Surprises

Yesterday, I got a surprise. And not the “whoo-hoo there’s a $10 bill in my pocket I forgot about” surprise, but a disappointing surprise that had me stepping into my mental time machine wondering how I let that happen. Why didn’t I catch it? What was I thinking?

You know, the crappy kind of surprise.

Surprises are weird that way. I’ve been known to say, “I love surprises” and “I hate surprises” both with complete sincerity. And that makes a surprise such an interesting and unique part of life.

Christmas morning has long been one of my favorite moments. Not just because of the gifts, but because it was chock full of good surprises. I knew that people loved me and that they had surprises planned that would make me happy. My first Christmas as a young married woman, we spent the Christmas Eve at my parents’ house. At 5:00am I woke up and elbowed my husband, “It’s Christmas!” I said excitedly. He looked at me like I was insane and said, “It’s 5:00am, go back to sleep.”

I nudged him again — I just couldn’t wait for the surprise.

There have been other times when I would gladly have waited longer for the surprise. An exam with a question I had never seen before. A call from my husband that a child had been hurt. Being summoned into my boss’ office to hear that my position was being significantly changed.

The worst surprise I ever got was back in 2000. I was pregnant with my first child and at 20 weeks we were ecstatic to go to our ultrasound appointment. We jumped in the car,  drove to the unfamiliar hospital and found the office. Sitting there with a gown on, babbling away with the tech I was happy. Over the moon, first pregnancy happy. And then the tech said, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.”

When she came back, she had a doctor with her. He looked somber. He started to explain to us that there was a cyst on our baby’s brain stem and that was often a sign of a fatal chromosomal abnormality called Trisomy 18. He preceded to rattle off the things that were caused by it and he told us that most babies with it didn’t survive birth. Other flags weren’t present but he recommended we see a genetics counselor.

To say we were surprised was an understatement.

The drive home was tense. We talked about the risks and benefits of genetic testing. We talked about what we thought we heard. When we got home I looked up what I could on the condition, even though medical information on the Internet was a bit less comprehensive and no less scary than it is now. We talked and talked and decided we would just wait.

Months later the surprise of meeting a perfectly healthy daughter wiped away that frightening moment. Ten fingers, ten toes and a very average 7 pounds and 12 ounces put all our fears of a rare chromosomal abnormality to rest. And, in its place came the everyday ordinary fears that every parent faces. And those fears haven’t gone away since then.

Because, unfortunately, not all surprises are good.

 Beyond the First Monday

The last Sunday of the end of year impacts me strongly. Some years it is with dread, because I am preparing myself for challenging times. Some years it is with anticipation, because I can hardly wait for momentus events. But every single year it feels like there is something extra about the night before the first Monday of the year. And, I’m not the only one who feels that way, as my social media feeds are blowing up with memes reflecting the fact that tomorrow is not just any given Monday.

But isn’t it?

Not that a new year isn’t special. I will be reminded of that specialness for weeks as I turn a 5 into a 6 and feel guilt over failing to magically develop better habits. But I just had a crazy feeling — maybe it’s not that we should look at the first Monday of the year as less special, maybe we should look at the other 51 Mondays as more special.

Over the years, I’ve been buoyed by the ‘fresh start’ endorphins that come with putting old patterns to bed and starting something new. New school years. New audits. New jobs. New homes. So why is it that I haven’t taken more advantage of every single new week and it’s new start — a chance to put aside whatever baggage I’ve created in seven days and focus on the new. A new Monday.

Probably because for me, like for most people, clinging to the baggage is easier. It sits there unless we actively force it away like a full email box or the piles of real baggage sitting in an airport after a hundred flights are cancelled. We have to pick it up and deal with it and it feels wrong to just throw it over a cliff and say, “Sorry, I thought you were a priority, but you just aren’t. I need to deal with this stuff because it matters more now.”

Wow, that sounds heartless.

But what if it’s right? What if the baggage that is piling up really is less important than the stuff ahead of you? What if it doesn’t matter that the old baggage came first? What if the only way that you can move the needle is to constantly reboot, forcing out the stuff that is stuck to make space for the stuff that is important? And what if you need to do that not just once a year but more. What if you could do that not just on the first Monday of the year but every Monday of the year?

I’m not saying anything revolutionary. I’m confident that any number of self-help books focus on using techniques to reprioritize the important and urgent items in your life. But, the idea of considering Monday not as something to be dreaded but as a trigger of a new opportunity has promise. A promise of how to think differently — and perhaps act differently — in the new year.

And every single Monday after that.

What 2015 Taught Me

Every year I get year-end retrospectives in my Christmas cards and I love hearing about the adventures and exploits of my friends and family. And there is a certain longing when I read those notes because I want to be the kind of person that has adventures. But for me each chunk of time seems to be measured by what I learned and not by what I did. Here are the four things that stick out.

