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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.

Healing in the Desert

Healing in the Desert

I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Noel got three days of bereavement leave when his mom passed and we knew that we needed to use some of that time to decompress before heading back to regular life. Fortunately, Glenna’s funeral services were in close proximity to one of our favorite healing balms: red rock canyons. The day after her funeral, we crashed my brother’s singles ward (that will make you feel old) and then explored Kolob Canyon with my family. (You can see the edge of it from the Kanarraville cemetery where Glenna is buried.) The kids had a blast running around with their cousin, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. We climbed rocks, jumped over streams, and played in the sand. After our hike, we said goodbye to all of them and headed back to our hotel. That night it got really windy and icy. We were glad to be snug and warm at the Marriott.

The next day, after the roads had thawed a bit, we headed into Zion. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about red sandstone that warms my soul. (I touch on it in the beginning of this post, but it’s only a toe-dip into my feelings on the subject.) As we hiked all over the park (Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and The Narrows), I felt myself recharging and coming back to life. (Side note: It’s been 9 1/2 years since our amazing and memorable trip through the Narrows. So much reminiscing. ♥). We finished the trip with delicious BBQ with Spencer (my brother) who is going to school at SUU in Cedar City and his fiancé Sarah. The next day we packed up our car (it was also Ellen’s birthday) and headed home. It was a short trip, but between the closure found at the funeral and the soul revitalization offered by wandering in the desert, we felt ready to face life again.

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.

 

How is Your Heart?

How is Your Heart?

“Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Ian MacLaren

In the days leading up to Glenna’s transfer to inpatient hospice our kitchen sink backed up. The threads on the clean out in the basement were stripped making it impossible to open it and clear the pipe. This of course meant a trip to the home improvement store to acquire fun things like a reciprocating saw blade that can cut through cast iron. (For the record, I suggested to Noel that we call someone just this one time, but with so many intractable things happening in our life I think Noel needed to tackle something fixable.) Noel went to the store and was greeted by one of the workers asking how he was. His mom was dying and he was responsible for making all the hard decisions, his house was full of relatives, and his kitchen sink was closed for business and overflowing with dirty dishes.  Without even thinking, Noel honestly responded, “Terrible, and you?” and the worker enthusiastically replied, “Great! Thank you!” Noel then went to the plumbing section where he stared at pipes till he no longer felt like crying.

Small talk was one of the hardest things to navigate during the four months Glenna lived with us. Those questions I usually answered reflexively suddenly stopped me in my tracks. When you’ve spent the early morning hours trouble shooting an oxygen concentrator because your mother-in-law can’t breathe, you are not fine. Not even close. But do you burden other people with that, people that probably just wanted to exchange pleasantries and be on their way?  I knew the “socially appropriate” thing to do was automatically respond, “Fine and you?” without a second thought, but it feels like lying and I’ve never been a very good liar. I decided to be honest, but avoid baring my soul and when someone asked “How are you” I’d reply with something simple like, “It’s been a rough morning.” It was a good way to test the waters. If someone really wanted to know how you were, they’d pause and give a response that let you know they were really listening, but if they were just performing a social ritual they’d reply, “Mondays, right?!?” and move right along their way.  I will always be incredibly grateful for those people that listened. It didn’t have to be a long heart emptying conversation, that would be totally inappropriate with say, the dad with the mustache whose name I don’t know or the Lowe’s employee, just a simple, “I’m sorry” was enough to acknowledge the fact that we were real, hurting people. In an article by the head of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke, it says that in many Muslim cultures the equivalent of our “how are you” is “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” I love the genuine sentiment of that question so much more than our trite small talk. As the author pointed out, asking, answering, and listening in that manner “help[s us] remember that [we] too [are] full and complete human being[s].”

