Crosses on the way

When Alynne and I went to Tucson a couple of weeks ago, we went a different way than we had before. We took back roads, and two lanes, and lonely stretches of highway where we saw nothing for miles. And by nothing, I mean nothing. Not even a cow. I guess I did see a dead deer and a buzzard, but those aren’t terribly uplifting.

What I did see was crosses along the road. Dozens and dozens of roadside crosses and memorials. Some were simple- a small wooden cross, maybe painted white or maybe it was left to the elements. A few had flowers or a picture wrapped in a plastic bag. Some were elaborate with flowers and rosaries and pinwheels and ceramic figures. One even had a wrought iron bench. My initial reaction is to always say a quick prayer for the person represented by those crosses and their families left behind. Those crosses in the road symbolize a life, a love, a memory.

With each roadside cross, I wonder how many hundreds of lives, loves, and memories aren’t marked on the side of the highway. How many families quietly and painfully drive by a spot or their mom or uncle or son or cousin or favorite teacher took their last breath? How much pain is actually been felt or how many tears have been shed along those roads and highways? How much love is not represented by a cross on the roadside? How many “general areas” of loss are fading because someone can’t quite remember the exact location?

My life lost, my memories never made, happened along a stretch of K18, in Russell County, Kansas, about 3 miles east of Waldo. That roadside was littered with Reese’s peanut butter eggs and pansies the night of April 12, 2003. We cleaned it up a day or two later. When you drive by, you don’t know that’s where Mama died. Unless you know.

We didn’t create a memorial for her there. I thought about it. She would have hated it. She had friends drive by on their way to work every day. They remembered. Maybe the Highway Patrolman who talked to me, held my hands as I sobbed while he walked us through accident report, remembered when he drove by.

I remember. I’ve only driven that road, gone by that location one time in 15 years. One time since the day we went to look right after it happened. I don’t think I’ll go that way again. As I’m doing my “Farewell Kansas” tour, I probably won’t add that stop.

We don’t have a cross on the road for Mama. I wear hers around my neck every single day. I hold it when I need to feel her close. I rub it when I need to cry. I proudly tell people it was hers when they comment on my beautiful cross.

I always say a prayer when I see a roadside cross. I know that pain and longing. I respect the loss. The cross is so powerful. All of the time.

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Her Tribe

Her Tribe looks significantly different than it did when she walked through the doors of Troy the first time. It looks completely different than it did 3 months ago. What I have noticed, though, is that some pieces stay the same. They’ve just shifted location, were taking a little break, or just waited patiently in the background until they were needed. Others popped in out of the blue. There are old friends, unexpected new ones, some who floated in and out for whatever reason, and those who stand by her no matter what. This new tribe might be her best tribe. They’re holding her up at a time where her world is about ready to explode with possibility and change and excitement and hesitation and maybe even a little fear. Like two of them told me the other day, “We’ve got her back, Mrs. Kettler!” and “It’s always been my mission to make her laugh.” Of that I have no doubt.

These are the kids who will sing Moana with her and for her. These are the ones who will probably let her punch them in the arm, if she needs to. They’re also the kids who hold her when she’s broken and make her laugh when I don’t think she knows she can. They’re the ones who accept her for who she is, prickly and sarcastic and sometimes a little arrogant and always huge hearted. They understand her and realize that it’s not an easy job. They’re willing to go on fishing adventures with her, even if they haven’t done it yet, to check on her just to make sure she’s okay. They have been with her through her gangly baby giraffe days to her I-didn’t-know-my-daughter-was-so-beautiful-days. They’re willing to watch Disney movie marathons, and sing High School Musical songs, and even listen to her belt out country music.

These are the ones who know when something is wrong without her having to say anything. They’re the ones who put up with her crap and call her out for it. They’re the ones who randomly show up after an absence, and they pick up like they’ve never been away. They’re the ones who let her be her and encourage her to be better.

They’re the ones who offer to fight people for her, even though she can probably hold her own. They pick up pieces of a broken heart, help her figure out who she needs to be, and make her absolutely crazy. They rally around her and make fun of her and tease about her ever-growing list of medical issues. They drink Pinky out just to poke her a little bit and duck as she throws a bottle them.

They love her best. Next to her mama and her daddy and big brothers of course. As our world begins to change and looks so different in the next few months, I couldn’t be more grateful for her weird, eclectic, unexpected, and amazingly beautiful tribe. Thank you for loving my daughter and being her best friends.

What is “Home” going to look like now?

