One year ago today, I left the kids with my mom and moved seven hours north to start a new job. They would join me at Christmas, but until then, it was up to me to prepare a new life in a new state.

When I started job hunting in the summer of 2011, Wisconsin wasn’t on my radar. I had vacationed there when I was very young. As an adult, I had driven through, but I had never BEEN there and I certainly never thought about LIVING there. A head hunter convinced me that it wasn’t too far from Chicago so I should consider the southeast part of the state. Why not, I thought. I didn’t have anything to lose.

When the plane landed in Milwaukee for my first interview, I felt a sudden and overwhelming sense of calm. I was at peace. Everything that was happening with my marriage, all the financial trouble we were in, having to find a job – it all faded away. I felt like I was home… And the plane was still taxi-ing to the runway.

I was picked up from the airport and driven to a trendy hotel on the outskirts of downtown. I couldn’t stop smiling. I looked out the windows with eager anticipation. I wanted to take it all in. Breathe it in. Absorb it. It felt good, this unfamiliar place. It felt RIGHT.

I’ve only had that sense of peace and feeling of home one other time in my life – when I visited the college that would become my alma mater. My dad and I had just driven through the front entrance on our way to admissions when I said, “Dad, this is where I’m going to school.” He thought I was crazy. We weren’t out of the car yet, he said. We haven’t talked to anyone. We don’t even know what programs they offer, let alone financial aid packages…  Yet, every college and university was measured against that school. There was no contest. To this day, as I participate on the college’s alumni board of directors, campus is very comfortable to me.

In the last 365 days, I haven’t regretted the decision to move to Wisconsin. It still feels good; it still feels right. Even after all the drama and sadness of the last 10 months, I’m confident that this is where I’m meant to be right now. Even when I knew the job wasn’t working out and I needed to move on, I never considered leaving.

This is home. We are home.

Musical Flashback: It Had to Be You

One of my favorite memories of my 16 years with Mike happened during our wedding: our first dance.

Mike was one of the world’s worst dancers. So bad, that he embraced his dance floor awkwardness with complete zeal. He loved being a bad dancer. Mike had zero rhythm. But he liked making people smile by so thoroughly enjoying himself…

But I wanted OUR first dance to be something amazing. Something people would remember. So I signed us up for private dance lessons. Twice a week for almost six months we drove more than 30 minutes to a dance studio in one of the suburbs. It was quite a financial splurge for a couple just starting out.

I don’t remember our instructor’s name – I don’t remember much of anything about the instructor. But I remember the lessons.

The feeling of being in Mike’s arms. Of him twirling me around. Of spinning. Of our hands intertwined. Of looking in his eyes. Of fighting against him – each of us trying to lead… (I’m not a good follower, not even on the dance floor!)

It was time for us. Just us. Two hours a week, just me and Mike. It was lovely.

The instructor choreographed our entire first song. It was a combination of classic steps and a dance that was all our own. It was perfect.

The night of our wedding reception, the DJ called us to the floor and the song started. We reached for each others’ hands and… “Smile,” I whispered. “I love you.”

The dance was perfect. Shear perfection. I remember looking out into the crowd and seeing the faces of our loved ones. People were smiling, clapping, cheering us on. No one knew we took lessons, and Mike’s staying in step was a complete surprise to everyone. We received several compliments that night. People who knew Mike (and his bad-dancing prowess) were in awe at his moves that night – well, at least during our first song. 🙂

The song was Harry Connick Jr.’s “It Had to Be You” from When Harry Met Sally. I keep the song on my iPod, and when shuffle decides to play it, I listen to it all the way through. Reliving that night, that song, that dance. It’s kind of nice to remember the good.

One foot in front of the other (Alternatively: Running is hard)

Today I started training – in preparation of the real training. I’ve never run before in my life – hell, I’ve never really exercised. But years of eating and drinking basically whatever I wanted, plus two babies, plus a relatively sedentary job, it’s all taken its toll.

