Category Archives: what I know now

When to Say When

One day back in the spring, driving home from work, Carrie Underwood’s “Starts With Goodbye” came on shuffle on my phone. It’s an old song and I hadn’t listened to the words in years, but that day, I caught myself listening and really hearing the words.

“It’s sad but sometimes moving on with the rest of your life / starts with goodbye.”

And I couldn’t help but think how true they’d been already that year. How true they are for any big moment in life. Whenever you step forward into something new, you’re stepping away from something old.

For me, this year, that something new has been the journey into parenting. I don’t think enough people talk about that journey, unless theirs was riddled with infertility or miscarriage. And so as someone who couldn’t even take that first step forward, much as I saw the joys of raising a child, I felt alone over those few years I wrestled with the concept. I hadn’t tried and failed; I hadn’t even tried.

But last year, a chain events set off the push I needed to step forward.

Knowing when to say “when” is hard. And it doesn’t get easier with age or wisdom or hindsight. I’ve had a couple crossroads moments in my life and each of those decisions were hard for different reasons. But for the first time, last November I found myself experiencing an all new kind of “knowing when to say ‘when’.” My husband and I had to actively decide when it was time to say “when” regarding our dog’s health.

When someone you love is dying, in all the days and weeks leading up to the end, you never know it’s going to be the last time that memory will be happy. The last time you’ll see them healthy. Until, of course, it is. You expect one more glimpse of their old ways, one more relapse, one more good day.

With Grace, our dog, I’d been preparing to lose her almost since the day I met her. Over the years, I caught myself crying over the thought of losing her, even when she was at her most vibrant and healthy. She’d stand aloof wagging her tail while James reminded me that it wasn’t her time. Not yet.

I’d tell him I already loved her too much, that I was scared how much it’d hurt to lose her. Maybe that’s what those of us do who’ve suffered great losses. We brace ourselves for a pain we’ve felt a few times before. We know how bad it’s going to hurt when everything crashes down.

When she stopped eating everything, no matter what James laid out on the floor, she lost weight dramatically. We were so focused on keeping her alive at all costs that we couldn’t see we were heading straight for a cliff where we’d be forced to make a quick decision: put her to sleep peacefully or risk waking up to find her dead one day.

I was right, of course. Few other losses have hurt as bad as losing her. For a few months, I’d be carrying about my day and feel this unshakeable sadness creep up. And then, exactly 3 months later, thinking about how we wanted to become a family of three again, I got a FaceTime call.

When I answered it, my mother-in-law was sitting on the couch next to my sister-in-law, holding a baby. I knew my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who’d been married a decade, were in the process of an adoption, but there was no “tell us when you have a baby,” so even they wouldn’t know if and when they’d become parents. And after years watching them walk through an incredibly long season of infertility, I couldn’t bring myself to process what I was seeing on screen. But that’s what it was. They’d been handed a baby boy, unbeknownst to them, hours earlier. They were at a friend’s house playing cards and eating snacks, the friends well aware of what was about to be a life-changing moment for them, when the adoption agent showed up with their little bundle of joy.

We drove across town that night to meet our new nephew. And as we walked into the friends’ bedroom and I saw that baby boy wrapped up tight, my throat closed. I was overcome with gratitude for their story. A story they’d almost given up on, I later learned.

I stood on the sidelines in awe as they called supervisors and put emergency plans in place. They had had classes to teach, meetings to attend, and medical procedures scheduled. All of it was turned upside down.

In the weeks that followed, I watched them learn the basics of caring for a baby: swaddling, feeding, calming him down. I helped screw the crib together. I brought over a container of homemade meatballs and pasta sauce. I asked how I could help. And I felt my heart open up to a goal I’d written down in my planner just a few months before.

I just kept thinking, “What am I worrying about? They had no time to prepare. We would have 9 months. They couldn’t bear to read baby books or websites beforehand. We could learn as much as we wanted. They hadn’t bought anything. We could build a registry and shop on our own, too.”

But my fear hadn’t been about any of that. It was about all the phases of pregnancy. About morning sickness and the risk of miscarriage and the pain of labor. It was about how tenderly you have to carry a baby through 9 months and hope everything goes just right so you get to hold him at the end.

