When I woke up on January 1, 2021, I felt lighter, as if in the night I’d dropped 20 pounds of gloom off of my shoulders and onto the floor. The physical burden of 2020 was gone. I no longer had to live in that year, which was the worst year I’d ever experienced. Until 2020, my worst year was 2002, when we learned that we were infertile and wouldn’t be able to conceive a child. My headspace was murky and complicated that whole year. I shunned people, stored up anger, and said all sorts of awful things to God because I knew He could take it.
But 2020 rang a new bell in me and replaced 2002 as the new worst year. I was glad to see it leave.
In these last few weeks of 2021, I’ve done a lot of unloading. I’ve cleaned my closet, sorted through my books, deep-cleaned a few rooms in the house, reorganized my desktop browser (Ahh…), and recommitted to cooking the way I used to cook with some measure of purpose. With each task, I’m lifting more of that anvil off of my shoulders, shedding more skin, breathing new air. Clutter and mess weigh me down as much as emotions do, so when I can’t control what’s going on around me, I’ve focused on the things I can control. For example, I cannot control the spread of COVID/attacks on the US Capitol/rising gas prices/people being crazy/my dad being gone/closed borders/teen angst/other people’s struggles/etc, but I can control whether or not my closet is a mess.
Also, in lieu of resolutions, I’m focusing on a few words to keep my brain and body in check, words such as boundaries and balance. I’m protecting my time and energy as a limited resource because it is a limited resource. It means choosing not to respond to work emails on weekends. (That one decision created a lot of space for me.) It means shifting my focus intentionally from one task to another rather than always responding to what shows up each day. I’m an organized person to a fault, but 2020 left me so frazzled that being scatterbrained and forgetful became a new normal.
Originally I thought 2020 broke me, but I’m starting to consider that maybe it was a catalyst for a reset.
I would be foolish to claim how hopeful I am for this year because if 2020 taught me anything it is to expect the unexpected. Still, I feel a small spark of hope that this year will bring something lovely my way. I don’t know what it is, but it’s… something. It very well could be something as simple and beautiful as a greater peace of mind, but it could also be something else I’ve been needing and didn’t know it. It could be something to enjoy for my boys or my husband, or it can be something positive for another family member or close friend. Whatever the spark is, I don’t want to douse it with doom or fear. I am so good at catastrophizing! Instead, I’m going to let it sit there and sparkle and see what happens.
The boys are moving along in their school year, no doubt counting the days until summer break. When I look at them, I see two young men who don’t have much longer under our wings. I am surprised to realize that I have only three and a half years of homeschooling left. That is some kind of math I do not understand.
This year will bring some milestones, such as Jeremy turning 18, which is more math I don’t understand, and the 10th anniversary of us moving back to Tennessee from Texas. I still love where we live and have no plans to move anytime soon.
As for what’s going on in our country politically, I’ll leave you with the wisdom of Don Draper, advertising pioneer:
Cheers to a better year, everyone. Fingers crossed.
I picked up The Shadows by Alex North with no hesitation because I loved, loved, loved Whisper Man. It begins promising, and it held my attention, but I’m sorry to report that I didn’t love it – but it’s for a very specific reason.
The Shadows tells the story of Paul Adams, who, after 25 years, has to return to his hometown to help his sick mother. He doesn’t want to go home because bad things happened when he was a kid – specifically a gruesome murder committed by Charlie Crabtree, one of Paul’s friends.
Of course, odd things start happening as soon as Paul returns, and his mother insists that something -or someone – is creeping around the house.
The story is full of suspense, and you’re definitely driven to find the answers to WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON.
Without giving away too much, I’ll tell you why I didn’t love The Shadows as much as Whisper Man: it uses lucid dreaming as a trope, and I’m not a fan of lucid dreaming.
I’ve read two other books that use lucid dreaming as a main feature – The Anatomy of Dreams and Behind Her Eyes – and it was a turn-off for me. So, this was the third and final book I ever want to read about lucid dreaming. If that’s a thing that intrigues you, then this book is for you! If it doesn’t bother you one way or another, then I recommend The Shadows for sure.
But if you’re like me and roll your eyes at the concept of lucid dreaming, then The Shadows will be a quick pass.
This is the second in what I hope becomes a long series in which Anthony Horowitz, the author, writes himself into the narrative. His first work like this, The Word is Murder, was incredibly clever, and The Sentence of Death follows suit.
Once again, the Sherlock-ish private detective Daniel Hawthorne asks Anthony, a crime/thriller novelist, to help him solve a mystery by serving as his Watson. This time, a celebrity divorce lawyer Richard Pryce was found dead in his home – knocked out and killed by someone with an expensive bottle of wine.
The story is told through Anthony’s point of view, so it’s as if we’re getting Watson’s narration of how annoying and clever Sherlock – or Daniel Hawthorne – can be. I know it seems odd to have the author insert himself as a fictional (yet real?) character, but trust me – Horowitz makes it work. It is very well done.
The twisty, turvy mystery slowly unwinds as Hawthorne and Horowitz interview suspects and gather clues. They are an entertaining pair, and the unraveling of who murdered Pryce (and why) kept me engaged. However, I wouldn’t start this one without reading The Word is Murder first. You need a proper introduction to these guys.
Anyway, published in 2020, the book everyone needs to read now is The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Initially, it sounds incredibly depressing, but this novel is a story of HOPE, and it answers the big questions we inevitably ask ourselves: What if I had made other choices in my life? Where would I be now?
The story follows Nora Seed, a young woman who wants to die and finally decides to make that wish come true. You know this is her path because the narrative begins with that warning. It isn’t the most cheerful way to begin a story.
At the moment of her death, or what we think is her death, Nora leaves the site of her lifeless body and enters The Midnight Library, lovingly tended to by her childhood librarian, Mrs. Elm. There, she learns that each book on the shelf represents a possible life – infinite lives – that reflects every time she could’ve made a different choice. What would her life had been like if she’d chosen a different line of work? Married a certain man? Moved to a different country? Every decision, no matter how big or small, leads to a different outcome.
