Lately I can’t quite find words to express what I’m feeling. Maybe it’s unsettled. Maybe it’s anxious. Maybe it’s ambivalent. None of them seem quite right, and sometimes neither do I.
Not only can I not name the feeling, but I can’t point to what is causing me to feel off-kilter. Hmmm… maybe that’s the right word - off-kilter.
There have been countless times lately where the most insignificant decision seems insurmountable. Something like what to make for dinner, might as well be what to pack if I were climbing Everest. Decisions that are a little bigger, yet have no lasting impact, like where to travel or how to get there also have an Everest equivalent.
There are days when decision fatigue makes sense. At times like right now, however, when things are good in my world, it just doesn’t.
Recently my family willingly spent the day driving the backroads with the top off the Jeep and paddle boarding. I had moments of pure joy with my face upturned and the wind sliding over the windshield tugging at my hat. There were moments of laughter as we watched Ziggy balance, or not, on a paddle board. And moments mixed with giggles and trepidation as we almost had our very own version of paddle board demolition derby.
For some reason though, I was off-kilter. For, not the first time that day, I was on the verge of unexplainable tears.
As I process these moments where things don’t feel quite right, like I’m not quite right, I wonder. I wonder about those moments when I don’t seem to be feeling the right emotion for the situation, or the moments when I can’t seem to make a trivial decision. I wonder what’s going on.
In the last year or so, I’ve done a lot of counseling but through it all, I never really asked about my “diagnosis”. I think of all the people I know that battle anxiety, depression, and so much more. I wonder if this is what it’s like - being seemingly unable to name, to control, to turn around. I wonder if perhaps these are the words I’m looking for, but then I wonder if it really matters.
Sure having a name for an emotion, or a condition, can be helpful. It can level the playing field and make communicating what’s going on a little easier. But it also feels a bit like an illusion. It gives the illusion of having everything fit in a pretty little box and having everything under control when in fact everything seems like it is precariously balanced and about to topple over.
I wonder what would happen if I just embrace the off-kilterness instead of trying to explain it away. Maybe it’s not the naming of it that’s the issue. Maybe it’s more the desire to explain it away. What would I discover about myself? About others that I interact with?
I wonder how many other people, at this exact moment, are struggling to name or understand what they are feeling. I wonder how many are trying to explain it away or pretend that it’s not an issue. I wonder if they feel like they are balancing on a tightrope, juggling chainsaws, all while trying to convince themselves, and those around them, with a plastered on smile and perfectly tailored outfit that they’re ‘just living the dream’.
All of these wonderings lead me to look for a solution. Only things have changed. I no longer want to explain it away. I no longer want to pretend.
That would’ve been my solution before. Instead, I want to start a conversation.
I want to be able to openly tell someone that my tightrope is sagging. That my outfit is riding up in places it shouldn’t. That my cheeks hurt from a fake smile that isn’t reaching my eyes.
I want to be able to openly tell them that on this day, the sagging tightrope, too small outfit, and dull smile are just as good as it’s going to get. I want to be able to tell them that I hope tomorrow to be able embrace these challenges and see it all as an adventure, but if I can’t that is okay.
I dream of sharing these off-kilter moments honestly and unpolished (I have some work to do here!). I dream of laying shame aside and answering the “How’s it going?” question with truth and without discomfort for either of us. I dream of doing this as a way to invite others to share their off-kilter moments too.
Think of what will happen when we share our burdens rather than trying to cover them up. Imagine knowing that the person sitting next to you also wonders why they have wiped tears from their eyes five times today without any tangible reason. Imagine knowing that the person at the desk next to you or down the hall from you, is just going through the motions even though they seem to have it all together.
I dream of a community where it’s okay, and even encouraged, to be real, without reservation, without judgement - with nothing but open hearts and desire to realize that we’re all battling something.
I am really good at hiding. Both hiding in plain sight and literally hiding, like in a closet. As I type these statements, I can’t help but wonder why. What lead to this ability to hide? In some ways, I think it has been a survival mechanism.
Growing up, my family moved pretty regularly. Because of those moves, I got good at meeting people and being able to find my place on the outskirts of the social circles, but I also learned not to invest too much into those relationships because within a few years, we’d be off to another state. We didn’t have social media, so staying connected required good old fashion pen / paper letters or long-distance phone calls (remember those days when the phone call cost different amounts based on how far away you were?).
In most cases, the relationships I’d developed weren’t strong enough to withstand the extended effort required to maintain them. So I cultivated the skills that allowed me to seem like part of the group, without actually being part of the group - hiding in plain sight.
When I was younger, I also developed the habit of hiding, literally hiding, in my closet when things were tough. I have no idea what led to this habit, but it’s one that I still revert to. When things get really hard, when I don’t understand the emotions I’m feeling, or when I’m embarrassed about something that I’m experiencing, I revert to this tactic. I find comfort in the dark corners of the closet with the clothes hanging over my head. I curl in close and attempt to hide everything, even from myself.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed another hiding tactic. I hide by immersing myself in ‘work’. At times, it has truly been by immersing myself in my job. Other times, it’s hiding behind a to do list or checklist so long, it would take weeks to even make a dent.
There have been times in my life that this survival mechanism of hiding in plain sight, on the fringes of social circles, or under a pile of work, have served me well. However, I’m realizing, this week especially, that although it is easier to do this - it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.
The twenty-eight days between April 29 and May 26 have changed for me forever. They are hard days - reminders of what could have been. I don’t know that they’ll always be as hard as they feel right now, but I think they’ll always be a challenge in some way shape or form.
