Thursday, December 3, 2015

My St. Joseph

After over a week of illness, I think we are starting to get better. Certainly not out of the woods yet, but at least clawing our way to something better. Over Thanksgiving we had two emergicare visits, lots of interrupted sleep, and nearly a whole family of sickies. Coming home was not what I wanted it to be: I realized the very first night that I could not jump right back in to the routine. I had a whole list of things to do the next day: grocery shop, take down the fall things, pull out the Advent wreath, wrap all the books, fold the piles of clean laundry we had left. But faced with this wall of still-persisting sickness, I did for once what everyone beseeches moms to do: rested.

I not only rested - I let my husband take care of me. Which, I'm really rubbish at generally. I can't stand being sick and not being able to care for all the needs of my family. But too often, when in my full strength, I push Tom away - I think maybe sometimes I make him feel like we don't need him. But oh, we do.

Over this last week, while we have been caring for our family in the midst of illness, he has been my rock. He has been up with me at 1am - 3am - 5am - with little people burning with fevers or sobbing with ear pain. Nary a grumble has escaped his lips when I explain the need for yet another child to join us for yet another night in bed, or when the baby wants to play at 4:30 when we only just went to bed at 3. He held our son in the a steamy bathroom while I sat with our restless toddler, and then swapped when I  needed to.

Traveling home, he was our protector: getting us food and drinks, grabbing a blankie that had fallen, given snark to a gate agent whose rude attitude threatened to put me over my emotional edge. And now we're home and he's soldiering on, despite having to dive back into his busiest work season. The first morning home, I got a nap while he took care of the children's many needs. He then came home in the afternoon with roses and needed items for dinner. He got up with the children this morning at 4:30am, and let me sleep for as long as I wanted. When I awoke, everyone was down for a nap after having had breakfast.  He cleaned the kitchen before he left.

This exhaustive laundry list is the smallest glimpse into just this week's offering of love. This is what my husband, Tom, does for me, week in and week out. He is tireless, cheerful, and loving. Just as the Blessed Virgin needed St. Joseph for the long walk to Bethlehem, to bear witness to the miracle of the birth of God's son, and then for the flight to Egypt, God has seen fit to start my Advent by showing me my need for my husband.

Maybe I don't even mind.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To a Good Dog

"Mama, can you hold me?" 

"No, dear, not right now." 

"Why not?" 

"Because there's a great sadness inside me, and I have to write it down." 

I took my dog, Blackacre, to be put down this past Monday, while in Orlando visiting my parents. He was sick and pain medication wasn't able to give him enough relief to walk. X-rays revealed advanced degenerative arthritis and a mass surrounding an enlarged spleen and liver. The vet and I figured his indignities would only get worse, so I put him down before it got too bad.

It was a decision I made with my brain, and clung to with robotic clarity after having made the appropriate moral calculations. Yet in the moment the wonderfully kind vet asked me if I was ready, a sudden great loneliness seized me and I wanted to knock the syringe out of her hand. This dog - this good dog - had been my dog since I was a much younger woman, and suddenly I could not fathom my dear black shadow passing out of this world. I let that moment pass, because I couldn't make a choice based on my comfort at the expense of his.

Since that moment, I have been mourning that big black dog. Oh I know - he was a dog, not a person, and I don't attribute to him any qualities that he didn't have. And it's true, there are far greater sorrows in this world than mine and I have no corner market on grief right now. But it is good, and right, to mourn a creature whose care was mine for over six years, that God gave to me and I returned. Animals are part of Creation, and they reflect something of their Creator, and I'm grateful for that.

I bought him because he was too big and cheerful and out of control for anyone else. I changed his name from Lenny to Blackacre, and learned to run with him by my side. We went all over in my silver Honda Accord, to state parks, on road trips to Florida, to wherever we wanted to go. My last year in law school, I sent him to live with Tom since my new place didn't allow dogs. He bore this separation patiently and thrilled to see me on my breaks. Tom let him lay on the furniture, so I guess he didn't have it too bad.

But Blacks' true nature didn't really shine until after Tom and I were married. After my first miscarriage, I was distraught - I laid in bed and sobbed all day. He laid right by my bed, staring up at me with his deep black eyes, and knitting his eyebrows into a funny face of concern. Then, when we got pregnant with Zuzu, he was even more worried - because all I did was sleep. I'd wake to his face, resting on the bed, staring at me with that same concerned intensity. He was always worried about me.

