Going Dark

When I took a Facebook break in November, friends asked if I was okay. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “I just needed a break for my sanity.” But I wasn’t okay.

I removed that blue logo with a lowercase f off my phone. I spent a few minutes looking at cute kids on Instagram. I implemented Screen-Free Sundays at home (it was short-lived), cooking with Ethan. I unplugged. I had time to myself. There was a freedom to it, but with that freedom came all the feelings I had shoved to the side so I could stay afloat in a year that brought stress so intense in all areas of my life from work to friends, life to love, that I almost came undone.

So as the curtain closed on 2016, I finally let the darkness in and owned it. I let myself crumble in the corner of a steamy shower and cry. I let myself create a Thai Phi-sized ass groove on the couch and watch marathons of Gilmore Girls and Grey’s Anatomy. I let my great friend pull me outside for long walks to clear my head. I overslept, took days off, talked too much and, some days, too little. I fell back into bad habits when I feel like life is out of control. I binged. I purged. I got angry. I fell apart. But if you saw me outside, I smiled. It’s amazing what happens behind closed doors.

But much like my divorce, by confronting the darkness, I could move on and even see the light in it. So here, in random order, are my lessons learned over the last three months:

It is possible to eat and drink my feelings, and by the end of 2016, I could actually quantify it. My feelings from November through December weighed exactly 13.4 pounds. On a related note: I really missed my carbs in January.

As you watch one of your best friends go through surgeries, chemo and lose her hair, it’s hard to find the words, the words to tell her how much you love her, how much her friendship brightens your life, how the thought of losing her can catch you by surprise in those quiet moments alone in the shower or the car and crush you, how brave and strong you think she is, how you know she’s going to be okay, how you wish you could teleport halfway across the country at a moment’s notice. You have all these words mashed in your head, but then you spend a freezing cold December weekend in Wisconsin watching terrible romantic comedies in your pjs, eating an absurd amount of cheese and watching the snow fall outside and realize that sometimes that’s enough.

When your friend tells you not to check the weather before you head to Wisconsin and “just pack layers,” it is not a good sign.

It’s an even worse sign when said friend texts you a day before the trip, “Don’t worry, Wisconsin airports only close for blizzards.”

Your kids may say something they can’t unsay, words that will worry you and break your heart. You fear those relationships will never be the same, but we heal.

Having a teenager will give you heartburn, but it’s amazing—and slightly unnerving—to watch them become an adult, engaging in real conversations about issues around the world.

Do not drink too much the night before a race. This, unfortunately, is a lesson I have to relearn a lot.

I spent my birthday month donating to various organizations from the International Rescue Committee to a scholarship for immigrants. I know you can’t just throw money at a problem, but damn does it feel good.

When you let work bleed deeply into your life, you can’t be a good partner or parent.

When you’re with someone for years, it’s impossible to feel connected all the time, but when you both had previous marriages that began to crumble around the 7-year-mark, it’s hard not to panic when you’re nearing that same milestone.

The morning after the elections, I sobbed into Mark’s shoulder for a long time. He had to get to work earlier than me, but he never left until I mustered the energy to take a shower. A month later, when I talked about eventually saving thousands of dollars to help a refugee family settle here someday, he immediately supported me. And even though I spent weeks snapping at him while he was trying to wrap up his final grad school project, he held my hand as I melted down before we were about to head to the airport so I could see my friend in Wisconsin. When you have a person like that, no matter how disconnected you might be feeling at the moment, you hold on to him and fight for it.

Penn State is a cult. Seriously. That’s an intense love of school, people.

I may or may not just be jealous of Penn State because GW’s not allowed to have contact sports, but hey, we rock the political activism like a boss. (ADDED NOTE: Political activism feels a little like a contact sport these days.)

It’s possible to body shame yourself at 10:30 p.m. while lying in bed and, on a whim, Amazon Prime yourself a treadmill.

If you order a treadmill, Murphy’s Law says you will throw out your back bending over two inches to the left and be told by your doctor to stop running for a bit.

It’s entirely possible to get a lot of work done from the floor of your house, even while on Percoset.

Do not take Percoset and a muscle relaxer at the same time. You will write an email to your boyfriend that he will dub “serial killer grammar” because it’s full of typos, random middle of the sentence capitalizations and nonsensical word combinations.

Even when you’re surrounded by people, life can sometimes be lonely.

Keep in touch with your college mentors. No matter how old you get, they always seem to have the right words to say. Admittedly, it really helps if that person is a professional journalist.