Seeing them, I knew I’d never have complete reassurance about any of that. And I couldn’t help but feel guilty to worry when I was sitting in their family room, watching them like deer in headlights, learning how to keep their child alive from hour to hour. I knew that if I wanted to take the leap, the only thing standing in the way was myself. I’d never really be ready (who is?!) but I had people around me to help figure it out along the way. No matter what, we’d get through.

Here we are. Grace will be gone a year on November 16. And we still miss her fiercely. My throat’s closing up just thinking about it. But we are learning that without losing her, we might never push ourselves into this new season of three. Even though we ached to grow our family. We would’ve kept saying, “Not yet. Soon. Not yet. Soon.”

And why? We wouldn’t have had a good answer for that.

Now, we’re over halfway through the journey. And we’re filled with overwhelming gratitude to think about how close we are to meeting our son. And in the meantime, we’ll read as much as we want and take classes and prepare because we can. For that, my heart is full.

Set a goal. Cross it off. Set another.

When I was 15, I quit my first love—gymnastics. It was a decision that taught me so much about myself. I loved it, still do, but it was tearing me up mentally and giving myself the permission to quit meant giving myself permission to experience whatever life had in store and not put a big red FAILURE stamp on that chapter in my life.

I went on to run cross country and track. Something I didn’t know how to do. Something I had always hated. I was the 15-minute mile shrimp in elementary school. The girl who would’ve gotten the Presidential Fitness Award, or at least the National Fitness Award, if she didn’t get a big X in the mile every year. I could stretch and push up and sit up and pull up and all the things but running? No, not running.

And honestly, running felt like salt in the wound because I couldn’t play any other sports. I wasn’t any good at anything else. I had no hand eye coordination. I think it took me a month or two to see running as something to be admired. Something to push towards.

My dad spent hours with me at the local YMCA, in the months before school let out for the summer, training my breathing patterns and posture and arm movements, pushing me to round one lap of the indoor track without stopping to heave. He would stand at the corner of the track, pressed against the wall with a running watch, timing me, quietly propelling me to just keep going, one more step, that’s it.

Then we transitioned to running outside. My neighborhood had rolling hills and I remember thinking, “This is hard. This is nothing like the indoor track. You expect me to run 3 miles by August?” It was May and everything hurt. My calves. My quads. My lungs. I was a muscular 110 pounds and yet, I felt so heavy. Sluggish.

I started doing summer runs with the coach and some other girls and I remember the first time I ran 3 miles. It was mid-July, mid-morning, and I was coming around the corner down Walnut Street in Royersford, thumping down the uneven concrete sidewalk, trying to admire the houses I passed by. I had just stopped to walk a block when my coach came doubling back for me and pushed me to keep going, almost there. When I got to Lewis Road, the 7-11 on my left, I felt home free.

Running was never the plan. But those 3 last years of high school brought me so much joy, and so much appreciation for the limits of the human body. Set a goal. Cross it off. Set another.

A few people in my life are struggling with where to go next. They’re at crossroads, hoping they can just continue forward but realizing they can’t. And I want them to know that there is beauty in forcing yourself to set aside what you planned and follow the best path you see now, to push yourself into something you didn’t know you could love.

Lately, running has given me anxiety. Am I going to fast? What’s my heartbeat? Am I going to be okay? Can my body handle this?

When I was just 15, had never run more than a few hundred feet at a time, that was the last thing on my mind. I was just frustrated and tired and hot and out of breath. Our bodies are powerful. But so are our minds. They see us through. They know what we sometimes cannot know until we given in and trust. Let’s not forget that.

Marriage Is Like Climbing a Mountain

Before I met James, I’d never been hiking. That all changed quickly.

About three weeks after our first date, he asked me to come with him. He showed up at my door in mesh gym shorts and a white workout tee. I had on sage green khaki shorts and a white scoop neck tee. At the time, my impression of hiking was a bit like golf. You were working out, but you had to wear khakis. Man, I felt stupid.

