teach to love again, when she swears she won’t? How do you teach to trust again? When the person you love, says they love you and the next minute they move on? She asks these questions with her tears, without asking them aloud.

Today is my anniversary, and my hope is that she sees in my relationship what love can be. We’ve battled through every possible trial you can imagine and we love each other more today than the day we were married. I want her to see it as a possibility and believe. I hold her and hope she also sees that unconditional love we have for her. Knowing we would do anything for her and take her heartache as our own if we could. That is love.