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Easter 2017

Easter 2017

I love Easter the same way other people love Christmas. Easter is all about hope and joy and light and so often the outside world reflects that as we turn our back on the long, dark months of winter. Both the plants and our souls are revitalized. This year, Easter was especially tender. Lately, we’ve become more aware of our own mortality and our absolute need for our Savior. As we celebrated Easter our hearts swelled with gratitude for the resurrection that Christ made possible and hope that we will see our loved ones beyond the grave.

This year, we did a little holy week book with the kids. We would read the scriptures or watch the associated Bible videos and the kids would color a picture. The kids looked forward to it every night. It really helped set the tone for Easter. We did our egg hunt on Saturday again this year. After finding all the eggs we went to the park to play with an Easter gift they’d received from my parents: a baking soda and vinegar powered rocket.

Sunday, we went to church. We listened to uplifting lessons about our risen Savior. The kids sang songs in the program. Ellen gave her first talk and talked about how because of Jesus she will see Grandma Glenna again. The rest of the day was spent listening to Easter hymns and eating delicious food. It was a good Easter and just the re-centering we needed.

Glenna’s Funeral

Glenna’s Funeral

“I’ve come to understand that there’s a good deal of value in the ritual accompanying death. It’s hard to say good- bye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps us upright and connected until the worst is past.”
– William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace

I’ll admit my attitudes on the celebrations surrounding death used to be a bit callous. When I talked about my wishes for my own funeral, I’d tell Noel to just cremate me and sprinkle my ashes someplace people might actually want to visit. I absolutely did not want a viewing and any memorial services were to be kept to a minimum so as to not take up too much of anyone’s time. Over the years as Noel and I have lost grandparents and now a parent, my attitude has softened and I’ve developed a deep respect for the place of funerals in the grief process. I’ve participated in funerals before, but Glenna’s was the first funeral where I was intimately involved in the planning.

Kolob Canyon

Glenna and Mike were a bit nomadic (Noel moved about 17 times as a kid) so it was a little difficult to determine where her final resting place should be. Most of her family is buried in Nevada (Alamo, Las Vegas, and Overton), but she was very opposed to being buried in any of those cemeteries because she felt they were too desolate. She’d lived in Alaska for the last eight years (a record only her childhood could beat), but if she were buried there it would be difficult and expensive to arrange, plus rare that anyone would visit. As we pondered locations that would be close enough for family (especially her sisters) to visit, but appeal to her desire to be buried in a beautiful, peaceful location Noel thought of New Harmony, Utah. New Harmony is a small town outside of Cedar City, UT. Noel was in grade school when he lived there, but he has fond memories of that time. When he suggested it to his mom, she liked the idea as well – it was a place she had been happy and was close enough to her sisters that they could visit now and again. Before she passed, she said she’d be fine with any of the cemeteries in the area. We ultimately decided on the cemetery in Kanarraville because we had a family connection there that was able to help with acquiring burial plots and reserving a church building for services.

We’d talked about doing a self-transport of Glenna’s body to save on costs, but also because we thought she would have gotten a kick out of us taking her on one last road trip. (One of her favorite movies was Elizabethtown where the main character goes on a soul searching road trip transporting his father’s ashes.) After we found out that transporting her body was cheaper than we expected and that a casket wouldn’t fit in Chris and Joy’s Subaru, we decided to just let the mortuaries handle it. (Although we did briefly reconsider when there was a bit of doubt about whether they could get Glenna’s body on a flight that would get her to Utah before the funeral.)

Viewing

My brother, Spencer, is going to school in Cedar City and all of my family came down for the funeral. They watched the kids while Noel and I took care of funeral logistics and arrangements. We were able to help dress Glenna in her temple clothing which was a very touching and spiritual experience. Previously, I’d always thought it strange when people at viewings would remark about how good the body looked, but having seen Glenna before and right after her death I understood. I saw her a few hours after she passed and while her body had looked relaxed, it was very apparent that her body had only been a vessel and now that her spirit was gone she very much looked, for lack of a better word, hollow. It wasn’t necessarily upsetting, but there was something peaceful about seeing her after the mortician had done his work. She looked much more like a person at rest.