In the 4 years since, we’ve gone on more hikes than I could’ve imagined. I’ve skirted along a precarious stretch of rock to make it up the “A” trail in Great Falls, Virginia. I’ve huffed and puffed my way up half of the Maryland Heights trail in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I’ve paused over and over, hands on knees, begging my heart rate to slow on a short quarter-mile clip up to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. I am officially a hiking convert.

And I have to say, after just one year of marriage, that it’s a bit like climbing a mountain.

You start with this lofty plan to make it to the summit, some rock-encrusted trek that seems worthwhile because you’ll get a great picture to post on Instagram. A breathtaking view, a calm, cool breeze, a check mark on your list of a life well lived.

But life is hard. And that doesn’t change when you get married.

I’d gone through a lot of sweat and tears and mud before I met James. So why, after just some wedding bells and rings and vows, did I think that life would be magical ’till death do us part?

The idea isn’t that life gets better when you’re married. It’s that marriage helps us through it. We climb half a mountain, and have to switch trails partway through. Maybe in a few years, we’ll walk back to that other path and start up again, but not today. Not anytime soon.

It’s a series of routing and rerouting. Of rooting for each other and creating roots as a family. Because you have someone with you, breathing life into your tired limbs, pushing you to press onward, to not look back, to carry your past as a marker of how far you’ve come.

For our anniversary, we went on a 5.5-mile hike. And it felt like the perfect reminder that life is a journey. Sometimes, you get to tumble effortlessly down the hill, foot over foot, or walk on the flat, soft, packed dirt, and other times, you have to keep looking up, spotting the next tree, taking deep breaths, and steadying yourself next to your partner.

You take turns leading. You take time to check in. And you make it through – together.

The Things My Car Has Seen No. 2

Five years ago I wrote a blog post called “The Things My Car Has Seen.” It was a farewell letter to my first love – a black BMW with a tan leather interior and a sunroof perfect for hot summer nights and cool spring afternoons.

I thought the car was so cool that I plopped down in the driveway one smoky summer afternoon and prompted my sister to snap a few shots for the blog back in 2010. The back passenger side wheel became my backrest, my arms crossed over my knees and that familiar blue and white crest visible to the left of my arms.

Fast forward 7 years. In May, I sold its predecessor, my mom’s much less cool silver BMW sportswagon. She bought it in the fall of 2003, and at 13 turning 14, I made it clear that she was really cramping my style.

“It’s a sports wagon, Kaleigh.”
“Yes, but it’s a wagon.”

We were emphasizing different things. This would go on straight through my teen years. She saw it one way, and I another.

Though I grumbled until the day I sold it off, it seemed only appropriate to think back again, to all the things this car had gotten me through—for better or worse—and be thankful.

In mid-December 2003, that car transported me to a funeral. And as the years went by, another one. And another one.

That car witnessed my last first kiss.

My first first kiss was standing next to the black BMW, in the bitter cold atop a snow pile, in the dark of night. To an Italian boy with blue eyes who ran cross country and track and played guitar and landscaped his way through the summers, with a sister named Amanda.

My last first kiss was standing next to the silver BMW, in the sweltering heat of an asphalt parking lot, in the bright sunlight. To an Italian boy with blue eyes who ran cross country and track and played guitar and never learned to help his father who landscapes for a living, and also had a sister named Amanda. The symmetry and simultaneous contrast of those moments is not lost on me.

That car witnessed plenty of irritated phone calls, driving home frustrated about issues at work, or learning how to be an adult. It witnessed a blowout on the side of I-95 in the windy drizzle of a late April evening. It witnessed a couple of tow truck rescues, smoke on the side of the highway, a doggie sleeping in the front seat on the way home from doggie daycare.

We made it to hiking trails and weddings in that car. We made it to interviews and family birthday parties and the BWI airport long-term parking garage.

But mostly, we made it work. In between my father-in-law’s crouching over the engine, flashlight in hand, peering down into the folds and guts of the machine, we made it where we needed to go. It may not have been beautiful, it may not have been cool, but it worked. For a time, it worked.

As with anything, there comes a time when the most reliable of things sneaks up on you and flips itself around, and when that happens, it’s best to skirt yourself out from under the teetering mess and move quickly while you still can. It was time to say goodbye. And no one was happier than me.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge its good run—14 years of blood, sweat, and tears.