Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day...

Greetings All,

I thought it might be appropriate, being Memorial Day weekend and all, to do a Memorial Day post in honor of Amie.  She might not have been in an officially declared war…but I think we can all agree that her battle with cancer qualifies her for the honorifics I might toss her way.

To start, we now have Amie’s remains with us at our home. 

Anya has been busy today arranging the area where we’re going to keep Amie’s remains until we inter her remains at Lakeside Cemetery sometime next month, after school lets out.

Shelley had created these paper doll-like creations a few years ago for the girls to color and create with, and Anya’s been busy modifying them today to be her and Amie.  It’s amazing how creative she can be, and how she so often sees beyond the limitations of what things are, to see what they can be, given time and energy and creativity.

We made a joke to someone a while back that Anya is Luna Lovegood, the character from Harry Potter who is…..a work of creativity and truly her own person.  

Each year I know Anya, I know her to be more like Luna, and more passionately her own kid.  I can think of nothing better for her to thrive through this.

As you might imagine there are a lot of things we’ve ignored over the last few years, and lots of “obligations” that have piled up, literally and metaphorically, over that time period.  One of them is paperwork.  Shelley is a saver, and a keeper, and wants to keep paper of all kinds in case we need it later.  I often see her point, but at other times disagree….not that she throws any of it away if I disagree, she just notes my disagreement and files it away anyway.  J 

Anyway, today she came across a file with all the pictures from our wedding, and how we found pictures from each year of our birth to act as table number markers on the tables at the reception (which was 50 yards away from the ceremony in her parent’s back yard!). 

So, this picture was in that pile, and was either the year 3 or year 4 placeholder.  I look at this picture, and I see Amie so much. 

When I asked my sister if she could see Amie in this picture, she said today, “Yes! It's the smirky smile. The cheeks, the look in your eye. I always said that she has your spunk.”  Our birthdays were one day apart, and I could always see a lot of my stubborn nature, my obstinacy, and my spirit in her…while I see so much of Shelley in Anya. 

I talked about Ele's Place a little bit last post, and here's the picture I took as we released balloons at the end of the 2nd to last session.  We tied messages to each of them, and let them fly.  This was easy for me (as I mentioned last post), as I had written a letter to Amie just days beforehand.

Just like Anya, Shelley is an amazing artist, and drew a little Amie on the envelope that held the letter I wrote to Amie.  (of course, I smeared the ink...)  This letter, with the hearts I taped to it, are inside the urn, with the rest of the materials we made for her.  

This picture is from yesterday, and is of Anya and Allyssa at my favorite place at MSU, the waterfall area behind Wells Hall and the MSU Administration bldg.  Allyssa was interested in checking out MSU, as she's nearing the end of her Junior year, and is starting to open up other options for college other than Ann Arbor.  I walked her through campus (and walked, and walked, and walked), and talked about what I loved and what I did not love about life in East Lansing during my 5 years there.

This picture was a great representation of what I hope other people do for Anya...they become asurrogate Amie.  They, for however many minutes as they can, step into the gap that was vacated by Amie when she died, and give Anya a best friend.  I know, in time, she'll have plenty of those...but right now...I think she's a lonely little girl, surrounded by lonely adults doing their best to provide her with all that she needs, and probably failing a little bit.  Thank you, Allyssa, for being that proxy, for however minutes you could.

I sit here, having typed and thought for the last hour or so, and realize that I’ve written a ton about Anya, some about Shelley…and almost nothing about Amie.  I wonder if that’s the best way, maybe.  We’re going to be thinking about her for the rest of our lives, but her story has ended. She’s alive in us, but not alive.  She’s a part of us, but apart from us. 

…and what does that say about us, other than the fact that our way to remember her, our way to make sure she lives on in our lives is to live.  To do.  To talk. To meet. To experience. To……everything. 