Embrace Your Passions

Prior to starting this blog, it had been a long time since I gave into my desire to write. A long, long time. In 2015, a chance interaction sparked that fire and over the course of the second half of the year I have remembered why it is important to fuel the passions that give you joy. No, I don’t have a worldwide following. No, I am not the next big thing. But having this blog gives me permission — focus — to indulge in something beyond my work and my family, something this is just about me. I find the couple of hours a week that I sit on my iPad and quietly consider life to be some of the most rewarding and recharging time I have. I had forgotten I was important in that way and I’m glad 2015 reminded me.

Love Hard, No Matter What

There were times in 2015 when I thought my heart would break because I lost things that I loved, both relationships that were core to who I am and beloved pets who had intertwined in my life. I cried this year, bigger and harder than I have in many others. But in the end the pain was a reflection of saying good-bye to something truly amazing — unique experiences that not everyone has the chance to experience. So I learned that if you love hard and you put yourself out there, sometimes you get hurt. And that’s ok. I learned that I’m the kind of person who wants to feel greatly, both the great joys and the great pains.

Things Change

When I started the year, I was planning to be part of a new company, considering how that would impact my future and my possibilities. Now that is off and my company is looking forward to an exciting future alone. When I started the year, my daughter and I were struggling to be in the same page and I felt like the enemy. Now, she is on a fabulous path to adulthood and seeks me out as an ally. When I started the year we were still feeling new in our community, still transplants. Now, we’ve explored the boating scene, made friends with our neighbors and found ‘our restaurants’. This year reminded me that life is about holding on, taking a breath and understanding that if you are open to possibility every situation has the opportunity for good.

Things Stay the Same

I’ve already posted about my ’20-Year Year’ but 2015 reinforced for me that some things have remained remarkably constant. My love of learning. My commitment to and joy from my marriage. My willingness to close doors when they need to be closed. True, you can’t have a 20-year year without remarking on how much weight you’ve gained, wrinkles you’ve added and scars you’ve collected, but this year also reminded me that my core has remained ridiculously stable. People who have known me for years recognize me in an instant, not because of how I look but because of who I am. 2015 taught me that core values don’t really change, which has been good and bad. I really like the person I am, but I’d still rather be the kind of person who likes to exercise.

So, that’s my 2015 retrospective. Life taught me to embrace the things that bring me fulfillment and joy, to love hard even when it hurts, to be strong through change and hold tight to the constants. It was a good year and as it ends I find myself turning to think about what 2016 will bring and what those 366 days will teach me.

Ooooh, a whole extra day to get smarter — only the nerd in me would think of that.

Home for the Holidays

When we moved away from our hometown three years ago, nothing changed more than our approach to holidays. For twelve years we took for granted our close proximity to family and our ability to be available for everything from impromtu birthday dinners to elaborate Easter egg hunts. We laughed at people who fought airports and highways, packing presents and pets in a weighted down minivan to get to family festivities.

We didn’t realize how good we had it.

When our kids were little we packed a ton into the 30-hours around Christmas. Without taking any vacation time at all we could host a Christmas Eve gathering, be in bed by 1:00am, wake-up and open presents with the kids by 9:00am, be showered and to my parents by 11:00am, pop over to my grandparents, swing home to drop off presents and let the dog out, go over to the in-laws and be home again — exhausted but happy — by 9:00pm. So much joy, so much family and so little inconvenience.

Moving changed that and in a heartbeat everything got harder. Alerting Santa to the change in delivery address. Dealing with pets. Taking vacation. Driving on crowded highways. Packing for a week. Wrapping presents. Cooking dishes. Buying an artificial Christmas tree for the first time since owning a house. I hadn’t thought Christmas had been easy before, but suddenly I knew better. It had been a cakewalk and I hadn’t appreciated it.

But even more than that, I took for granted the relaxed ease that come with geographic closeness. There’s an ability to just share space when you’re close that you lose when there are many miles between you. The everyday meals and everyday  stories that don’t feel special enough for a visit are fine when shared on any given Thursday across the dinner table. I remember with longing sharing a grilled chicken breast and microwaved potato with my grandfather on our everyday plates, talking with him about my day at work. I remember dropping the kids off at my mom’s for an overnight so my husband and I could go to see a movie, watching them toddle off for just another night at Nana’s. I remember sitting for an afternoon at my mother-in-law’s pool watching wet kids jump in and out, dripping on every towel. It wasn’t special then, it just was.

Those days are gone.

Now, when we are together every minute is on a clock, measured for value. Every moment is either greatness or wasted opportunity. I had a friend who had moved away from family once say that when you have fewer moments they are better moments because they are special. I understand that, but I’m not sure I agree. Maybe I am just being maudlin — reminded more than ever of relationships that are struggling and that I haven’t been able to cultivate — but it feels to me that the truly great relationships of my life are built on top of lots of regular moments shared. Not special events, but boring routine times when the comfort of just being allowed me to share my whole self with someone. Allowed them to say in return…

…yeah, I like who you are.

