My mom was a shell seeker. I have the most warm fuzzy memories of searching for shells with her on every beach we visited when I was a kid, and on our last trip together in Hawaii, collecting puka shells by the dozens. She would patiently hold a plastic bag full of the shells we gathered as we walked along. But what I most remember is how she would take the time to look at each and every one I brought her and make a big to do about how special and beautiful each one was. They were the best times and even now, 20 years later, I can’t have my toes in the sand without thinking of her.
A week after she died, my dad, sister and I decided to go to the Outer Banks of NC to try to regroup as a family and begin healing from the fresh trauma of her unexpected death. We were numb from the blindside of losing her. True to North Carolina form in the Fall, the day after we got there a tropical storm came roaring up the coast, leaving us locked in the house with winds howling. It was just awful, it sounded like death taunting us with that eerie wind. After the storm, we were anxious to get out of the house so despite the light rain, my sister and I went down to the beach. We were the only ones there as we sat silently staring at the ocean, deep in our own thoughts, deep in the paralyzing muck that is grief.
And then it happened.
“Look!” she and I both said together, pointing to where a giant conch shell washed up. As we ran to get it, another washed up, and we got it. Huge and perfect and unbroken, and then another and another and still more after that. It was as if the sea was dumping gifts at our feet faster than we could gather them. We raced back and forth, laughing hysterically at the unbelievableness of it all. Our uncontrollable giggling breaking loose some of our grief, leaving it to be swallowed by the sea on that day. In the end we had a pile that took us three trips to get back to the house; all colors and sizes and varieties, each and every one perfect, each the kind my mom would have been over the moon to find just one of in her lifetime.
It was her gift to us, a sign telling us in a language we all understood, that she was happy, and that it was okay to laugh again.
Flash forward 13 years.
It had been a hellish three years. My husband had quietly and without warning laid a note on the counter 2 weeks before Christmas announcing he was leaving, not a word before hand; the words “divorce” or “separation” had never come out of his mouth, ever. I was completely blindsided; and I would have bet everything I owned that with his upbringing, and what I thought were our beliefs he would never ever walk out on his wife and two kids.
But he had.
Initially, I struggled with the shame; the notion that I had found myself and my kids attached to a life that I morally disagreed with. I struggled with how ugly the word “divorced” sounded and how it felt so well, un-Christian and so un-me. Swimming in the cesspool of human failure was beyond icky. I felt forced into a life my moral compass told me was so wrong, being literally kicked into a pool I had no intention of ever even dipping a toe in, but with prayer and reflection and grit I had healed. In the three years since he had left, I learned some things about myself. I had been an at home mom for a couple of years before the divorce, so figuring out at 40 who I was and where I was going next in my career was big. It had taken a major life overhaul, but after all was said and done I had worked hard, and had achieved success. My kids seemed happy and we had found our timing and cadence and footing in this new life; we found our new normal.
I had been working two jobs for three years to get out of divorce debt and to establish a new life for us. I took great pride in that fact that I could get back out there, earn a good living, pay the bills and still be at the bus stop every day; that I could manage a household, work a demanding job and be a mom. I could do it all and felt like Wonder Woman. I was juggling all the balls successfully and every one of them it appeared, was moving fluidly and effortlessly through my hands in the fast rhythm. In the midst of this, I remember looking out my window one morning and thinking, “I am happier than I have ever been in my entire adult life.” I went out each day with optimism and zest, it was a high-speed life. Life was good indeed. Or so I thought.
Yet, in the spring and into the summer of that year, something quietly shifted within. Things began to feel out of balance. Deep inside, something began to gnaw at me. Agitation. Unsettledness. Discomfort. I began to stumble a bit, having trouble keeping all the balls in the air. Truth is, I sensed that my balance was off, but I just kept leaning over a little further and a little further to keep it in balance. I knew I was teetering to compensate, yet we all had smiles on our faces, so I ignored the funky discomfort and kept on juggling.
That is until a ball dropped with a resounding plop. I was mortified the first time it happened and I tried to hide it by quickly picking it up and smiling; damage control which was the equivalent of sweeping dirt under the rug. Balls continued to drop like fat raindrops picking up speed. We ate too much fast food, I stopped running, we skipped prayers at night and I lived in constant fear that somewhere a kid would be waiting alone for me to pick him or her up from an event which I had forgotten. The agitation built and I just kept juggling.
Finally one day, I realized that I wasn’t listening to my kids anymore and was only hearing their talk as banter which I tuned out. I’d get angry if anyone, friend or kid, was even a little late because of what the loss of time meant to me and how the tardiness threw off the balance of the whole juggle. I worked a ton of hours on a precise clockwork to get it all done. But still, things got left behind; Wonder Woman wasn’t so wonderful after all. Scout wasn’t walked enough and his coat was matted and my days were an endless scramble to “thread the needle;” multitasking how to work a ten hour day and still be at the pep rally at school.
