Image of a deck with light snowfall.

Brave

Today we had our first snowfall of the fall.

It’s a little early for snow, but it’s not like I had any control over it. The day was a bit gray, the skies were overcast, and it was raining as I drove home from work. After dinner, the snow began to come down.

It wasn’t a whole lot. It was but a dusting. But the color of the day and the snow that came after got me to thinking about how I’ve felt this year in this time since mom died.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written this year, or know me in real life, you would know that I’ve taken the death of my mother very hard. She was loved, and was loving, and her death has left a hole in those that knew her. I was dreading the the one-year anniversary of her passing. I wasn’t sure how I would feel, or if I would be stable.

The year has been difficult, no doubt.

But oddly enough, the anniversary was just what I needed. In some very odd way, it brought a small bit of closure. At least, as much as there can be in these types of situations. This is how things are now. Things have changed. This is the new normal, and I have accepted it.

Since then, I’ve felt at peace. I really can’t explain it, and don’t really think I can analyze it. It just is, and I’m content with that for now.

I was talking with my wife this weekend about some things that transpired in the last year, and there are things I simply don’t remember. I think my depression was so bad, that I ended up blocking certain things from my memory. It’s so easy to look back now and see how broken I was. However, in the middle of my pain, I couldn’t see it. It took a few months before I realized, “Hey, if you don’t get a handle on this, everything is going to crumble down.”

So, I did.

If you’re going through hell, keep going. — Attributed to Winston Churchill (Although no one is certain if Churchill actually said that.)

So today, I was looking out our big windows at work, and looking at those gray skies. I was reminded of how bad last winter was. I remember how numb I felt.

This might sound silly, but today I felt … brave. I see life differently than I ever have before. I’ve known a few people that have died in the last three years or so, and it’s given me a chance to reflect on a lot of things within my own life.

I now feel like I’m standing in the doorway of a new chapter in my life. I’ve turned the handle, and have just started to crack open the door. I can see the light peering in from the other side. I don’t know what is there, but I’m eager to find out.

I’m feeling brave.

Grave of Linda Gruber.

A year of firsts

One year ago today my mother died.

When I wrote about Linda Gruber in the post For my mother, I had no idea how impactful this event would be on my life. In the months that followed in 2018 and into early 2019, I experienced confusion, depression, and darkness. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how I held it all together. I am thankful to friends, family, co-workers, and anyone else who were helpful during that period.

Navigating a Year of Firsts

The winter was more difficult than usual, and the lows that came caught me by surprise. Grief is a powerful entanglement, and when you’re caught in it, it can be difficult to see the way out. I suppose the reason why my grief was so overwhelming was because of one incredible thing: I loved my mother very much, and I know she loved me, my wife, and my children, very much as well.

By the time spring rolled around, I was taking steps to get better. I went to counseling, started exercising and eating less junk, and started to feel a lot better. It seemed like I had turned a corner. But by the beginning of May, things started to reverse. I wasn’t as much of an emotional wreck, but other healthy aspects that I had been pursuing began to slide.

In June, I decided to stop counseling. I think therapy has great benefits, and I liked a lot of what my counselor had provided me up to that point. But there were things that I didn’t find helpful. The counselor received text messages during our sessions, and I found that off-putting. But mostly, I got to a point where I felt I wanted to try something on my own. Summer is my favorite season, and I figured that a little bit of sun and some outdoor activity would be good medication.

I was right about the sun, but the activities were elusive. Mostly, I spent my time working. In addition, we decided it was time to start looking for a house to buy. We were out of space at our rental, and frankly, mom’s death made me realize I wanted to get moving toward some of my goals sooner rather than later. Most of our summer was spent looking at houses, going to open houses, and trying to find the right fit.

By the end of August, we had purchased a house. In September, I and my family went to Disney World, which was largely in part thanks to a gift — a final gift, in fact — that my mom and dad helped us with. Mom had told dad that she wanted us to be able to go to Disney World, which was something I had talked about while she was alive. So, thanks mom and dad, we had a lot of fun.

Today marks the end of “a year of firsts”which is something everyone who experiences loss has to deal with. It’s a year when that person isn’t around to share in the things you normally experienced with them before. Birthdays, holidays, get togethers and regular everyday memories that can’t be shared with a loved one all get lumped in a year of firsts.

It made for a difficult year, and now we know what the future holds.

A pivotal moment

There are moments in each of our lives that we can point to as a pivotal moment, one which the before and after are clearly divided by one moment in time. That’s not to say that every pivotal moment has a good outcome. History is filled with plenty of examples where a person became changed in an instant, but not for the better.

This certainly could have been my outcome. I was not in a good place at the beginning of the year. There were plenty of days that I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t feel anything, and I certainly didn’t have any passion for life. I felt very empty.

Depression is a wild beast.