Most days, when I allow myself to think about it, I feel this gaping, sorrowful absence where she was.  I can see the seductiveness of that.  To mourn, and not allow myself to move beyond this.  But I must, and we must, and you must….  Amie was never a kid who had much patience, and wanted things to go, go, go.  She would want us to experience everything there was to experience, and not wallow in our miseries.

So, on this Memorial Day weekend, in which we’re called to remember those who have passed before us, and remember those who have given their lives for us to have the freedoms we have, I shall strive to get off my butt and do something that would have made her smile, whatever it is that I can do. 

Ride a bike, take a walk, go buy a loaf of cinnamon chip bread from Great Harvest and eat it by ripping off huge chunks with Anya and eating it with your hands…whatever I can to take huge breaths of life, and remind myself that there’s a lot more in front of me than there is behind me.  Tomorrow, that’s the challenge, and I shall do my best to meet it. 

Anyone want to join me?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

how much I miss her, and other musings...

Greetings All,

After Amie died, I said to myself that I wasn’t going to push myself to write, excepting whenever it was that I felt called to write.  This last 6 weeks has been really busy (more on that later), and also grindingly hard at times (more on that later).

So, it’s been 6 weeks since I’ve written, and that’s alright.  Why?  ‘cuz I say it is.  J

But, ya know what’s cool….there has been a consistent 200-ish page hits each day, as I know that there’s still a ton of people out there wishing us well, thinking about us, sending prayers towards us, and all other types of well-wishing.  We appreciate it, really.

What to talk about, what to talk about….  Let’s start with Anya.

Anya is really doing well, at least we think she is.  She’s where most of our focus is going right now.  We’ve been going to Ele’s Place for 5 weeks now, and it’s been amazing for her.  She loves going there, gets to talk about Amie and have fun, and we go to the adult group.

Anya’s also exploded into reading.  I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but prior to January she was a reluctant reader, and now she’s literally reading too much.  What’s that mean?  She avoids all her normal housework to read. She reads under her blankets after bed with a flashlight, and doesn’t want to do anything else.  She reads (on average) a book a day, or more.  She’s torn through the Magic Tree House series, the Junie B. Jones series, and the Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew books.  She’s on fire.  FIRE. FLAMES.   Ok, maybe too much for that one…  no one needs to be thinking about burning books.  But if they were on fire, Anya would still be reading them…just carefully.

Pretty much everything about Anya is going well right now.  She has swimming lessons on Monday nights (she fell behind when Amie got ill, and we didn’t follow up), Ele’s Place on Wednesday nights, and Art lessons on Thursdays.  She’s active, loving things, and hasn’t really shown a lot of acting out, other than what we perceive to be normal stuff for a soon to be 8 year old.

Shelley has taken all her stress and restlessness and applied it to our home.  All the honey-do projects that most guys might get for vacations?  Yeah, she does all of those.  Ya know the stories about husbands who purposely sandbag chores so that they can get out of doing them in the future?  Yeah. I do my absolute best at things, and they’re still not up to the skill level that Shelley has on things.  She’s never unkind about it, she just knows that she can do the things that she does much better than I, and she wants them done right.  So she does them herself.  She’s been working on re-painting trims, removing and replacing fixtures and hardware, and re-painting the bathroom thus far.  I’m sure there’s plenty to be done in the months ahead.

Me?  Work, for the most part.  My normal escape towards video games has been quite absent, as has my escape towards other geekery like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons.  I’ve largely been forced to live in the real world.  Utterly unacceptable.

But to be real, it got me to thinking about the idea of identity the other day, in the sense of how we see ourselves, and how the world sees us.  Underneath the surface, for me, is this seething mass of sorrow, discomfort, impatience, and aching loss.  I want to tell everyone I meet about Amie, and tell them how much I miss her.  More than that, I miss all the things that she’s not going to do, the places she’s not going to go, the experiences she’s not going to have.  I miss the hole that she has left, and know that it’s not going to be filled, just hopefully become smaller as time moves along.

