Living Happily Ever After

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Thoughts From THE Drive

As the miles ticked past, thoughts continued to flood my mind.

In between offering cheerful comments to my children about, “Isn’t it going to be GREAT to live in Utah?  Are you guys as excited as I am to live in Utah?  Think how LUCKY we are to get to move and make new friends!  We are going to have a fabulous new life!” and silently wondering how, beginning the next day, I was ever going to leave my children all day and work full time in another city, and how I was ever going to live through the next 50-60 years, much less ever smile for real again, I marveled at my ability to say one thing and think another!  Must be my public relations expertise and crisis training.  Lol.  (Just kidding, my fellow PR professionals out there!)

As if my heart weren’t broken enough by all that I’d already lived through and had to endure, the giant cherry on the largest ice cream sundae of the grief and devastation that had become my lot in life was knowing I was spending the last day of my life as a “homemaker” (totally ironic–didn’t I just break my home up when I got divorced earlier that day?) and stay-at-home mom driving.  Not the memory I wanted to make the last day before I’d have to leave my two youngest children, for the rest of their lives, to go to work to support my family.  THAT had certainly never been my plan.  I never dreamed I’d be anything but a stay-at-home mom.  But again, I tried not to think about that as I continued to head west.

As a younger woman and younger mother, I’d made this same drive to Utah 6-8 times each year to stay in touch with family.  As my children had gotten older and their schedules had gotten busier, I’d driven it less.  And suddenly, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made the drive alone.  And then it hit me.

It was the day my mom died.

In that moment I decided I HATED the drive from Denver, Colorado, to anywhere in Utah.

That day had started out like any other.  Get up early, exercise, nurse the baby, get the other kids off to school, straighten the house, return phone calls, take care of the business of the day, etc…Oh yes, and that day I was supposed to host a church function for 20-30 girls and their mothers for Mother’s Day (totally ironic, now that I think about it) so I was gathering decorations and items needed for that night, and making desserts.

And then my brother called.  Totally unexpectedly.  His words changed the course of that day.  The ensuing events changed the rest of my life.

“They found mom this morning, unresponsive.  They think she’s had a massive stroke,” he said.

“What?  I should come right away!  Let me gather my stuff, I’ll jump in the car and come there,” I offered.

“Lets not jump to any conclusions.  Why don’t we wait and see what the MRI shows,” he said.

Relief flooded my soul.  That didn’t sound as serious.  Thank goodness, because my baby had the stomach flu.  It would take me HOURS to make the drive to Utah, by myself, with a sick baby.  So like an idiot, I continued to complete my tasks for that night and actually took the time to finish baking the desserts and called a good friend to substitute for me and take over the hostessing duties of the evening. (And in my defense, it is how my parents raised me to be.  Serve others, go the extra mile, NEVER drop the ball on anything you have committed to do.)

A few hours later, the baby was still throwing up and the phone was ringing.  It was my brother calling again.  He was crying.

“The MRI shows a massive stroke.  They’ve given mom 24-48 hours to live.  How fast can you got here?”

Eight hours to drive.

More proof I really must be the Queen of Denial:  I didn’t even pack a dress for a funeral.  What was I thinking?  That’s right, I wasn’t thinking.  I threw some stuff in a suitcase, pulled my 5th grade daughter out of school to tend the baby as he threw up so I could keep driving, and headed to Utah.

It was an eight hour drive.

Plenty of time to think.

And my brother called every hour or so to ask if I was almost there.  My mom was fading fast.  All of my siblings were together, holding her hand and saying goodbye.  I was alone.  Driving to Utah.

About three hours into the trip I had an experience that was unusual enough I noted what I felt and the time I felt it.  I didn’t have cell service at that moment, but as soon as I did, I got another phone call from my brother.  He managed to choke out, “She died.”  And somehow I managed to not crash but to keep driving through my grief.  (Little did I know how expert I was to become in that over time.)  And sure enough, I  knew the moment in time my mom had died.  I had felt it.

She hadn’t made it eight hours.  So I cried and I drove.  I drove and I cried.  Maybe I should have appreciated it more. Because the next time I made the drive, in 2009, I wouldn’t have the luxury of tears.

Keep driving, Andrea.

Eight Hours To Think

Like I said, I drove off in my trusty Subaru without a backward glance to the life I had lived for nearly 20 years in Denver, Colorado.  It had been a good life, with many great experiences and good memories, which made it all the more difficult,and poignant, for me.  I had eight hours to think.