Now that we're home in Naples, his absence is even more marked. Last night, I rose to nurse David and there was no click of nails following behind me. After nursing, I did my rounds of the house - checking on all the sleeping occupants, double-checking locked doors, peering out windows to make sure all is well on my sleepy street. As I did all this, I had no shadow to double-check my eyes, no alert ears to hear what I missed. There was not the familiar dark shape laying in the door while I nursed the baby, as there always has been, every day since I became a mother. I went into the bathroom and the mats in the bathroom were cold, which was odd because they're always warm since he liked to lay in there instead of on his bed. My floor has more food on it than before, since my floor cleaner is likewise retired. No dog to let out in the morning, no one to hush when UPS drives up, no letting the dog out as the last chore of the night. It's Wednesday, but I don't get to check "wash dog" off my chore chart list. There's no dog to wash, no sweet face pushed into the towel to get dried off.  The last time I saw him, he was still and heavy, laying on the floor with his soft head in my lap. That picture comes back to me again and again throughout the day, and I want to break in two because it seems wrong that something so beautiful should end.

My Blackacre Valentine was a good dog and that's why I mourn him. Good things deserve to be marveled at, loved, and then missed - and a good dog no less than any other thing, far greater than some things in fact. In a world where so much seems to shift and move, it is grounding to know - there are still good dogs, and they are true to their nature to the very end.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

Postpartum Thoughts

"When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and sick at home, St. Rose of Lima said to her 'When we serve the poor and sick, we serve Jesus. We must now fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.' " 
- Quoted in the Catechism, at number 2449 

Teeny tiny David, relaxing while I frantically guilt-sew a doll blanket for Zuzu, which she then promptly threw on the floor sobbing "it's not a dress! I wanted a DRESS for my dolly!" 

Consensus has it that something is majorly wrong with the West's postpartum practices. On various parenting or breastfeeding forums that I'm a part of, I regularly see women asking about getting back down to pre-pregnancy weights or fitting back in old clothes at a month - or a week! - postpartum. Blythe Fike wrote a much hailed post about how to do the postpartum period differently, and it's also been written about notably here and here.

My postpartum experiences have been so incredibly different from others that it's hard to relate, but honestly, my time after David was so much harder. Jen wasn't living with us, so I didn't have on-going help; my mom had to go back home relatively soon, and David was born during Holy Week, so Tom was basically gone for those first tender, difficult moments. And of course, we had Zuzu. I forgot how very emotional I am postpartum - how sensitive and frightened I become. I need more emotional support than I realize - I need people to force me to relax and to speak truth to me that will calm my heart. But this time, I sprung back physically very quickly, and I think this gave many people false reassurances of my well-being.

Zuzu had a lovely Easter this year, which I'm sure she would've had anyway, even if I had stayed in bed and let other people cook. Instead, I cooked a leg of lamb and arranged an egg hunt, less than a week postpartum, because I am dumb.

So the problem is well documented. What is the solution? What can we, as people who value women, children, and birth, supposed to do to create a better culture of postpartum care?

First of all, care for the pregnant women in your life. If you have a friend who is pregnant, inquire about her postpartum plans and needs, who will help her, what her fears are. Then offer to help where you can: organize her meal train, collect money to hire her a housekeeper, or a postpartum doula. Maybe find her a mother's helper, a teenager or older child to come over and play with her other children, or do light house keeping.

As Kendra Tierney says, few things make having a baby easier than also having a ten year old girl. My nieces come to visit and more than earn their keep by entertaining Zuzu in all her toddler shenanigans.

Affirm keeping the postpartum time sacred. It is so easy to see what we value by what we compliment. "You look great - so skinny!" or "She's wonder woman, just had a baby and she's out here coaching the soccer team." Compliment women differently, and honestly - "we haven't seen you much since you had the baby - good for you for making time to adjust." Text these things to your new postpartum friend, write them in an email or better yet, a lovely hand written card she can tuck in the new one's baby book (that maybe you can buy for her, if she forgot!).