My friend, Brandon, who lost his mother a few years ago, suggested that I do something to break my cycle. So, I decided on something pretty small by helping out with my son’s karate classes. Every week his karate class is happy to have parent helpers, and each time I take him I can make a choice: Do I sit on my phone and wait for him to be done, or do I volunteer to help a class full of newbies learn martial arts?

I decided to help, and it’s been a good decision. Last Monday I was at his class and was helping out, and I found myself … smiling. I was having fun with these little learners, and it all happened by accident.

I still have my rough moments. It sounds so tempting to just give up and let things fall to the wayside. But I’m not going to do that. My family depends on me and wants me to be healthy so we can make our own memories; so we can live our own life.

Mom would have wanted that. She was a wonderful woman, who loved this life and would have wanted her family to experience life in its fullness just as she did. So, I will press on. I’ll keep at it. One day I know the sting will be less than it is today, just as today it is less painful than it was one year ago today.

I miss my mother. I love her greatly. I will honor her memory by persisting, and doing what I knew she would want me to do: pick up the pieces and keep moving forward.

During the last year, I made a couple of playlists: one for when I was really down, and another for when I started to get better. Their meanings may be elusive, but they really were helpful for me, in ways you can never imagine.

But the song that really gets to me even still, I leave here: “Please Tell My Brother,” by Golden Smog.

“I feel your love and I feel your ghost/Listen dear mother I miss you the most.”

Dear men: It’s time to grow up now.

Disclaimer: Lest this comes across as me being better than anyone else, I assure you that I have done plenty of stupid, idiotic things. Many I wish I could go back and undo, but I take solace that I have learned from these things, and in turn, tried to better myself from my past experiences.

When I was in high school I became good friends with a girl that was a year younger than I was. She ended up becoming one of my closest friends. Over the years, we shared deeply intimate things with each other, and have dealt with some heavy problems together in our lives. When my mom died, even though my friend lives across the country, she was and is still there for me to give me strength.

She was a lot of fun to spend time with. She was artistic, loved listening to The Eagles, and was into super heroes (specifically, Wonder Woman). We talked for hours and hours on end. I think we were just normal enough, and still weird enough, for each other that it made a great friendship.

We were never romantic. It was, in a very pure form, friendship.

Because of my relationship with her, it helped me to understand friendships with the opposite sex better. As an adult, I have gravitated to find more male relationships in my life so to better understand how I relate to the world with men who have shared similar experiences. But I do still have friendly relationships with women, and I’ve learned some very interesting things over the past few years. And now, I’m so pissed off about it, I simply want to vent. I’m fairly sure this will never reach the audience it should be read by, but on the off chance it will, here it is.

Dear men: please stop. It’s time to grow up now.

Of course, there are plenty of men out there who this doesn’t apply to, so please feel free to ignore.

But for those of you who just can’t help yourself, I say it again: It’s time to grow up now.

In the past few years I’ve seen some pretty awful things done by men. Here’s a few lovely ones.

  • During a divorce, a man drained his wife’s retirement account to which he had access.
  • Another man routinely threatens violence against an ex-wife as a form of control.
  • I’ve heard man, many accounts of alcohol causing problems in a relationship, until the woman is finally driven away because she couldn’t take it anymore.
  • I’ve seen men who can’t keep a job, refuse to do anything to better themselves, or drag the women in their life along a hellish financial nightmare.
  • I know a man smokes around his children even though he knows they have asthma.
  • And a story I’ve heard more times than I can count from so many women that I’ll paraphrase it this way: “We’re through, but he won’t stop texting or calling. I fear it will never stop. He’s always so mean when he texts me, and because we have (children/property/etc.) together, I still have to keep communication open with him. I wish I could never hear from him again.”

What these “men” don’t realize is that they are leaving behind a legacy. Their friends have all heard these stories. Their children see everything they do and soak it all in. Their employers shake their heads in disbelief.

So in case I wasn’t clear: Dear men, please stop. It’s time to grow up now.

I recently went to a funeral for a former mentor of mine. It was honestly one of the best funerals I have ever attended. There were magnificent stories about his passion, his devotion, his dedication to his craft, about his spiritual discovery, and about his relentlessness to enjoy life with character and dignity. I came home from his funeral with a newfound fire. His funeral was absolutely inspiring to me, and re-lit something I felt I had lost in the last few months.

Although we’re in a time of morning for the loss of my mother, I am highly inspired by my father. He had an unwavering love for my mother. Mom once spent several months in Colorado away for schooling to become a nurse practitioner, and upon her return he had hung a giant sign on the side of the house that said, “WELCOME HOME LINDA.” I watched him defend my mother’s honor once in an ice cream store when some jackass said something inappropriate under his breath. He was always stable, took care of the household, and the kids, and even though he really doesn’t give two hoots about football, showed up at every game I ever played in.