I had always loved my work; I did evaluations of children for abuse and neglect and felt I was making a difference in the world. The paradox was that the more I worked, the more I became increasingly inattentive and somewhat neglectful to my own kids in both my actions and care. It showed up in comments from my seven year old Amelia who asked, “Can you please just put your dictaphone down for a while and swing with me?” and with my son coming home from school completely weirded out that there was no sandwich or drink in his lunchbox. In hindsight, I realize I was robbing from Peter to pay Paul and when you do that, someone will come up short all the time. Except financially, where things were very good. I paid off debt and had begun to make a nest egg. I had considered, at least until the balls began to drop, that I was living a life to be proud of, making a good living and setting an example for my kids of determination and pluck.
But simultaneously, I was becoming soooo what I was not about. I became that mom who yelled like a tyrant in the morning, “If we are all late, it will hurt all of us by affecting my keeping a job!” That mom, you know, the mom who forgot school functions and who sent store bought cupcakes to school events instead of ones home made with the kids the night before. I had never, never, ever been a yeller, and I yelled a lot now. I had never once left one of my kids hanging without a parent at school event and it happened, a lot now. I had strayed so far from who I was as a parent and as a person, I don’t know that either me or my kids knew who I was anymore. God kept trying to point this out to me and I just kicked the signs under the rug and kept on juggling…
Who I had been was a mom who always played games with them and did goofy things with them. I had been the comforter and nurturer, the soft parent, the warm fuzzy mom who was about hugs and cuddles and kisses and putting my hand on my chin and listening to their stories for hours. I believed in positive starts to days, with lipstick kisses on the tops of their tiny starfish hands each morning to see them through the day and not just good lunches, but lunches with folded up notes from mom hidden in them, telling them what a great kid they were and how I loved them so. I believed in praying for intentions for others with them each night and out loud gratitude. That was what I was about, at least that was who I remembered myself to be.
I was stumbling. I had completely lost my balance. By summer’s end, despite the fact that we live a couple of hours from the beach we had yet to take a vacation. My kids had spent the summer being shuttled from camp to camp, with me showing up late more than once to get them. Finally, more out of guilt for having a summer without a vacation than the desire to go, I booked three nights at the beach and off we went.
We arrived at dusk and after we checked in, we went right out on the beach. I was clearly having trouble relaxing, I was anxious and wanted to unpack and get settled into the room. I did not want to be on the beach. In hindsight, this was an enormous neon flashing red light that something was very very wrong inside of me. I soooo love the beach, water girl that I am. I love a good hard swim in the surf and I can hunt for sharks teeth, like I did with my mom, for hours on end. Instead, that night I stood there in the waves, agitated and hating the wet and sand stuck all over me. I was ill tempered, and had already chewed out the people at the front desk. While I’ve always been assertive, I have never been unkind. I was unkind. I couldn’t wait for it to be dark enough to call it a night and go to bed.
My kids were little at the time, 7 and 11, and were racing the waves in and out at the shoreline, trying to get away before they got wet. Laughing and screaming with each wave, kicking at the water, they were so excited and happy. Yet, I stood back from them feeling detached and disconnected, and wound way too tight internally. I clearly recall feeling overwhelmed with how much I hated how I was feeling at that instant.
And then it happened.
I looked down and there, floating in and out with the surf was one of those rubber stretchy bracelets. I waited until it floated far enough up to where I was so I could snag it without getting my legs wet. I picked it up more out of an effort to clean junk off the beach than wanting the bracelet.
It was white, and it said TRUTH.
I turned it over and over in my hands and in my head, and said to myself, “Here is what God is asking me. What is the truth? What is my truth? What do I know is true?”
My truths. My answers. First, the big one: what was true about my relationship with God? I trusted him in all things. Never once have I prayed to challenge the path given, or asking for a particular outcome. Instead, I have always trusted His wisdom, even though I didn’t get it at the moment. I chose instead to pray for wisdom and dignity and grace in following the path He set. That was my true path in life; living the life He set for me, not fighting against it or contriving a false one–taking the high road with others and providing a good moral compass for my kids. I had lost the path of the high road on so many levels in my life. I had modeled for my kids some very un-Christian like behavior not one hour ago in the lobby. I had dropped the God ball in several ways lately and I knew it; it was kicked somewhere under the carpet.