Fight the isolation with visits - and don't be a guest that makes work! So often I think women get out so quickly afterwards because they are lonely. They are at home with at least one small child, their husbands or other help must get back to work, their neighborhoods may be empty of any other mothers. After the flurry of activity that surrounds the new arrival, ask if she would like a visit. Yes, this can be hard - maybe you have to arrange childcare for your kids because they're sick or she's not comfortable with them around yet; your own life is busy with many demands. But make the sacrifice, show how important this new little soul is to the community, let this be a corporal work of mercy. Bring food, drink, and little comforts for her and baby. While you talk, be mindful of her - does she seem comfortable? does she have a drink? when did she last eat? does she need a shower? The visit will not do as much good if you do not use it to gauge her needs and either attend to them, or make arrangements for them to be tended to. You will not be a helpful guest if you are making her take care of you!

Jen's strategy when I was postpartum with Zuzu was just to always hold the baby so I could shower, sleep, eat, and cry unassisted. It was amazing.

Lastly, if you are a woman of child-bearing age, make room to allow care for yourself. That is, unlike what I did with David, ask for help and accept it graciously. It is good to make freezer meals, lovingly craft quiet books for the toddler to play with while you nurse, and all the rest. But let your community take care of you as well. It is a blessing to others, as well as for you.

When David's godmother had her third baby this past June, it was such a great blessing for me to care for her. The first few weeks she was well attended by her parents and in-laws, but after that calmed down, I arranged her meal train. In the interim period, I made her new daughter a name blanket and texted her at regular intervals (not too much!) to keep in touch. When we got the green light to visit, I made sure Zuzu knew not to touch the new baby, and brought them several dinners over a few weeks. I would come earlier in the day, and sit and talk with her, watching our babies stretch on their blankets, while the older kids played in another room or outside. I hope it was good for her, because it did such a great deal for me - to see her adjust to life with three kids, to hear her incredible birth story, to revel again in the gift of new life.

I truly believe that respect for the postpartum period will help women be the mothers that God is calling them to be. And that could not be more vital for our society since, as the old adage says, "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

At least this little world. 

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Monday, October 12, 2015

The Zee is Three

Three years ago, I was seven hours from my water breaking, and just fifteen hours away from laying my eyes on my firstborn child. Birth story here.

Three years.

I remember so much about my pregnant, so many moments, so much anticipation. I nostalgically look back on her newborn days - six weeks of watching LOST with Tom and Jen, eating amazing food delivered by my fantastic community, staring at her for hours. I remember so much about her first year (first month!), every single first etched in my mind forever: first time she rolled over, waved, the sound she made when she sneezed, her funny pirate crawl, sitting up, walking, saying Dada. I remember the first flower she picked for me - a Don Juan rose from the bush that grows by my parent's mailbox in the house that I spent a good deal of my growing up life in.

And now, somehow, we're here. This past year flew by - between my pregnancy and David's arrival, house projects, travel - it feels like just yesterday was her second birthday. Here we are, and she's changed so much. She's potty-trained, takes swim lessons, hangs out in the YMCA daycare, goes to her little faith formation preschool.

Yet she's the same. Oh, she's the same. As one. As two.

From the day she was born, she was special. Doesn't every mother say that about each child? Oh, I don't care - I'll say it about her. She's different. She is bright, and sensitive, and funny. Her memory is stunning and her sense of comedic timing truly impressive - I'm thinking of her kicking back in her brother's baby bathtub and cheerily declaring, "I'm in a holiday mood!" As Grandma Jean said of her, "she dazzles me." She is still watchful, a bit guarded with newcomers, relentlessly affectionate with her intimate friends, and happiest relaxing near water with me, her mother. I remember being able to work in the garden with her from the time she was little - 14 months - and she'd stay right by me, listen when I told her to stay, ever watchful and careful and wise.

Although, it isn't that easy being her mother anymore. Toddlerhood hit her with a vengeance about two months before David was born, and it's been very hard on all of us to adjust to her growing pains, to learn anew how to care for her best. Even harder still, I feel my responsibilities keenly where she is concerned: to help her mold and train her talents into virtues, and to work to acquire that which doesn't come easily. I feel so much responsibility because I see her as so very amazing - I want to lay the foundations for virtue so that she will be ready to do whatever great work God asks of her. Some days I overly complicate this; on my best days, I realize this comes naturally when I love her deeply for just who she is and work to communicate that love in all we do day by day, side by side.