It’s really no coincidence that Rylie’s Run falls right smack dab in the middle of those 28 days. Initially, it was planned that way because it made sense. It was the first anniversary of the accident and Rylie’s death. Mother’s Day would be a tough day for me. We wanted to do something to commemorate Rylie and all that she was and still is. It gave us a purpose for those days - something to focus on besides the loss.
Underneath all that though, I think subconsciously, it also gave me a place to hide. The busyness of planning and holding an event seemed like a good use of energy that would often feel erratic or misplaced. Last year, it served me well.
This year, it also served me well, but I’m feeling it differently. This past week has been tough. We’re a little over half-way through the 28 days, but up to this point, I have been so busy with the event that I haven’t given this time period much thought.
You see, I was successfully ‘hiding’ behind the tasks associated with Rylie’s Run and avoiding feeling the emotions that go with this month. Now I’m left with this stretch of days before a big ‘anniversary’ and I have nothing to hide behind. Not even a plan for that day.
Last year, I was planning the run and wrapping up a school year. So when the run was done, I shifted my focus to grading and finals - hiding once again. This year, that is not the case. I’ve been blessed with time off, but that means this year I’m faced with time and nowhere to hide.
I can see the date looming in front of me and I don’t have a plan. There’s no to do list, there’s no ‘work’ that has to be done. I find myself thinking up imaginary ‘work’ projects around the house, or real ‘work’ like all of the wrap up tasks associated with the run - but there’s not the same urgency as an event with a specific date, or final grades being due.
In a way, I am glad. If there was that level of urgency, then I know I would run and hide in that busyness. But since there’s not, I just find myself just looking at those things and not moving towards them at all. This all feels very unnatural for me. While I know in my head that this is okay, even healthy, I feel as though I am moments away from running into the closet to hide in the corner beneath the clothes.
I don’t want to revert to hiding, but it’s also really hard to face this weird emotional place - especially when I’m so used to hiding.
I’m not sure what to do, or how to do it, but I guess I’ll take it one moment at a time.
Perhaps the point, this year, is to allow myself moments - moments to feel the enormity of our loss. To peek out from underneath the clothes in the back of the closet, maybe even crack the door and chance being seen - really be seen.
Two years ago, our lives changed in ways we could have never imagined. We began a 28 day stay at Childrens Hospital that did not end the way any of us wanted. Beyond the obvious change in our life, of losing Rylie, our lives were changed by the power of kindness. People, we didn’t even know were part of our community, wrapped around us and held us during times of uncertainty and pain. We gained family in the form of nurses, doctors and first responders that cared for us as one of their own. Friends dropped everything to be by our side at the hospital and as we planned Rylie’s celebration of life. We continue to be loved and supported by so many - often meeting them for the first time two years later.
I truly believe this is the power of kindness. Kindness happens in ripples - small little acts that build and become waves changing the shape of our life landscape.
Rylie was never one to dwell in sadness. She had a keen emotional IQ and could sense when someone needed some love. She would honor their feelings, but would always look for a way to boost the mood.
For the second year, I’m taking a page out of her book. I will honor the fact that my heart hurts everyday, missing her, but I will do something to boost the mood.
Each day for the next 28 days, I will intentionally complete a small act of kindness. I will use those ripples to reshape the landscape of both myself and others.
If you’re so compelled, join me on #28daysofkindness. Hopefully, these days are full of stories that capture the power of kindness. I will share them as they occur and would love for you to share your own. Post stories with #28daysofkindness and we’ll celebrate the power of a ripple becoming a wave.
Like everyone else, some days are better than others. Whether we’re dealing with something heavy like grief, or just frustrated with the small things in life, we all experience tough moments, hours, days, or even weeks.
In this season of my life, I’ve had to deal with pretty tough stuff. Hard days certainly happen, but it’s also fair to say that much of the time the good days outnumber them now.
Perhaps I’m just VERY lucky.
Perhaps I’m delusional and rocking my ability to hide from the hard things.
Perhaps it’s because I’m stubborn and I refuse to be beaten down by anything that’s out of my control.
Perhaps it’s because I do my best to consciously choose to focus on the positive.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by the most amazing people who shower with me love.
I prefer to think it’s a combination of those things.
Ultimately, I think how good or bad our days are can only be judged by the person experiencing it at that very moment. Perception is our reality, even if it’s not our actuality.
Here’s my reality. As much as I’ve been able to focus on the positive, it’s not always that way.
The other day, was one of those ‘not that way’ kind of days. I woke up feeling a little off and almost restless. I hadn’t slept well the night before, wrestling with demons that I couldn’t quite name.
So I decided to work out. That’s my go to when I seem to have an energy coursing through me that I don’t know what to do with. I’m learning that this ‘energy’ is really just emotion, but I still default to trying to work off the ‘energy’.
Usually that works. Usually I’m able to sweat out any worries, unnamed feelings, and general uneasiness. This time, instead of working through those lingering unnamed demons, they seemed to multiply and I got stuck in my own head.
In truth, my demons really weren’t demons - they just felt that weighty. Again, perception is reality, even when it’s not actuality.
I had been upset by some off-hand comments from both Ziggy and Tanner the night before related to nagging / micromanaging. Since these are areas I’ve been working diligently to address, my sensitivity and reaction to the comments were amplified.