Kids at Cemetery

We tried to be as open with the kids as possible through the whole thing. They got to say their goodbyes to grandma a few days before she passed while she was still fairly coherent so she was able to tell them of her love. When she passed I told them it was okay to feel sad and Ellen said, “I’m not sad, I’m happy.” When I asked why she said, “Because she’s with Jesus and she’s going to be alive again.” I wanted Cooper and Ellen to be involved in the funeral, so they each shared a favorite memory. (Cooper’s was petting the cat with grandma and Ellen’s was giving her hugs.) The funeral director also involved the kids. He talked to them about how their grandma is going to be one of their Guardian Angels and gave them pins with angels on them. One to keep and a few to give to people that looked sad. (They’d each given away all of their extras by the end of the services.) He asked them to help “tuck grandma in” before they closed the lid of the coffin. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.

Noel saying goodbye

While there were a few hiccups before the funeral happened, the whole thing was as close to perfect as we could have asked for. The weather in March can sometimes be unpredictable, but the skies were clear for everyone’s travels. (Glenna was always a nervous wreck when people traveled, we think she pulled a few strings in heaven.) Everyone and everything came together to create a memorial that I think Glenna would have loved. Her bishop and his wife (one of her best friends) came down from Alaska to officiate and attend the funeral. My parents made “Be so Careful” pins (Glenna’s catchphrase) for people to wear and Joy put together a display that paid a lovely tribute to her mom. All of the children and grandchildren shared a few words and Noel played a beautiful rendition of “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” Glenna’s sisters and nieces said prayers and offered short remembrances. Danielle had arranged for a casket spray that looked like Alaskan wildflowers and we had picked out a casket that was reminiscent of a log cabin. At the cemetery, Noel’s cousin-in-law played bagpipes and we all caught glimpses of the beautiful Kolob canyon. Afterward, we had a lovely luncheon (largely orchestrated by Melody, a family friend, and members of the local LDS ward – people who had never even met us, but poured out their love anyway) at the church where we reminisced and repeatedly traded hugs. It was a tender time.

Ellen and Joy

It’s been just over a month since her funeral and while it’s odd to say you have fond memories of such a sad event, I really do. It was so touching to be surrounded and strengthened by each other’s love. It was an honor to celebrate such a great lady. Overall, it was a beautiful day full of an overwhelming peace. It reminded me how valuable funerals and memorials are for the living.

Note on the gallery: all of the pictures, except for two, were taken by my talented mother.

 

And Then Comes Peace

And Then Comes Peace

“Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.”
― Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Being a caretaker was a lot like being a first time mom. On the outset, I kind of thought caretaking would come naturally and I had rosy expectations of how wonderful this would be. It would be a special time of growth for our family. Sure there would be hard times, but it would be so meaningful that we wouldn’t hardly notice the inconveniences. In reality, it wasn’t as idealistic as I had imagined. I wasn’t as patient or good natured as I’d imagined. Much of the time I was tired, overwhelmed, and didn’t know what I was doing. Our life revolved around Glenna’s care – we even slept with a baby monitor for the times she needed help in the middle of the night. All of our energy was being funneled into surviving. Half the time the kids homework didn’t get done and we were constantly bailing on any plans we made. Just like life with a newborn, keeping everyone alive for another day was considered a success. There was one glaring exception though where it wasn’t like having a baby at all. When you have a baby the future is filled with the hope of milestones and the promise that things will get better, but when you’re caring for someone with a terminal illness the future is harder to look forward to. However distant or imminent, the decline will come and things will get harder.

In retrospect I feel a little guilty about how difficult it was for me. Glenna was truly a gem to care for. She was rarely grumpy or demanding. For the most part, she was extremely upbeat and did everything she could to not be a burden. But still, it was hard.

Because her cancer, at least in her lungs, was shrinking, but her overall health was declining it was sometimes hard to know what to hope for.  When Noel or I would take her to appointments, we would always return extremely frustrated. At the onset, the oncologist team was extremely encouraging. They told us her lungs were improving and the rest of her health would follow. We just needed to wait and she would turn the proverbial corner. So we waited. As the appointments went on, Glenna would be buoyed by the news that her lungs were looking better and we would be frustrated because it didn’t feel like we were rounding that corner. Noel and I would stay up hours later than we should have, debating whether we were just having bad attitudes or whether we were the only people who really saw what was happening. It was frustrating to watch her suffer and we often felt helpless. Many days it felt like she was in limbo, neither making strides to improve nor decline. There was no clear direction on whether we should we be pouring optimism into the hope for a cure or preparing ourselves for the worst. The emotional flip-flopping was exhausting and with no end in sight we worried about our ability to continue indefinitely as her caretakers.