Being the person that is supposed to always be happy can be exhausting.

There’s a divide in this country that I don’t know how to bridge, but we have to keep trying and at some point, we have to start listening. I’d like to say that I’m there, but if I’m being honest with myself, I’m not yet and a lot of you aren’t either.

I know the most badass, powerful women. I am in awe as I watch them mobilize.

You don’t realize how sad you really were until you rediscover your center.

Fuck cancer.

 

 

Broken

halloween-pumpkin

It’s been nearly 8 years since Adam and I separated. We’ve made up and moved on, but last night, I hated that I was divorced.

Since Ethan was born, our Halloween tradition has remained the same. Trick or treating through our favorite Alexandria neighborhood. Candy for the kids. Wine and beer for the adults. Win-win for everyone.

It didn’t matter if we were deliriously exhausted and happy with a 6-day-old or barely speaking, each holding on to one of Ethan’s pudgy toddler hands; we were bound to this sugar-fueled adventure together.

When Ethan was one, my little pumpkin hobbled down the sidewalk, clutching his York Peppermint Patty and raising his arms up every time we’d scream “Touchdown!” Two was a blur as I was the one hobbling down the sidewalk a few steps behind Spider-Man, thinking about my boxes that sat inside our house waiting to be moved out the next day.

By three, I was chasing a green dinosaur around my condo as he roared with his hands. With Adam literally around the corner, Ethan’s little feet could easily make the usual trek for candy. Years would pass. Michelle came along. Mark joined. The dinosaur became a red Power Ranger, who grew into Robin.

And yesterday I was ready to keep to the plan. At 4:30 p.m., I hopped in my car in downtown D.C., prepped for the annual mad dash by parents to make it home in time for Halloween. I failed. Nearly two hours later, Ethan was already on his way to Alexandria with his dad and I was still another hour away at my house in Arlington. A Halloween tradition broken.

Alone on the couch, I sobbed into a bowl of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Sweet Tarts and didn’t stop until the first costumed child knocked on my door.

In those few hours as kids streamed by the house, I couldn’t shake the feeling. If I weren’t divorced, I’d be shuffling door to door with Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star-Lord. If I weren’t divorced, I would be the one taking photos of him posing as a super hero instead of watching photos appear on my phone. If I weren’t divorced, I wouldn’t be listening to my son comfort me on the phone as he assures me it’s okay I missed Halloween.

Don’t confuse this. I don’t want my previous life. My blended family brings me every cheesy joy I could imagine, but sometimes I crave that normalcy. I hate that I miss holidays and lose out on time. I hate that I live out parts of Ethan’s life through photos. While these moments are fleeting, they’re there, and when they hit, it can break you.

Bring Back the Cupcakes

goodie-bag

There was a plan. Ethan would get to sleep in an extra hour. I’d give him one present in the morning and his favorite bagel to kick off his 9th birthday celebration.

At 7:10 a.m. I shot up out of bed. Holy &D^&?! I forgot the birthday goodie bags for his classroom.

Back in the good ol’ days, I’m told you could run to the grocery store, pick up a tray of those neon-colored, confetti-covered frosted cupcakes and be done. Heck, you could even slather it in peanut butter and sprinkle it with various tree nuts. But those days are gone.

Modern-day parenting requires creativity, or for me, an open Safeway grocery store on a route that has zero traffic lights. I toss on some clothes. At first I think about running a brush through my hair to avoid any Walk of Shame ideas, but with one look in the mirror at my oversized sweatshirt, makeup-free face and Christmas plaid pajama pants, I realize no one’s going to think I was getting any last night.

I run into Ethan’s room. “You’re nine! Happy birthday, buddy!”

“Yay!” He rolls over.

“Soooooo, uh, Ethan, are your friends giving out birthday bags in class this year?”

“No.” Hope.

“Nothing?”

“I’m the first birthday in my class this year.” *sigh*

“Okay, I’m running to the store to pick up some goodies.” Unconcerned, he’s already sleeping again.

I make a mad dash to Safeway. Halloween candy abounds, but I remember the healthy food rule. I see nuts, but then I picture kids in anaphylactic shock, followed by a lawsuit. Hanging to the side are reusable trick-or-treat bags shaped in cute Halloween characters. Bingo. Eco-friendly random item. Has Arlington written all over it. Check. Next question, how many? I have no idea. Twenty-one sounds like a nice, unround number.