“The books are portals to all the lives you could be living,” says Mrs. Elm.
Incredibly, we follow Nora on her journey to find a happier life, one where she can choose to stay, if she really loves it. The Midnight Library is not heaven; it’s the hub of your own personal multi-verse where you can elect to try a different you.
As with any choice, there are stakes. There are risks. One life has certain people in it, while another life does not. Each chapter shows Nora navigating these choices while the clock is ticking. After all, if she truly wants to die, that’s exactly what will happen, and time is running out.
I loved this book so dearly that I listened to it twice on Audible and then bought a hard copy to read again. (If you’re into audiobooks, I highly recommend listening to it. Carey Mulligan is an excellent narrator.)
Without fail, it was my favorite book in 2020. It will be a favorite for a very long time. Read it, read it, read it.
Never before had I read a book so engrossing about a subject I knew nothing about: the building of a cathedral in the Middle Ages. It was lengthy and hard to read in certain parts because I wasn’t accustomed to so many details about torture and journeying and long-suffering plans to build cathedral by hand and plots to thwart a greedy, power-hungry bishop.
AND STILL I was hooked. I went on to love the sequel, World Without End, and the final in the Kingsbridge trilogy,A Column of Fire.
Earlier in 2020, I heard Ken Follett had written a prequel to Pillars, and admittedly, I was skeptical. A prequel? I mean, I was going to buy it no matter what, but I couldn’t wrap my brain about what topics the book might cover.
Set at the end of the Anglo-Saxon age in England (late-900s), The Evening and the Morning follows three main characters and their respective journeys – Edgar, a boat builder and honest man, Ragna, a noblewoman from France who attempts to build a new life in England, and Alfred, a monk whose efforts to stay true to his purpose is challenged at every turn. Ultimately, this is the story of how Kingsbridge became a town.
Anglo-Saxon England was troubled by recurring Viking attacks, a flimsy legal system, and poor living conditions since all the Romans left behind were roads (which was helpful, I guess). The new band of characters, per usual, have to fight against power-hungry people who use the system for personal gain, leaving bodies in their wake. If you’ve read Ken Follett’s trilogies before (either Kingsbridge or the Century Trilogy), then you know there will be hiccups, obstacles, and heartache.
But there is also triumph. You know something good will come at the end. You just don’t know the journey required to get there. I loved this book. I read it over Christmas break because I knew I’d need the distraction. It worked perfectly.
Disclaimer: Ken Follett gets a lot of grief for some of his love scenes and, alternately, the scenes with sexual assault. You can expect that trend to continue here. Feel free to skim those words.
Like any conflict, there are two sides of the story, and then there’s the truth. In His & Hers, readers hear from three voices – Anna Andrews, a lunchtime television presenter on the BBC, DCI Jack Harper, who’s investigating the death of someone he recognizes in his hometown, and an undisclosed third narrator who knows exactly what’s going on.
This psychological thriller is set in fictional Blackdown, a small town in the English countryside and exactly the sort of place where I daydream about living. Anna is attractive and clever, keen to keep her highly sought position at the BBC, but someone who ought to drink a little less. She is divorced from DCI Jack Harper, who is so likable and so clearly still attracted to his ex-wife. Their two sides of the story are filled with interesting details based on their upbringings, relationships, and current working relationship as a TV journalist and detective. The alternating narrations keep you wondering about their WHOLE story and how it might (or might not) relate to the murder victim.
The third narrator is clearly the killer, but, of course, we don’t find out who it is until the end.
Now, if you know me in real life, I’ve likely pushed Sometimes I Lie on you. I dearly loved that book and have listened to it three times on Audible. Unfortunately, I didn’t love Feeney’s second novel, I Know Who You Are, so I probably didn’t even mention reading it to anyone. (It was one of those books that, when you get to the end, you’re thinking, “Really?”)
When His & Hers came out in 2020, I gave it a chance and it was well worth it. I am a sucker for good thrillers, and this one didn’t disappoint. You’ll move through it quickly.
While I am grateful for myriad things – extra one-on-one time with my father, a slower pace at home, my own health and the health of my husband and sons – I am mostly still very mad at you. I will work through it eventually, and you won’t be around to see it. Today is your last day.
Many people started the year with a hefty amount of optimism, but I didn’t. It was in the tank by December, so my biggest task, or so I thought, was to muscle through a deeply personal trauma and hopefully have my father around for another calendar year.
Two nights ago you gave us your last full moon. It was gorgeous. Big and bright, like a flood light in the sky.
Today, however, I woke up to a rainy drizzle, and I don’t think we’ll see the sun all day. It feels like one more stab. I don’t know if I can stay up late enough to see you go. You robbed me this year. You robbed a lot of people. The sooner I go to sleep, the sooner you’ll be gone.
I know 2021 won’t be everything I want it to be, at least not at first. We are still in the woods, still wandering around looking for the path to lead us out of this COVID mess. I hear you, though, telling me to learn the lessons from this year and let the hardships make me better, but I’m telling you NOT YET. I need a little more time. One day, when I’m not so bitter, I will likely view you as a transformative year, not a destructive one. I’ll declare that 2020 was the year I learned [insert lesson here] and it will fuel my personal and spiritual growth. I’ll be sure to report back and give you proper credit.
For now, I’m done with you. I’m worn out. You won. You broke something in me, and since I haven’t found the exact location of the crack, I can’t patch it yet. I’m the kind of tired a nap won’t fix.
Do me a favor and tell your successor to take it easy on my family and me. My friends, too, for good measure. Tell 2021 to come in slowly, tenderly, like a new mother checking on her sleeping baby. Take a peek, then close the door gently. LEAVE US BE.
And if 2021 is going to be worse, then forget everything I said. Those porch days with my husband were really wonderful. I’ll always cherish the long drives with Dad after radiation. I’m glad Mom finally got her hip replaced. I’m grateful my kids are healthy and happy. I still have my pets, my best friends, and a lovely home from which to view sunsets.