There’s a tendency, I think, to want everyone to feel sad when we are sad. We want the whole world to stand still and cry with us when things aren’t going right. If we can’t be happy we don’t want anyone else to be. I’ve certainly felt that way, but I’m also learning that I don’t actually want that. There were times during Glenna’s stay with us that I just couldn’t hear any more bad news. When my pregnant sister had a scare where they thought there were genetic abnormalities with her baby I thought my heart might break. I just wanted something to go right for someone. The same day the sink was backed up, my brother got engaged. My heart was hurting so much because of everything that was happening in my life, but I was also so happy for him. It was almost unfathomable that those two emotions – joy and sadness – could coexist in my heart, but there they were. I was glad that things were going well for my brother and his fiancé. I was glad that not everything in the world was terrible. In Romans 12:15 we read that we should “weep with them that weep” but we are also supposed to “rejoice with them that do rejoice.” I’ve typically thought of those two scenarios as being distinctly separate, but life is complicated and sometimes we get to do both simultaneously.

Years ago, I read an essay where a woman wrote about having a stillborn baby. Describing the period of time when she was told her baby most likely passed, she said, “He had died the day before on November 10, 2012, sometime on Saturday morning. I was reading People magazine in bed. My cousin turned 29. I had pumpkin pie for breakfast. I often think like that now. I may be having a cup of coffee or taking a shower, but somewhere; it’s the worst moment in someone’s life.” Those lines have stuck with me and I’ve thought about them often over the years. At first I always thought of them with a certain amount of guilt, wondering who was suffering while I was having an effortless day. Worrying, even, that it was happening right under my nose. As I’ve collected hardships and joys, large and small, in my three decades on earth I’ve marveled about how life is such a crazy mix of emotions – the ups and downs of our lives individually and collectively all tangled up together. So as terrible as it is to know that someone is having one of the worst moments in their life as I type this, I try to remember that at the same time someone else is having the best moment of theirs. It reminds me that life isn’t just sorrow and gives me hope that those in their worst moments will get a turn at the best moments a little later.

I mentioned in the backstory that I had the feeling at the beginning of this that we would never be the same. I really hope that we won’t. As we’re trying to find our way back into “normal” I’m realizing how easy it is to slip back into old habits and comfortable routines. Some of which are fine, but some too easily create self-absorbed static in my life that makes it hard to hear what other people’s hearts are whispering. I don’t want to be the old me, I want to be a new me that embraces celebration and graciously consoles sorrow. I want to acknowledge others as complete human beings and I want to be one too.

A Rough Landing

A Rough Landing

Noel describes the day he and his mom flew to Colorado as one of the worst days of his life. For most of it, I was generally unaware of how traumatizing it was. The evening their flight departed* they sent optimistic texts to the family – pictures of them next to a moose statue at the Anchorage airport and reassurances that they were feeling calm.  That night I wrote in my journal in anticipation of their arrival, “Buckle your seatbelt for our wild ride!” If only I’d known how truly wild the ride would be, even from the beginning.

Bullwinkle

The next morning, I dropped the kids off at a friend’s house early in the morning and drove to the airport to pick up Noel and Glenna.  I waited anxiously at the cellphone lot and was relieved when I got a call from Noel. Noel was so calm that it almost didn’t register at first that he was telling me they were boarding an ambulance.

Prior to flying, Glenna had gone through a lot of tests to make sure it was safe. Her doctors in Alaska knew she had some fluid on her lungs, but didn’t think it posed an immediate risk. About half way into her flight, her oxygen levels began to plummet. Their amazing United flight attendant, Tammy, busted out the emergency oxygen onboard the plane. They went through 4 of the 6 tanks onboard before landing in Denver. Glenna’s levels still weren’t normal, even with the oxygen, and they called and asked for an ambulance to meet them at the gate.

The United manager at Denver International Airport had recovered from breast cancer herself and arranged for Glenna and Noel’s luggage to be brought curbside for me to pick up. After acquiring their bags I made my way over to the hospital. Two good friends and neighbors pitched in to take care of the kids while Noel and I spent the day at the hospital.