I scan the aisles. Diapers. Triscuits. A tower of limes. No. No. Maybe, if I’m desperate. I stop a Safeway worker. “Do you have stickers anywhere?” She walks me to the school supply aisle. I stare at a wall of yellow pencils, paper clips and tape dispensers. I explain the situation.

“Wait a minute,” she says. “I think I have stickers in my purse in the storage room. You wouldn’t have to pay for it.” That’s right. Moms unite in the face of disheveled disaster. She comes running back, but she only has the plain white labels.

I thank her profusely, but I now have my eye on these decorative erasers. Just what every 3rd grader wants. Close enough. There are 16. I recall Ethan has a handful of packaged Star Wars erasers at home too. I can make this happen.

I want one more item. Shakespeare was a fan of threes and so am I. Rules be damned. I’m getting sugary lollipops. I grab a bag and make my way to the register.

“Please be patient with us. We went through a tech upgrade last night and the system is new.” No problem. I have a few minutes to spare.

“Sorry, let’s move to aisle 2. There’s a problem with this register.” I move my 21 eco-friendly bags, erasers and obesity-causing candy one lane over.

“Oh sorry, it’s not working.” I ask if we should move to another register. “No, all the registers aren’t working.” Throughout these elections, I’ve steered clear of the conspiracy theories, but today, I’m certain there was a conspiracy out to get me.

As I wait there, I spy more bags and decide to toss a black cat-themed one in for good measure. 22 total. Fifteen minutes later, I’m dashing to my car. Once at the house, I scramble up the stairs.

Ethan, how many kids are in your class? “23!” Of course.

23 … including you? “Yup.” Sorry kid, no goodie bag for your birthday.

As Ethan gets ready for school, I’m toasting up his bagel and pulling together the bags. I place each of them inside a fancy paper bag with handles instead of the plastic Safeway bag. Makes it look like I didn’t just toss this together, that maybe I did this weeks in advance, right?

I slab cream cheese on Ethan’s bagel and promptly have it slide off the plate into a pot soaking with water—face down. It’s cool. I’ll dab it (furiously) with a paper towel. He finishes eating his water-laden bagel and we head to school.

In the drop off line, he’s halfway out the door as I scream, “Oh, happy birthday, Ethan! Love you!”

Off to work I go. All I know is that these kids are just lucky they didn’t get a bag of Safeway limes.

Off-Roading

Star Wars Family

Mark’s exact words about me in a text message to my ex were “She’s being such a pain in the ass.” But it didn’t end there. Words of agreement buzzed back from Adam. (Didn’t our 10 years together mean anything to you, man?!) Complaints about my behavior. The betrayal cut like a knife.

But that exchange two years ago solidified it: Adam and I had hit rock star divorced couple status. The two most important adult men in my life were friends.

Don’t get me wrong. They’re full of crap. I’m never a pain. I’m Mary freaking Poppins in a Vietnamese body. And I’m fairly certain they both committed a cardinal sin in the unwritten Rules of Divorce, which clearly states that under no circumstances are you permitted to commiserate with the ex. Punishment? Death. Definitely death. Okay maybe not, but only because the idea of finding another mate sounds exhausting. Do I swipe left? Swipe right? It’s very confusing.

So here we are haphazardly traveling into the less explored territory known as Very Friendly Exes, which is riddled with potholes and detours. Every now and then I feel lost, and there’s no Waze for divorce. No fastest route from A to B. No ways to see the obstacles ahead. When I figure out that app, I’ll be a millionaire, but until then, thankfully being lost is my usual driving style. (Just ask either guy. They’ll attest to it—apparently to each other.) I know I’ve got this under control, but just when I think I’ve memorized the route, it changes.

What began as a 10-feet limit and a thick wall of silence at soccer skills sessions when Ethan was 3 years old grew into conversations at practices and then sitting next to Ethan’s stepmom at games to chat. We were pretty sure that for a while people thought we were a lesbian couple and Adam was his nanny. I don’t even want to know what they thought of Mark who would make the occasional appearance since he was living in Virginia Beach at the time.

In kindergarten we crammed into one car to drop Ethan off for his first day of school. He would later call his dad to fill him in on all the exciting first day happenings. For the last two years, we meet for pictures in the morning and gather at my house for dinner to take advantage of the one day a year where the answer to “How was school?” isn’t just “Good” or “I don’t remember.”

