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Slogans For The Unexpected Life

During the holidays, #5 and I played a game with some of our children. In one round, we had to name campaign slogans. As I listened to the slogans, I was struck by what a great motto for The Unexpected Life each campaign could be.

Be All That You Can Be.

Just Do It.


You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby. (Shared by #5.)

As soon as he said that, it got me thinking about my life and my little family. I was overwhelmed and amazed by how far we’ve come in one year. Just since last Christmas. What a difference 365 days makes!

Last Christmas, 2009, was the first Christmas of our unexpected life. I was trying so hard to heal, to help my children make it through their unexpected challenge, trying to adjust to working full-time, and to hold on physically, emotionally, financially and in every other way, for all of us, back then. So I put on a brave face, tried to keep a few traditions and took my children to see Santa Claus one Saturday morning.

Santa chatted with each of my children but caught me completely off-guard when he had me sit by him, looked me in the eye, and asked, “What do you want for Christmas, Mom?”

I panicked. Did he know who I was? Did he know I was single? Did he know what a loser I had turned out to be, starting over in life, in every possible way, at 42? It had been years since Santa had asked me something like that! I wasn’t prepared with an answer. But for some reason, maybe because I felt so alone and literally was alone for the first time in my life, I took his query seriously. My mind raced with thoughts of everything I needed—courage; confidence; optimism; hope; anonymity; a life; emotional comfort; laughter; bravery; endurance; happiness; real smiles; joy, peace; and of course, money (those were the days when I couldn’t seem to get a break, I lived in shock and fallout from the trauma 24/7)—and because I’d been trained to only ask Santa Claus for one thing, without censoring my response I replied, “Peace. I would love to have peace.”

I don’t think Santa was expecting that. Yet he must have sensed the desperation I felt inside to share something like that with a total stranger, though the stranger be Santa’s helper, because he looked me in the eye, gave me a compassionate, soft smile, took my hand in his large, white gloved hand, and calmly and quietly told me to hold on, peace would come. He sat there for just a second, looking into my eyes, smiling and then patted my knee, offered me a See’s Candy lollipop and sent me on my way.

I walked away from my encounter with S. Claus uplifted. It was another one of those “Only in Utah” moments for me. (As in, only in Utah…would a shopping mall Santa Claus take time for you, despite a long line of believers and children, to give you a spiritual message!) I left his little village filled with hope, not just for the holiday but for my life. I believed Santa was right; someday it, peace, would come to me again. I was counting on that. I just had to hold on.

But that Christmas Eve, when the house was dark and quiet and I was up all alone late at night making my few small Christmas preparations for my children, the reality of my unexpected life hit me. Again. In that moment I was a little overwhelmed by my continued struggle to embrace a new life that was mine, but that I didn’t believe I had done anything to deserve and I still wasn’t sure I wanted! I’d do a little Christmas, then go up to my room, alone, and cry for a few minutes. Then I’d pull myself together, go down by the Christmas tree, do a little more Christmas, then go up to my room, alone, and cry. It was the pattern of a newly divorced, single mother, getting through her first Christmas. Alone.

After the holidays, #5 checked in with me to see how my “first Christmas” went. I can’t believe I told him the truth—that it was good overall, but that I’d had some unexpected sad moments too. He empathized, gave me some words of encouragement, asked me out for another date and the rest is…recorded in this blog.

However, Christmas 2010 was a completely different scene.

I took my kids to see Santa again, but this year he didn’t even ask me what I wanted. Maybe he could tell I have every important thing I need, especially peace. And Christmas Eve, although the house was dark and quiet, I wasn’t alone. I had #5 helping me with Christmas preparations. On Christmas Day, we had all eight of our children together. As I sat by #5, watching all of the kids talk, laugh, joke and enjoy being together, I felt such contentment and joy. It felt like family. It is our family. Everything is right in my world again. Different than what I had expected, as usual, but right.

I couldn’t help but think that had I only known last year what was in store for me this year, it would have been a heck of a lot easier to get through last year! Had I only known last year, what this year would be like, I wouldn’t have felt alone or felt sad at all. But that is just one more beauty and character-building aspect of life: the not knowing; and choosing to carry on anyway.

Striving to be all that you can be.

Just doing it.

Learning to thrive in whatever situation you find yourself in.

And acknowledging, occasionally, just how far you’ve come.