It's hard for me to say what I really think when I look her, which quite honestly is: you are my dream come true, you are what I've always wanted, my greatest work in this life is to care for you, and your siblings, until God calls me home. Susannah's entrance into the world ushered in the start of my great adventure, what I am doing to make the world more beautiful. I am humbled to be the recipient of such a gift; each day, I endeavor to deserve the honor of being a mother, and having so precious a child.

Happy birthday, Susannah Marshall. May this year bring you great joy, grand adventures, and lots of strawberry donuts with sprinkles (your favorite).

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Where's the Pope Love?

These days, all I see all over Facebook - from Catholics and non-Catholics alike - is talk about Pope Francis. Yet, amongst my actual Catholic friends, it's radio silence. None of my favorite blogs have written about him either. Only my politico-Catholic friends are covering his visit.

I've seen some non-Catholics insisting, why is that? Isn't this your leader? What - you don't like him cause he's liberal?

So I thought I'd answer the question: where's the orthodox Catholic pope love? 

I fully admit I struggle with Pope Francis. I struggle with him because it seems that he's constantly misspeaking about our teachings, saying things that make the Western world go wild with speculation about us changing our beliefs - which seems to many to be inevitable. I struggle with him because I think he often acts/speaks first without thinking - a trait that is usually problematic, but is catastrophically so when you are the world leader of a much-hated religion. I get angry that he gives fodder to people who insist that Catholicism is shades of grey, that I can choose to live my Catholicism one way and they can live theirs another way because the Pope said so. It grieves me that his papacy is so often hailed as the complete opposite of Pope Emeritus Benedict's - because I saw Benedict three times in person and fell in love with him more each time.

But he also endears himself to me regularly. Some of his most oft-repeated quotes are seared in my brain: "a shepherd should smell like his sheep" has been something I have reflected upon repeatedly since I read it; and "the Church is a hospital for sinners" has stopped me in my tracks more than once, especially during Mass. I love the fact that he so clearly loves people, I love that he has such a big heart that sometimes he trips over it. I love that he makes Catholics who have mistaken their religion for a political party uncomfortable - I am so glad that he makes the West uncomfortable when he talks about the poor and the marginalized, especially immigrants. To my delight, he defies categorization as left or right and seems to annoy everyone. I think that is a good thing, because we all run the risk of making our Catholicism small - making it about our pet issues when really it's so much bigger and holistic than that.

The thing about Pope Frances is that when you talk of him, you can never really be sure what to say. There's so much to love and so much to confound; much to celebrate and to mourn. When he speaks, we always want to believe the best - but it's so rarely clear that's what he means. Perhaps that's why we're silent - because, just like the rest of the world, he's simply giving us a lot to think about.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Waking Up

Sometimes I look at my life, and my behavior, and my choices and I wonder: who have I become?

What shocks me most about myself post-marriage and babies is that I haven't changed in what I would perceive to be big ways: what I believe, how I behave, what's important. What has changed are aspects of myself I would have always classified as minor: my organization, drive for self-perfection, type-A tendencies. I didn't think that could go away - I thought it was a (huge) part of who I was.

Enjoying real seasons while in grad school

If I'm being honest, it was eroded slowly before I got to where I am now, even if it's taken me until now to really put my finger on what has been 'off.' First I didn't do as well as I thought I would in law school. I wasn't at the bottom of my class, by any means! But I hadn't ever not been in the top - not when I tried, anyway. But I wasn't, and I blew it, and it's not the kind of thing you can get back. I navigated that okay, but then I had the tornado which made me feel so out of control and it made me feel like law school never happened. So then I got married and I thought, well....what now. I tried to just throw myself into making a home and a baby, but it turned out both were harder than they looked on paper. I took the Bar (and failed).

Former house

Law school graduation

All this time, these successive failures and struggles with these huge issues that felt so out of control, I didn't realize they were changing me. But here I am now, seven years later, and I realize I am really not who I was. So much of my personality was taken, molded, changed, adapted, or maybe just buried by all of that stuff.