I knew I was stuck in my head. I knew I needed to get out of that space. I recognized that my normal method - to run, often quite literally, away from it - wasn’t going to work. I also recognized that part of growing is going to that uncomfortable place and doing the things that feel unnatural or awkward.
I’d tried my usual coping methods; journaling, working out, ignoring it. They weren’t working. So I went to that place. I decided to try and vocalize what I was feeling.
As much as I am a lover of words, I’m terrible about speaking my truth in the moment. Especially when I haven’t had a chance to practice or polish my thoughts. I’m even worse at speaking it when I’m unsure of what I’m experiencing and feeling. And even worse when I’m uncomfortable with my truth.
This was a recipe for disaster, but I tried. I tried to explain that while I knew I was responding in a dramatic manner, I was really bothered by the comments. As I heard myself say the words out loud, clouds of my own judgement stormed around me. Ziggy didn’t even get a chance to respond before I let those clouds take over and block out any sunshine. As soon as the words were out, I covered them, berating myself for being ridiculous and telling him to ignore me.
Shame took over. I ran from room and crumpled on the floor at the foot of the bed. I folded in on myself, embarrassed by what I was feeling. I tried to make myself smaller, hiding that I was crying. Hiding the frustration that came from trying to do what I know was right and good, but being overrun by the habits born of years of dismissing emotion. As I snuggled into myself, my frustrations and fears became anger. I stayed small, but I got louder - no longer just crying, but banging on the floor and trying to find a way to express the unsettledness I was experiencing.
The small celebration in all of this, is that I stayed in that position for a bit.
I let myself get loud.
I let myself be frustrated.
I let myself just be confused and overwhelmed for a little while.
Not for long, but longer than normal.
I unfolded myself and quietly went back to the normal rhythms of the day. Or at least I tried. After a few minutes in the kitchen, I found myself crying because the decision of what to make for breakfast was just too much. I kept picking up my phone, trying to determine if I could jump on a regularly scheduled call with an amazing friend - knowing it would be good for me, but feeling like I was too much of a mess to even try to hold a conversation.
Ziggy offered to make me breakfast, but even that felt like too much. I must’ve walked twenty circles around the island just trying to figure out what to do next.
Even as I type this, I’m struck by how silly it sounds. But the thing I keep telling myself is that it wasn’t silly. It’s just the reality of what these ‘not that way’ kind of days are. Sometimes those days just are full of trivial things feeling like insurmountable mountains.
My day continued in much the same way. I continued to try and process. I continued to try to find ways to break the cycle. I just wasn’t all that successful that day. The clouds of judgement, shame and frustration got a little less dark, but they hung around most of the day.
Then a bit of sunshine came my way. Ziggy, knowing that I was really struggling, brought home some bright yellow cheerful flowers. The funny thing is that the clouds that followed me around all day literally clouded my vision. It took me quite a while to notice the sunshine he’d left for me on the table.
Once I noticed them though, I was struck by several things. Even in these darker, tougher moments, there is so much beauty in this world. Sometimes that beauty comes in a physical form like the shades of yellow and orange in my flowers. Other times that beauty comes in an act. On this ‘not that way’ kind of day, several acts set the stage for me to be able see some sun though the clouds.
My husband gave me space to experience emotions, knowing that as much as I wanted him nearby, his presence made it even more difficult for me.
The friend that I was supposed to talk to that morning let me cancel on her, reminding me that she would love to just be alongside me in whatever fashion I needed. She left that door open for me to call anytime. When took that invitation later in the morning, she listened while I babbled, just letting me speak. She prayed for and with me.
An uplifting song was texted to me.
Another friend ‘listened’ via text, knowing that I just needed to acknowledge what was going on. Then she posed a question that allowed me to dig deeper.
I was also struck by the fact that in this bunch of flowers, one of the flowers was glaringly different. That difference didn’t take away from the beauty. In fact, on this day in particular, I think it added to the beauty. I felt that this ‘odd man out’ flower mirrored how I felt that day.
I felt odd.
I felt different.
I felt like I didn’t quite belong.
While I’m glad that, for me, the number of ‘not that way’ kind of days are fewer than the good ones, it makes my heart hurt for people for whom that is not the case. Even still that odd flower was a reminder that these tough moments, whether grief-driven, growth-driven, or normal life driven, are just moments. They are one flower in the bouquet of life.
It’s funny how silly little things can happen on any given day that might remind us of Rylie. Sometimes it’s just a song that she loved, or a flavor that she enjoyed, or an outfit she would have liked. It will just be something that pops up and makes one of us think, “Aww… Rylie…”.
Like everyone, Rylie had certain characteristics or quirks that were uniquely hers. Periodically, one of those quirks will pop up in one of us - usually Tanner. We’ll all laugh and joke that “Rylie is haunting us”.
One of the interesting parts about losing someone is that there are so many aspects of loss and grief that are truly just unexplainable. Often, when I sit down to write, I type then erase. Type then erase. Type then erase. Part of that is just the writing process, but a big part of it is just trying to capture the essence of a struggle in words.
This idea of Rylie haunting us is one of those areas where it is a real challenge to find the right words, to be able to explain it in a way that makes sense.
I guess loss and grief somewhat fit into the category of the proverbial onion. There are so many layers to it. You peel one away and find something else. Peel it away and find something else. The loss and grief onion though, seems to be a never-ending onion.