Some dark humor on inauguration day. Glenna often joked that she wanted her obituary to say given the choice of a Trump presidency or death she chose the latter.
Some dark humor on inauguration day. Glenna often joked that she wanted her obituary to say given the choice of a Trump presidency or death, she chose the latter.

Because of the conflicting evidences, it took Glenna a long time to decide whether or not to continue the Tarceva. She hated taking it. Every day when 4 o’clock rolled around I felt like a heartless jerk when I would give her the pill. But Noel and I agreed that she needed to be the one to make the decision to stop, not us, and we tried our hardest not to influence that decision. On February 1st, she made the decision to stop taking the Tarceva and not pursue other treatments, but even having made that decision, it took her 10 more days to decide that she wanted to start hospice. Glenna often said she hated it when people would talk about “fighting cancer” because by that vernacular if you died you were a failure who was either not strong enough or didn’t fight hard enough. When she started with The Denver Hospice, they gave us a family guidebook. These words rang true to me, “Understandably, most people are uncomfortable with the idea of stopping all efforts to cure their disease. It is courageous to fight terminal illness, and it is equally courageous to know when to discontinue treatment that is no longer helpful.”

Hospice was a hard pill to swallow for many family members, but it was a godsend for Noel and I. They came to us and were available for consult 24/7. They brought in better equipment and sent medications directly to our house. Noel and I had both read Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal and had positive views about hospice. We knew the stats that people that start hospice earlier often live longer and have better end of life quality. Again, we were hopeful. The hope was short lived though. Days after starting hospice, Glenna began to decline mentally. She’d been having hallucinations for months, but with a few exceptions she always knew they were hallucinations. At first, Glenna was sure it was the changes her hospice nurse had made in her drugs. They’d switched her short acting morphine pill to a liquid since it worked faster (which is desirable when one of your main problems is breathing), but because she was so paranoid about it, her nurse told us it was okay to just let her keep taking the medicine in pill form, especially since swallowing was not a current issue. Glenna was relieved to go off the liquid, but she was still loopy. She kept pulling her oxygen cannula off and would become disoriented about where she was. We were constantly calling the hospice nurse line and when the nurse came out to check on her only a few days later she told us that from her experience Glenna was nearing the end. (This was also the first of many times it would be suggested that the cancer might be going to her brain. Scans are no longer done in a hospice situation since the goal is no longer fighting the illness, but based on the number of nurses that suggested this and the experience of a friend whose mom died of lung cancer that spread to her brain, I think it probably did.)

Family changed their lives around to arrive within the next few days and soon our house was filled with her sisters and daughters. Glenna’s paranoia kept mounting. She was afraid of falling asleep and was sure that we were involved in some sort of a shady business scheme. Hospice had us try a couple of different anxiety meds to try and calm her down, but they all seemed to have a paradoxical effect where they actually made her more paranoid and anxious. The final night she spent at our house they tried the last anxiety med in their arsenal. It’s hard to say whether she had a worse reaction to this drug or whether the sleep deprivation had built up to an unbearable point, but her paranoia that been mounting in the preceding days reached its pinnacle that night. We decided to split the night up into shifts. Danielle would take the first shift, I would take the middle of the night shift, and Noel would take the early morning shift. I can’t hardly find the words to explain that night, but Glenna was out of her mind with fear and paranoia. She acted like we were holding her hostage and kept trying to escape. Towards morning, when the anxiety med should have worn off, she refused to take her medicines from us and wouldn’t hardly let us come near her. Her strength had diminished in the previous weeks, but in her bewildered state she was stronger. It was the worst night of my life to date. Worse than any of the nights Cooper had night terrors. When Noel woke up for his shift, he called the nurse hotline and they sent a nurse over immediately. Based on our inability to stay on top of her pain meds and the fact that she had no idea where she was (when asked, she said she was in Provo on the BYU campus – a school she never attended), the nurse told us she strongly recommended a transfer to their inpatient facility.