Men, I implore you: It’s time to grow up now.

There are men who have gotten completely screwed by the system. Because courts tend to favor the mother when a relationship ends, I’ve seen men get the real short end of the stick. I know men whose former loves have taken away everything from them in a very unfair way. This is a reality that exists. But I’ve also watched these same men go through these trials and keep their cool as I watched with amazement. Frustrated, yes. Broken, absolutely. But the ones I’m thinking of have done so with a level of dignity. They know they are being watched, and want to come out on the other side of their problems stronger, and with their character in tact.

Those are not to whom I am writing to. To you men who can’t seem to get your life together, who have made substances your main form of entertainment, who have absolutely no direction in life and aren’t even making steps to find it, this is for you. Surround yourself with men of good character, and discard the waste.

Men, there’s still time to make a new legacy, one where you’ll be remembered not for what you tore down, but what you chose to let go of and rebuild.

It’s time to grow up now.

Picture of wooded landscape, trees without leaves, and a sunny but cloudy blue sky.

The hope of spring

Today is the first day of spring.

Personally, my favorite season is summer, but I have an appreciation for spring. With it comes hints of sunshine and heat, alongside occasional reminders of the winter you’re trying to leave behind.

It seems almost poetic to me that the trajectory of grief following the death of my mother has followed the changing of seasons. They appear so closely related that I can’t tell which is more true: has my grief mirrored the changing of the seasons, or has the harshness of this year’s winter made my grief that much more severe?

It’s impossible for me to discern that right now. But in case there is someone out there going through something similar and happens to stumble upon my writing, I hope my transparency can help shed some light on what is to come.

I’ve never dealt with depression before, but after the start of the new year I figured out that things were not good. Sadness is normal and expected after the death of someone close, but this was a powerful force that I hadn’t experienced before. In an earlier post, I wrote:

The worst was around the three-month mark. January 12 was a very low day for me. It was emotionally debilitating, and when it hit me it really came out of nowhere. There was a point that day when I took a shower and laid down in the tub. I didn’t have the energy to stand. I felt so broken. I cried so much. And the strangest thing is I can’t fully explain why. I suppose that was simply the day my mind chose to grieve, and my body was forced to submit.

Shortly after that, I start seeing a counselor. When I called to set up the appointment, the counselor asked me why I felt like I needed help. I explained that my mother had died, and that had reached a point where I simply did not care about anything. However, I had done some research online and I didn’t think I had enough of the symptoms of having depression.

At my first appointment, I answered some questions. The counselor said without hesitation, “You’re depressed. We have a lot of work to do.”

I have been working on me, and I have some good help. My wife, Amy, has been fantastic. There have been many times in the past few months where she’s said to me, “How can I support you?” This has been an immense help. If you’re going through anything like this, find some support and let others help you. I’m not real good at asking for help when I need it, but I’m learning.

This experience has really highlighted to me the state of mental health in the United States. Of course, the counselor I picked doesn’t take insurance, so I’m paying for all of this out of pocket. That’s fine, because I get along well with the counselor I chose, and the whole experience has set me on a better path. But really, what year is this? It should be easier and more affordable to get help with mental health issues than it is.

It’s also shown me that those closest to you — friends, co-workers, people who rely on you for stability — might not fully understand how to interact with you during a time of grieving. I’ll probably write more on this in the future as a guidebook of sorts of how to help someone who has been burdened by the pain of loss. I will say that death in the modern age is a strange thing. Social media can be haunting, and the digital artifacts of someone you’ve lost can be especially triggering. These are tricky waters to navigate.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how many people who have been a part of my life in some way who have died, many within recent memory. In the last year I can think of a girl I grew up with in my hometown, the dad of my childhood friend, the guy that owned the hardware store back home, the woman I worked with when I worked at Toys R Us in my college days, a mentor, and of course, mom.

Sometimes it feels like death is all around me. I suppose it is for all of us, but now I’m more susceptible to its presence.

That’s not to say I’m in despair. In fact, I have hope, and it’s nice to have it back.

This is a fairly recent change. It took about four-and-a-half months before things started to turn better, around the beginning of March. I wasn’t as sad anymore. There has been a level of acceptance that has come over me about mom’s death that has enabled a bit of peace that’s been missing since October. I started noticing it when I had some really good laughs at work. My co-worker made me laugh to the point where I was in tears, and then things started moving up from there.

That’s not to say that I’m all sunshine and roses. In the last few weeks I had a couple of really strong moments where I really wanted to talk to mom. One night, I sat at the dinner table and the tears just started coming. I don’t know what triggered it; the tears just came out. I had my moment, it passed, and then I got back to eating my food.

And that’s how all this has worked to this point.