Interestingly, the last time I photographed the moon was December 12, 2019, the day I put Mom on a plane to California to be with Dad in the hospital. Little did we know then, and little may we know now.
Well before Thanksgiving was underway, I knew I didn’t want to stay home for Christmas. Obviously, a pandemic makes this wish problematic. Whatever we came up with, we were going to take Mom with us, because she too didn’t want to stay home and dwell on the toll this year has taken.
After a bit of research, we chose a lovely cottage on Sugar Mountain in North Carolina. Chuck wanted to take the boys skiing for the first time, and Mom and I wanted to hide from the world for a bit. We arrived on Wednesday afternoon, just in time to go grocery shopping and get back to the house to make dinner. I poured Mom a glass of wine, and she was all set.
Christmas Eve was a rainy day, but a winter storm was coming. Underneath the snow that fell all evening was a solid sheet of ice by the following morning. It was beautiful, but we knew getting down the mountain was going to be a challenge.
We exchanged a few small gifts on Christmas morning and then occupied ourselves trying to figure out how to get Chuck, Jeremy, and Jackson down the mountain to the ski lodge. Fortunately, there was a taxi service (with four-wheel drive and all-weather tires) that picked them up and dropped them off. This meant Mom and I had the place to ourselves for an afternoon reading marathon.
The day after Christmas proved most beautiful because the sky was bright blue. With the winter storm out of the way, Mom wanted to take a quick trip outside on her new hip to get some photos. Of course I had to chaperone! The last thing we needed was for her to fall down.
This is the view directly across the street from the cottage. On the other side of those houses are the ski slopes. If you looked hard enough, you could see the ski lifts and folks skiing down the mountain. (We weren’t close enough to get a glimpse of Chuck and the boys.)
Jackson was brave to try skiing on Christmas Day, but he opted to join the reading club the day after Christmas while Chuck and Jeremy went a second time.
Of course, Dad wasn’t far from our minds. We knew the first Christmas without him was going to be difficult, but being in this cottage, away from all the reminders back home, helped us cope. He wouldn’t have wanted us to stay home and mope around, fighting tears and shaking a fist at the sky. Even when I was a little girl, he never liked us moping around. Get up and get on with it!
The cottage was perfect for our getaway. We all had a warm bed and space to schlep around in our pajamas. We watched movies, ate our weight in sugary treats, and only did the things we actually wanted to do. This was a huge bonus for me. I didn’t even bring my laptop! After staying home all year to take care of Dad (and follow pandemic guidelines), a quick trip to the snowy mountains was exactly what we needed.
The next big hurdle is New Year’s Eve, a holiday that’s always been marked by a big, boisterous phone call from my parents wishing us a Happy New Year. Dad would call us promptly at midnight, all giggly and loud, and I’d laugh and roll my eyes at how goofy they sounded.
Now I’d give anything to have that phone call at midnight. Instead, Mom will stay the night with us, but I’m not totally sure I’ll stay up to watch the ball drop. The quicker I fall asleep, the sooner I can leave this wretched year behind.
Christmas, though, was delightful. There were moments of sadness, obviously, but now I’m ready to start a new year without illness or fear or a heap of doctor’s appointments weighing us down. I’m ready for a slower pace, if you can believe that. I’m ready to walk into a calmer year.
Before Dad passed away, we all talked about what he wanted to happen with his remains. No question, his heart belongs to West Virginia, but a good chunk of it also belongs to Tennessee. He decided, and we agreed, that part of his remains should be spread here and the rest should be spread and buried in the family cemetery back home in Meadow Bridge.
With a handful of negative COVID tests, the Przyluckis drove down from Chicago for Thanksgiving and to participate in a private, outdoor ceremony for Dad. We decided to spread his ashes in the place where we last went fishing together.
Though we wished for Mamaw, Aunt Gloria, and Dallas to join us, COVID concerns are pretty steep, and, Lord willing, we’ll be in West Virginia in the spring for the second part of Dad’s memorial anyway. It felt like the wiser decision for them to stay home and stay safe. Fortunately, our cousin Paul could join us.
Even though our West Virginia family couldn’t attend, Dad’s home state was well represented.
In addition to our family, we had a bagpiping friend join us (from afar) to play “Amazing Grace” at the beginning and “Scotland the Brave” at end of our short but sweet service. As soon as Andrew started playing, we all teared up. There is no other sound more fitting in the Great Smoky Mountains than the sound of bagpipes.
Becky read Ecclesiastes 5: 18-20 and John 14, and then I read a poem titled “He is Gone” by David Harkins. Jeff said a prayer, and then Chuck waded into the river to release Dad’s ashes.
It was all more emotional than I anticipated, but I think that’s exactly what I’ve been needing.
He is Gone
You can shed tears that he is gone Or you can smile because he has lived You can close your eyes and pray that he will come back Or you can open your eyes and see all that he has left Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him Or you can be full of the love that you shared You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday You can remember him and only that he is gone Or you can cherish his memory and let it live on You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back Or you can do what he would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.
When Andrew had finished playing the bagpipes, it was Owen’s turn to play “Taps” on his trumpet.
Once we’d gotten our tears out, it was time to remember how grateful we were to have one another and that we spent so much quality time with Dad before he left. All the grandboys gave Grandma big bear hugs.
I think Dad would’ve been pleased that we didn’t make a big fuss. Instead, we honored him in an authentic, heartfelt way and then spent the rest of the day together.
When I think back to what we’ve been through this year, I can’t quite believe it. The anniversary of Dad’s big stroke is in seven days. Has it really been a year? It’s felt as if from that moment on – December 8, 2019 – it was one hurdle after another.
And yet, it was still year with plenty of good days and happy moments. I’m not sure I’ve ever spent so much one-on-one time with Dad, minus my tenth grade year when he drove me to and from school every day. I miss him terribly. We all miss him. But in that missing is the knowledge that he provided a good life for us, loved us deeply, and didn’t want to leave us so soon.
Here I go again asking that you keep my family in your thoughts: My grandpa died suddenly and swiftly on Sunday evening.