But I know those parts of me are still there, because I get furiously angry if I get out of bed later than 8am. A day where I get very little 'done' leaves me feeling defeated and resentful. And yet now my entire life feels out of control - feels unorganized - feels not me. It feels like I've taken a nap from life and I'm waking up thinking, how the hell did I get here? I'm angry. I'm angry a lot. I'm mad at the condition of my house, the lack of systems to run it efficiently, and my general flakiness. I'm mad and hurt that I am no longer known as a powerhouse of efficiency and planning.

I get the sense that many friends or family think I should be working, or that my frustration lies in my education going unused. It's not true - I love my work. I love to be at home and with my children. I just want to do it as me, instead of whoever I've been acting like.

I know I can't envy who I was - I know I can't hold myself to the same levels of efficiency now that kids are here - I know that I should "waste time" with my children - but I have to find some way to regain a sense of myself before I end up blaming everything that I love for taking it from me.

So I've started going to the gym. It's a weird microcosm of a habit: I'm trying to make myself do this one thing every day. If I do this one thing, then I will have the schedule the rest of my day in order to get it done. I am making myself go - even on days when Zuzu is whiny or David hasn't napped. Even though right now, it feels like this habit is causing MORE chaos in my home as I get used to having more being required of me. I am trying to relearn my favorite virtue of self-control and hope that it carries over into the rest of my life, because it seems the alternative is being out of control and I'm not sure how much longer I could live like that.

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Thursday, September 3, 2015

According to Z

Yesterday, as I was trying to get her ready to head to the babysitter's so that Tom and I could have a much needed date night...

Me: Oookay, please go grab your shorts so we can go.
Me: Uh huh. Please go grab your shorts.
Zuzu: FLEEK.
Me: ZUZU that word doesn't mean anything! Please listen to me!
Zuzu: It DOES mean something! It means I'm very hungry and I need to eat right away!
Me: ...well. Ok. I will get you food. First please get your shorts.
Zuzu: Oh-KAY!


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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Making Room for Change

When we had Zuzu, I was pretty firmly in the 'crunchy' mom camp. I don't know how it happened - I'm really not a hippy. But since I knew I wanted to have a natural birth outside of a hospital, everything else came rushing in - like it was a package deal.

Natural birth -> breastfeeding -> bedsharing -> attachment parenting -> cloth diapering -> amber teething necklaces -> baby wearing

Happily, it really worked for us. That first year of Zuzu's life was great! Breastfeeding went well, she was a happy baby in adorable cloth diapers, and I loved wearing her. Great. Good.

But...after a year, some things started to wear on me. On our family. Overnight, she'd always leak out of her cloth diapers, so I was changing the sheets a lot. I had a ton of women telling me how to fix the diapers so it would work better, but...we just switched to disposables for overnight. Then, she was having some issues with diaper rash. When I went into my local crunchy mama store to ask for diaper creams that were ok to use with cloth diapers, the store's clerk first response was "oh wow, we really don't carry anything because babies who wear cloth diapers don't get diaper rash."

Oh wow, really - want to see my baby's bum?

It went on from there. We weren't getting a lot of sleep at night because my daughter liked to nurse all. night. long. I didn't get out a whole lot without her because I was the one who nursed her down for naps and bedtime, and she woke frequently to nurse. Sometimes it felt like she was a little TOO attached - it was hard leaving her with Tom, or my mom, or anyone. It was hard to parent her without using nursing as the main parenting tool. To be fair, I didn't want to get out much - I loved being with her all of the time. But I'm not sure it was really good for me - I wasn't taking care of my health,  cultivating a spiritual life, or investing in my friendships. My world was Zuzu and you know what the Bible says about idols.

All of this information about nursing, but I had no idea how to go about weaning, what age was okay to do so, or how to do without just doing it cold turkey.

It started to feel like attachment parenting or crunchy-ness or whatever - was this train that once you got on, you couldn't get off. It worked great when she was a tiny squish, but as she was getting to be an older toddler, I wasn't happy. The advice I got from that community was, try harder, override your gut feeling, ignore your own needs, don't be selfish.

I felt lost about how to run my family or my household sometimes, like I couldn't make certain decisions because it would hurt my child. I was so worried about hurting her by: weaning too soon, not letting her bedshare anymore, spanking, setting nursing limits, doing pretty much anything that made her cry (because letting/making your children cry makes you a monster, in some communities). I felt powerless.