What you do with your unexpected life is your slogan.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” (Calvin Coolidge)

Hold Your Breath And Hope

“When my kids become wild and unruly, I use a nice, safe playpen.  When they’re finished, I climb out.” (Erma Bombeck)

I was running late for work yesterday, trying to hustle my youngest along in his morning routine, our departure delayed by the fact he couldn’t find any shoes. It’s a problem for him all too often–he leaves his shoes everywhere! (Just ask my patient neighbors who occasionally deliver grocery sacks full of shoes to our front door that my youngest has left around the neighborhood as he visits everyone.)

I dashed to his room and rummaged around in all the dark corners, treading delicately on a carpet of Legos that seem to be competing with the cut and twisted Berber carpeting as the flooring of choice in his bedroom, but no luck. No shoes.

I finally located a pair of orange flip flops, absolutely ideal for Utah’s winter weather, he put them on and off he headed to daycare.

December 13, in orange summer slippers!

Just my luck, it was a preschool day as well, so his school AND the daycare staff were going to witness my campaign for Mother of the Year. (Yeah, right. “Special” Mother of the Year, maybe!)

As I went to load him in the car, I realized he hadn’t eaten breakfast. So I ran back in to the house to make him a piece of toast. Unbeknownst to me, he unbuckled, followed me back in the house, and refused the piece of toast when it was ready. He was insistent on a hot breakfast. Nothing microwaved. Something prepared on the stove.

I was already late, so I took 5 minutes more and whipped up something hot, belted him in his car seat again, and told him to eat while I drove. I quickly dropped him at daycare and headed to work. After I arrived at work, 30 minutes later, in another city, I looked down and saw his jacket sitting on the seat beside me.

“How did that get there?” I wondered. I’d seen my son walk into his daycare wearing that very garment earlier. And then it hit me: in my haste I’d held on to his jacket when I took it off him at daycare, had carried it to the car and had driven it to work with me!

December 13. Orange flip flops. And (now) no coat.

After working all day I got in my car for the commute home and noticed, for the first time, my son’s school backpack sitting on the front seat of my car. “How did that get there?” I wondered. I remembered I had specifically carried it in to daycare that morning…and must have carried it right back out to the car with me and took it to work too!

December 13. Orange flip flops. No coat. No backpack for preschool.

Is there even a competition for mothers like me?

I doubt it.

At daycare, as I reached in my purse to get a pen to sign my son out, guess what I found? A pair of his shoes!

In my purse.

I hadn’t even known they were there.

“Like all parents, my husband and I just do the best we can, hold our breath and hope we’ve set aside enough money for our kid’s therapy.” (Michelle Pfeiffer)

Believe me, I’m holding my breath and hoping, too!


“My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?” (Erma Bombeck)

Shortly after I began my unexpected life, a friend, who had been a single mother herself, emailed and gave me some advice about that aspect of my new life. She told me when I came home from work, to fight the urge to clean the house, do the laundry and other household tasks that would take my attention away from my children and instead, focus on my kids.

I hope that’s what I would have done anyway, but her advice helped me keep my priorities where they needed to be, on my children—and helping them adjust and heal—rather than spending all of my time folding clean clothes or cleaning the house (which would have been messy by the time I got home from work anyway.)

I’m so thankful she shared her perspective with me, and that I had the good sense to listen to her counsel. Of course, I’m not advocating no one ever clean their house again, I’m just saying that I think it has been a blessing to my sanity and a good thing for my kids that as a single, working mother, I gave myself permission to let some of the housework go so I didn’t miss the important moments with my children—they’re doing well, and despite the fact they’re growing up in a less than spotless home, they are healing, happy and most importantly, smiling!

I chose to follow my friend’s good  advice, and I’m so glad I did. ”You have a lifetime to work, but children are only young once.”  (Polish Proverb)

An Unexpected Realization

So life carried on in Utah.

I worked all day, commuted home, spent time with my children in the evenings, tried to keep up with laundry and cleaning to some degree, but mostly worried about the emotional state of my children and tried to do anything I could think of to help them through the trauma.

My children were incredible troopers through the whole thing. My daughter took it upon herself (without being asked) to take over the menu planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. She also became the second mother to her younger siblings AND did much of the laundry.

My oldest son took it upon himself (without being asked) to do yard work, car maintenance, and train his younger brothers in those things. He brainstormed yard projects he wanted to do someday if we ever had money. He even helped discipline. I remember one night my middle son was struggling with grief and the fallout from his new life, and he spoke to me rudely. My oldest son went to him, brought him to face me, and said, “You don’t talk to your mother that way. Apologize.”

I felt bad that he had to take on such an adult role, but was also grateful for the help and support. What I felt most, however, was amazement that I had such incredible children who so excellently rose to the demands of their new life and carried on without complaint! They kept their grades up, they added many responsibilities to their lives, and they didn’t ask for things they wanted–they knew there was no money. They cared for each other, worked together, and grew closer. They will be amazing, prepared adults–I’ve already seen glimpses of that.