My first thought was this: In what cruel world does my mother’s husband and father die within three months of one another?
Grandpa Thomas, who would’ve turned 94 next week, moved to Knoxville from Bethesda, Maryland, in January of last year with a ton of energy and optimism. He thrived on his independence, and he took his time settling into the West Knoxville apartment I picked out for him. I helped him unpack his books, buy a new computer, and I changed his bedsheets every time I visited (because no one at his age should have to wrestle with a fitted sheet).
If you and I are friends on Instagram, then you might have seen my “Thursdays with Grandpa” Instastories I’d post from time to time. His apartment was minutes away from our co-op (an intentional move on my part), so I often went over there on Thursday afternoons to check on him, have lunch with him, listen to music with him, and so on.
By the latter part of 2019, Grandpa was struggling to breathe comfortably, and by mid-November, he was put on oxygen full time. In fact, the last time he visited my house was for Thanksgiving when he wanted to do a trial run “traveling” with a portable oxygen tank. He stayed overnight in a hotel nearby, but all of it proved too difficult. Upon returning home the next day, he told me, “That’s the last time I’ll go to your house.”
The next few months were a blur. Dad had his stroke on Dec. 8, and then all the days ran together. Mom flew to California to be with him, and they didn’t return to Tennessee until January 31. We kept Grandpa in the loop with multiple phone calls and emails each week. He was desperate for new information he could pass along in mass emails to the Thomas side of the family. We were all confused about everything, not knowing what the future would hold.
Alas, what the future held was a pandemic.
By spring break, our remaining weeks in the academic year were moved online, and I became Grandpa’s personal grocery shopper and Dad’s driver post-radiation three days a week. March and April were some of the strangest months of my life. (I’m forever grateful Chuck was home to take care of things in my long, daily absences.)
At one point, perhaps in April, I’d finished putting away Grandpa’s groceries and sat down to talk to him while he ate lunch. He said something I’ll never forget: “This virus will be around for two years at least.”
“Surely not,” I said.
“Oh yes. It will be around at least two years or until there’s a vaccine.”
I didn’t believe him, which is foolish on my part because when you’ve lived on the earth 93 years, you know much more than someone who’s only been around for less than half that time.
Just as COVID made things more complicated for my Dad’s treatment, it made things more complicated for Grandpa. He had three trips to the ER in May and June, and it was quickly decided that he couldn’t live alone anymore. Any activity beyond sitting still in a chair left him breathless.
In July, Uncle Russ flew in from California to stay with Grandpa and assess what level of care he needed. I was grateful. I felt pulled between Grandpa’s apartment and my parents’ house, not to mention whatever was going on at my house. Knowing that Grandpa had one of his kids living with him full time meant we could funnel our focus to taking care of Dad.
After Dad died on Sept. 10, we all entered a fog. Time passed. School and work continued. So did the pandemic. We all functioned.
Being cautious about COVID, we stopped visiting Grandpa in person. We kept to emails and phone calls. There had been some discussion about what to do when his apartment lease ends in the spring, but now there are other matters to sort out.
Grandpa went into cardiac arrest Sunday evening, November 22, and passed quickly. I am deeply sad that he’s gone – that goes without saying. But I am also sad over missed opportunities and the fact that his entire last year of life was marred by a pandemic. He hadn’t left his apartment, save for a few doctors’ appointments, in months.
The heaviness of this year cannot be understated. We have been put through the wringer and WE ARE NOW WRUNG OUT. FULL STOP.
With Thanksgiving and Christmas in our midst, I struggle to find any sort of cheerful spirit. I’ve been here before though, so I know how to navigate the holiday blues. To wake up another morning means I am still alive and there is plenty to live for, but the pain of what we’ve walked through is fresh and raw.
Grandpa, you would’ve been the first one to read this blog post. You were a faithful subscriber! While your brief stay in Knoxville wasn’t what any of us anticipated it would be, I am extra grateful for all of those Thursdays with you. ❤️
Last week I sat in the car with a dear friend as I finally said the words I’ve been holding in for a while: “I think I’m depressed.”
She replied appropriately: “You think??”
Once I said the words, I started to cry and tell her how I wanted to quit everything, even the things I love. I love teaching English, but I want to quit. I love writing for a magazine, but I want to quit. I love being a mom, but please no one ask me what’s for dinner for the next three months.
I’m not a quitter, so I won’t quit, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to hit pause and run away for a while.
I unloaded all of these things on Chuck’s lap when I got home that same afternoon, things he understood perfectly after living through the deaths of both of his parents and his sister over the course of eight years. He knows the feeling of wanting to quit, but yeah – we don’t do that. We BUCK UP. So I am.
And yet, it’s a new month, which means I have a renewed sense of dread to accompany the ever-present weight of grief and sorrow I’ve been carrying since December 2019.
Despite Dad being gone nearly eight weeks now, I know my body has been storing up anxiety since his first stroke. When I think about the anniversary of that event getting closer, my chest tightens and my brain runs circles around the memory. I will never forget the moment Becky called me and said, breathlessly, “DID DAD HAVE A STROKE?”
I am sad to see October go, particularly since I want nothing to do with Thanksgiving or Christmas. I’ve been in this headspace before with the holidays, so the feeling is familiar to me. We’ve managed grief through Thanksgiving and Christmas too many times – we’re nearly pros! – so I’m already unearthing some helpful coping mechanisms.
First and foremost, there will be no watching White Christmas since I can’t text Dad to tell him it’s on TV and that he needs to change the channel so we can watch it together in our separate houses.
Yeah, I can’t go there.
Thanksgiving will be the first hurdle. It was the last proper holiday we had with him before the stroke. Mom and Dad came to Thanksgiving dinner at my house, and when we said goodbye that evening, it was the last time I saw my father outside of a wheelchair or walker. It was the last time I had a conversation with him with clear speech.
We are planning a small, private service over Thanksgiving to carry out one of Dad’s memorial wishes, so I look forward to seeing Mamaw again and having the family come in town.
But, make no mistake – the whole week will feel like an anvil on my chest.