In my heart, I knew if Glenna left our house she would never come back. The last time she’d been hospitalized there had been a moment as we were waiting for the ambulance. She’d turned to me and asked, “I can come back, right?” Her face had this vulnerable, pleading look and my heart almost broke. I kept picturing her face in that moment and felt like I would be betraying her if I let them take her away. I felt like a child and wanted someone to tell me what was right. In tears, I called called her sister, Marsha. Marsha said they would be right over, but that this needed to be our decision. Fortunately, Danielle and Noel were much calmer and more objective and realized that we really didn’t have a choice.

The Denver Hospice.
The Denver Hospice. Courtesy of their website.

I pulled myself together and arranged for a friend to pick up the kids and take them to church while we figured things out. The transport ambulance came to pickup Glenna. Noel and I followed in our car. The family gave us a head start to take care of paperwork and get her settled, kindly cleaning up our house while we were away. The whole ride over I still felt torn up inside about what was happening, but the second I arrived at hospice I felt my anxiety fall away. There was a special spirit there. When we walked into Glenna’s room she was dressed in a white nightgown and sleeping peacefully for the first time in days, maybe even weeks. When we asked what they’d given her, they said all they’d done was give her a dose of pain medicine through an IV and she’d relaxed. I may never know for sure, but part of me wonders if in all of her trying not to be burden, she just couldn’t allow herself to pass away in our home.

After filling out all the paperwork and talking with the hospice doctor, Noel and I had some time to sit in Glenna’s room while we waited for family to arrive. Noel too said he’d felt a peace when we entered the building. It was  peace that neither of us had felt in months. It would still be six more days before Glenna passed away, but from that point on, we both just knew that everything was going to be okay.

On Miracles

On Miracles

“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may not be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”
― William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace

Glenna's sisters trying out chairs for her. The recliner they got her was actually one of the most useful things she had in her final months.
Glenna’s sisters trying out chairs for her. The recliner they got her was actually one of her greatest comforts in those final months.

The lung center clinic Glenna went to is world-renown. Her oncologist is involved in cutting edge research on lung cancer. He has had great success in significantly extending the life of many of his patients and was very optimistic about the chances of extending Glenna’s life. She began taking a “miracle drug” called Tarceva. (If you’ve read Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air, it’s the same drug that he took.) It’s a drug that is tailored to certain genetic markers and has had an 80% success rate in those that took it. She was on a full dose of the drug for two months. Every time she went in for an appointment the doctors were pleased to see that the tumors in her lungs were shrinking, but we were disheartened because in spite of that, her overall health was declining. She was hospitalized two more times – once right before Thanksgiving and once right after Christmas. She was plagued by stomach troubles, sores on her skin and in her mouth, and bladder infections that were barely touched by antibiotics. She went from being able to go on short excursions with a walker to only being able to make the short trip to the bathroom. In January, they reduced the dose of the drug in hopes that she might still benefit from the tumor reduction, but maybe have less side effects. It didn’t seem to make a difference and on the first of February, she made the decision to stop taking the drug altogether.

There was a lot of wrestling with faith that happened during the four months she lived with us. Glenna is an incredibly optimistic person who believes strongly in the power of visualization. In a text to the family she said, “I am just pouring out my faith and using my sheer determination to get through one set back after another by focusing on the NEXT positive step available to me.” If miracles were granted simply on the basis of belief, there was no one more deserving. I don’t think any of us were hoping for a cure, but we hoped for more quality time. The whole family poured out our hearts to God in the ways we knew how – on our knees, in Rosary, within the walls of the temple – but Glenna just couldn’t catch a break. It was disheartening.

The Denver LDS temple. Photo courtesy of my mom. Check out her work at cindymcconkiphoto.com
The Denver LDS temple. Photo courtesy of my mom. Check out her work at cindymcconkiphoto.com

The week before Noel went to Alaska, we spoke in church. We talked about temples. About their healing power, how they help us catch a glimpse of “the big picture,” bring peace to our lives, and most importantly make it possible for families to be together forever. At that time, I felt completely zen about everything. I just knew everything was going to be okay. But, as we actually stepped into the role of caretakers for Glenna, that peace sometimes became elusive in my daily life. I kept searching for it though and every once in awhile the whisperings of a scripture would come to me. At times it would be words from our church’s Doctrine & Covenants, “Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter?” (6:23) and I would try to remember the initial peace I had felt. Other times the words would come from Galatians, “Let us not be weary in well doing” (6:9). My heart was still heavy, but I was able to keep moving forward and hoping for an eventual peace.