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately.  What is home?  Where is home?  What does that look like for my kids in the future? Where will they call home? Will it be Topeka?  Will they call Tucson home? Or will it be New Orleans? Because you know I’m going there!

I still call Stockton home.  I haven’t lived there since  1990, but it is what I mean when I say, “I’m going home.”  It is a run-down little town with a brick main street, on the crossroads of two highways.  It is a two-story green house with a wrap-around front porch (even though it is now yellow and purple). It is a spiral staircase and a sewing room.  It is a bedroom so cold in the winter my water glass had ice on the top and so hot in the summer I prayed for a breeze.   It is cedar trees to the north, acting as a boundary to the cemetery.  It is Pauline to the south and a giant mulberry tree we would climb and savor, long gone.  It is Charlotte and Harold across the alley, and the Sanders down the way a bit.  It is a red brick schoolhouse where my daddy taught for decades.  It is Granny and Grandad’s house with roses, iris, a broken peach tree,  the smell of pipe tobacco and coffee, and a ceramic poodle.  It is the Rooks County Free Fair and harness racing.  It is where my parents are buried, within view of each other but not together, where I can see the house I spent most of my time.  Mama is beside Granny and Grandad with her teardrop shaped stone with my name on it.  Daddy is down the road a bit with a shiny black stone with a bell carved on it.  That is home.

Of course, I truly believe that when I move to New Orleans, that will become home.  There are so many quotes about how that city seeps into your blood and your soul.  It is truth for me.  My favorite is this, “Someone suggested that there’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans.  Some of us just belong here.”  This is how I feel every time I step foot in this smelly disaster of a city.  I love it, everything about it.  I feel complete, like I am home.  There is part of me that sleeps until I hit the quarter.  When I hear the music, smell the beignets, feel the wind off the Mississippi, I am fully alive.  I know it is a dirty place.  I know it is full of corruption and violence and ugliness, but it is the most beautiful place I know.  I have seen ancient ruins in Greece, castles in Prague, volcanoes in Italy, beaches in California and the Carolinas, but nothing is more amazing to me than  New Orleans.  The colors, the sounds, the people are what make me feel like I need to be there.  I need to be there for a long time.

I wonder where “home” will be for my kids.  Aaron was born while we lived in Minneapolis, KS.  We moved before he was two.  I’m sure that isn’t home.  Will it be Woodvalley  Place where he spent most of his childhood?   Where his sister was brought home from the hospital.   Running and playing with Conner and the Teschke kids every day. Open garage doors and toys that were free game for anyone to use.  Basketball games that spanned three driveways and a cul-de-sac.  Front doors that weren’t locked so kids can roam freely.  Will it be Briarwood Lane?  Where he learned to drive.  Hung out with his friends.  Spent hours in the driveway shooting hoops with the boys.  Super Bowl Parties.  The National Championship. His first heartbreak. His graduation party and where he dreamed about a real future.

What about Alynne? She was seven when we left the cul-de-sac and Abbie and Maddie and Miss Debbie and Mama Gwen.  She was queen of that cul-de-sac, I’m sure.  She learned to ride a bike and drive Mama Gwen’s car.  Or will it be the new house, as we still call it, ten years later?  She is convinced her room is haunted.  There have been countless sleepovers, talks about gross boys and some who aren’t so gross, discussions about her dreams, the reality of her allergy and its frightening possibilities.  I don’t know which she could call home.

Will it be Tucson?  Where we will spend their young adult lives. Where they will come with spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, my grandchildren.  Where we will spend years learning all about the city and its people.  Where we will most likely work our last days and dream of retirement.

I think home is where your heart feels full.  It might not be a specific location or a house where you have lived.  It could be a dream or a place where you are complete.  It might be your childhood home.  Or where you spent the time with your young and true love.  It could be where you raised your babies.  Or a place where you have never lived.  Home is your heart.

 

And so it begins…

We started the “first of the lasts” a couple of weeks ago with Senior Night for volleyball.  It’s times like this that I miss Mama and Daddy the most.  They should be here with us, watching that sassy girl, hugging me when it’s done, meeting her friends and mine.  They’re not, though.  It hurts.

What helps that pain some is that my stepmom came from Stockton and sat on hard bleachers.  She met Alynne’s friends and mine. She giggled at the exchange between Jennifer and Jett and Jett and Alynne and Fischer and everyone.  She was happy to see that silly girl and be part of her night.

Jay and Loree were there, too.  These are two people we love dearly.  I am so eternally grateful for them, and I hope they know it.  They drove to Stockton for Daddy’s funeral, and they didn’t have to.  I love them, and so do the kids.  It’s nice to have bonus grandparents!