I think about all the pain that sits beneath the exterior of people, and how it does with me as well.  I know that I have always judged people at times, and know that I will in the future.  I see kids with their heads down in my class, and at times take it personally.  Some times the lack of interest is from poor decisions they have made, and sometimes it’s from utter desire to succeed in school overall.  But how often in the past has their apparent disinterest been from the profound things that have been hammering into them on a daily basis, and what could I have done to help them with that?  I think about that stuff a lot these days.

Since I’m on a roll talking about things that make people uncomfortable, let’s continue!  I recently took 140 8th Graders to Washington DC.  Yes, I am insane.  But really, I love taking the trip, for what it does to the kids who “get it”.  I’ve been reading the papers they wrote this afternoon, up until I ditched them to write this blog post, and I keep getting blown away by the profound reflections that kids are writing in response to the trip.  So amazing, and so profound to see these young writers starting to discover the power of service to others, of self-sacrifice to the greater good, and how empowering it is to have passion to remake the world into a better place for others. 

But…that’s not what I meant to write (it snuck out!).  I meant to write about Grief Bombs.  That’s my name for what happens when you’re walking around in a normal conversation and you suddenly find yourself knee deep in a conversation where you’re smashing back tears like Captain America with his shield.  My most recent event with this was at the Hard Rock CafĂ© in DC, where a couple of teachers who went with me to DC were talking about vomiting, and how the girls’ bus to DC (yes, we separated them this year) had several pukers, and how we hadn’t had any the previous year.  The conversation devolved into talking more about puke, and those who cared, and those who didn’t, and I realized that I was totally and utterly missing Amie’s days of puke, because although she was puking on me as I held her, she was alive and with me.  Even typing this, wow.  Too much, too raw, so overwhelming.

The other thing that was powerful this last few weeks was settling on what to put in Amie’s urn.  Firstly, for those who didn’t know, we didn’t bury her.  We cremated her, and then we’re going to bury her.  We like to do things our own way, and this made sense to us.  (like I have to justify anything…)  Anyway, the urn we picked was an adult sized urn, and there was a lot of extra room in it.  They asked us if there was anything we wanted to put in it, and of course, we each chose things to make that happen.  Shelley knit a heart (I don’t have a pic, but wish I did), and each of us wrote letters to say goodbye to her.

I’m not sure that there’s been anything harder for me to write. Ever.  I was leaning over the table writing, and I was wearing my glasses.  I was crying so hard that I had puddles inside of the lenses of my glasses, and had to keep dumping it out to finish the letter.  But.  I guess the things that matter most, the things that most need to be said are the things that squeeze the guts out of us the most, and make us the most vulnerable.  We fear those things the most, but those are the things we need to do.  Always.  It’s the heart of what it means to be real, to be human, and to be connected to each other.

Ok.  Enough really deep stuff for now.  I could go on forever with the stuff bouncing around my head right now.  I’ll cease here, and publish this behemoth.  

I love comic books and video games.
I asked them both to pose for me.  
Charlie and Anya are epic Superheroes.

This is Jennifer.  
She's the former student who organized several fundraisers for us, and is overall just plain amazing.
She came up for dinner last week, and hung out afterwards to talk and play with Anya.

This is Anya's version of the Kitty on the yarn ball.

This is Jen's version.  Jen has 14 years on Anya.  I'm still giving the decision to Anya. ;)

The big explosion of goodness for the evening came when Jen gave Shelley this bracelet.  
She had taken Amie's signature from a piece of artwork and had it made into the bracelet.  Shelley and I were immediately overwhelmed by how insanely cool this was, and how much we both appreciated it. Jennifer For the Win! 

Hope y’all are doing well, and you’re enjoying the heck out of our spring weather.  I know I am.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Escape from radio silence!

Greetings All,

I’ve been silent for the past month, not out of choice, but out of survival mode for the most part.  Going back to work on March 16th was exceedingly good in many, many ways.  The structure, the kindness and goodwill of so many of my students and co-workers, as well as just a sense of purpose was very good for me.