Halloween used to mean sticking next to Ethan while he wandered through his dad’s neighborhood and catching up with neighbors. These days, there are drinks at Adam and Michelle’s beforehand and even a coordinated costumed Star Wars family. Ethan quickly put the kibosh on that after one year because no matter how much he wants his parents to get along, not being embarrassed appears to trump it all.

Birthday parties were always joint, but this last one was the first in what will be many years of tradition to gather our blended family for a small dinner on his actual birthday. I sat there regaling Ethan with stories of my labor while he ignored me and his stepmom kept trying to divert him back over. “Ethan, she’s trying to get sentimental over there,” she joked.

And the blending isn’t just with Ethan. Last night Mark and I were talking about the family NHL Stanley Cups bracket contest. The college kid, aka Aaron, set it up and sent the link out to everyone—everyone but me that is. That obviously meant instant berating for Aaron. “So you sent the bracket to my ex but not to your stepmom?” There goes your next care package, kid.

We get an invite to the birthday party for Adam and Michelle’s daughter. I have come home to find Adam jamming in the basement with the teens. Avery wants a Porsche. He says he’ll ask Adam. (Even he knows which “parent” is most likely to even pretend to help him with that pipe dream.) Aaron calls and emails with Adam at school. This summer he’ll be interning with him. To top it off, Adam is listed as one of our first emergency contacts for Avery. Even in this uncharted territory, there is deep-rooted trust between all four of us.

That’s not to say we haven’t hit a wall—not a Trump U.S./Mexico-style wall, but a wall that makes you stop and rethink direction. The last wall may have come in the form of a question. “Would you invite Adam and Michelle to your wedding?” As I opened my mouth to answer, I heard Mark promptly say, “No. I love them, but no.” Mouth snapped shut. Uh, yeah, totally what I was going to say…

Wait, why not? There I go again. A little off-roading adventure never hurt anyone.

Leaning In, Laying Down, Lifting Off

flying-tp

Woman. Girlfriend. Mom. Writer. Sister. Daughter. Friend. The pieces move, but woman always stays first. I’ve never been the person who puts mom in front. I tried it once. Me? A stay-at-home, alone, with no one but a baby to talk to. It was a true example of a messy extrovert explosion.

Years later, I found my balance. A solid 8:30 to 4:30 gig. Write by day, home by 5—with a run at lunch even. I get homework time while making dinner, games and science experiments with the 8-year-old, happy hour with friends, sushi outings with the teen, actual date nights with my man.

But I feel the balance slipping. The gentle slope tilting further as things begin to tip. 8:30 edges toward 8. 4:30 inches toward 5, 6, 7. Mark, can you pick up Ethan tonight? The asks are more frequent. A scramble up the sidewalk to the aftercare program as I count down the seconds before 6 p.m. hits. I see Ethan staring out the small window slit of the door, the last one standing with his backpack and coat in hand.

Want to play right now, Ethan? “Not right now.” But I haven’t prodded like I used to. Instead I swipe away at the phone, scanning for news stories I can use. Ave, up for sushi tonight? “I’ll let you know,” as he goes upstairs to study. Sushi soon replaced by frozen pizza and 10 minutes talking on the couch instead of a few hours catching up.

And there it is again. The disconnect, the small gap growing. It feels familiar. Takes me back a few years. Kids can’t divorce their parents though, right? But I’m so close, on the cusp of exactly where I want my career to go, and I’m loving it. Creative projects. Fun writing. Amazing interview opportunities. A return to bylines. Then the other day, my coworker said that your kids are only young once. Stab. I know. I can feel that ache in my heart. But what if my career chance goes by as fast as my kids grow up?

I want to lean in, lay down and lift off all at one time. I want to be “Woman hear me roar,” while I sit on the bed crying into my boyfriend’s shoulder because I’m so exhausted. For the first time I missed one of Ethan’s soccer games not because I was out of town or sick; I just needed more sleep. I have dozens of emails from my favorite people waiting for replies. I’m 10 pounds heavier. I have friends who are struggling, and I am failing them. I am failing.

Tonight I’m writing this blog in my head as I “sleep,” panicking I won’t remember anything by morning. Can’t stop. Won’t stop. That’s my mind these days. Permanent play button with short buffering interruptions.

I shouldn’t have let Ethan play so many video games on Tuesday. I should have pulled out some games to play together. I should tell Avery we’re going to sushi, somewhere close. No more than an hour. Everyone has to eat, and I’m behind on the teen slang by now. Guilt drips over every thought. The time ticks. 1 a.m.