We spent the morning and afternoon keeping Glenna company as she went through a myriad of tests. She cheerfully agreed to let the doctors bring in interns and patiently answered all their questions. Even in her pained and tired state, she wanted to help others. At some point, they took her to another part of the hospital for a thoracentesis where they drained 1.6 liters of fluid off her lungs. (Which explains why she was having such a hard time breathing.) When one of the moms from Cooper’s school walked in I did a double take. I hadn’t known she was a nurse in the hospital’s pulmonary department. It felt weird to run into her in that context; it was like worlds colliding. Seeing her jolted me into the reality that the me that dropped my kid off at school and the me standing in that hospital were the same person. This was really happening. This was my life.**

 

*Flights to and from Alaska are almost exclusively red eyes.
** I am well aware that Glenna’s story affected many people, most notably her. I can only tell my own story, but in doing so don’t mean to diminish the feelings of others, especially those of my dear family. ♥

 

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.

 

*If you’re coming here from Facebook and want to follow my posts, I’d recommend subscribing to the blog to get email updates (check out the sidebar) or adding the blog to Feedly or whatever feed reader you use.  I’ll keep posting links to Facebook, but it’s not the most reliable way to find out that I’ve posted. (You know it thinks it’s all smart and it knows what you want to see . . .)

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.

Perhaps They Are Not Stars

Perhaps They Are Not Stars

Star in heaven

Glenna/Mom told us she did her best sleep in the early morning hours. She spent the last six days in inpatient hospice care because her needs became too great to take care of in our home. Early this morning, she passed peacefully into the next world and is finally at rest. We will post funeral details when we have them.

Pinch Hitters

Pinch Hitters

Last week Noel’s aunt and cousin came to town to visit Glenna (Noel’s mom) and ease some of our burdens (as well as visit and dote on Glenna). We turned the baby monitor off for a week (we use it so we can hear her at night, when we’re in the basement, outside, etc) and took advantage of being able to leave the house at the same time. We were content to do exotic things like shop for pants and go to the gym together, but everyone insisted we needed a night away and we aim to please. We were kind of dubious that the excursion would actually happen. It seems like every time we plan something lately someone ends up in the hospital or deathly ill. (Sometimes both when we’re lucky.) In fact, Marsha and Jessie were actually in town for several days before they came over because Glenna didn’t escape the virus I mentioned we had. I attacked the house with the mindset of total germ annihilation because even though I usually believe in “good germs” too I just wasn’t taking any chances. Our getaway was going to take place on Friday the 13th which seemed somewhat ominous, but as it turns out, unlucky things are pretty lucky for us. (This really shouldn’t surprise me. I’m the kind of person that wins Loser’s Bingo. You know, where the last person to NOT have any of the drawn letter/number combos wins.)  We spent a night in Boulder where we ate Indian food and sat in the hot tub, then the next day we ate at Snooze and went snowshoeing at Brainard Lake.

Now, let me tell you about us and snowshoeing at Brainard Lake. We have been trying to snowshoe to the lake for years. We went once when our kids were young enough to be carried and when we got out of the car the wind was so strong Cooper got knocked over and everyone was crying. We ended up getting back in the car and going somewhere else. When the kids were older we tried taking them again, but only made it 3/4 mile before everyone melted down. Noel has also taken the Boy Scouts and they honestly didn’t do much better than the kids. This time it was going to happen though. The weather was perfect: sunny, 29,° and hardly any wind which is unheard of there. Without scouts or children holding us back, we made it to the lake and even further to the cabin just beyond the lake. When we were done we rewarded ourselves with cake from Piece, Love, and Chocolate. (Which sadly my body was kind of unhappy about because apparently I’m old and cake no longer constitutes a real lunch.)

We are so grateful to Marsha and Jessie for helping us out for a few days!

PS Right now Glenna is pretty stable and we’re hoping she’ll stay that way for awhile or even make improvements. It’s a day to day, week to week game so we shall see!

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.