There is a more mature lady who goes to our church. She frequently likes to tell the story of how she had cancer (I can never remember what kind) and was told she had 6 months to live. She was given a Priesthood Blessing and was miraculously healed. She has now lived years past that diagnosis. She has outlived two husbands and is now on her third. Noel gave his mom a priesthood blessing before they flew down from Alaska. He was very upset afterwards because he didn’t feel like he could say the words that would indicate a promise of healing. It just wasn’t God’s will. God’s will is hard to understand. Why does one person get to outlive multiple husbands and another not get to see their grandkids grow up? Robert D. Hales said, “I have come to understand how useless it is to dwell on the whys, what ifs, and if onlys for which there likely will be given no answers in mortality . . . We need to spend our time and energy building our faith by turning to the Lord and asking for strength to overcome the pains and trials of this world and to endure to the end for greater understanding.”

Glenna and I spent a lot of time together and sometimes she would open up to me about her fears. Once or twice she mentioned her fear that a miracle wasn’t coming because she lacked faith or was in some way undeserving. I don’t think she thought these things because she actually lacked faith, but because sometimes it’s easier to know a truth when it’s happening to another person than when it’s happening to you. We talked extensively about miracles and I did my best to remind her, with my limited knowledge, that just because you don’t get the miracle you want doesn’t mean there aren’t miracles. Sometimes the miracle is peace in our hearts or the blessing of our family members being okay without us. And of course there is the ultimate miracle of our Savior’s sacrifice that offers the gift of Grace to each of us. These talks were tender and often led to one or both of us crying.

Everyone came for Thanksgiving and we were able to take a family photo.
Everyone came for Thanksgiving and we were able to take a family photo.

Even though we didn’t get the large miracle of healing that was desperately wanted, those four months were sprinkled with many small miracles. Glenna was able to bear her testimony to us a final time. She was able to spend time with the children. They read books, showed her their art, and watched countless episodes of Magic School Bus together. She was miraculously able to attend the children’s primary program. She had a final Thanksgiving with all of her children, which she said made all of it worth it. Both of her sisters and all of her nieces were able to come visit, some of them more than once. Even though we were certain it was going to kill her, she miraculously survived norovirus. (Which would have been such a miserable way to die.) We personally were blessed to have friends and neighbors show up at our door with food. We were fortunate to have multiple friends that were willing to watch our kids on short notice and for long durations. We may not have gotten the big miracle we wanted, but we got a plethora of small ones that carried us through.

I can’t say that I  understand why Glenna left this life seemingly out of turn or why her final months were riddled with so much pain and struggle. Instead, I’m trusting that God knows best. I’m trying to to let my heart be filled with the peace that only God can offer and focus on the things I do know with surety: That her suffering is over, that she is with her parents and other people she dearly loved, and that someday we will be with her again.  I’m glad I know those things and maybe that’s the biggest miracle of all.

Bonus: Here are a few talks from LDS sources that spoke to me on the subject of miracles not happening in the way you want or expect. I’m including them in case some reader out there is looking for deeper reading.

“Soul and Body” by Robert D. Hales
“Healing the Sick” by Dallin H. Oaks
“Not the Miracle We Wanted” by Brittany King
“Like a Broken Vessel” by Jeffrey R. Holland

 

 

The Backstory

The Backstory

Before I jump into any reflective posts I think I need to set up the backstory. In true Audrey fashion, I’ve been concise, maybe too concise about everything that has transpired.

It was the Saturday of our church’s fall General Conference when we found out Glenna (Noel’s mom) had lung cancer. She called Noel in between sessions of talks intended to uplift us and told him she’d gone to the ER earlier in the week because of severe neck pain. The hospital ran tests and it was then that they discovered she had lung cancer. She didn’t have an official diagnosis at that point, so there was still some part of us that hoped. The next day everyone in the family (her children, sisters, nieces) threw rocks in bodies of water to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Glenna’s honor. (Glenna was quirky and adopted a lot of different religious and cultural practices that she would often adapt to supplement her religious beliefs.) The act (usually done with bread in the Jewish tradition) is supposed to symbolize a renewal as sins are cast off; we were all hoping for a renewal.