What was the truth about my relationship with my kids? It had deteriorated beyond recognition; I had lost touch with them, and while we were still tethered, it was with a fragile thread rather than the thick tight rope it had always been. I had lost my ability to listen to them; to look them in the eye and sit quietly with them and really hear them. To gather in my hands the pieces of their day that they brought me, and have them feel that the stories were special and beautiful and worth being collected. I hadn’t been able to enjoy our time together doing anything in a long while without half of my brain elsewhere thinking about what else needed to be done. I was distracted and irritable with them. I no longer knew who their friends were at school, I barely knew their teachers and I wasn’t hugging and snuggling them nearly enough; I was late for the bus more than once. The truth was that this ball had been badly dropped many times in the last few years, and when it bounced, I just would catch it again and start juggling all over.
Truth is, children shouldn’t be a ball. Much less be juggled. And they really don’t bounce as well as we like to think they do.
There were hard questions of truth I had to ask about myself. What was true about who I had become, who I was and how I defined success? One thing I knew was true was that I had somehow come to this foreign place where a dollar sign became my yardstick of success and self esteem and security. Making double what I projected, showing I was tough and had pluck and that I could land on my feet proved me to myself somehow and that was soooo beyond messed up. A truth that emerged when I dug even deeper was that I found that I had fear attached to issues of money, fear of losing the house, fear of not being able to pay bills, fear of potential credit problems, fear of the “what-ifs?” Somehow, having more than enough somehow made me feel safe. “How,” I asked myself, “did so much of my self esteem and sense of security get attached to money?” How did safety come with a dollar sign? Don’t get me wrong, it was not about spending and buying and spoiling my kids, or keeping up with the Jones; in fact it was the opposite. I become a little squirrel hoarding and saving for fear of debt and what ifs. What was true was that it was so not me to have any of my identity attached to money and it’s quest, and here I was doing just that.
Work had become, well, work. While I still worked what I believed, it was like I had taken the air mask down in a plane when the oxygen is compromised and put it on other kids first, before myself or my own kids. I found myself waking up dreading listening to yet another abuse situation, and I was becoming resentful instead of feeling blessed that I had a job I loved. What was true is that my work had always been a way of giving back to the world, I had never once burned out on it, and I wasn’t feeling good about it anymore, it felt like just another thing sucking me dry.
The truth was that I didn’t know who I had become. The truth was I didn’t like who I had become. The juggler was dropping balls because she was not a juggler of people by nature: she was a coddler of people who liked to hold each one in her hand and see it’s beauty and make a big to do about it. I was agitated because none of my life priorities and commitments had ever been treated like a mere ball before, in my hand for only an instant before it is tossed and the next one is caught.
I slept that night in our hotel room with the bracelet on my wrist and my tiny salty smelling daughter snuggled next to me in the bed. I felt overcome with emotion as I spent dark still hours watching and listening to my son and daughter sleep; wee ones sleeping soundly with the deep satisfaction of excitement of the beach and the sense that they had me to themselves for at least a few days. I cried that night for what time I had lost with them, and grieved that I could never get it back.
The next day was sunny and beautiful. I had slept the long and deep sleep that a good cry brings, and woke up feeling that a little bit of me had broken loose and relaxed; something big was happening inside me, barnacles were coming off. Peace was being restored to my soul. Answers were unfolding. The truth was emerging.
That morning we jumped on the beds, flying from one bed to another in true Wonder Woman fashion, and walked barefoot down the boardwalk to have hot donuts and Cokes at Britts for breakfast. We beached all day, building castles and gathering shells and sharks’ teeth. We tie dyed t-shirts at the hotel together and ate sno cones. Whenever I mentally came to a dark place or a place of distraction, I blocked it by asking myself over and over, “What is true? What is the truth?”
That afternoon, I was sitting in a beach chair where I could keep an eye on my son as he body surfed. That day he moved physically harder in the water than I had seen him do in a long while, with an ear to ear smile on his face that I could see even from my perch on the beach. This trip, the water, the sun, the sand, the sleep and the truth; it was becoming tonic for what ailed my family’s soul. Something glacial sized had indeed broken loose and shifted inside of me, yet I was still feeling a bit boxed in, not completely able to allow it to drift aimlessly; not ready to dump it in the sea and leave it behind. I hadn’t yet ventured into the water, which was something I had always loved. Body surfing hard and swimming to release all the toxic stuff in your muscles, it is such a rich feeling.
I noticed that my son had drifted a little too far down the beach for my liking and I felt a little freaked that I couldn’t get to him if he got in trouble. Plainly, I just couldn’t see him as well as I wanted too and he was not as close as I wanted him. He was way down to the right of me instead of in front of me where he had started, so I grabbed my daughter’s hand and marched down to the edge of the water yelling and waving him in closer, pointing left for him to come back up the beach. He got the message and began to move in and over.