Likewise, I cannot conceive of setting up one single holiday decoration or hearing one single, solitary Christmas song. Respectfully, I am uninterested. God bless all of you swapping out your Halloween decor for Christmas trees, but I can’t join you this year. I haven’t yet sorted out how we’ll tackle Christmas, but sitting in a sad house is not a viable solution.
DAMN YOU, TRAVEL BAN. And damn you too, Covid. You’re the worst.
Okay. Shall we talk about more uplifting topics now?
OH WAIT —
Unfortunately, what kicks off the holiday season is a no-good, terrible, soul-sucking election week. Because I am politically homeless, I will be distressed either way. (I do vote though. I vote my conscience and am usually left disappointed. I’m not sure what that says about me.) Washington DC is full of bad actors, and I don’t buy anything they’re selling, particularly their deepest desire to scare the living hell out of us. NO THANK YOU.
What really grieves me is the level of distrust among fellow citizens. I have a wonderfully diverse set of friends and family members, so no matter which way this week shakes out, I’ll be worried about a chunk of them (some more than others).
Just remember this: Donald Trump did not attend your wedding. Joe Biden did not celebrate the birth of your child. Mike Pence did not congratulate you on your new job. Kamala Harris did not check on you during the lockdown to see if you were okay. Not a single politician will send you condolences when your parents pass away.
These people are not your saviors or our superheroes. They aren’t your ride-or-die friends, or your actual family members. Be careful you don’t sever the very relationships you will need as we head into the great unknown of our strange future.
Either I read too many dystopian novels, or I read all the right ones, but what worries me more than any presidency is the breakdown of our most important connections with one another. After the year we’ve had, we can’t afford it.
The story centers around four people: Lydia is a wealthy, successful single woman who plagued by loneliness. Dean is suddenly a single dad who’s definitely not ready for the responsibility. Robyn is young and vibrant, on track to attend medical school and start a fabulous life, but… She too isn’t completely happy. The fourth person is the one who binds them all together.
Though the story wasn’t a full mystery (you find out soon enough who the fourth person is along with the secret he’s keeping), I enjoyed the steady unfolding of details as the three main characters grappled with their lives. I ended up rooting for them, hoping they’d weave together and make all the right choices. The title – The Making of Us – gives it away on some level. The “Us” is a work-in-progress, and it’s the reader who gets to watch it all pull together.
I will say that this story has more characters than what’s necessary. I wound up expecting more from a couple of them because they seemed more prominent than they actually were. In the end, I felt like a couple of storylines seemed pointless, like they could’ve been omitted and the story wouldn’t have been any better or worse.
The bottom line is that I enjoy Lisa Jewell’s writing style enough that I’m happy to play along and go where the story leads. The Making of Us doesn’t hold a candle to The Family Upstairs or The House We Grew Up In, but it was still a good read and left me with some brewing thoughts about what makes a family.
Ten years ago this week, we took family photos in Amarillo. It was a weird time – Chuck was living back in Chattanooga to help care for his mother while the boys and I stayed in Texas waiting for our house to sell. He came back for our anniversary, and I scheduled these photos for us. It was the last time we dressed up in coordinating outfits and paid a photographer to take our picture. The boys were seven and four years old. We could very easily see over their tiny little heads.
Today, Chuck and I have been married for 20 years, and to celebrate, I decided it was time to retake this sweet photo (and one other), but also to capture some new ones. Hold on tight, y’all. Stephanie with Adara Photography knocked it out of the park.
We are still just barely able to see over their heads, though we know this won’t be a thing for much longer.
Our boys are now 17 and 14 years old. They are both in high school, braces-free, and embracing our love for traveling. Despite it being a tough year, we have laughed a lot together.
While family portraits were a priority, so were photos of Chuck and me as a couple. Twenty years of marriage is no small feat. We aren’t still here because it’s been easy or because we’ve been lucky. Seeing us like this reminds me that hard work and dedication is not overrated.
The other photo I wanted to recreate from 2010 was an image where we deliberately bookmarked ten years of marriage:
It felt silly then and a little silly now, but Chuck was a good sport. If we do this right, we could wind up with a sweet collection of memorable photos marking each decade as we cross its threshold.
One last thought: Many years ago we started talking about booking a big trip to the U.K. to celebrate our 20th anniversary. It was something we daydreamed about, something worth waiting for.
Then, after taking the boys to Iceland in 2017, we realized that international travel was far more accessible and affordable than we once thought. Shortly after Bill passed way in April 2018, we decided that waiting for that big trip didn’t make sense anymore. Life was short and unpredictable. Instead of waiting two more years, we took the big U.K. trip that October. It was perfect in every way possible, and while part of me – that annoying, meticulous, perfectionist part – wanted a big round anniversary number to commemorate with a trip like that, I know now it was absolutely the correct time to go.
After all, little did we know what 2020 had in store for us. Not only was Dad’s illness lurking, but so was a global pandemic. How even more heartbreaking would this year have been if we’d waited for 2020 and had a huge, incredible trip to cancel.
All that being said, when this pandemic is over and the borders open up, gowhere you’ve been wanting to go. Figure it out. Take the trip. Don’t waste time.
Above all, go with the person who makes you laugh like this:
I don’t know what to call this space – these days that unfolded “after Dad died”. I don’t want everything I do or think about to be marred by his death because the focus is misplaced. Plus, Dad wouldn’t like it. Shall we just call it After? First we had Before, now we have After. I don’t know how else to bookmark the days.
This Thursday makes three weeks since Dad passed away, and though I seem able to move through the day with ease a lot of the time, there have been moments when I felt nearly paralyzed with indecision or frozen with a blank mind. I have work to do, and yet, I could easily stare at a wall for an indefinite amount of time. I could sit on the porch and watch the birds, or I could start working on something at my computer only to give up in five minutes to gaze out the window. It still feels like my brain is floating in a jar on a shelf.
In this After, we followed through with a few pre-made plans, and those activities have helped to distract me, forcing me to think of other things instead of dwelling in this headspace.