And that's bollocks.

Parenting shouldn't feel like that. And if there's a parenting philosophy that is making you feel that way, it's probably not a good fit for you right now. If something worked when your child was young, but doesn't work now - you can stop. Right now! I'm giving you permission. If it worked for number one, but not number two? Cool, change it. Worked for numbers 1-4, but not 5? Change that too. I realized that I had put all these rules in place in my parenting, but hadn't made room for me to change my mind with experience. That's crazy! Experience will be the best teacher, always. I couldn't ignore the lessons I was learning and more frighteningly, if I stayed rigid, I realized I'd break.

I have another baby now. He hasn't ever slept a night in my bed. Sometimes I let him fuss in his pack and play, when I know he's really tired and not really hungry. He's 5 months old and we just started cloth diapering. I weaned Zuzu from night-nursing nine months ago and it's been GREAT. We've started talking about weaning after her third birthday and she seems cool with it, but even if she's not...I'm ready. And that can be a good reason to make a parenting choice too.

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Brand New.

If you're reading this in any kind of blog reader I'm begging - no really, begging! - you to click through to my blog. Even better if it's on a computer, not a phone.

That way you can see my fancy new blog design, courtesy of the incredibly patient, incredibly talented Rebekah Louise. We have been working on this since, oh, the end of May and she has put up with every delay, every quibble, every search for the perfect font. Turns out, I'm kind of picky about how I want things to look in this virtual space, if I'm given the option. 

So, make yourself at home here. I'm still working on updating all the tabs and re-labeling posts to show up correctly, etc. etc. 

But it's nice to have someplace tidy and neat - even if it is only my virtual home.

Friday, July 31, 2015

End of an Era

Two years, nine months, and five days ago, I gave birth to my first child.

I had been waiting to become a mother my entire life: I have always been very maternal and couldn't wait to have children of my own. Unlike many of the narratives of first-time moms that I read these days, Susannah's early months were delightful. I loved each new stage, and treasured my days with her in our little home. Yet I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that a huge reason that I had such an easy transition into motherhood was...


She lived with us for the first five months of Zuzu's life - what a help that was! I had a pediatric nurse just steps away from my bedroom door, someone to ask about fevers or hiccups, a second set of hands at dinnertime, another set of arms to hold my baby while I took a shower or a nap or a walk. I'm no fool; I know that I had what very few women have today - real and constant support from another woman while I learned to be a mom.

Her friendship fundamentally changed my motherhood, because she was present to me even beyond those five months. For almost two years, nine months, and four days, she has been a near-constant presence in my household. We have shared meals, late nights, heartache, vacations, clothes, cars, and burdens. We were one another's ride to the airport and "I've landed!" text. We have cleaned each other's bathrooms, done one another's laundry, and advised one another on everything from hair color to spiritual struggles. We have fought - with one another and for one another and against the powers of Hell.

From one baby in Italy...

To two babies in my living room...

No one is better at snuggles than Auntie Jen.

And now she's moving.

She's moving to pursue her dream job in our favorite city, Washington DC, and I'm so proud. I am so damn proud of the woman she has become over these two years, nine months, and four days. These years have been transformative for us both - we have, in so many vital ways, started to fully embrace the women we are called to be. She is strong, beautiful, and full of joy. I am in awe of the way she carries Christ to the world and, to be honest, a little envious of her fire right now. I was hoping she'd stick around a little longer so my tiny little ember of zeal that's barely hanging on could catch some of her heat...but she goes where she's called, and I know I'll still be able to see that flame even from here, even from one thousand forty nine miles away.


Steubenville Orlando!

 Naples zoo....

I'm saying goodbye - goodbye to the woman who has had the greatest impact on my mothering that isn't related to me or the actual embodiment of supernatural grace (that'd be Mary, obviously). I'm saying goodbye to Zuzu's godmother, my children's second mother, the always-set third place at my table, my afternoon visitor, my best friend. Oh, I know, it's not really goodbye - but it's goodbye to this time that has been so savored, so sweet, so precious.

So raise your virtual glass with me to toast this time - this woman - our friendship: here's to the memories that will never fade and new ones yet to be forged, to new adventures yet to be known, to friendship that endures beyond distance and time.