Rosh Hashanah

It was almost two more weeks before Glenna got an official diagnosis. In the meantime, we went about our lives as best we could, but with a lot more praying and fasting than usual. I was in the final days of my long-term sub job and we had a trip planned to celebrate its finish in Keystone, CO. It was during that trip that Noel’s mom called and through tears told him her cancer was Stage 4 and had spread to some of her bones and lymphs. Her doctor in Alaska gave her 6 months to live and didn’t recommend any treatment except radiation, but only to help with the pain not because they thought it would extend her life. Her call was brief because she had many more of those painful phone calls to make. This was uncharted territory for us and I found I was really bad at knowing how to support Noel. Even though the news made the trip less celebratory, we were glad to be away and have distractions to keep us from sinking too far into a depression. That weekend was also the temple dedication for the Fort Collins LDS temple. Noel and I attended the last session and were very touched and comforted by the messages. I wrote in my journal that night that “In all the craziness it’s good to have that rock.”

Rock Skipping
Noel skipping rocks during our Keystone getaway.

Noel has two sisters: Danielle and Joy. Their mom’s diagnosis greatly concerned all of them. Alaska wasn’t offering any care options and Noel’s dad was unable to be the type of caregiver Glenna needed. (He has his own health problems and at the time was working a job where he was basically unavailable for entire weeks at a time.) All of the kids began researching cancer treatment centers in their area and both of his sisters were even willing to move to more accessible apartments (they both live on the top floor). Ultimately, Glenna chose to come live with us because we didn’t have to move and the Lung Cancer Clinic in Colorado was really proactive and optimistic. Let’s be honest though, she came to live with us because we have the grandkids and if this was going to be the end, she wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. We began to prepare our house almost immediately. Noel bought plane tickets to go to Alaska and bring his mom down and we spent an entire Saturday at Ikea where we kept telling each other, “You can’t cry at Ikea.” During all of this, my grandfather also passed away which made our already crazy October have an even crazier finish.

Porter and my sister Hope (his mom) laying flowers on the casket.
Porter and my sister Hope (his mom) laying flowers on the casket.

The airline was really accommodating about changing Noel’s flights. His sister Joy picked him up from the cemetery the second the services for my grandpa were over so he could catch his flight. Noel spent a few days in Alaska helping his parents get ready for this new transition and I spent a few days holding down the fort at home and finalizing the last of our preparations for her arrival. We didn’t know what the future held, but I had a feeling we were never going to be the same.

 

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Faith of a Child

Faith of a Child

Caring for my mother-in-law the last four months has been hard, but I’ve been so grateful to have my little family during all of it. We’ve leaned on each other and grown together. When I told the kids that their Grandma Glenna had passed away, I told them it was okay to feel sad. Ellen told me “I’m not sad; I’m happy.” When I asked why, she said, “Because she’s with Jesus and she’s going to be alive again.” I’m so grateful for the knowledge that our family relationships can last beyond the grave and for a little girl with simple faith.

What is Normal?

What is Normal?

October was one of those months where I would think, “Life can’t get any crazier than this” and then it would. My job as a middle school freelance educator came to an end at the beginning of the month and our family was ready to get back into a normal groove. Life had other plans though. Two big things happened in October: my mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and my grandfather died. Those two things were pretty big upsets to regular life all by themselves, but we also threw in a weekend getaway, talking in church, the tail end of Noel’s treatment for his broken arm, helping with meals at parent teacher conference, and preparing our house for family to move in with us just to make sure we didn’t have too much free time on our hands.

Noel’s mom’s diagnosis was a shock, partially because she’s a non-smoker and partially because none of us realized how sick she was. There were lots of tears and phone conversations as the family made plans for how to help her. Noel made plans to go to Alaska to help for awhile during her radiation therapy and then to travel with her to the lower 48 where she would live with us to receive additional treatment and support. My grandfather passed away in the midst  of making all those preparations.  We added in plans to travel to Utah and had to make changes to Noel’s flights so he could make it to the services. (As it turns out, telling an airline you need to change your ticket to visit your mother with stage four lung cancer to go to your wife’s grandpa’s funeral is a pretty good story and they kindly waived the change fee.) My grandfather was a truly great man so there were many good things to reminisce about. Although we will miss him, it is an honor to not only know, but be a descendant of such a great man. His services were lovely and the second they were over Noel, Alaska bound, headed to the airport. I stuck around a few more days to spend time with family and then drove the kids back home the day before Halloween.