I am so heartbroken now when I hear about someone who is experiencing loss. A friend of mine posted about the unexpected death of his young friend, and my heart sank. A co-worker was telling me about the death of his beloved dog, and I instantly felt so much compassion for him. Another co-worker also lost her mom unexpectedly; my empathy for her runs deep.

I miss my mom.

And yet, there are new lessons being learned here which I admit, I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. The food that I enjoy tastes better than it did before. The sun on my face feels even more spectacular than it did before October. The laughter and silliness of my children are a greater blessing than I have experienced to date.

Here is the lesson I’m starting to absorb: death can be a powerful teacher, if you allow it. I’m so glad that spring is here. The earth is muddy, the rains are cool, and the winds are ever shifting. I am eager to see what grows from this season I am in.

Eric J Gruber standing to the right of Mr. Richard Massa.

Death of a mentor

When I was nearing the end of my college education, I was searching for the next steps in my journey. I was working for a newspaper in Joplin, Mo. My position was almost like a contractor. I had full-time hours but didn’t have benefits (namely, health insurance). My parents, who were both nurses, had drilled into me one important lesson: always have health insurance.

I was seeking guidance. My search led me to the house of a retired professor — Mr. Richard Massa, who was also the founder of the communications department where I was finishing college — who gave me a suggestion.

“You should look into the Lawrence Journal-World,” he told me.

Massa talked up the Journal-World with great praise. He said it was a fine paper, and it was doing interesting things. I should check them out.

I didn’t even know where Lawrence, Kan., was. I found LJWorld’s website, found an email address, and sent off an inquiry, which said something along the lines of, “Are you looking for any newbie journalists?” I got a phone call. They didn’t have anything at LJWorld, but the paper had just purchased two small newspapers outside Lawrence, Kan. — in Eudora and De Soto — and they were building a team. They asked if I could come up for an interview.

Those were different times in the publishing world. I made the three-hour trip from Joplin for an interview, and they put me up in a hotel for the night, took me out to dinner with the editor and the publisher, and told me to stop back by the office before I headed back to Joplin. I worked from around 4 to 11 p.m. at The Globe, and by the time I got back to the office I would need to get to work.

Little did I know, that by the time I had returned to Joplin, the fine people at LJWorld had called The Globe to check my references. I found this out because as I started my shift, my editor, Gary, wanted to talk to me. It turned out they were now ready to offer me some benefits.

“Does this have anything to do with my trip to Lawrence,” I asked? “Yes,” Gary said.

I knew right at that moment: I was going to move to Lawrence.

I grew up in a very small Kanas town the same size as Eudora and De Soto. The area where I grew up is filled with wonderful, loving people who seem to have known each other forever, at least with some passing association. There’s a beauty in a small town that you don’t often find in a bigger city, something that I struggle to articulate well for those who haven’t experienced that life. As a small example, let’s just say that when your mother dies, the community mourns with you. They stop by and bring comfort food. They offer their embrace for grieving. They are sad not only for you, but with you.

And because of this one man’s suggestion, I left all I knew in search a new adventure for myself.

Massa.

I was never a pupil of Massa while he taught at Missouri Southern State University. However, he played a role in an international media seminar where communications students went to Paris, France for a week. He also helped coordinate a trip where I and two other students went to Central America for two weeks before my senior year began. While there, we covered stories about Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Massa, along with and Dr. Chad Stebbins, Director of the Institute of International Studies at my alma mater, were instrumental in me seeing parts and people of the world that I may have never had the chance to see otherwise.

I got to know Mr. Massa (as he was most well known by those he was befriended, and simply “Massa” if you really cared about him), through one of my fellow students, Aaron Deslatte. Aaron was a brilliant writer, and loved to visit Massa. I loved hanging out with Aaron, and by default got to know Massa through frequent visits. Massa always welcomed us, and he and his wife, Teresa, gladly let students past and present drop in and chat away. The discussions about world events, politics and policy were always fascinating. Those discussions made me want to learn more.

Massa died Sunday, March 17, 2019.

Even after my move away from home, I didn’t stop learning from him. I would stop by on occasion, as many other students did, and catch up with him and his wife. Eventually, I got married, and then introduced my wife, Amy, to him. Massa made mention that my move from Joplin led me to my wife. He fully believed that me meeting Amy — not any career move — was my great achievement from that life change. He wasn’t wrong.

Not long ago I messaged him with a question I had been posting online. I was looking for his answer to the question, “Regardless of your age now, what advice would you give your 40-year-old self?”

“Go for it!” he replied, “The wisest decision I ever made was at the age of 40. I decided to marry Teresa and to find a job at MSSU. I had other options — some sounding much better, some making more money, but I had grown weary of change and uncertainty and I needed security and purpose.”

I must admit, right now, as I write this, I’m a little dumbstruck at something I have missed for years. When I sought out his advice about what to do those many years ago, Massa didn’t suggest I try and beg and plead with my employer to give me some health insurance. He didn’t tell me to wait it out and hope things would change.