But it’s also hard, in so many other ways.  By trade, I’m a storyteller.  I teach through stories.  I don’t understand how people teach History with worksheets, or with entirely student-driven lessons.  But at the base of my craft as a teacher is forming dynamic relationships with the students in my class based on trust, based on caring, and then telling stories on top of those relationships to connect dots between historical events and their lives.  That’s how I’ve always managed to make history come alive, and make it more than the worksheet-based nightmare that Shelley lived through in HS.

As you might imagine, there is a massive expenditure of energy that goes along with that.  Match that up with the fact that neither Shelley nor I are sleeping very well yet, and you get a very tired Jason.  Very. Tired. Add onto that fact that I don’t really know how to teach at ½ energy, or ½ anything… So, with that, I haven’t written.

Anya is doing as well as can be expected, and has really fallen into reading more than we ever would have imagined.  She’s reading an average of a book a day…and these are decent sized books.  I’d guess she’s reading 2+ hours a day, on average, right now.  When we ask her about what’s going on in the books, with a little prodding as she finds the whole thing tedious as we’re basically testing her to see if she actually read it after all, she gives us a basic plot synopsis…so she’s totally reading it.

She’s lonely, that’s for sure…and we’re doing our best to fill in those gaps wherever we can.  For example, yesterday was Easter, and Shelley got me this crazy little orange monster guy who has a foam eyeball.  If you squeeze his belly really quickly, the air compresses and the eye shoots out.  The monster comes with 4 extra eyeballs as well.

Anya spent several hours yesterday making 3 different sized monsters out of toilet paper, building a backstop, creating prizes, decorating balloons, and making other accompaniments to this game.  Then she asked us to come play.  We did….but what she really wanted was to have a best friend again who would play it over and over and over with her for hours.  We did our best,  but we do get tired after several go-throughs, as anyone would…except if you’re 4-7.

Anya and Shelley also spent several hours up at Uncle Chad's place, near Linden.  She drove a 4-wheeler, and really enjoyed it, once she got used to it (from reports...)

We start at Ele’s Place the Wednesday after Spring Break, and we’re really looking forward to that.  We toured their Saline/Ann Arbor location last week, and talked about the process of healing that they use, and it sounds like it will be great for us, as well as Anya.  We’re really looking forward to that.

Shelley is doing as well as can be too.  She’s been volunteering at Anya’s school nearly every day.  She helps them out with whatever they need, from Spelling tests, reading to kids, filing, sharpening pencils, and a ton more.  It’s helping her fill that silence, and also fill her bucket to be helping out at CSA.  She’s also been meditating, doing yoga at home, and doing a bunch of fix-up projects at home that she’d put off while Amie was sick. 

In the end, I can’t really talk about Shelley’s or Anya’s grief process.  For me, however, the process of grief is so totally, totally strange.  In nearly every conversation that I have, I feel compelled to somehow bring up Amie, but nearly never do.  I want to talk about her to everyone, all the time.  I want everyone to know that she died…..but I don’t.  The look on people’s faces, and the time I then immediately snap to making them feel better about her having died makes, me feel terrible for bringing it up. 

So I’ve been spending a lot of my time either not talking to people, which is fine, or talking about things that I can absolutely not have any way of bringing her up…..or with the people who I’m close to at work, talking about her in my normal, natural way and trusting that I won’t make them cry by doing so.  (Thank you, Tracy, Tracy, Shannon and lunch people!) 

There have been a few times when I’ve been overwhelmingly overcome with emotion, and these are always the times where I’m least expecting it.  For the most part, though, it’s just the undercurrent of things right now, and I imagine that it’s going to be that way for a very, very long time.