I’m reminded of a science experiment in school where we peeled away layers of the onion to look at the cells. At that point in my life, I’d only really seen the large layers of the onion that fall apart as you chop them. However, for the experiment, we had to peel away the thinnest layer possible - so thin it was like a tiny piece of saran wrap - transparent and it folded in on itself. Perhaps the loss and grief onion is just breaking the onion down to its tiniest layers, which just makes it feel never ending.
Our ‘Rylie haunts’ are just one of the layers of this loss and grief onion. It’s not as if she’s haunting us in a supernatural, spooky movie kind of a way. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. Anytime a ‘Rylie is haunting us’ moment comes up I’m compelled to look more closely at that layer. I’m almost always struck by how those moments really provide us all with a sense of comfort and connection.
In our house, mushrooms have always been a hotly contested topic. I grew up eating mushrooms and loving them. Ziggy grew up surrounded by mushroom lovers, but hating them. Rylie took more after me and came to really like mushrooms, especially as an alternative to steak. Tanner fell more in Ziggy’s camp, although I’m not entirely sure he ever tasted a mushroom before deciding they were disgusting. Needless to say, mushrooms rarely make it into our house.
Sometime after Rylie died, we ordered pizza and by some miracle I got to order my part with mushrooms. It’s a rarity, especially now that my fellow mushroom lover is gone. Tanner decided to try a slice of my pizza that day. We were all prepared to laugh at his reaction to the mushrooms on my pizza complete with quirked up “this is disgusting” facial expressions. Instead, we were met with raised eyebrows and close examination of said pizza, followed by “Wow, this is pretty good with mushrooms on it… Aww, man Rylie, you’re haunting me!”
Rylie was also notorious for eating chocolate chips, really anything chocolate. While Tanner also enjoyed chocolate, it was never at the same level. With Rylie, we’d often comment that she might enjoy a little pancake with her chocolate chips. She would often smother anything that was remotely acceptable with chocolate chips, nutella, or sugar of any kind. Tanner was always more moderate. He enjoyed chocolate chip pancakes or waffles, but there was always clearly pancake or waffle involved. In the last year especially, I’ve found that Tanner’s waffles are disappearing under layers of chocolate chips - which are also accompanied by handfuls of chocolate chips going into his mouth at the same time. Aww, Rylie…
On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I was taken aback by Tanner’s order of Dr. Pepper at lunch. Tanner has always been more of a Coke / Pepsi kind of a guy like his dad. Rylie and I enjoyed Dr. Pepper. When I looked strangely at Tanner after his order, he just shrugged and said, “I guess Rylie is haunting me again. I just have a taste for Dr. Pepper.”
Each time Rylie haunts us, I feel a strange sense of peace. While it’s strange for our tastes to suddenly change or morph into something she loved, there is comfort in feeling her nearby. I’m sure there’s some sort of psycho-analysis that would explain this phenomenon, but I prefer to just take it for the comfort that it is. It is a way for all of us to pause, remember, laugh and feel close to Rylie. Like the onion, it sometimes even brings tears to our eyes.
Over the last year, really two, I’ve been wrestling with a lot. I’ve been to counseling, read countless books, talked with trusted friends, and delved into my faith. Through it all, I’ve worked to not only address the accident and Rylie’s death, but I’ve also been digging into other aspects of my life that have shaped me into the person that I am.
One thing I’m realizing is that I don’t have to earn love or attention. I am worthy of it, just the way I am. As I look at those words on paper, I know them to be true, but I also find them hard to believe. I can’t honestly say why I would have believed otherwise, but my soul searching has proven that I have - for a long time. It seems that for as long as I can remember, I have equated my performance with how much love or attention I am worth.
I am someone who always has to be busy. I find it very hard to just sit and be still. I’m realizing that there’s a lot underlying this need for busyness and much of it is tied to using busyness to hide from challenging emotions / feelings. But I also know that I see being busy as being productive and contributing to the world around me.
Generally the only time I’m sitting still is when I’m at my computer (and then my fingers and brain are busy), or I’m reading a book.
Growing up, I read voraciously. I could always be found tucked away in a corner, or up in a tree reading. It was my happy place. I could visit worlds without leaving the comfort of my home. I could transform into people that inspired me. I could learn new things. My book friends were consistent. It didn’t matter if we’d moved to a new state, or if I was dealing with the trials and tribulations of growing up, they were always there. I spent a lot of time in the land of story.
As I’ve gotten older, my love for reading is still strong, but I don’t do it nearly as much. It’s rare for me to leave the house without a book in my car or bag, but it’s also almost equally rare for me to actually read it.
It’s ridiculous really, but somewhere in my brain, I feel (although I’m moving in the direction of felt) that if I was working on my computer, I was at least “doing” something productive. In that same place in my brain, I feel that sitting on the couch and reading a book, regardless of the content, was too much of a luxury. It feels like something that should just be squeezed into awkward pockets of time (hence the book that’s always with me). Somewhere along the line, reading transformed into something that I needed to earn.
If I could hold up certain accomplishments, then I earned the right to just sit and relax. If I’d completed all the items on my to do list, then I could justify being swept away. The only problem is that the accomplishment list and checkboxes never seem to end, or I’m just too tired by the time they do.
I’m not sure how / why that transformation happened, but it did. Over the years, I became driven by this need to perform, to earn, to show that I am worthy. I am just now realizing how destructive this belief has been.
I am trying to retrain my brain, my being, to know and really believe that I am worthy. I don’t have to earn the right to read a book. I don’t have to earn time to relax on the couch and watch a movie. I don’t have to work out extra hard to earn the chocolate chip cookie.