I couldn’t help but reflect on who I’d been when I arrived there–a college graduate as of the day before I arrived; a newlywed with hopes and dreams and my whole life ahead of me; I had had a mom visiting me there through the years.  I realized how much I had learned and grown in Denver.  I realized I had, really, grown up in Denver.

I had entered the workforce and learned valuable lessons; I had learned to be a wife; I had learned to work to have what I thought was a real and great marriage; I had become a mother; I had served in the community; I had served in my church and had learned what it meant to be a Christian and to live a Christian life; I had made friends; I had traveled the world and had life-enriching cultural experiences; I had informally continued my education; participated in book clubs and learned about new things.  And I knew all of that was ending.  Actually, it was already over.

I had discovered my marriage had been built on lies and a sham of epic proportions (in my little world) with its tentacles reaching into every aspect of my personal, public, religious, and family life; I was re-entering the workforce; and my mom was dead.  Everything I’d ever known or had, it seemed, was gone.

I had been unrighteously judged and accused of things I had never known about much less participated in by literally hundreds of people who knew me (and who should have known better) and by countless other hundreds of strangers (that is all I can admit to myself, who knows? It could be in the thousands, really.)  Except for the support of a very small network of friends and family who had not betrayed me and abandoned me in my hour of need, I was alone.  And I felt more alone than I knew one person could feel.

I don’t know how I would have done it, how I could have driven off to face my new opportunities, had I not had a very important epiphany.  You see, I had my two youngest children with me in the backseat.  So I couldn’t cry, wail, or do anything else that felt natural and right, to me, in that moment.  I couldn’t upset them like that.  Their life seemed like it was going to have enough challenges ahead without me adding to them.  All I could do was think.  Eight hours to think.

Thoughts ran through my mind at warp speed, so many, so quickly I don’t know that I processed them all.  But I do remember wondering to myself, “How can I do this?  How can this be happening?  How can I be leaving my LIFE?  How can I be abandoning all I have become and built over the past almost 20 years?  How can this be real?”  And then it hit me like a bolt of lightening. I won’t have a scar from it like Harry Potter, but it has been forever seared in my mind.

I realized I could do it, and had done it with as much grace and dignity as I could muster, I could drive off without a backward glance, I could be an example to my children and show them how you carry on and do what you have to do (even do what you don’t want to do) with your head held high, even when the direction seems impossible because…I had been blessed (yes, I realize now, BLESSED) with my neighbors.

My neighbors were good people.  But some had been affected by my former spouse’s choices (and those that hadn’t, for some reason, jumped on the bandwagon anyway) and had gone from being like family to me to turning in to absolutely the most hateful and hostile people I have personally ever had the opportunity to know!

I reflected on my neighbors and realized they had a purpose in my life.  I saw them for what they were to me–a blessing, in their own way.  Corrie Ten Boom, author of “The Hiding Place,” was sent to a German concentration camp.  Her story taught me about gratitude and choosing to give thanks in all things for SOME thing.  And to look for the tender mercies that come to each of us in our lives.

In her trying and miserable existence, one day the only thing Corrie and her sister could find to be grateful for was fleas!  It seemed a little ridiculous but they chose to be thankful for the fleas they lived with.  (After all, gratitude is always a choice, isn’t it?)  They even prayed to God and expressed their gratitude for the fleas.  And do you know what? Those fleas ended up saving Corrie’s life when Nazi soldiers wouldn’t enter their barracks for inspections–because of the fleas!

I haven’t had the chance to thank those neighbors for being true fleas to me until now.  But thank you.  I mean that, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart.

Each of you made it easier for me to do what I had to do, and to do it with gratitude, and I will always be grateful.

Onward I drove.  Eight hours to think.

Divorced–And $1 More!

July 13, 2009, was a day I never expected to live.  Here’s what happened.

I got up in the morning, got ready (I remember I wore a skirt), drove to a courthouse in Arapahoe County, Colorado, with my then-spouse, chatting and making small talk as we drove. And then we got divorced.  An alien experience in the great expectations I’d always had for my life.