A few things that were exceedingly good, and hard, but good that I’d like to talk about…

Firstly, The Howell Carnegie District Library is one of the libraries that Andrew Carnegie decided to build when he realized that he’d lived most of his life as a horrible, greedy, robber baron of a corporate magnate, and decided to give his fortune away near the end of his life.  He did this as a salve to his legacy, but he did a lot of good with it nonetheless. (you might remember this from History class.  Maybe…)  Anyway, Howell got one of those libraries, and it’s this gorgeous old-school brick building that just does not get made anymore.

As I’ve talked about in the past, the girls and Shelley spent a LOT of time at the library reading books, making friends, going to library school, and generally just loving the place on a level that words do not adequately serve.  Several employees of the place have been fantastic supporters of my family and the girls, and we received a letter from one of them last week.

In that letter, we found a card and a picture.  Amie’s oft-favorite books were the Mo Willems books about Elephant and Piggie, and we would read them over and over again.  They dedicated the shelf for those books to Amie, and it just blew my mind how cool that was.  

That was one of those gut punch moments…where I wasn’t expecting it, and the sheer love and caring that that moment showed to me…how much they got it, how they understood how much those books and those memories meant to Amie, and me by proxy.

Even now, typing that out, I’m sitting in Uptown Coffee in Howell, hoping the people sitting around me aren’t noticing that I’ve got tears in my eyes, all the while I’m doing my “passionate typing” as Shelley would call it.

Because silliness is needed to raise the hilarity level, 
here are Anya and I doing our best Elephant and Piggie impersonations.

The other thing that was both good, and hard, but glad to have been able to do it.

First, a disclaimer…up until Amie got sick, I was not particularly good with accepting help.  I’d been largely raised to take care of myself, and saw others helping me as me not being able to do it for myself.  I’m a work in progress, and had long since come to peace with that.  But once Amie got sick, we had to get used to people helping out, or else we’d come apart at the seams.

Lots of people helped out who were family, and lots who weren’t.  One of the people who helped out a lot, and in lots of different ways, was the Hammack family.  Shelley had met Jennya years ago, while Jennya was employed as a stylist at Simplicity Salon in Howell (which recently closed…) When Jennya left the salon to take care of her growing brood, Shelley continued to see her professionally for her services out of her home.

As Amie’s treatments intensified, Shelley was never one to take very good care of herself, and I reached out to Jennya several times to see if we could get appointments for Shelley at strange times.  She was always more than agreeable, and pretty much said that if Shelley wanted to come over at 2am, she’s set an alarm and style her with a smile…and refused to take payment.

Jennya and Chris also own a catering/meal preparation company, Simpled, and they frequently delivered meals to our house, never asking for any payment, and often dropping off a LOT of food (Shelley ate nearly all of it.  She loved it and hinted at my harm for eating some of the meals.  Don’t trust that smiley exterior.  She’s vicious I tell you. Vicious!)  They also picked up Anya from school when we were in radiation treatments at the end of the school year last year, when I couldn’t get out of work to get her.

I tell you all this because I had the opportunity to give a little back last week, and got to help them move into their new house.  It was really, really good for me to be able to give back, and do it in a way that I felt like I could make a difference in the process.

The icing on the cake for me, however, was getting to play with her two youngest kids for a while afterwards.  Chris had ordered some food for everyone after we were done working, and while I waited for it to arrive, I got to play with Ollie and Vaeh.  They are 3ish and 5ish (if I remember correctly), and it was great getting down on the ground and playing with kids that age again. 

They rode me around like an elephant (both at the same time), played silly games in their room, Ollie showed me how to slide down the stairs on our stomachs, and both of them taught me how to properly leap off the stairs into their new foyer. (oh to have a fully functional spine again!) 

Playing with them made me feel slightly whole again, if for only a few moments, and made me realize that there is a hole there that needs to heal, and is going to take quite a while to do so….but that it will happen, and it can happen. 

Anyway, this has become a book and a 1/2 ,  so I’m going to end it here.  Hope Easter and Spring Break (for my school peeps) is treating you well, and if not that, then Tigers Opening Day! 

Enjoy the warmth!  I will.