Last Saturday, I joined Chuck on a quick trip to the hunting lease. He needed to check his game cameras, and I needed to leave my house to breathe different air. The hunting lease is a beautiful piece of property, despite what ultimately happens there, and riding around in the forest gave me the temporary peace of mind I was looking for.
As soon as I came home, the haze returned.
Similarly, we spent this last weekend in Chattanooga, as I already had plans to take senior photos of Grace and Ethan. I didn’t want to cancel on account of grief because I knew leaving the house would be good for me. Staying in a hotel and reading a book next to a swimming pool was the change of scenery – again – that I needed.
Seeing our friends though? Invaluable! We even saw Hayli, whom we haven’t seen in more than a year.
We laughed and enjoyed the heck out of each other, and I was grateful for every moment, but sure enough, as soon as we got home, I felt sad and irritated.
I realize now that working from home while also grieving is proving to be a challenge. If I worked in a traditional environment, I could take some bereavement days. I could cash in on vacation days. Or, I could go to a place and do the work there; then I could come home and crawl into bed. I could separate these two things, untangle work from home.
As a freelance writer and teacher, I don’t have that option. Sure, I built the life I wanted, but here in-lies the newly-discovered flaw: When you need your home to be a place of refuge, it can’t be a place of refuge when you’re behind on grading papers or on deadline for a magazine. Instead, home is a place of multiplying levels of anxiety, particularly when the boys need something basic, like dinner.
Currently, all I really have to look forward to right now are breaks from school (fall break, holidays, etc), but even then, I’m planning to work ahead for my classes and help Mom clean out Dad’s home office. Both tasks need to be done, so it is what it is.
I know grief is a weird animal that presents itself at different moments in different ways to different people. Right now, grief is most prominent on Thursdays. My body subconsciously counts the minutes and recalls the last day moment by moment leading up to 9:45 p.m. Leave it to my goofy brain to grieve on a schedule.
And yet, grief is lingering in the background every other day, too. It is the ghost behind me, the court jester in the corner of the room. Grief is both a memory and a nightmare – remembering our rides to and from school together in Chattanooga, then recalling how horrible his breathing sounded in his last few hours. My memories bring comfort, then pain. The cycle continues.
Anger is there too, cozied up alongside grief. They are quite a pair! I am furious that we’re entering the most beautiful season in Tennessee and Dad won’t be here to see it. I am angry that Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve are all on Thursdays. I am haunted by how horrible last New Year’s Eve was and preparing for this one to feel even worse.
People have told me, based on their own experiences, that grief unfolds at random times. It can be months and years before I truly process and understand my own feelings on Dad’s death. I believe this to be true, but what in the world will these months and years even look like? If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
We’re about to enter my favorite month, and wouldn’t you know – OCTOBER STARTS ON THURSDAY. As I raise my fist to the sky in protest, Dad’s voice booms in my ear: “Buck up, Kid!”
All I can say in response is, “I’m trying, Dad! I’m trying!”
When I try to recount the last nine months, the one looming shadow over everything was Dad’s illness. Everything changed on December 8, 2019, when he had a stroke in California while on a business trip. He’d just been at my house for Thanksgiving, and everything felt normal. Christmas was on its way, the academic year was moving forward, and I had every hope that 2020 was going to be spectacular. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG.
As the month unfolded, I realized 2020 was actually going to be one of the hardest years of my life. A diagnosis of cardiac sarcoma – a rare, aggressive, largely unknown cancer – meant my father was likely going to die in 2020. On New Year’s Eve, as the clock ticked toward midnight, the fear in my gut grew and multiplied. The tears poured. I didn’t want 2020 to come.
What we didn’t know, of course, was that a pandemic was looming, and it was going to change everything about this year – for the better.
When the world stopped turning in mid-March and everyone was sent home, Dad was just starting chemotherapy and radiation. It meant we needed to wear masks at the UT Cancer Institute, but it also meant that Chuck was home full time and I could be away as much as I needed to be to help my parents. Since I didn’t have to worry about being home for my family, I could spend hours with my dad. For six weeks straight, while everyone else was glued to the news and managing their jobs (or losing their jobs!), I was with Dad.
There were extended lunch breaks for Mom due to COVID-related precautions at the library and entire weeks she was able to be home and not lose that vacation time.
The pandemic meant all of our travel plans were put on hold, but that was just as well. When the pandemic halted the earth, we were gifted more time with Dad.
Even when summer hit and it felt like we were going to have a lot longer with him than I originally feared, I knew I couldn’t waste time. I burned a lot of miles driving between my house and theirs – an hour each way – but every second spent in the car and every tank of gas refilled was worth it. I spent afternoons with him one-on-one, went fishing with him and my family, and did whatever my parents needed me to do at any given time.
As the summer came to a close and I was looking at a new academic year, both as a homeschooling mother and teacher at our co-op, I started to worry about what might happen if Dad declined. How would I manage to be there for my parents while also taking care of my personal and professional responsibilities? As it turned out, I’d have to answer that question much sooner than later.
Dad was released from cancer treatment into hospice care on Friday, August 28. Not only that, but he was also transferred from that doctor’s appointment directly to the emergency room because it seemed clear he’d had another stroke (or two?) within the past 24-48 hours. The next 13 days were such a whirlwind that Mom, Becky, Mamaw, and I spent a good deal of time trying to sort out what happened on which day.
Dad was admitted to the hospital that Friday night and not released until Monday late afternoon. Becky flew in Tuesday night, and Mamaw, Gloria, and Dallas showed up Thursday afternoon. Paul drove up on Saturday, and we spent a wonderful afternoon and evening being together. With each day that passed, it was clear that Dad was declining. His appetite waned, as did his speech. He was tired, less animated, and hard conversations were had.
By Monday, one week after coming home from the hospital, it seemed clear that we weren’t looking at a long road ahead. Instead, the road would be heartbreakingly short.
By Wednesday, instead of driving back and forth, I packed a bag and drove to my parents’ house to stay. The work of caring for someone in his last days requires supernatural strength in body and mind. I needed and wanted to be there.