I’m geared up with specialty running shoes (and comfy inserts) and a ridiculous-looking sports bra (described online as designed to “encapsulate the breast… while compression limits motion…” sexy, right?!?) I dropped the kids off at school, fulfilled my school volunteer assignment (making photocopies for Ethan’s teacher), went to the grocery story, suited up to run (getting the bra on was a workout in-and-of itself…), and stretched.

I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful (and pretty flat) neighborhood with wide sidewalks, perfect for running. The weather was beautiful, about 42 degrees, slightly overcast, no wind. I had my route measured, exactly one mile from my house to the main road. My iPod was loaded with a running app to track my time and distance. How hard could it be to run (with a little walking) one mile to the road, one mile back?

It was hard. Really fucking hard.

I was feeling okay at 0.25 miles, so I thought I’d start my run. I made it another 0.1 miles before I was breathing hard, my calves starting to tighten. I slowed back to a brisk walk. At the 0.5 mile mark, I attempted another run, and I made it another 0.1 miles before walking. Then I kind of panicked. I wasn’t sure I could even get to the mile mark, but what if I did get there and then didn’t have the energy to get back…

“Just keep walking,” I willed myself.  I thought about how I was doing this for me, for my kids. In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mortality. If I die, what happens to my kids? I need to get healthier. I need to set a good example for my kids. I need to live a long and healthy life FOR THEM.

I made it to 0.75 miles before turning around and starting back toward my house. I had one other brief interlude of running before going back to walking. My pace was slower than when I started. My calves were really tight and my ankles were sore.  I was breathing loudly and couldn’t silence it. I had a weird pain in my side, and I could “feel” my lungs and my heart.

I walked (with three BRIEF runs – “run-lets” I’ll call them) for a total of 1.5 miles. My time was incredibly embarrassing. But it’s a start, right?

Also, an hour (and some water and some breathing exercises) later, and I actually feel… dare I say… good. I just need to remember “one foot in front of the other.” I just need to keep going.

My Dad

I haven’t blogged about him much, but sometimes I feel more sad about losing my dad than I do about my husband’s death. I usually only cry about Mike’s death when I think about the impact on my kids. But with my dad… I cry at the thought of him and that he’s gone.

My dad holding Ethan for the first time. He called E his “little buckaroo.”

I was always very close to my dad. He was a terrific father, an incredible role model, a loving (but demanding) husband, and an unbelievable friend. He was so smart – he was full of facts on an incredible array of subjects. He was the funny one, the guy who would light up a room just by being there. His wit was quick and he had a great laugh. God, how I miss his laugh. (SIDENOTE: I make myself think about his laugh and the way he said, “Jackie’s home!” several times a week. I don’t ever want to forget the sounds.)

He had his flaws, but he was the most incredible man I’ve ever known. He loved Mike, taking my husband under his wing and acting like a father-figure to him. He adored Ethan, spending hours with my son teaching him about fishing and tractors. He loved my mom with an incredible passion.

But I was his favorite.

Many times, I would be the one to have the “tough” conversations with him. My mom would tell me about something that she couldn’t address with him (usually because she knew if she brought up certain topics – like his health, he would not be receptive, and they would argue). But I could talk to him about anything – and he would listen.

From the time I started college to the time of his death, we talked everyday. Sometimes we talked for hours about politics or family drama. Sometimes we talked for five minutes (“Hey, turn on this random TV show – you won’t believe it!”). Sometimes we talked five or six times a day. But we talked. Often. About everything and anything.

The last six or seven years of his life were difficult. A couple of heart attacks and two strokes made him move a little slower. He didn’t want to be as social as he once was. He didn’t leave the property as much. But he was still very much my dad.

My dad died suddenly, in his sleep, at a relative’s house. He and my mom were staying overnight with family, and at some point, a blood clot traveled from his leg to his lungs. He probably went very quickly, which is a relief.