As I stood there watching him, I looked into the waves and there it was, a dollar bill swishing up and down, turning in the crest of the wave. Amelia yelled, “Money Mommy!” Get it Mommy!” She was just dancing and without thinking, I dove in after it. I walked out and handed her the wet dollar bill and sat in the sand with her giggling. I was exhilarated from the cold water dunk and we laughed hysterically. In that moment, whatever that last thing was that was still holding me back just broke loose. The sun dried both me and the dollar bill out over the next hour as my son kept swimming.
And again about an hour later, Colton drifted, but this time to the left up the beach. And again we walked up the beach to get in front of him and motion him back to the right and in. We got to the water’s edge and there again, was another dollar bill in the waves! This had to be at least a quarter of a mile from the first spot. Amelia and I were laughing so hysterically at the impossibility of it all, so much that I could barely swim in, but again, I dove into the water and grabbed the bill.
Now there were two dollar bills drying on the beach chair, one for each kid. Seeing Amelia doubled over laughing, her tiny shoulders shaking uncontrollably, it just broke everything loose in me, like a sledgehammer re-opening my heart. It was sunny and warm and goosepimply and just yummy. Colton swam in and just couldn’t get over the odds of it happening twice, and probably the odds of his mom jumping in.
Here was what was true, I had let go and dove into the water not for the money, but for the joy of it all, the joy of seeing my daughter jumping up and down at the silliness of it all. How ludicrous I must have looked jumping in for money, and at that moment, BAM, I realized that the truth was, my last years of jumping frantically after money looked pretty ludicrous too.
The bracelet on my wrist, a nudge from God. “What is the truth?” It was there right in front of me. Do what you love and the money will appear, you will be rich in ways you could never imagine, and there will be enough for each child. Protect and laugh with your kids first, stay in the center, work for what you believe in; giggle, snuggle, nurture. Enjoy life and abundance will find you. Keep your kids centered in front of you, and in your sight at all times. Follow your instincts and your heart, and never let your kids get too far away from you that you couldn’t get to them if they got in trouble; keep your eyes always on them. Success is defined not by a dollar bill but by fearlessly getting wet for the joy of it and, in the process of keeping my sweet ones safe. That is the true essence of safety.
Five months after that day at the beach, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The two bills and the bracelet still sit here next to me as I write, next to a perfect conch shell. In the days between that day at the beach and the day when breast cancer found us, our lives were transformed. We are balanced, and I have the best relationship with my kids I think a parent could have. God put in place the sign I needed for us to be in the best possible place as a family to weather the storm. He tweaked and revamped my life to ready us for cancer, and to remind me of who I was; that I was someone who could get my kids through cancer. Getting kids through cancer requires focus and hugs and cuddling and listening. Patiently taking their worries in a bag and holding them for them on the journey.
I truly know who I am now and how I am defined. I work a lot less and feel good about what I do when I am there. It feels more like giving back than a job, like faith in action, which is my truth. We have less money and more joy. The fear of not having enough has left me because I have more than enough of what is important and what sustains. “What-if?” came to pass and we were more than okay, we were safe and secure with each other.
We experience our bond in simple things like baking and we are tight. We talk endlessly while doing these things together and I hear them–I really hear them. I know them, I know their friends and worries and successes. During chemo, I couldn’t wait to see them hop off the bus with lipstick smooches still fresh on the tops their hands. To have them run into my hugs. where I had been waiting, (ten minutes early most days) soaking up sun and walking and brushing Scout. And even now, after five years, to get a text from a 17 year old at his lunch telling me his good news of the day, just ….is an invisible yet palpable lipstick kiss on my hand, a virtual sea shell for sure.
One day during chemo, a sticky note was put on my mirror to see when I woke up, in seven year old little girl’s hand it said, “Thank you for protekting me.”
That is what real security is.
This is the truth: abundance and safety and love are not measured by a dollar amount; they are measured in laughs and cuddles and gauged by children who sleep soundly at night in the knowledge that they are loved deeply and protected solidly. Children whose parents take time to turn over in our hands each and every bit of their life they bring to us and are told they are special and beautiful…in a language we can all understand.
Signs are curious things; some people believe in them, some say they are hooey. Some regularly ask God for signs. A friend tells a story of a woman who was having a bad day and asked God for a sign. She then passed a billboard at a church which read, “If you’re looking for your sign, here it is.” See, I could choose to believe some hapless surfer dude forgot to button his back pocket and lost 2 bucks in the surf, and that some tween lost her bracelet in the waves. Or I could choose to believe that God (and my mom) provided the signs I needed to get my life back on track, to get ready for cancer.
Truth is, all I had to do was take my eye off the ball.