Now that I’ve slept and had some time to consider what actually happened, I realize now that the last 36 hours with Dad were sacred. His body slipped into a physical sleep, but he was awake in his mind and somewhat responsive to the things we said to him and to one another. Becky and I stayed up late Wednesday night recounting some of our favorite childhood memories, and when we asked him the next morning if he heard us, he responded in a way that told us he did. We kept him as comfortable as we could, holding his hand in shifts, telling him how much we loved him, that we would be fine, that he’d successfully raised two smart, strong, independent women. We did not tire of saying, “We love you, Dad.”
In turns, Mamaw, Gloria, and Mom spent time talking to him, holding his hand, wiping his forehead with a damp cloth, doing whatever his mind and body needed. The work is emotionally taxing because you are limited in your efforts. There is no saving, no fixing, no bringing back. Instead, you’re carrying and lifting and eventually letting go. Even as I type, I’m trying to recall each minute of Thursday. What time was it when I said, “I love you, Dad” for the last time? What time was it when his eyes opened for the last time? When was it that he squeezed my hand for the last time?
Dad died at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday, September 10. Despite the last nine months being one big red flag waving in my face I couldn’t ignore, I still can’t believe I typed that sentence.
Logical thoughts cycle through my brain: He had an aggressive, rare cancer. He’d suffered multiple strokes. He was never going to beat this. It was always going to end this way. The spring and summer we had with him was a gift because it was always going to end this way.
And still. AND STILL. Is he really gone?
Not entirely. Dad’s body might have called it quits, but he is ever-present in my inability to endure small talk. He is there when we go fishing and when we root for the Mountaineers and when we take a long drive through the Great Smoky Mountains. He’s there when Jeremy goes hunting and when Becky dives into another history book. He’s in the old classic country music we play. Dad is here and there and all around because that’s what happens when someone makes an impact on your life. He sticks around.
We aren’t having a commonplace funeral and burial because, like me, Dad wasn’t interested in any of that. We’ll spread his ashes in the few places he requested and bury what’s left of his remains in the family cemetery in West Virginia either this fall or next spring. No one wants to rush it because, frankly, we’re all tired and in need of rest. It’s been a long year.
I confessed to Chuck on the porch yesterday that I am feeling so many things at once. I’m sad, of course. SO sad. Gutted. Heartbroken. All of that goes without saying. I’m also tired and a little confused because time and space feel loose and undefined. I can’t keep track of time or what I’m supposed to do next.
But I also feel relief, and then I feel guilty for feeling relieved, to which Chuck replied, “I think people feel that more often than you realize.” Which must be true, right? Caring for a terminally ill person warrants relief when the task ends, doesn’t it? After suffering comes relief. This must be a normal feeling that exists alongside the sadness.
My dad would be the first to say, “Don’t dwell on this. Life goes on! BUCK UP, KID.”
Buck up, indeed. I will eventually. I just need a few minutes. I need to reorganize my brain and heart and make sure I stay afloat. Despite knowing what 2020 would bring, I’m still a little surprised.
Gosh, Dad. I miss you so much already. Thank you for everything.
August signifies two things: The impending return of school and my birthday. In fact, I don’t want to even think about the school year until I’ve enjoyed as much of my birthday as possible.
In keeping with our Safer-at-Home Summer, we rented the boat one last time and invited two young ladies to join us. As the day drew closer, I wondered how the day would unfold only because the forecast was grim. The threat of rain toggled between 50 and 80 percent all week, finally settling on a 100 percent chance of rain by Friday morning. I settled my mind by telling Chuck, “Even if we only get a few hours on the boat in the morning, it will have been worth it.”
Mercifully, it never rained a drop until that evening after we’d already gotten home.
We drove around a bit before dropping anchor at a sandbar. The kids floated around and enjoyed the shallow water while Chuck and I lounged on the boat. Going on a Friday meant the lake wasn’t overrun with people, thank goodness.
We hit up a second sandbar after lunch, where we all laid like slugs on floats.
It felt like we had the entire lake to ourselves, which wouldn’t have been the case had we rented on a Saturday. Thanks to the gorgeous weather and lovely company, I couldn’t have planned a better boat day. Before going back to the first sandbar, I gathered my people for a photo.
This guy right here:
He ended up being out of town on my actual birthday, but he never misses an opportunity to make me feel special. The boat was one thing, and then we went to dinner with Lesli and Jimmy the following night:
But he really knocked it out of the park with his actual gift:
MY HUSBAND bought me ACTUAL PROPS from my favorite television show of all time. I honestly couldn’t believe it. I don’t know in what season or episode Elizabeth Moss wore those earrings, but I’m going to spend the next few months rewatching Mad Men (for the umpteenth time) looking for them in every scene with Peggy.
I’ve been spoiled by friends and family with gifts and treats in the mail, and then I was so delighted to receive these English Garden flowers from Karin. Truly, I felt so loved all day and all week.
Even the sunset on my birthday was beautiful.
Mom’s birthday is a week before mine, so I must share the Treadway family photo we took with Becky over FaceTime:
School starts in less than two weeks, and I’m doing my best to manage my expectations. I so badly want everything to be normal, but I know that’s an impossibility right now. We’ll wear masks at our co-op and move as many assignments online as possible.
I hope we can meet in person all year long, but the reality is that we could very well move online entirely as the fall and winter months creep closer. No longer can we get away with a sniffly nose or occasional cough. Every symptom of potential illness, whether COVID-19, strep, or allergy, will be an anxiety ignitor. We may not be together in a classroom all semester, but I’ll take what I can get for now.
Despite the lovely birthday, this Dorothy meme accurately represents my feelings on just about everything else. Hang on tight, everyone!
Frank Carter, known as The Whisper Man, was a serial killer captured and imprisoned for luring children out of their homes by whispering to them through windows and doors. He became a legend in his small town and sowed fear into the hearts of Featherbank’s residents.