I really need to contact this person for an interview. I want to cover this story with this angle. I’m getting excited. 2 a.m.

Sleep.

Wait, what if I talked to this person? Do I have time to write another article before I leave for the kids’ spring break? 3 a.m.

I have to make sure to leave work at home when we’re in Florida. Next week I’m going to splash with the kids in the pool. I’ll be the fun parent on the ground with the Legos. Popcorn and movies. I’ll do it all. 4 a.m.

When my marriage ended, I was shattered, but I picked up whatever random pieces I could find and built myself into something new, something stronger. So I know that this, I can get through, but for now, I’m watching little parts break off, haphazardly catching what I can. Maybe it’s okay to let a few fall to the ground. Today I’m failing, but maybe tomorrow I’ll fly.

Keeping Up, Always Behind

aaron-avery-sushi

We had nine blocks to walk from my downtown office to the sushi restaurant. I tried, but I couldn’t keep up. Always three steps behind. The click of my heels scurrying behind two tall teen boys. Slow down, guys! They’d pause for a beat, take a look back and slow their stride, but inevitably their feet would move as fast as their conversation. At lights I would catch up, only to lose them as the walk sign blinked on.

Aaron, my stepson at Penn State, just hopped a bus home a little early for spring break. Perfect timing. It is a Wednesday and that means stepson sushi night. Double the teens, double the slang, right? My language immersion was about to go full tilt.

When we got to the restaurant, I caught my breath, sat down and got ready to start grilling. Prying is what I do best. I like to think of it as investigative journalism. Some might say it’s more synonymous with “nosy stepparent.” I can’t deny that. I was, however, thwarted by the bubbling excitement of two very close brothers who haven’t seen each other since Christmas.

Words zipped by. The Dab. Damn, Daniel. My mans. Here we go. If only I brought my reporter’s notebook. My digital recorder even! Take an L. Hotline Bling. I got a question in here and there, but they were busy chatting about their bikes, their Spotify playlists, partying in college, economics class (I know, really?), Sheetz coffee, laptop use in high school, the Apple privacy case, and on and on.

I watched the two like you watch an Olympic ping pong match. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Back and forth. Back and forth. And there was that feeling again, the one where I can’t keep up.

The boys are 16 and 19 now. It’s been more than three years since I last saw Avery’s long, blond Bieber hair. Today it sits (heavily) gelled, short and swept to the side. Aaron has stopped talking about being a Navy pilot. He mentions looking for IT internships and writing speeches for school. There’s a picture of Avery on our wall at home. He was in fifth grade, his fingers stretching to reach all the guitar strings as our friend Cary was showing him how to play. Now he’ll pull out the James Bond theme song, Metallica or Led Zeppelin. Aaron no longer asks if he can have a soda from the fridge or if he can head out with a friend. There is no curfew for him. The Legos are now all stored in Ethan’s room, and the coffee isn’t just for Mark anymore. To top it off, today Avery officially got his driver’s license.

The two have grown faster than I can keep pace with. I look at Aaron and Avery and I see flashes of it in Ethan. Want me to come play with you? “No, I’m okay. Can you close the door?” Later I find his Lego minifigures strewn across the bed in the midst of some epic battle, one I used to play a key role in. I see peeks into the future when he sponges up the teen speak and throws out words like “You got wrecked” or “Yeet.” Yesterday he showed me some dance moves and I immediately saw a 20-something Adam. His father’s child. Full of rhythm and a love of the Running Man.

For now, Ethan still snuggles up with me on the couch. The last two days he’s been carting around his new bat stuffed animal I brought back from Austin, even making a “cave” for him on his bed. He likes to pick a new stuffed animal to sleep with in bed each night. Sometimes he lets me read to him, even if he usually likes to do it alone.

With Ethan, I have a few more years before his strides are too long and his pace too quick, but he has two brothers he’s in a hurry to catch up to. So I know at some point there will be three boys ahead of me. I can only hope that every once in a while, they’ll slow down and take a look behind because there I’ll be, prepped and ready to go. And by ready, I mean ready with at least 20 probing questions. I am still a nosy (step)mom no matter how old they’ll be.

****

While I didn’t understand most of what they were saying, I did walk away with some new knowledge to pass on for the Dankster Dictionary:

The Dab: A dance that originated with Cam Newton. If you watch football then you probably already know this. It involves dropping your head while raising one outstretched arm to the side and the other bent. Your dropped head should go into said bent arm, near the elbow. Google it. Makes way more sense.