JeanAnne and Bruce came.  They don’t miss the important things.  I’m glad they are involved and want to be part of the chaos.

Jennifer came for me.  I’m not a sappy Senior parent.  My kid has been ready to be out of the Halls of Troy since she was a Sophomore.  I know that and understand that.  But, sometimes, us moms need each other as we go through the lasts. Jennifer knows that. Her son asking my daughter to prom has turned out to be a gigantic blessing for me.

The best part of my night, besides watching my kid play, was seeing her smile. Lots. It’s been a very long time that the grin hasn’t been forced. She’s peaceful and happy. I needed that. So does she.  

My favorite picture of my daughter

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This is my favorite current picture of my daughter.  It was at her Junior Prom.  She was escorted by her sassy friend with great hair.  The picture shows Alynne and Jett and their personalities.  He’s probably making fun of her for something and laughing about it.  She is probably trying very hard not to punch him.  They were probably arguing about something ridiculous. The picture makes me smile every time I look at it.

This picture came after several weeks of planning, preparing, purchasing, and discussions about details of prom.  When Jett asked Alynne, I didn’t know his mom.  I knew his older sister and adored her.  She vouched for my character and told her mom we were good people.  Now that’s pressure!  A few weeks after the promposal, Jett’s mom contacted me, wanting to touch base since our youngest children aren’t always good with details.  We chatted, compared notes, and decided to meet for coffee one Sunday afternoon.

I’m sure I’d seen her around, but we’d not met.  We sat down that Sunday afternoon and left the coffee shop FIVE hours later.  The time truly flew.  It was the easiest five hour conversation I have ever had.  We visited like we were old friends who were catching up on years of missed conversations.  We talked about the kids, life, pain, death, dreams, disasters, family, and any number of topics.   Alynne texted asking about a life-threatening food allergy and dinner plans.  Jon texted to see if I had run away.  I missed both of those texts for a few hours.  Thankfully, Alynne avoided the near death experience of Passion Fruit Tea.

Since that afternoon, Jennifer and I have had another marathon gab session or three, a Prom Mom group chat and dinner, a couple of softball games, and daily text barrages.  It stresses her kid out.  For several days, all I got from him was, “Five hours, Mrs. Kettler???  Five hours?  That’s not cool!”  He’s now resigned himself to the fact that his mom has a friend.  That doesn’t mean he likes it.  My kid, on the other hand, thinks it’s just fine.  Jett’s mom is cool!

Our paths, through our children,  have “crossed” in the past.  Jennifer’s daughter, Jordan, is dear to my heart and has been for a few years.  I first met her as a little bitty thing with all of this hair when she was a Sophomore.  We talked multiple times about fears, plans, disappointments, and Jesus, goals, and dreams.  She graduated, and I’ve followed her adventures as she has found her place and taken over her world.  This girl is so driven, fun, a bit dingy, and at peace. She does things in her own special style and certainly leaves a mark.  She makes me smile.

Alynne and Jett have been friends, when Alynne allows it, for awhile now.  I didn’t realize his connection to Jordan until last summer.  I liked the connection.  When Jett asked Alynne to prom (even though there are no pictures to prove this actually occurred), I messaged Jordan.  She was excited and had let her mom know we were good people.  That’s pressure!  I think we did just fine with that.  I love watching how God’s fingerprints get splashed all over your life, even if you don’t realize it’s happening at the time.

I am grateful for Lynnie and Jett, their friendship (for many reasons), and a five hour cup of coffee with Jett’s mom.  It has been such a blessing to me.  It’s been so much fun to laugh with an “old” new friend, generally at the expense of our children.  My favorite picture of my daughter holds an amazing tale that can’t quite be seen and will continue to develop.

 

Time doesn’t stop

I realized that I haven’t written in a year.  I’ve neglected something I truly love for more important things, busyness.  I can’t let that happen again.  I have too much to say, too much in my brain, too much I need to share.  Time hasn’t stood still, even if sometimes I wish it would.  Things change, some for the good, even if we don’t see it at the time.  Some of those changes are unexpected and brilliant.  Here’s where we are now.

I am teaching full-time again, something I swore I would never do in a million years.  Some days I love it.  Other days, my heart breaks and I’m not sure I’ll find the strength to continue with it.  Too much brokenness, apathy, ugliness, and entitlement.  Then, I get the blunt honesty from a child I lose sleep over.  His grades are questionable, his attendance spotty, but his honesty is refreshing.  He tells me the truth, even if that truth gets him into trouble.  I want to hug this kid around the throat and refuse to give up on him.  Some days I can’t get any curriculum taught because we have to start with simple life skills.  It’s scary.