No, Massa suggested I go out and choose a new adventure, and see what happens. Even all those years ago, he was suggesting I “go for it.”

My mind is blown. Hot damn.

Amy once asked me, “What was Mr. Massa? Was he your teacher?” I told her that I often referred to him as my mentor. While I stick with that assessment, I now realize it’s not the full truth. I was not his classroom pupil, but I was most certainly his student.

The teacher has given me the lesson, and the lesson is this: life is yours to embrace, so go for it!

Farewell, sir.

Mr. Richard Massa and Eric J Gruber.

Farewell, Massa. Farewell, good sir.

And …

A pile of dirty snow and sand.

Throes of winter

The midwest winter this year has been very harsh.

We don’t normally have sub-zero temperatures, but a week ago we were hit with the polar vortex and made staying inside a necessity for safety. Being forced inside for any length of time is enough to drive one crazy, especially for how things have been around the corners of my mind lately.

I hate winter. I truly, deeply, hate it. The bitter cold wind, the dirty grime of the salt-covered roads, the gray sky; everything with this season reminds me of death.

Because of this, I find it fitting to have a season like this as I go through a season like this. It’s been 16 weeks since mom died, and there have been a few very rough spots.

The worst was around the three-month mark. January 12 was a very low day for me. It was emotionally debilitating, and when it hit me it really came out of nowhere. There was a point that day when I took a shower and laid down in the tub. I didn’t have the energy to stand. I felt so broken. I cried so much. And the strangest thing is I can’t fully explain why. I suppose that was simply the day my mind chose to grieve, and my body was forced to submit.

I wonder how I have looked to people around me. I’m sure in my day-to-day life I’ve looked like I was “doing fine.” I was not.

I decided to get some help. On the recommendation of a friend, I sought out a counselor. I’ve had a few sessions in the last month now, and I think it’s helping. Ironically, we don’t talk much about mom’s death. Instead, we’re talking through other things that have been on my mind for awhile now. It’s been good. I’m going to keep going for awhile and see what happens.

It seems that this event — death,  grieving, the whole process — has cracked something open, and now I’m dealing with some personal things that I’ve not fully processed before.

But this is not a bad thing.

I have started working out again. I’m not going full bore, but I am committed to getting some exercise at least three times a week. I have found that exercise makes me feel good. Since feeling good has been in short supply lately, it’s high on the list of Very Good Things To Do.

I have become a lot more empathetic to others going through the same circumstances. Two of my co-workers have had parents die in the last month, and as soon as I heard I immediately felt deep concern. I sprung into action. I’ve spoken to both of my co-workers. I’ve given them the nudge: “No, really, you’re going to need someone to talk to, and I am here when you do.” If you have co-workers, friends, or family who are dealing with grief, even if they seem “fine,” give them some grace and space. Check on them. They need you.

One day I was watching some water forming a whirlpool, which took me back to memories of how us kids would make giant whirlpools in my parents’ above ground pool. And then, instant tears.

But this is not a bad thing, either.

In the aftermath of mom’s death, in the throes of this winter, I have found myself to be seeking healing. I am starting to see what a future of healing looks like. I’m not there yet, and it’s certainly going to take more time, but I see a path.

I’m going to walk it and see where it goes.

Picture of Eric J Gruber

An intentional New Year

“Heal your wounds so you do not bleed on those you love.” – unknown

It’s the last day of 2018, and all day I’ve been thinking, “I think I have one more post in me.”

In looking back at my feelings from previous New Year’s Eve posts (thanks for the memories, Facebook). Not unlike others, I usually had positive thoughts about where the new year would take me.

Today I took down the Christmas tree. I packed away the decor. I moved some things around, and grumbled when things didn’t fit right. I watched the biggest snowflakes I have ever seen fall from the sky, then disintegrate as soon as they hit the ground. I took a nap. I listened to some music. I was pretty lazy.

I have thought a lot about mom today.

When I ball it all up, and really think about it, for the first time in a long time I have no feelings about the new year at all. I am not excited. I am not despondent. I am merely numb.

Since my mother’s death, I have started seeing life a lot differently. I’ve come to believe that a lot of what makes a modern existence is pure bullshit.

I was in a room with acquaintances the other day and I was the only one not staring at my phone. We have lost the ability to communicate like humans. I am guilty of this, but it makes it no less horrible.