Getting divorced itself, in my opinion, was not like it’s depicted in the movies.  I expected a huge, empty court room, with just a judge, myself, and my spouse, but that isn’t what I got.  I got a tiny courtroom (seems like it was the size of a large master bedroom), 8-10 strangers observing my proceeding and hearing my private business, and a magistrate signing the paperwork.  And where were the attorneys that were always present in divorce?  Oh. That’s right.  I didn’t have a dime and neither did my former spouse.  We couldn’t afford attorneys.  (I had paid a family lawyer for unbundled services and basically wrote my divorce myself, with her help, input from my friend Holly, and the aid of life experience from what I’d observed my divorcing friends go through.  All 2 of my friends who’d divorced.  Obviously, my experience with divorce was pretty limited!)

I had the opportunity to hear the private business of the parties who went before my turn came.  If I could have been ANYWHERE else, I would have been.  But since I had to be there, I tried to not hear what was going on.  I tried not to think.

When my turn came, I stepped to the table and spoke into the microphone.  While I had done everything required, my former spouse had not taken care of details he was supposed to have and the magistrate did not look kindly upon him.  I was granted everything I asked for…and $1 more!

You see, due to the choices of my former spouse, there was no way I would get any financial support of any kind.  I wouldn’t even have asked for any, but legally he has to pay something, so the court assigned him minimum wage (even though he was not employed and didn’t anticipate that he would be for quite some time) and stipulated he should pay me $563 each month to support our four children.  (HA!  Not that he’d be able to pay me, but my health insurance is $400/month!  My daycare and preschool is close to $600/month!  My car insurance, for a teenage driver, is $300! $563 doesn’t even cover our food! But whatever makes everyone else feel better about the situation…I’ve know I’ve gotten shafted financially, and every other possible way, but who’s complaining:)

Back to the divorce proceeding.  The magistrate noted I had been a stay-at-home mom and homemaker for almost our entire 20 year marriage and asked if I was requesting maintenance from my former spouse.  When I wasn’t, she added $1 to the amount of child support for MY maintenance, signed the papers, and I was divorced.  As quickly as that.

Divorced and $1 more!

We walked to the car, got in, and drove “home.” I don’t know about him, but I was trying not to think about what had just happened and the reasons for it.  I had other events to get through that day.

When we arrived home, we hauled my suitcases out and loaded them in my new (to me) 2005 Subaru Outback station wagon.  We loaded our two dogs (Joe, a 100 pound yellow lab and Ella, a 25 pound cocker spaniel) into their crates and into the Subaru.  I put my two youngest children, my 9 year old and my 3 year old in the car, ignored the staring neighbors, and drove off without a backward glance.

I wish I could say I drove off into the sunset.  But that isn’t what happened.  That isn’t where I was headed.  Call me the Queen of Denial, but at that moment, I couldn’t look back on any part of my previous life or I’d never be able to move forward.  I drove out of my Colorado neighborhood for the last time, heading to Utah, acting like I was going on a quick roadtrip–NOT starting an entirely new life in a new state as a single mother who works full time, the sole emotional/physical/financial support of 4 children!

I didn’t take one last walk through the home that had been mine for 16 years.  I didn’t walk my yard, look at my flowers, or “say goodbye” to any part of my home, property or old life.  I knew I would never be able to move on if I allowed myself to look back, even one little moment or at one tiny little thing.

Because I had never felt more inadequate for any task in my life.  I knew I had an emotional marathon ahead of me of unimagineable proportions.  Had I really been trained for it?  Was I really prepared?  It certainly wasn’t an exercise I’d ever planned on or expected.  I hoped I was up to the race of my life.  My childrens’ futures, and mine, hung in the balance.

An Introduction To My Journey

There is no other way to say it.  In life, unexpected things happen.  You have grand plans, big dreams, things to do, places to go…and then something unexpected happens to interrupt it all.  That changes your life.

I think what matters is not what happens to you, but what you do with your unexpected life.  Do you give up and quit because life didn’t turn out according to your plan?  Do you keep at it, but complain incessantly until no one can tolerate your whining or stand to be around you? Or do you take what you have and seek to create a life of meaning, that brings you happiness and joy, in spite of it all?

I choose happiness and joy. But I don’t believe happiness or joy is a place you arrive at.  It is something you have to look for and let yourself feel along the way…of an unexpected life.

Perhaps Alfred D. Souza said it best:  ”For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin, real life.  But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid.  At last it dawned on me that these obstacles WERE my life.  This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness.  Happiness IS the way.  So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one.  Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”

Following is my journey, seeking happiness, joy and LIFE, in spite of it all.

The unexpected life.

The Rest of the Story