Clearly, all of this has to be done in moderation and there is some element of ‘earning one’s keep,’ but it is definitely not an all or nothing equation.
I envision this need to earn things as a cape with badges (almost like Girl Scout badges). I am realizing, in just about every part of my life, I feel the need to wear this cape and wear it proudly flowing off my shoulders. As I’ve thought about it more, I realize that pride and performance are part of it all - I’ve worked hard for all those badges and have a right to be proud, but I also find myself clutching that cape tightly around my neck.
I’ve begun to wonder what would happen if I let that cape go. What would be left standing underneath?
In a way, my cape has been my suit of armor. I see it as what makes me worthy. I use it as a way to ‘prove’ that I’ve earned ‘fill in the blank’. It is also what has kept me from letting people see what I am underneath it all.
In many ways, underneath that cape, I am hiding a scared little girl. One who is afraid to admit if she hasn’t done something productive. One that is afraid to admit that she doesn’t have it all under control. One that is afraid to show how heavy that cape, with all those badges has become, and how hard it is to hold it up.
So I’ve been working to loosen my grip on the cape. I’m still terrified to let it go… I’m not sure if I’ll like the person that’s left underneath it, much less if anyone else will. But I also realize that if I don’t loosen the grip and let it go, I will be crushed beneath its weight.
There are some days when it’s easier to undo the clasp of my cape and let it flap in the wind. There are other days when I get scared and I revert to holding it so tightly that nothing could get it away. But I also realize that it is a process.
I know, that the more that I can loosen the grip and realize that the world hasn’t fallen apart, that I can read the book, or watch the show, or just sit still - the easier it will become.
I may not be able to fully let go of the cape yet, but I’m getting better about not trying to earn the badges at least. Each morning, often several times a day, I try to find ways to remind myself that I am more than what I do or how I perform.
I don’t think this is just a me thing; I think it’s part of how we’re built, but it seems that certain memories kind of ebb and flow through life. Some memories are forever prominent and can be recalled on demand, but others seem to lurk in the corners of my mind almost like the dog hair in the corners of the house or under the chairs. Much like the dog hair is stirred out of the corners with a swift breeze, these memories surface with the just the right triggers. Sometimes it’s a smell, a song, or a food. Somehow it always seems connected to one of my senses.
The other day it was both a song and muscle memory. Sure certain songs can take me back to middle school and the first romantic slow dance, while others make me think of a dance party in the living room to stave off boredom, still others bring back memories of adventure like skydiving at 18. The ABCs, however, was not a song I’d expected to spark a memory. Yet it did.
Tanner and I were going through the night time routine and somehow sign language came up. Years ago, I taught both kids the ABCs in sign language. It was one of those things that would entertain us on car rides or while waiting at a restaurant. It kept us sane and I figured it was good for the brain and dexterity. As the kids got older and we began to spell our names, it became even more entertaining - consider all the letters in our last name!
So as we chatted, both Tanner and I fell into old habits and started to form letters with our fingers. Tanner was a little rusty and he started at the beginning trying to shake out the cobwebs and remember how each letter was formed. He went slowly at first, looking to me for approval or hints. We both laughed at how we think the signs for r and x should be switched because their forms more closely resemble the opposite letter.
After he’d conquered each letter, we looked at each other and began signing and singing the ABCs. The muscle memory required to form the letters and the tune of the song became like the breeze and memories began surfacing. The further we got in the alphabet, the more our voices cracked, the more our eyes welled with tears. By the end we just leaned into each other and hugged letting the tears flow freely.
It was one of those moments that neither of us expected, but the memories of doing that exact thing with Rylie hit us both.
I wanted to ask him what was going through his mind, partially because I’m curious what these moments of grief are like in his head, but in all honesty, it would have been a welcome distraction from the emotions that were welling within me. Since I’ve been making an effort to sit in emotions when they come up instead of tamping them down, covering them up, or distracting myself, I sat there quietly. I just sat there (probably not as long as I should have, but certainly longer than normal) and let the memory wash over me.
For a brief moment, I could picture sitting with both a six year old Rylie and four year old Tanner helping them make the strange shapes with their chubby little fingers. I caught a glimpse of sitting at a table in a restaurant waiting for our food and having finger-spelling races for our last name. That one was always complete with giggles as our Gs and Us almost always got mixed up!
Then I sat there for a moment and just felt her absence. It was a VERY brief moment because for a girl who struggles with emotions, that’s a tough one. That’s the one I really want to cover up with conversation, awkward laughter, or sudden busyness.
But I could hear a few important people in my life ask, “What would it look like to just feel that absence? What’s the worst that could happen?” So I sat, leaned into Tanner and tried to honor the emotions we were both feeling.
I haven’t gotten to the point, that I sit in it long enough to really know what the “worst” is, but I’m making progress. A millisecond is better than no seconds, right?
After my brief dance with that loneliness and vulnerability, I whispered to Tanner, “I miss her so much.” He whispered back a muffled, “me too.” We leaned in a little closer.
I should have stayed in that place and let myself feel a little more, but I didn’t and I think that’s okay. It’s all part of the process.
Instead, I distracted myself with the mind boggling way that our memories work. It has to be our mind’s unique way of storing all the memories we make everyday since we can’t possibly keep them all front and center. I am so grateful that my senses can be like the breeze that stirs the dog hair from under the couches, and unearth those memories that seem long forgotten. Not only is it efficient, but it’s a relief to know that I’ll get another opportunity, when I least expect it, to practice sitting in an emotion.