The boy is living his dream.  He gets to talk sports every day with people who understand his passion and dreams.  He sits and talks with future lottery picks for the NBA draft during his job of reffing basketball. He has found a stunning young woman who appreciates his “confidence” and his humor.  She compels him to work harder than he wants to occasionally, and he provides her with an added boost of confidence.  He’s nearly done with his classroom work and will be graduating before I am probably ready.  We discuss where he’ll be, what he’ll do, how he plans to make it all work.  My boy surprises me every day.

The girl, my prickly diva, has really bloomed this year.  She’s made a ton of tough decisions and more than a few made for her.  I’ve watched her go from a broken and fragile girl who was destroyed, or nearly so, to a girl who knows what she wants.  She’s stepped, or rather flown, out of her comfort zone in the past several months, and she’s succeeded more than we thought she would.  She’s becoming a leader in ways I didn’t see coming.  She’s still got the oddest group of friends, but those have changed.  She laughs more now than she did.  She’s visited a college, wants a pig, and is starting to think about all the things she plans to do.  I’m so proud of who she is becoming, even if she doesn’t want me to say that.

My role as mother is constantly changing.  I’m not always sure I’m very good at it.  I do know that my kids seem to like me most of the time.  They aren’t in trouble or at least I don’t think so.  They are making good decisions, and I am pleased.  My girl and I have a relationship that borders on very weird, but I’ll take it.  As much as I love my mama, we didn’t have this until I was much older.  I know I embarrass them and make them uncomfortable, but I’m ok with that.  I can do that.  I’m the mama.

When did I give you permission to grow up?

My baby girl went to prom with a very good friend over the weekend.  I kept looking at her and thinking, “Who told you it was ok to grow up?” I also kept thinking how weird it was for a girl I still see as 7 years old to be getting a fancy dress, girl hair, and a beautiful corsage with red roses. Obviously, she’s not 7 anymore.  As she reminded me, more than once over the weekend, she’s a month shy of 16.  I sometimes struggle with that.  Especially this time of year.

My Lynnie is my visual representation of how time didn’t stand still after my mama was killed.  Not that Aaron didn’t grow and change, but I see glimpses of Mama in Alynne.  Things I wish she could see.    Aaron has lots of good times locked in his brain.  He will sometimes remember things, and we’ll talk about it.  It’s different with Alynne. She wasn’t quite 3 when her Grammie went to Jesus.  She barely remembers anything about her. I wish she could.

It’s weird being the mom of this teenaged girl.  I don’t think she fits the mold very well.  Yes, there are a million giggles.  She denies every one of them, though.  She has a bit of friend drama, but not nearly the amount I remember.  She is so very opinionated, and that makes her rough around the edges.  For someone who is a self-proclaimed “people hater”, she’s got friends everywhere we go.  She’s clever, funny, sarcastic, and a bit rude occasionally.  We are constantly working on her filter.  She has little time for people who have a victim complex or repeat the same “dumb stuff” again and again.  She has a huge heart for those who are hurting and babies.  She has the most eclectic group of friends, and I adore them.  She is constantly bruised, scraped, and in need of an advil and an ice bag.  She wears her bruises proudly.  She’s earned them.  She has some amazing adults in her corner, and a cat who tolerates her.  Her brothers (by blood and Duncan) are proud of her and love her fiercely.  Her daddy wishes she’d clean up her words sometimes and get her English assignment turned in.

I love my girl and her ferocity.  I wish I had the confidence she does.  She knows who she is, mostly.  Sometimes struggles with expectations and gets hurt by those around her.  Despite the fact that she might punch you, she is sensitive.  She feels like she is forever having to prove herself and mostly falling a bit short.  Despite that, she gets up and tries again.  I adore her for that.  You can never count her out. Her life isn’t normal, nor will it be.  With chronic diseases, and armpit abscesses, she’s go to look at the world a little differently.  She does, and she’s fine with that.  She’s adapted and rolls with it.  Just not in a room full of balloons.  She’s full of surprises.

I didn’t tell her she could grow up, and it’s been a wild ride.  It’s hard watching her become a young woman sometimes.  I’d love to call Mama and tell her all about the girl her wild child granddaughter has become.  Tears will sometimes come to my eyes as I think of how much my two favorite girls have missed together.  Even with all of that, I am so proud to be her mama.