Hotline Bling: Dance originate by Drake. To me, it looks like shaking dice in your hands and rolling it by your side. I could be wrong. I may have misinterpreted.

My Mans: I personally think it’s the same thing as “My man,” but in plural form because it’s the hipster thing to do. Ex/Avery’s friend walked into the restaurant. To say hi, he said, “Theo! My mans!”

Taking an L: Taking a loss. Ex/After THON, I took an L on my 8 a.m. and skipped it. (Not that the Penn State student would say something like that at all. Who skips classes in college?)

 

Bleeding Red

red-dressWe never fought. Voices never raised until the beginning of the end. My ex and I were laid back, easy going, unfazed. I now know it was denial, passive, naive.

We definitely annoyed, but we barely bickered. About what? I don’t even remember. Amazing how memories fade even as the emotions linger. But I do remember the last fight. The memory screams out loud in my head.

I stood there in the kitchen in my new red maxi dress, a gift to myself from a girls’ weekend in New York City. Retail therapy to make me feel like a woman again. Red to make me pop, to make myself seen. Maybe he’ll see how pretty I am. Remember when I was beautiful?

But I didn’t feel beautiful. All I felt were the stings. Stings from the words we were hurling at each other. I can’t live like this. It hurts too much. I can’t breathe. Get away from me. Decisions. Breaking points. Nausea. It’s over.

How soft that beautiful dress felt against my face as I slumped against the cabinet. How well it sopped up my tears.

Over the next couple months, I packed up. You want to throw it all away. Start over. I am, however, a writer. I can’t afford that. So I took the changing table from the nursery where we laughed so hard when Ethan farted poop all over me when I changed his diaper. I wrapped up the silverware that were perfectly weighted so Adam could twirl them in his hand like a good parlor trick. I tucked away ornaments we picked out for our first Christmas tree together. I grabbed the frames that once held photos of our life and our wedding invitation—a 1-year paper anniversary gift. There was the china from our wedding and the glasses from our registry. They went from one home to another. Packed and sealed away.

Ripping open those boxes felt like ripping off a band aid on a wound that hadn’t even started healing. You don’t know how far you’ve fallen until a stack of silver-lined plates and brown Pottery Barn towels make you weep.

But they went in my cabinets. The silverware in the drawers. The dresser in Ethan’s new room. The red dress into the closet. I used them every day. The plates became mainstays for my dinner parties with the new running group I had joined. The wine glasses saw nights full of lonely tears and raucous drunken escapades with friends. I handed the ornaments to my friend Lauren who was helping me trim my tree after an entire weekend of our usual marathon conversations about body image, writing and relationships. I slid in photos of my family in Puerto Rico and a blizzard with Ethan in Pennsylvania in the frames. Later they held images of two blond boys, Aaron and Avery, with Ethan on a soccer field.

I pulled the dress out. The deep red patches of tear-stained fabric had long dried and disappeared. It was a late spring night, and I was sitting on a blanket having a picnic with friends in the Sculpture Garden in D.C. I looked up and saw him, only a crush at this point. As Mark sat down, he said, “You look beautiful.” And in that red dress, I felt beautiful.

 

xoxo, Redefined

xoxo

We were at the kitchen table. If our relationship ends, I don’t think I’ll believe in love anymore, I remember saying to Adam. I’m going to be cold-hearted. He tried to convince me otherwise. “No, that’s not you. You’ll always be a romantic.” But it was too late. I was already humming Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” in my head while envisioning a meaningless stream of washboard ab dates.

With nearly 7 years of hindsight under my belt, I always wonder how Adam kept a straight face during that conversation. Not one laugh escaped his mouth. Apparently separating sucked us both of our sense of humor back then. Why? Because I’m that girl.

When I was little, my Jem and Rio dolls lived in their weird 80s rock star clothes, touring “cities” (my closet and the space behind my bed), eating every dinner together and falling in love while their stuffed animal fans cooed at their incredible partnership. Jem and Rio, man those two really knew how to truly support each other’s passion for music.

In middle school I had a massive crush on this boy a year older. When he went off to high school, I counted down the days until I’d see him again. There were hearts with arrows through them in my journal with his name all over it and dreams of kissing him in the middle school lobby atop the speckled linoleum floors, amongst a sea of construction paper art. He had no idea who I was, but when I finally got to high school and saw him walking the halls, it was like little bursting hearts exploded in the air. Imagine the Twitter hearts now, but even cheesier.