I’ve been spending a lot of time working on me. Learning about me. Growing me. Shaping me. Liking me. Hating me. Challenging me. Testing me.
In many ways, it feels very self-centered. Just look at how many times I wrote ‘me’ in that last paragraph! What I’m really starting to figure out though is that it’s not as self-centered as it sounds. By focusing on me, I’m giving those around me a better version of myself than they had before.
Even though I know that to be true, I often find myself making comparisons. Not to where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, but instead to all of the people that I see reflected around me. I look out in the world and it’s so easy to see all the things I think I should be, instead of all of the things that I already am.
As a person who has always had ridiculously high, and often unrealistic, expectations of herself and one that has always felt that I need to earn everything, I’m wrestling with a new idea. What would it look like to lower my expectations, but still hold the bar high?
I know, how can I both lower something and hold it high?!? Hence, the wrestling.
Here’s the thing though. What if lowering ones expectations isn’t really about lowering them, but recalibrating? What if the idea of lowering an expectation is actually about lessening the amount of expectations one puts on oneself?
On any given day, I have a zillion expectations of myself.
But here’s what I’m realizing. This list is not realistic (especially given that it’s a fraction of the list and a lot of the embarrassing ones didn’t make the cut).
I am forced to remind myself, every day, multiple times a day, that I am not superwoman. I cannot be all things to all people, myself included. When I try to do that, I spread myself too thin and am no good to anyone.
So here’s my theory. What if I look at my expectations differently? What if I focus on just a few (like one or two)? What if I zero in on those and give it my very best? Raise the bar on just those few things and let the others go?
Although, it’s a concept I’ve been wrestling for a while, it really hit me the other day. I have a cousin that’s just a year older than me. We haven’t seen each other in forever - literally forever. I think we were probably eight or nine last time we saw each other. We used to get together in the summer for a week. She’d come to me or I’d go to her. It was a big deal. Then, for some reason, it stopped. We drifted apart.
After Rylie died, she reached out and reconnected via Facebook. She continued to reach out. Every so often, I get a card in the mail - yep, old school mail - and it makes me giddy like a kid at Christmas. Her beautiful handwriting adorns the envelope and I open an adorable card to find a heartfelt note inside. It usually reminds me that she’s thinking of me. It often references something one of us has posted and how crazy similar we are, even after all these years.
Every time I get one of her cards, I think, “Man, I should be better about this!” I add another expectation to my long list. I should send her a card. I should send cards like this to people that I don’t connect with often enough, but to whom I feel a deep connection. I hang the envelope up on my board as a reminder to do just that. Then guess what… I rarely, if ever do.
I have another friend that is gifted with the ability to make people feel special and remembered. She’s one of those people who sees something she know someone will like. She picks it up, stores it (and somehow doesn’t forget where), then wraps it up with a million other little reminders and presents them on a birthday, a special day, or just a Tuesday because that’s what she does.
In both of these situations, I wish I could do those things. I aspire to be thoughtful and intentional in the same ways. I set an expectation of myself to do the same things. Nearly every time, I fail to execute.
What I’m starting to realize is that maybe I’m setting the wrong expectations. It’s not that I can’t be thoughtful or intentional, but perhaps my thoughtfulness or intentionality should manifest differently. Or maybe I just should focus my energies elsewhere.
As a society, I think we have a habit of looking around at what others are doing and trying to be just like them, or better. What a boring world that would become! If everyone was good at sending out heartfelt notes in cute cards or building the perfect gift for others, then those moments wouldn’t be special. They wouldn’t stand out.
I don’t want to be part of diluting the world, I want to be part of enriching it. I’m realizing that instead of trying to be the best at sending out cards or creating the perfect gift, I can honor the talents of those around me. I can recognize the value they bring to my life.
Then I can lower the number of expectations that I have of myself. I can refocus my energy on a few areas that make me giddy with excitement, that play to my personality and strengths, but also challenge me to grow a bit. I can raise the bar on execution in those areas.
So rather than a list a zillion miles long, I hope to adjust my expectations lowering the number of competing priorities. I’ll have a few things that I really want to be accountable to and for and I will do them really well. For all the other things, I aim to recognize those that do them better than me. To validate their gifts and efforts, maybe even be inspired by them. I will also, recognize that in order to be the best version of myself, I don’t have to be the best version of everyone else.
Like all of us, Rylie was unique. She had her own way of doing certain things and her own approach to making herself known. While I’d say that she was more about bringing others up, than being in the spotlight, one of the things I loved most about Rylie is the subtle little ways she would show up.
In a way, she kind of reminds me of the little leprechauns that she and Tanner used to trap. You know the little leprechauns that show up mysteriously on St. Patrick’s Day leaving green footprints on the floor, or green ‘poop’ in the toilets? One could never really catch those sneaky little leprechauns, but they would leave their mark behind in some little leprechaun sized way.
Rylie was a lot like that. It was not uncommon to find that she’d written her name on something random, or drawn on a container. Like the leprechauns, she was never caught in the act, but there were always little reminders that she’d been there and left her mark.
Sometimes her marks were intentional like when I noticed an “R” scratched on the handle of her side of the car and a “T” on Tanner’s handle… Or the lipstick imprint that is on the wall in her room. That was her way.
Other times, the marks were just an afterthought, a result of her being in a room, making a concoction, or trying a pinterest project. Kind of like the mystery item that’s melted on the carpet in her room. I’m still not sure if it’s crayon, candle or some sort of creation she made from a variety of substances.