Political candidates are starting to make their announcements for the next big election, and let me guarantee you: all that is bullshit as well. You should take an hour, sit down, be quiet, and listen to this episode of Freakonomics where they show how the two major political parties play the populous to get what they want (and how almost all third party candidates are losers). There are no politicians coming to help you. I don’t even think most of them care about the things you think they do. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Social media is bullshit. Because we can’t communicate anymore, this is all we have left. Can’t make friends as an adult? Welcome to the club. You’ll have to settle for bits and bytes in someone else’s walled garden. Pay no attention to the fact that they’re taking your data and selling all your information to whomever pays. What a terrible existence we’ve traded. I remember when people used to go get coffee and have great conversations in person. Now we waste hours every day on social media. Part of this is because we have a mobile computer in our hands at all times. According to my phone, I spent six hours and 37 minutes per day on it last week. Isn’t that pathetic? I bet one hour of actual face time  with another human would have been far more fulfilling.

But what do I know? Maybe I’m just a grumpy person at the end of the year.

In thinking about my 2019, I’ve decided to not be optimistic. I’ve also decided to not be bummed about it. But I have decided to be intentional.

For Thanksgiving, I was in Joplin, Mo., and decided to take my family to visit the Grand Falls, which is a small waterfall in the city limits there. That place has a special place in my heart. When my mom was sick in the hospital in September, I would take a break now and then to get out of the hospital and clear my head while my dad took over being with her. One of those days, I went to the Grand Falls. It was a beautiful day and I was full of reflection.

Over the next few days, I had feelings premonitions of what things would be like if mom wasn’t with us anymore. One night dad and I were alone in the house, and it just had that feeling. I went to Walmart during one of my breaks, and they had already started putting up Christmas decor. Mom loved Christmas, and even though she was lying in a hospital a few miles away very much alive, I just had this feeling. I texted my wife on Sept. 28 and said, “I can’t shake this sinking feeling that something bad is up with mom. Maybe it’s my brain thinking the worst. I can do that at times.

I wish I had been wrong.

But I digress. There is so much bullshit around us, around me, and I’ve not done well this year in keeping that check. I need to heal my wounds, because if not, I’m going to make a mess of things. I really don’t want that to happen. And so in 2019, I’m going to be intentional.

I had a few times this year where I was very intentional, and it was wonderful. I took my daughter to her first concert (Taylor Swift). We paid off our student loan debt. I went to some concerts for myself. I met up with friends and talked. I went for walks. All of these things were highly intentional. I don’t regret those things. But when I think about six hours and 37 minutes of time on a screen last week — which I was off work the whole week — I don’t have a lot of pride in that.

I’m going to take some time to heal my wounds. I’m going to be intentional. If you want to get ahold of me, I’m sure you can find a way. But I am broken, and really need to heal.

I hope you and I make 2019 an intentional one.

New Year’s Day, Taylor Swift

There’s glitter on the floor after the party
Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby
Candle wax and Polaroids on the hardwood floor
You and me from the night before but

Don’t read the last page
But I stay when you’re lost and I’m scared and you’re turning away
I want your midnights
But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day

You squeeze my hand three times in the back of the taxi
I can tell that it’s going to be a long road
I’ll be there if you’re the toast of the town babe
Or if you strike out and you’re crawling home

Don’t read the last page
But I stay when it’s hard or it’s wrong or you’re making mistakes
I want your midnights
But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day

Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
And I will hold on to you

Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere
Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere

There’s glitter on the floor after the party
Girls carrying their shoes down in the lobby
Candle wax and Polaroids on the hardwood floor
You and me forevermore

Don’t read the last page
But I stay when it’s hard or it’s wrong or we’re making mistakes
I want your midnights
But I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day

Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
Hold on to the memories, they will hold on to you
And I will hold on to you

Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere
Please don’t ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere

In review: 2018

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. -Steve Jobs

When I started 2018 I had one goal: to pay off our last remaining debt. To achieve that goal, we declared 2018 The Year of No, I took on a sidegig theming websites for members of the United States House of Representatives, and we tightened our spending. It was pretty insane for the first six months of the year, and on June 15, 2018, we paid off the last of our student loan debt becoming totally debt free.

Mission accomplished, sort of.

In July, my wife and I celebrated 15 years of marriage with a trip to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. We had a great time.

 

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We got hitched on this day 15 years ago. Happy anniversary, Amy!

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Our minivan started to have costly repair issues. We ended up replacing it a few months later, and went a little into debt to do so. I was bothered by that decision at first because of all the work that went into getting out of debt, but felt like we could hit it hard and be debt free again by the end of the year.

And then …

My mother starting having health issues after Labor Day (which is Sept. 2 in the United States). She spent some time in the hospital. She went home. We thought she was getting better, but then she died unexpectedly at the age of 64 on Oct. 13, 2018.

My world has pretty much stopped since then. The death of my mother, whom I loved greatly, has overshadowed anything else that happened in 2018.

 

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Love you, mom. I miss you so much.

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To top it all off, I wrecked my 14-year-old car on Nov. 27, 2018. My deductible was higher than the car was even worth, and given that we had planned to get me a different car next year anyway, I chose to go more into car debt to replace my old blue beast. I have zero regrets about doing it, I only wish we were in a better position to deal with the country song our lives had become since June.