I’m thankful that he got to “meet” Lauren. I’m thankful that the kids and I stayed with my parents for a week before he died and that we created some new memories while we were there. I’m thankful that he died peacefully. I’m thankful that he didn’t know about Mike’s drinking – it would have broken his heart.

But I hate that he’s gone.

My dad and Ethan picking wild berries on their last adventure together. My dad would die three days later.

EDITED: As expected, I cried through writing this entire post. I’ve gone through four tissues and I think my makeup is unsalvageable at this point (awesome since I don’t teach until 2 today…) I miss my dad…

Therapy update: starting over

Right after I wrote the post on rethinking the direction of Ethan’s therapy, I got an email from R, Ethan’s therapist. He attached a link to the neuropsychologist evaluation process and a list of professionals at the local children’s hospital. As I suspected, he was pushing an evaluation, ignoring my concerns that Ethan’s grief wasn’t being addressed.

I let the email sit for a week before responding. Then I responded (this is the actual email – except I used his name, not “R”):


Thank you, R. I’ve done a lot of research in the last six weeks or so, and I’ve talked to several people on the issue as well. As I mentioned in Ethan’s last session, I was leaning toward an ADD/ADHD diagnosis when we first started seeing you; however, as I’ve become more aware of the grieving process in children, I think there’s another issue that needs to be addressed before he is evaluated. Ethan *might* very well be ADD/ADHD to some degree, but until the core issue of Ethan’s grief is addressed, it will not benefit him to be labeled. 

To recap what Ethan’s been through: Within weeks during the summer of 2010, Ethan became a big brother, his grandpa died (and my mom moved in with us), his father was sinking deeper into alcoholism (and Ethan saw many things relating to that), and my marriage was crumbling. Literally, all this happened over a four-week period. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with (and he was seeing a counselor at school and another one outside of school), a year later, Mike and I separated, and I decided to relocate the family to Wisconsin. Five months after the separation and just weeks after Ethan moved here, Mike died. 
That’s a lot for a child to take in, absorb, and figure out how to deal with. A lot of his behavior issues at school (and to a lesser degree at home since we don’t see the same behavior outside school) mirror what other children go through as part of the grieving process. The acting out, the aggression, the anger are all part of the process that many children go through. 
You’ve done a good job helping Ethan become more aware of the symptoms and finding ways to deal (i.e., handling his anger), but I think there needs to be a focus on dealing with the grief aspect. If this isn’t an area of expertise, please let me know. I truly believe this is where Ethan needs the most help right now.
It was a week before I heard back from R. I wasn’t surprised by his response. Turns out, he has very little experience helping younger children with grief issues, and he recommends taking Ethan to a different therapist. Not surprised, but a little ticked off because:
  • My reason for seeking help was very clearly spelled out for R from the first meeting. We spent two hours talking about what Ethan had been through in the last few years, including (very much including) dealing with the deaths of his grandpa and his dad.
  • R had adequate opportunity to indicate this was not an area of specialty. Every session, R prompted Ethan and I to talked about upcoming (or recently passed) anniversaries like the date of my dad’s death, Father’s Day, my wedding anniversary. Hearing me talk about Ethan’s reaction to these dates might have been opportune time to say, “hey, that’s not really my thing, you know? But let me refer you to someone else…” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Ethan really clicked with R, and I haven’t told him that we will be changing therapists. The therapist to which R has referred us has requested that I meet with her alone the first time. I’m a little hesitant to go with someone who R has recommended, but it’s worth (at least) meeting her. I’m going to lay it on the line though – we need to address Ethan’s grief. He needs the tools to comprehend and process these two deaths.

New therapist is going to get grilled: I want to know what kind of experience she has with kids E’s age, and what kind of processes she has for working with kids dealing with grief. And I won’t hesitate to find a different therapist if I don’t feel she can address the issues and REALLY HELP Ethan.

I’m making the call tomorrow to schedule the first meeting with new therapist.