Being home for the holidays reminds me that I have fewer of those moments now with the people I love than I would like. It reminds me that I could do more to make the most of those moments. It reminds me that I am imperfect and I will, on occasion, waste those moments by playing Candy Crush or scrolling the neverending feed on Facebook. But, it also reminds me that it isn’t over. That every moment is an opportunity for a hug, a kind word, an unexpected visit or an out of nowhere message through Facebook. As long as I’m breathing I can make the most of moments.

So, what are you doing reading this? Go make a moment matter.

Saying Goodbye, Again

Yesterday, I said goodbye to my cat Patch. Now, I’m looking over at the corner of the sectional where we had erected a blanket tent, a warm refuge that she retreated into during her last months of life. She spent so much time there that we missed her sudden and striking decline. She was always independent, right until the end.

To understand my relationship with Patch, you need to understand how important pets have been to my husband and I as we have built our family. We are both dog and cat people, but cats were allowable in our small one-bedroom apartment and dogs were not. So, cats were it for the first year of our married life, and we took in his 16-year old childhood cat and went together to adopt a kitten.

Patch was not that kitten.

Our first kitten was Lestat, an all-black male we named after the main character in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire series. Les was a classic cuddler, both sweet and playful. He had the most endearing personality that I have ever seen in a cat, so much so that even Kitty (the elder statesman of the house) tolerated him. And then, literally out of nowhere, he was sick. He was lethargic and couldn’t be touched anywhere due to terrible pain. When he was diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis we put a $1,000 spinal tap we couldn’t afford on our credit card, but money wasn’t going to do anything. His brief life ended in a veterinary clinic, laying in my arms.

That was 20 years ago so I remember the feelings of that day better than the details. I remember feeling appreciation for my mother who drove more than an hour into an unfamiliar place, without question, just because I had called and said I needed her. I remember feeling anger because it wasn’t fair, we had done everything right and he was just a baby. I remember feeling comforted that he wasn’t suffering anymore. And, I remember one more indescribable feeling, the feeling that comes with the harsh realization that this was what it meant to be an adult. It was the feeling of absorbing the full brunt of helplessness and somehow having enough left over to say goodbye.

I bring up Les to let you know that I was emotionally raw when barely a month later my husband picked Patch up from the shelter on his own as a surprise. He knew I was grieving for Lestat and he wanted to do something. I don’t know if I was ready, but at that point ready wasn’t really relevant. There was a kitten in my kitchen and she needed care.

When Patch came home she was a little slip of a thing that the shelter estimated was about four months old. She had been found wandering along the side of I-75, remarkably clean but with a bad case of ear mites. She was aloof and skittish, shrinking away from us whenever we picked her up or tried to pet her. We speculated that she had been abused.

She was my cat and she wanted nothing to do with me.

We focused on what we could do. We took her to the vet and got her on medication. We swabbed her ears until the mites were gone. We bought food and toys and gave her space to be her own cat. We waited patiently for her to come to us and when she did, we petted her the way she liked to be petted until she was done and walked away. Over time, I learned to love the cat she was, not the cat I wanted her to be.

She had been with us for about a year when I realized how important she had become to us. One morning as we were getting ready for work, she darted out the door, ran into the bramble behind our apartment and disappeared. We panicked, she was a tiny thing and we feared the worst. We had visions of her being attacked by a wild animal or a large dog, or of being hit by a car on the busy six lane road we lived on. We tried coaxing her back, but in the end we had to leave for work with her out there. Worried sick, neither of us were very productive that day. We weren’t ready to say goodbye.

Thankfully, when I walked in the door that night she was at the back door waiting for me. It was in my relief that I knew no matter what kind of cat she was, she was mine. As much as she could be anyone’s.

Patch was unapologetically her own cat. She was a strong and nimble creature that had the physicality to go anywhere she wanted to go, regularly jumping onto and over things that surprised us. Until the end she could still make the jump from the back of the couch to the bar counter to ask for water. She demanded running water and I remember buying the expensive filtered water dish long before we could afford such luxuries. In her last year, we gave into her demand for water right from the faucet. I’m sure there are people who find that crazy. I might have too, before she was ours.

In her later years, she mellowed out a bit. One of my favorite memories was of her laying on the sun on our back deck. She always loved the heat — the fireplace, the sunshine, an air vent, behind the tv, next to someone on the couch — but we were nervous about letting her outside. Our relief at her coming home that one day never took away the anxiousness about what could happen. But at one point we got the courage to let her outside on a warm summer day. She sniffed around a bit and settled in the strongest, warmest puddle of sunshine she could find. She lay there until she was done and then she meowed at the door. She knew she was home and didn’t need to wander anymore.

When I said goodbye to her yesterday, I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was thinking that she had a tumor the size of a golf ball on her tiny neck. I was thinking she hadn’t eaten or used the litter box in two days. I was thinking that she rarely came out from under her blanket fort. I was thinking that she needed me to be the adult, to absorb that horrible feeling of helplessness and still have enough left to say goodbye.

In the end she was independent, but she wasn’t alone.