So, in review: 2018 started off awesome, became a lull halfway through, and has been pretty terrible ever since.

I could stop there. I could just curl up and sulk through the rest of the year, but that’s not how I’m going to play this. As the Steve Jobs quote above states:

Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Accomplishments

So what have I learned through all of this? That’s the good news; t’was not in vain. Gather around children, I have things to share.

Don’t overdo it when trying to achieve your goal. I was very motivated to get out of debt, and it came with a cost. My health suffered. I got sick toward the end of our (first) debt-free payoff stretch, and realized I wasn’t taking care of myself. Things are fine now, but there was about a six-week stretch where things were very much not fine. I am very, very happy we no longer have student loan debt. It’s a horrible thing and it will lead to our nation’s next financial crisis, so I’m happy to be rid of it. That said, I really should have taken better care of myself during that stretch. Eating poorly, no exercise, working too many hours, not getting enough sleep, etc., is a path that will lead to your body forcing you to stop.

In times of tragedy, you will find out who truly cares for you. I watched as many in the place where I grew up came to our aid after my mother’s death. It was truly heartwarming the love that was shown to us. Old friends and new, co-workers, church members, and people who knew mom through her professional life (she was a nurse practitioner who specialized in women’s health) showed us amazing compassion. I live three hours away from my hometown, but I also experienced an amazing amount of support. I have received gifts big and small, acts of service, and several chances to walk and talk (a personal favorite activity of mine), and hash through issues. For everyone who came to my and my family’s aid, I will be forever grateful.

In times of tragedy, you’ll also find out who isn’t worth your time anymore. I won’t go too much into this because it’s not worth my energy. I’ll only say there were people who I would have expected to show some level of compassion after mom died, but showed us nothing. No text, no phone call, no card or flowers, nothing. There was no condolences at all from a select few, and the silence was notable. They are dead to me now.

Goals

I have been writing my own personal end-of-year posts since 2011. Every year I talk about my plans for the next, and then review what actually got accomplished the next December. Who am I to let a little tragedy get in the way of planning a new year?

Take the family to Disney World – Yes, it’s cliché; an American middle-class family goes to Disney World. What a stretch of the imagination. Well, we are going in 2019, period. It’s going to be great. We are going to have a lot of fun.

Own a house (again) – We haven’t been homeowners since we left Lawrence in 2016, and we’re about ready to take another shot at it. I’m hoping for late 2019. We have specific things we want out of housing, which isn’t typically what I’ve found in real estate offerings (I’ve been looking since we got here). But we’re going to find it, and if the economy doesn’t totally implode, we’ll be in a house by the end of the year.

Be healthy – This is a tricky goal. Usually people say “I want to lose 100 lbs. by Oct. 1” or something like that. That’s a fine goal, but isn’t what I’m aiming for next year. The author James Clear, has this thought on healthy habits, which I like so much I have it stuck to our fridge:

Habits that have a high rate of return in life:

– sleep 8+ hours each day
– lift weights 3x week
– go for a walk each day
– save at least 10 percent of your income
– read every day
– drink more water and less of everything else
– leave your phone in another room while you work

Sounds good. I’ll work on making all of them part of my life. Let’s see what comes of it.

Be selfish – In some ways I feel like I’ve been living by the rules of others for awhile. It’s not going to be that way anymore. This year has taught me that I want to get more out of life. That could mean very different things to all of us. Maybe that means spending more time with family and friends. Maybe it’s about getting something you’ve always wanted to buy. Maybe it simply means going against the grain when it’s easier to go with it. Life is for the living, and I’ve reached the point where I want to enjoy it now rather than wait for some maybe mythical retirement age when you’re too old or too sick or too burdened to enjoy it. I feel like I can do this with balance: to not go off the deep end (the Camaro will have to wait), and still have fun. Hopefully, I can help others find a way to do that as well.

My parting thought: do yourself a favor and visit futureme.org. It’s an interesting little website where you can write a letter to your future self, and I found it to be very beneficial. I had written myself before the year started to take a downward turn, and it caused me to pause and reflect when it was delivered on Dec. 1 (a date I chose).

And please, if you made it this far, I implore you: Have a good year. Make your life yours. Our moments are precious and the time is waning.

God bless, and happy holidays.

Pondering next moves

I went for a long hike in Weston Bend State Park to clear my head. It was a good decision, and helped quite a bit.

To say that I haven’t been feeling myself lately would be a bit of an understatement.

I have these moments where everything is fine, and then something will come across me and I get a little teary eyed thinking about my mother’s death. I hear that isn’t uncommon, and it’s certainly not unexpected.