One of my favorite Rylie “stamps” is Harry. I’m not sure when Harry happened, but at some point Rylie sketched a little face on the top of the large container of salt in our spice cabinet. Perhaps it was while she was baking a treat for us, or preparing a surprise meal. Perhaps it happened while she was leaning on the island talking to one of us as we prepared dinner. I really don’t remember.
Likely, I found it annoying at the time. I can almost hear myself saying something snarky like, “Really Rylie, you couldn’t doodle on a piece of paper?” or “Come on… I need to add salt to this recipe and now I have to wait for you to finish your doodle!”
It surely wouldn’t have been one of my finest parenting moments, but it’s also very much a reality. I’d say I probably have more parenting moments like that where something less than supportive, kind, or understanding bursts out of my mouth than moments where I’m championing my child(ren) or encouraging them.
Needless to say sometime in the last year and half, when the salt ran out, I was paralyzed. I know it’s just a 59 cent container of salt, but I couldn’t throw Harry away. Not after Rylie died and I knew that no more Harrys would magically appear.
So I kept it and bought another container. Then I had to do this weird shuffling routine, putting Harry in the cabinet along with his nameless and faceless counterpart. At one point, I told myself I should throw Harry away. I mean, really, it makes zero sense to take up space in an already crowded spice cabinet for an empty salt container, and it’s not like I could proudly display Harry in our cabinet of artwork either. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then a brilliant friend suggested that I simply pour the new salt into Harry.
So I’ve done that - a few times over. I have kept Harry around as a reminder - especially in those weird bewitching moments around dinner time. You know those times, when the worst version of yourself comes out? For me, I’m even quicker to judge, quicker to yell, and just generally feel frazzled.
Now when I reach for the salt, I see silly Harry staring back and me and I’m reminded that Rylie was there.
She stood in that kitchen with me countless times.
She made a giant mess of that kitchen countless times.
I was irritable with her for interrupting when I was measuring or reading a recipe, more times than I care to remember.
I was annoyed that I had to come in behind her and clean up after she’d made a giant mess, more times than I care to remember.
I was quick to forget that the giant mess came from a delicious meal that she’d created out of love, more times than I care to remember.
I use Harry as a visual cue to remember that the ones we love may not always be around, in more ways than one. I try to use Harry as a reminder to pause and find perspective.
Yes, it was annoying to be interrupted in the middle of a recipe and lose my place. But, that meant that Rylie was there. It meant that she might have been telling me a story, or asking for help. If I’m honest, it also more likely meant I’d called her down to lecture her on her grades, the condition of her room, or something equally silly. Oh, but what I would give to have that interruption. To have her pick on me because I follow a recipe to a T, while she would just add a little of this and a little of that and somehow have it turn out.
Yes, it was frustrating to have worked all day and have to come home and clean up after someone who was more than capable of cleaning up after herself. But that meant that I didn’t have to cook and clean. It meant that Rylie was loving us using one of her beautiful gifts. Oh, what I would give to have to clean up the kitchen after a Rylie meal.
Aside from Harry reminding me to treasure moments, even the frustrating ones, I use him as a reminder to pause and adjust my attitude. Why is it that I find it so easy to hurt the ones that I love the most? I know there were lots of times where that bewitching hour was a result of personal frustrations, disappointments or challenges, yet I’d lash out at the kids or Ziggy. So I try to look at Harry’s goofy face and remember that love is the language we are meant to speak.
Rylie spoke love more openly than I ever did. Harry is her way of reminding me to speak love to others, and myself. It’s her stamp. Her reminder that she’s still with me - still teasing me about my cooking skills or lack thereof. Still encouraging me to learn and grow with each passing day.
Growing up,Valentine’s Day was one of my favorites. It was what I liked to think of a sneaky holiday. My parents would always get me something small as a way to remind me that I am loved. Usually the gift was a book or something silly like a pair of festive socks. It was never about the gift. It was never a ‘big deal’ with lots of wrapping paper and preparation. It was more a small gesture and a reminder. It was always waiting at the table when I woke up.
In middle school / high school, my hopeless romantic came out full force and I began to look forward to Valentine’s Day because it was a chance to profess one’s love, or have one’s loved professed to you with with a color coded rose. Remember… white for a secret admirer, red for love, and pink for friendship?
As I got older, there were moments when my inner cynic surfaced, grumbling about being told when I should tell someone that I love them. Shouldn’t we be sharing love with those around us everyday?!? However, that cynic was more likely my stingy self talking; not wanting to buy a $4 card that was just going to get thrown away.
When the kids were born, memories of my childhood joy around Valentine’s Day resurfaced and I wanted to share that joy with them. However, my stingy self was nearby and I didn’t want to fall into the pattern of buying flowers and chocolates because that was on the shelves. I wanted it to be more about the sentiment.
Somewhere along the line, Ziggy and I decided to divide and conquer. Rylie was his Valentine and Tanner was mine.
I think Rylie enjoyed Valentine’s with the same childlike joy that I did. Ziggy often would get her a cute little stuffed animal and always a card. One year, he bought her a little necklace. She would snuggle that stuffed animal for the entire year and wore the necklace regularly - I guess the sentiment won over the marketing in that situation.
Tanner’s joy over the holiday is not as pronounced, but I still think it’s important to him - somewhere deep down. When he was little I’d get him a toy car or figurine. As he got older, it would be a book or some hockey cards. The gift always included some sort of written note or card.