A few days after Halloween, Noel and his mom made the trip to Colorado. Her oxygen levels plummeted on the flight despite having access to oxygen and when the plane landed at DIA they rushed her to the ER. She stayed at the hospital for a few days until they got her pain and breathing under control. (That first day they drained 1.6 liters of fluid off her lungs!) Since then, she and my father-in-law have moved in with us. Her oncologist has a lot of accolades and has been very positive. She just started a drug that has been successful at shrinking cancer in 80% of patients and extending their lives. We are optimistic.

Life has been absolutely bananas, but it has also been so very good. We’ve seen so many miracles big and small and had so many friends offer love and support – they’ve watched the kids, helped me clean the house, and listened to us. We’ve refocused on what’s important and grown closer to our families. It’s been a hard time in some ways, but it’s also been a beautiful time. (Except for the election, but I’m not going to talk about that.)

This is not one of my most eloquent posts, but I just wanted to get some pictures up and let you all know we’re alive.

Leon F. Olsen

Leon F. Olsen

mom-and-dad-anniversary
The picture my mom took of my grandparents for their 50th wedding anniversary.

Most of my memories of my grandfather revolve around his library. It was where he was most at home.  He started collecting books at the age of 12. At night, he would climb out of his bedroom window and catch nightcrawlers which he would sell to fisherman. He would make $20-$30 worth of book money a summer. Before he passed, he chose a book to give to each of the grandchildren – as if he were giving each of us a piece of him. His selections were thoughtful, as was his nature, and I was touched when he gave me an original copy of The House of the Lord. He was wise about many things both temporal and spiritual, and when you entered his library it was like sitting at the feet of a master teacher.

He worked for many years for the LDS church and though he was soft spoken and introverted, he could talk for hours about church history or the stories behind various church properties. When I was in college I entered the Leonard J. Arrington Memorial Essay Contest. (A contest based on a yearly Mormon history lecture in memory of Leonard J. Arrington.) The year I entered, the lecture was “The Emotional and Priestly Logic of Plural Marriage.” When I asked my grandpa if he could help me find some resources for my essay he got a twinkle in his eye and started pulling books off his shelves. “I bet you’ll be the only to have access to some of these resources,” he said. I won third place in the contest something I doubt I could have done without his help. (The resumes of 1st and 2nd place were quite impressive.) The prize money made it so we were able to purchase a stroller and carseat for our first baby.

When I announced I was pregnant with Cooper the first thing he asked was, “Do you have good insurance?” He was a practical man who also cared deeply. Even though he preferred calm and quiet, he always enjoyed it when I brought my kids (the antithesis of calm and quiet) to his house.

He served as a bishop in our church and as a Patriarch for many years. He gave all my siblings and me our patriarchal blessings which made something already so special and personal, that much more meaningful. He was very humble about the positions he’d held in the church and rarely spoke about the many duties he’d fulfilled over the years, but from the few stories he or my grandma let slip and the fact that he was mentioned in our church’s General Conference I know he served faithfully.

His obituary states that “[h]e patiently endured physical struggles through most of his years, but his spirit remained strong despite these challenges, always finding life filled with more joy than sorrow.” He will forever be an example to me of perseverance and optimism. He will be missed, but I know there was a warm welcome for him when he passed.

Holding Ellen when she was a few months old.
Holding Ellen when she was a few months old.
Easter 2016

Easter 2016

This year, Easter kind of snuck up on me. I’d spent all of March studying the Atonement and trying to figure out how to teach my Sunday school lesson on Easter Sunday, but hadn’t given hardly any thought (other than to purchase a ham) to celebrating Easter with our family. Literally, the day before Easter Noel and I talked about what we wanted to do. We decided we wanted to try splitting up the secular celebration of Easter (gifts and egg hunt) from the spiritual celebrations, which meant we would be doing our egg hunt that day. We swung by Target to pick up Easter shoes and buckets (deftly dodging the Zombie parents pushing around carts full of candy) and then mixed up some homemade egg dye at home.

Kids checking our the eggs.
Kids checking our the eggs.
Kids dying our eggs.
Kids dying our eggs.

While the kids watched a movie, Noel and I stuffed a few plastic eggs with candy family members had sent and some homemade peanut butter eggs.

The day before our "spring" egg hunt.
The day before our “spring” egg hunt.

Since the ground was still covered in snow, we hid the eggs inside, which allowed for a certain level of creativity.

Egg in a dump truck.
Egg in a dump truck.
A sweet ride for an egg.
A sweet ride for an egg.