There are times where I want to call mom, but then realize that’s something I can’t do anymore. Mom would use Facebook as a way to keep track of me (and definitely watch for pictures of the kids), and I would often post things thinking of her in mind. I find those thoughts still go through my head when I post to social media, which I find disconcerting. I’m still thinking about “Will she see this?” when clearly, she won’t.

I keep thinking of questions I want to ask her. It’s funny how these questions show up now, instead of when she was alive and I had the opportunities to get the answers. There’s probably a term for that.

Things feel a little better than they did a week ago, and far better than two weeks ago. My first week back to work was pretty rough. The first few days was a blur and chock full of emotions. The people I work with have been fantastic, and are giving me grace while I work through emotions while at work. I am blessed and honored to have their support.

I’ve been spending time trying to process what to do next. If I were talking to others in the same situation, I would tell them to take time, mourn, don’t make any big moves. I half follow that advice, and am thinking of my options. I have been thinking more of permanence. What are my financial plans for the future? When do we buy a house and start setting down deeper roots? How involved should I be with my extracurricular activities versus spending the maximum time I can with my family? Should I get busy executing my plans for my side work or should I just veg out?

At one point I said to my wife, “When do I get my fire back?” I spent most of this year charging hard, and now I feel only a flicker. I’m sure it’ll come back, but clearly it’s going to take some time to get there. I surmise that first I’ll have to get through the holidays, and all the sorrow that will come with it. My mom loved the Christmas season, and at this moment I can’t even imagine what this year will be like without her.

Right now, I’m mostly focused on short-term thinking. I’ve been spending more quality time with the kids. Last weekend I had moments of good times with each of my children, and although tiring it was the right move.

One of the positive things that have come out of this event is it has driven me to get a few things done off my lingering todo list. I have this long list on my phone of things I have noted to get done, and I’m starting to work on them. I seem to have more of a sense of urgency now to get things done. The trick is making sure they are things that are actually worth doing rather than simply doing busywork.

I think the next thing I need to do is to find time (and a sitter) for a date night with Amy. It’s been awhile since we had some time to ourselves, and it seems more necessary than ever that we go out on the down and think about something other than death and sadness. We need a little happiness soon, if only for an evening.

Time is the fire in which we burn, and I want to be more intentional of the flames I stoke from now on.

A new normal

Getting adjusted to life after my mom’s death has been nothing short of a monumental challenge.

I’m really not sure how I’m supposed to do this life thing now. I find it hard to concentrate at work. Sometimes I feel like I just want to do nothing. When I do nothing, I feel like I should be doing something.

I feel very lost.

I think about a lot of things related to her death. My mom took a fall at the beginning of September, and I’ll forever believe that started the events that led to her demise. I take the elevator at work now when I can. That’s silly, I know. But I can’t help but think about it. In case you didn’t know, falls are the number one cause of injury or death among older Americans. I don’t think I’m old, but I imagine her falling down the stairs, and I remember the pain and suffering that escalated after that day. I will never know for sure what happened, but that doesn’t stop my mind from coming with with all sorts of scenarios.

It all seems so unfair. She worked all her life and didn’t get to enjoy a retirement. When she was in the hospital in mid-September, I floated the idea to her: “Have you given any thought to retirement?” She loved her work, and I am unsure if she would have retired anytime soon had she lived. Her main concern was having health insurance. She had insurance through her employer, but was afraid that if she couldn’t work, she wouldn’t have coverage. She was worried about that while she lay in that hospital bed, and said to me, “I couldn’t retire until I turn 65 when I would be eligible for Medicare.” Her 65th birthday would have been Dec. 11.

Why is healthcare tied to your employer? Why does it cost so much? How come other countries have this more figured out than we do?

Healthcare in this country is a joke.

I would have loved for her to have retired, get healthier, and then she and dad could have came and visited more. They could have spent time with their grandkids, enjoyed their company, and lived out their days comfortably. But that didn’t happen. Isn’t that something? Most of us think that we are working toward a time when we can kick back and enjoy our lives a little more. But that day may never come.

My thoughts are with my dad. He built his world around her. The house they lived in, with a few exceptions, was built around her. From the countertops she wanted, the color of the walls, the bed they slept in, to the decorations she loved to put up for holidays, he was committed to shaping a life around her. I remember when she went to school in Colorado to work toward becoming a nurse practitioner, he was a bit of a mess. He missed her presence deeply. On the day she returned home, he had a big “Welcome home Linda” (or something like that, I don’t remember the exact wording) sign attached to the side of the house for her (and everyone else in the neighborhood) to see.

He acts like a curmudgeon sometimes, but he’s also a teddy bear.

And now, all of that is gone, ripped away. I’m angry about that. I don’t want it to be true. I’ve wanted to call her this week but it is not to be. I just want to chat, but I can’t.

This is the new normal, and it’s unjust and unfair. I hate it.