Then somewhere else along the line, I decided to start a new Valentine’s tradition with the kids - one of those traditions where I’m not sure who likes it more, them or me. We continued to do small gifts for each kid, but on February 13th, I would sit down and cut out tons of hearts from colored paper. I’d break out my markers and write notes on each heart to each of the kids.
Each heart includes something I love about them as a person, a memory from the year, something I appreciate or admire about them, a dream I have for them, etc. There have been several years, where I grumbled when it was 11 o’clock at night and I realized I hadn’t done their hearts yet. But each year, that grumbling was silenced by the reactions to the process.
Each Valentine’s morning, I’d get up super early and roll tons of pieces of tape in order to stick the hearts on their bedroom doors. They would wake up and I remember seeing the joy on their faces at the transformation of their doors. I also remember having to read the statements aloud to them as Rylie was early in her school career and Tanner hadn’t yet learned to read.
There is something powerful about putting ideas like that into visible words - at least for a wordy like me. It gives me a moment to realize how often I think those words, but how rarely I say them out loud or really acknowledge the person they’re about.
It gives me a chance to reflect on the year and flesh out moments where I’ve seen my kids grow, mature, show resilience, and make me laugh.
It forces me to be intentional about articulating the little things that makes each of my children unique and shining a light of appreciation on those qualities.
The year after the first door decorating extravaganza, I realized that both kids still had many of their hearts hanging on their doors! The hearts were warped and curling. Some had fallen off, but they were still there and occasionally, I’d catch one of them reading them as they walked into their room. That’s when I knew I was in it for the long haul. I’ve done it every year since.
Last year, as expected, was tough. I didn’t want to cut out only one set of hearts. I wanted to cut two and write messages to BOTH of my kids. I wanted to see Rylie’s eyes sparkle with joy and maybe a little bit of disbelief as she read the messages. But, I also knew that I had to cut out one set. It was probably more important that year, than any other, to shower Tanner with love.
So I pulled on my big girl pants, grabbed a box of tissues, and sat down to cut out half as many hearts… I forced myself to focus on Tanner instead of the fact that there were missing hearts. I told myself that I would get through his hearts and then determine if I cut out more for Rylie even though she wouldn’t ever get to read them. The exercise was painful, but it was just as good, if not better, than years before. I needed the reminder just as much as Tanner did. It was a beautiful opportunity to pause and reflect on all of the amazing things that make Tanner, Tanner.
I cried while I wrote. I struggled at points, to figure out what to write - not because there weren’t things to say about him, but simply because sometimes it’s just hard to see the sunshine through the grayness of grief. I was also used to writing one heart for Rylie and then one for Tanner, so the rhythm felt off. But I made it through.
When I was done making Tanner’s hearts, I remember sitting there and feeling silly and guilty all at the same time. I wanted to cut out hearts for Rylie and hang them on her door, but that just felt too weird. It will always be her room and her door, but it’s transitioned. I knew she couldn’t read the hearts and it felt crazy to make everyone else that walked past her door read hearts meant for her eyes. At the same time, I felt guilty not acknowledging the girl that I love so much and that has taught me more than I thought imaginable.
So I tweaked the tradition… I cut out one large heart and wrote Rylie a letter. I poured out my heart; telling her how much I missed her and all of the things that I will always love about her. I shared the regret that I have in not knowing if she truly understands how proud of her and inspired by her I am. It was heart-wrenching and healing at the same time. It was hard to know her eyes will never read those words, but it felt good to honor her and not forget that tradition with her. Instead of hanging her heart letter on her door, I placed it next to the mold we have of her hand. It was different, but it was as right as it could be.
Yesterday, I stopped at the top of the stairs and noticed that Tanner had literally every heart still on his door from last year. Some had been repositioned after falling off, but they were all still there. I wonder if there will be a point when he’ll ask me to put them somewhere else so his friends don’t see mushy Mom love notes, but for now they seem to matter. So I sat down last night and cut out his hearts, wrote messages intended just for him, and hung them this morning.
I also cut out another giant heart and wrote another letter to Rylie. I snuggled in a quilt made from her old clothes and pieces of her comforter. I thought back over the year and shared how missing her has changed, but is still ever present. I stared at the fabric surrounding me and reminded her how she has made me a better mom and better person. I sobbed as I told her how proud of her I am and whispered that I hope we are making her proud as we aim to make this world a little brighter in her honor. I sat in that moment - it’s not one of my strengths to sit in emotion - for as long as I could. I folded her heart, got up and placed it next to the one from last year. The tears flowed openly as I bent over and touched the mold of the hand I miss so much.
Although she won’t get up each Valentine’s morning and read the words on her hearts, it does my heart good to know that I’ve been able to share with her spirit the love that I have for her.
It does my heart good to know that Tanner is able to read his messages when he needs them most.
It does my heart good to pause and honor the ones I love for who they are and what they mean to me. It’s a reminder that it’s not about fanfare and wrapping paper, it’s about sentiment. It’s about acknowledgment and being seen and heard. It’s a reminder that we should all do it more often and not just on a February 14th.
Meghann and Ziggy Guentensberger are Rylie's parents. During their time in the hospital with Rylie and after her death, they began writing about their experiences. What started as a way to keep people informed of Rylie's condition, turned into a way for them to process all that was happening. After she died on May 26, 2017 they both continued to write as a way to process and heal themselves and occasionally inspire others. These writings are housed on the Rylie's ARK Facebook page.