The kids had a lot of fun finding the eggs and opening the gifts in their buckets (warm weather pajamas, Annie’s bunny crackers, and some things from their grandparents).

Cooper finding an egg in Olaf.
Cooper finding an egg in Olaf.
Easter buckets.
Easter buckets.

Then on Sunday we tried to focus on the spiritual aspects of Easter. Noel sang a beautiful rendition of “This is the Christ” in a double quartet and my Sunday School lesson was at the very least, meaningful to me. I of course didn’t take any pictures of anybody in their Easter clothes since we rushed out the door to get to church and people were already starting to undress by the time we made it back home. Plus, picture taking has never been my strong suit.

Our Easter dinner.
Our Easter dinner.

After a fancy dinner of ham, potatoes, croissants, and asparagus, we had a little lesson about Easter (aided by this lesson from Behold Your Little Ones and our church’s Bible Videos). The kids really impressed us with how much they were able to tell us about Christ’s death and resurrection.

Little Almond Cake.
Little Almond Cake.

We finished off the day with a little almond cream cake. At this point, Ellen realized we were winding down and started to whine about how we hadn’t done Easter yet. I asked her what Easter was about and she said, “Jesus.” We repeated the conversation a couple of times before she exasperatedly said, “Mom, but we haven’t found eggs!” When I reminded her we’d done our egg hunt the day before she was a little disappointed, but didn’t put up too much more of a fight. I really liked putting the egg hunt on a completely different day and will probably do it again in the future; the kids will get used to it eventually.

Traditions in the Making

Traditions in the Making

Every time someone would ask us about our Christmas plans we would say, “We’re staying here – and we’re so happy about it!” As much as Noel and I love our families, we truly despise traveling this time of year (see Top Ten Worst Moments of last year’s Christmas) and are also enjoying figuring out our own traditions. Growing up, my family had a lot of Christmas traditions while Noel’s family wasn’t as committed to specific ways of doing things (except for the Santa thing, which we’ve disappointingly shunned – sorry Glenna!). At first these different backgrounds caused us to clash as I insisted we must choose and then instate our amazing traditions immediately and Noel countered that traditions are the things that stick after you’ve tried a bunch of different things. In the end, this combination is turning out to be a great one as I’ve relaxed about “trying on” traditions and Noel has joined my effort to curate our Christmas experiences.

Up until this year, Santa’s “existence” was something our children were surprisingly unexposed to, but this year suddenly everyone was asking the kids, “What is Santa bringing you for Christmas?” which provided me with the opportunity to have several awkward, yet discrete (I promise I’m not trying to blow this for anyone else), conversations about how while we do celebrate Christmas, we don’t do Santa.* People were generally polite, but confused about this news. Their faces were priceless as I could see how puzzled they were. How can you even celebrate Christmas without Santa? I think because it suddenly seemed like there was a huge gap in our Christmas celebrations, I felt a resurgent push to make sure our kids knew what Christmas was all about. Noel and I spent a long time pondering how to make Christmas special, but Christ-centered. When a gift from Noel’s sister, Danielle, arrived at our house with a 25 Days of Christ ornament advent we felt like we’d found our answer. The kids really enjoyed watching the Bible movie videos and putting the ornaments on the tree; I think this will be a tradition that sticks.

Another tradition we tried was going snowshoeing on Christmas day. We are all outdoors lovers which makes winter a bit depressing and we thought getting outside might make the holidays brighter for us. The actual implementation was a little less than desirable. We thought the kids would do better if we fed them right before, so we grilled hotdogs at a snowy campground. The kids had a great time, but when it came time to snowshoe they were already done. Less than 100 yards into the trail Ellen laid down in the snow and bawled. We returned back to the car shortly thereafter. A few days later we tried snowshoeing again with some changes (early morning after a good breakfast at home) and successfully went an impressive 3/4 of a mile before any significant meltdowns. (Seriously though, this is a snowshoeing record for our family.)

We tried out a couple of other traditions like the kids getting each other gifts (they each independently chose a potato head), singing carols around the piano, making cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and driving around to look at Christmas lights. In the end, we were able to review and discuss things we liked, didn’t like, and would like to try in the future.

*While our kids don’t believe in Santa, they do believe in the mailman: the kind old gentleman that brings packages and whose magical truck can be seen everywhere. We buy a lot of things from Amazon and the kids always give the mailman credit, not us.