My youngest turned 4 years old. We didn’t have much money to celebrate, but we did what we do best. We gathered around the birthday boy and shared all of the things we love about him. (Compliments don’t cost anything!) Sharing our love was free. After which we had birthday cake and a family dance party. In the middle of the song “Kung Fu Fighting,” my middle son was standing on a bench dancing karate moves when we heard a thunderous crash, looked over, and saw him laying on his back amid the shattered remains of what had once been a bench in the entry way of our home!

We all froze, not sure if he was hurt or possibly even paralyzed! Then we saw him start shaking with laughter. Soon we all joined in. What a memory! (And of course, we told him not to move while my oldest grabbed a camera and captured the memory in a picture!) It not only was the first time I’d ever lost a piece of furniture to destruction by a child, but it was one of the first of many “crazy” fun times in the our new HOME. It was worth the sacrifice of wood and upholstery; the bench hadn’t really fit in the new home anyway.

I think that was the night our house became our home for good.

I also got some of the best advice I’ve ever received as a single mom right about that time. From a friend who had been a single mother of four herself. She told me she felt the most important thing she did was to not worry about the house and long “to do” lists when she was home with her children in the evenings, but rather, she let the house go and simply enjoyed her children. Not only was that good advice for me, it was liberating. I felt like I had permission to not worry about the dust, and I was free to spend time with my kids!

And that I did. Some nights we went up the canyon. Sometimes we just sat in the backyard and talked. We played games. Sometimes we went for a drive or an ice cream cone. But after the dinner dishes were done, we didn’t worry about work. We just enjoyed each other, and I’m grateful we did. I have no regrets about working less, but I’d sure have regrets if I’d enjoyed my children less!

Sleep was in short supply last summer, but fun and love was plentiful. Looking back, we were our own version of “Musketeers.” All for one and one for all! As scary as it was to be alone in the world with my four children, that was also such a special time. We grew even closer together and learned to love and appreciate each other even more. We worked to see that we were still a family–not broken, not minus anything, a whole unit. A different unit than we had once been, but a solid family unit. (We just had to rely on others more for help with some things.)

Those were GREAT times. To be the sole parent and support of four children, to be a single mother, and everything that came with our new life was unexpected. But at the same time, it turned out to be such an opportunity and a blessing for my children and I. And most unexpectedly, I NEVER thought I’d say this, but should our situation ever change…there is a part of me that will miss those days when it was just my children and I: scared and bonded together like glue in our fear, experiencing new things, growing in unexpected ways, learning to laugh again, and rising above challenges together day after day, time after time, until one day we all realized we felt “normal.”



In our unexpected life.

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Like Christopher Columbus

Five days until I moved from Colorado to Utah.

I felt like I imagined Christopher Columbus had to have felt: sailing off the edge of the map, sailing off into totally unknown territory, sailing off from the only life ever known. Columbus, himself, said, “Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.”

It sure seemed dark in my existence. But I had the light of correct principles I knew to be true to guide me. I knew I was leaving the “old world” I’d lived in for the previous 20 years, and I was going to who knew what? I was scared to death! I wondered if Columbus had ever been afraid. I sure was! I tried not to be. But I wasn’t very successful at fighting my fear.

I just kept going, fearful, but pressing forward and hoping Columbus was right when he said, “By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.” I hoped that somehow, some way, I would also prevail at what lay before me: an unexpected life.

I looked to other brave explorers for inspiration. Jacques Cousteau said, “Every morning I wake up saying, I’m still alive, a miracle. And so I keep on pushing.” I kept waking up and facing each new day. I kept on pushing too.

I took great hope from another wise bit of wisdom from Cousteau: “If we were logical, the future would be bleak indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.” Thankfully, I had been taught to have faith, hope, and to work.

I was facing a journey more daunting than anything I’d ever imagined. It certainly wasn’t a voyage I’d dreamed of, planned for, or wanted to be participating in. But it was mine. My unexpected life.

Looking back, as difficult as it was to live it, it was also something more. It was an opportunity not many people are presented with. I could make of it what I might for myself and for my children. And if I handled it wisely, I could learn and grow to become a better person, and most importantly, I could teach my children how to be successful (how to live and find joy) in any set of circumstances– that’s one of the most important things we have to learn in life, in my opinion. And by helping my children overcome the huge mountain that was now their life, I could do something extraordinary with my unexpected life.

“People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” (Sir Edmund Hillary)

THAT is life.

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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.