Flowers. Cards. Candles. Long strolls in the city, hand in hand. I ate it up. But divorce changes you. I wasn’t completely wrong to say that the romantic side of me would die. It did, but it was replaced with a different one, one with more clarity about what I want in a partner. Loyalty. Strength. Wit. Conversation. Banter. Adventure. This is not to say I didn’t get some of these things in my marriage. I did. We loved and we loved hard, but the kind of love we wanted from each other wasn’t the same. I believe we have both found it now. I see Adam with his wife and feel their connection. I sit with Mark and know this is where I belong.

And Adam wasn’t completely wrong to say that romance was at my core and that would never change. One of my first chances out of the nonromantic dating gate and I failed. Miserably. I was planning a date with Mark. I knew he was trying to get back into his photography, so I picked out three of the “most photographable spots” in D.C. We’d go from the Old Post Office downtown to the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast. From there, we’d stop at Montrose Park and have a picnic of fancy homemade sandwiches with his favorite foods before wandering to Dumbarton Oaks to stroll through the gardens. I believe the word you’re looking for comes from the teen slang Danskter Dictionary: “try-hard.” We still laugh about how overly elaborate that date was.

So it’s true, I still eat up the flowers, the cards and the candles, but my visions of real romance are drastically different. When Ethan was 3 years old, he accidentally locked himself in his room. At one or two in the morning, I heard banging and pleas from his room. “Mommy! Come get me. I want out!” Tears streaming for both of us as I fumbled through YouTube videos trying to unlock the door. I finally caved and called Adam who was within walking distance and he swooped in to get the door open.

A couple hours later, I was telling Mark on the phone what had happened when Ethan did it again. There was another brief panic, but by some miracle Ethan managed to unlock himself while frantically tugging on the door.

That evening Mark showed up at my door. In his hands was the most romantic thing I had ever seen. It wasn’t a big bouquet of flowers. No candy or tickets to some great show. It was much better: tools and a new doorknob, one that couldn’t lock. Swoon.

Sacrifice No More

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These particular memories always come in fuzzy. A snippet here. A flash there. Images with no color. Outlines. It is always nighttime. My dad at my bedroom door, his head peeking through that small sliver of light. My eyelashes fluttering. The sound of his feet as he tries to quietly back into the hallway again.

How old was I? I couldn’t tell you. What time was it? Night. That’s all I’ve got. Sometimes he’d slip past the door and kiss me on my forehead, but maybe that was just a dream. The feeling I had, though? That I remember distinctly well. Resoundingly safe.

My father works hard. Nineteen days in a row. Twelve hours a day. Different shift every five weeks. Daytime. Afternoon. Middle of the night. Snowstorm. Holidays. You name it, he worked it. And for too many weeks to count, the only glimpse he got of his children was a quick peek into our rooms while we slept.

You know the story of how my parents came to America as refugees. People call that a sacrifice, but I forget sometimes that the story of my parents in America is also one of huge sacrifice.

In Vietnam, my mother would sometimes teach English. She had her siblings, her mother, her friends. My father was a math teacher, surrounded by his huge family—so big that they literally go by numbers. That guy in Iowa is Uncle Number 7. Really. No clue what his actual name is.

Both were pursuing a college education when the Vietnam War started, but they left it all behind for three little kids. The American Dream wasn’t for them. It was for us.

Since coming to America they’ve worked in factories. Honorable, honest jobs, but hard ones. A standing desk is an office perk for me. Up and down when I please. My parents had no choice but to stand all day. Breaks are for sitting. Snow day for the kids? Work from home in pjs for me. For my parents, it was a day unpaid or one of very few precious vacation days.

I know my dad used to play the guitar. He was pretty great from what my mother tells me. Then there was an accident in the factory. Some broken bones and stitches. He can’t play anymore, but more than a decade later, I still see his guitar propped up in the house. Every now and then I think I hear a strum of the strings.

My mom’s factory has closed and reopened numerous times. Talks of when the next paycheck will come. Stress. Worry. When I was in middle school, I left my new leather jacket at a track meet at another school. I told my mom to shut up when she yelled at me. I got smacked. Nothing hard, but tears sprang to my eyes. I stormed off, determined to leave York and my parents behind. Tears spring to my eyes now thinking about it not because of the smack but because of how selfish I was. A new leather jacket. That was hours upon hours of work for my mom.