Fast forward to today: Tom Kennedy moves with his son, Jake, to Featherbank after the sudden death of his wife. A fresh start on a new life is just what they need. All seems to be moving along as planned until a young boy in Jake’s class disappears, reigniting old stories and unearthing buried fears about old Frank Carter’s crimes. Detectives Amanda Beck and Pete Willis are determined to find the missing child before it’s too late.
Of course, then Jake starts acting funny, and then he starts hearing whispers…
If you leave a door half-open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken. If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home. If your window’s left unlatched, you’ll hear him tapping at the glass. If you’re lonely, sad, and blue, the Whisper Man will come for you.
Atmospheric, tense, and utterly gripping, The Whisper Man was a fun ride. It wasn’t so creepy that I couldn’t read it at night (I’m looking at you, Winter People), but it so well-paced and anxiety-ridden that I really needed to finish it as soon as possible so I could rest my mind. Super fun! I’m really looking forward to Alex North’s next book, The Shadows.
A man washes up on a British beach having no idea who he is, where he came from, or where he’s going. The press (and medical professionals) call him Mr. Nobody. Dr. Emma Lewis, a neuropsychiatrist, is asked to assess him, and she has a keen sense to know what might be wrong.
While Mr. Nobody is advertised as a thriller, it doesn’t unfold in an edge-of-your-seat way. There is a steady transmission of fragmented information about both Dr. Lewis and Mr. Nobody, and, as the reader, you’re constantly trying to figure out why and how these two people are connected. That in itself is a mystery.
It isn’t a nail-biter, but it’s still an interesting medical (and criminal) journey that’s good enough to take you away from the present time.
I prefer Catherine Steadman’s other book, Something in the Water, over Mr. Nobody, but I liked this new one enough that I’ll read the third book she writes. I appreciate her prose. As an actress, Catherine Steadman understands how to keep an audience’s attention, whether it’s on film or on the page.
Even though Mr. Nobody wasn’t gripping minute-to-minute, it still kept my attention and provided a satisfying end.
The Birds live in a picturesque Cotswolds village. There are six of them: married couple Lorelei and Colin and their four children – Meg, Beth, and twins Rory and Rhys. Everything about the kids’ childhood feels perfect. Lorelei goes out of her way to make every day extra special, especially on holidays. She loves her family and lives in the moment at all times.
Yet, it’s on an Easter weekend when tragedy hits the Birds, and everything upends. What unfolds is a family drama about how each person manages him or herself amid devastation. Coping skills aren’t cookie-cutter. Everyone hurts and loves in a different way.
This isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense, but The House We Grew Up In has the pacing required for a steady pageturner. I listened to the audiobook version and finished it in a matter of days. Admittedly, some of the bigger plot points hit very close to home, so I was drawn to the story even more than I thought I’d be.
Beautifully written, perfectly paced, with a satisfying end. Highly recommend.
Dana is a young, African American woman in 1976 California. She and her husband, Kevin, a white man, are in the process of moving into their new home when Dana suffers a dizzy spell and is suddenly time-traveled to pre-Civil War Maryland – to the exact plantation where she knows her ancestors lived. Moments after arriving, she saves a young, white boy, Rufus, from drowning, an event she later determines was the catalyst for her time travel. It’s this relationship with Rufus that keeps her going back and forth in time. Eventually, Kevin is pulled through the tether too, an experience that gives him a new perspective on American history.
I’m not sure anyone can get excited about reading a book where a modern African American woman travels back in time to the Antebellum South, but not all reading should be for fun. Sometimes it’s good to read a book, even if it’s fiction, to deepen your understanding of our human experience. Even the ugly parts.
The Great Pause is long gone, that beautiful, restorative, slower pace my family enjoyed throughout April and May. I can’t even count the number of hours Chuck and I spent on the front porch together. Those afternoons and evenings are my absolute favorite memories so far from the upside-down year we’ve had.
June brought a return to semi-normal, though we barely participated. We enjoyed another boat day and had a steady stream of houseguests, whom I was happy to host. We are still wearing masks to the grocery store, still opting out of restaurant dining, and doing just fine with that six-foot distance. I don’t know what to make of COVID-19 anymore, but the very low death rate in Tennessee does encourage me, albeit slightly.
We are halfway through the calendar year, which is something I feel both grateful for and in denial about. How are we only in July? My mental exhaustion level is at least in October or November. I could’ve sworn we were nearly to Christmas.
Our upcoming academic year, so far, is still on its original path. We will meet in person (our once-a-week co-op) until the state says we should close. Area COVID-19 numbers are rising steadily, so I will hold my breath on this plan until the moment we walk in the classroom. My hope is that we can meet the entire year, but I’m mentally prepared to be sent home at any point to teach/learn online. I am preparing for all of my English classes to go online at any point, but as I said, I hope we never have to.
There are still good things happening here. After four long-suffering years, Jackson finally got his braces off. He would literally shed a tear at the thought of getting his braces off, and now he is free. He enjoyed an entire pack of gummy bears on the way home from the orthodontist. Look at that smile! He is still our Happy Jack.
Jeremy is on track to get his driver’s license in a few weeks, which I can hardly wrap my mind around. He’ll be 17 in September (WHAT?) and is about to embark on his hardest academic year. Soccer conditioning has already resumed, and we are all hoping another season won’t be canceled.
The remainder of my 10K medals came in the mail, so now I have a sweet reminder of all that running I did in March, April, and May. If I run another virtual race, I’ll run a half marathon this fall. I’m totally sold on the virtual race process – no travel and my own timeline. Can’t beat it.
In addition to porch sitting, Chuck and I have been quite the fishing pair. I am happy to report that I have officially caught TWO whole fish in my adult life. (I have a memory of catching ONE fish when I was a little girl.) I am not so sophisticated as to remove the fish from their hooks, so I need Chuck for that. I have a bit of a panic if it takes too long. I want them back in the water and breathing normally as quickly as possible.
But, I am learning how to work the fishing line, how to navigate pesky underwater logs, and how to be patient. Whether I catch anything or not, I’ve loved those slow, quiet mornings accompanied by vibrant sunrises. I absolutely, utterly, no question love where we live.