As a parent, I think a lot about the sacrifices we make for our children—none for me, however, will ever compare to what my mom and dad made for us. The lost time with their kids because they had to work. Hard labor. Half a world away from their families. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s coming to an end.

This weekend I’m taking my family to York to celebrate my dad’s birthday, the lunar new year and most of all, the well deserved retirement of both my parents. They get to travel the world, enjoy life, their family and their grandkids (because we all know what it’s really about).

I don’t know how to thank them. Words are what I’m best at. So thank you. Thank you for giving up your dreams to let us live ours, for letting us live our lives unhindered by government or culture. We are free to love the people we love and say the things we want to say. You made a better world for us, and it’s your turn now. Sit back and relax, Mom and Dad. We’ll take you from here. I love you.

Snow Many Memories

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Yesterday the flakes were falling. The hipster teen in his hipster shoes created his hipster version of sledding while standing up. Ethan and a neighborhood soccer buddy were giggling as they attempted to launch Matchbox cars down the driveway. Mark was clicking away at his computer. I had some pop music, a Diet Coke, hand-picked storm recipes and a kitchen full of ingredients.

It was an obnoxiously perfect day, and one that I had been hoping for all week. Since Mark moved back to DC a year and a half ago, I have obsessively checked the Capital Weather Gang in the winter, wishing for one snow-in. One weekend where the whole family plays board games, builds snowmen, constructs Legos and eats enough food to begin our bear-like winter fat storage.

Or I mostly I want to have countless days where everyone has to listen to me talk with no escape route. Suckers.

I wasn’t always like this. Rewind to December 2009. A snowstorm was headed toward DC. As the forecast got clearer and the snowfall estimates got higher, my angst reached epic, on fleek, no bae for days, teen levels.

To keep the story short, here was the breakdown of December 19:

  • Number of people: One 28-year-old woman. One 2-year-old boy.
  • Days lived alone since physical separation: 49
  • Rooms in my condo: 2
  • Number of new neighbors I had met: 0
  • Quantity of Diet Coke: An entire refrigerator shelf full, but decreasing at rates faster than the speed of light.
  • Number of flashlights: One small “Cars” themed light (Hey, it could make cool Lightening McQueen shadows on the wall.)
  • Inches of snow: About 17
  • Number of parking spots that needed to be shoveled: 2
  • Number of floors between my condo and the parking spots: 3
  • Chances I could leave boy alone while shoveling: 0
  • Size of my arm muscles: So miniscule that the measurements can’t even pick up a number
  • Amount of power: 0
  • Measurement of sanity on a scale of 1 to 10 after days of being stuck indoors with aforementioned 2-year-old: -22

Basically it was every unathletic extrovert’s nightmare.

I honestly don’t remember much about that long, long weekend. I know I had a shelf of children’s books that took five minutes to read through. There was no TV, although the lack of Dora the Explorer was admittedly not my top concern. My cell phone died. My friends were just a touch too far. And Ethan at 2 didn’t appear to want to have a debate with me about world news. Under-freaking-achiever.

I do remember staring out at the snow, trying to figure out what to do with Ethan while I had to shovel. With three floors between my condo and my spots, I knew I couldn’t leave him alone for that long. The knives were just a touch too accessible. But I also knew I had about 10 minutes before his hands would be too cold and he’d want to go inside. Maybe I’d make a game out of this! Who can make the biggest pile? Ethan with his dustpan, me with my shovel. Yeah, that didn’t work.

I got one shovel full of snow as Ethan lost his first glove. “It’s cold!” I put the glove back on. I turned back to my shovel. The second glove came off. The first glove came off again as I put the first glove on. This was not the game I had in mind. By now, I had decided that I was going to die in the snow with tiny gloves in hand, but not on a hand.

Then a neighbor that I’d never spoken to came outside. “Hey, why don’t you go play with your son? I’ll shovel you out. I’m from Connecticut. This is easy.” Was that a halo I see over your head?

Somewhere in the middle of his shoveling, my ex wandered from his nearby townhouse to help shovel. It was my first snowstorm alone, and while I knew he was coming from a place of genuine kindness, I won’t lie, to be able to say I don’t need your help, was huge. I didn’t need it. I didn’t want it. I can figure this out on my own. I am fine. Maybe I was saying it more for myself than to Adam.

As my ex walked back, I went back to playing with Ethan. We threw snowballs and made snow angels. We had 10 solid minutes of snowy bliss. Then Ethan said his hands were too cold, so we left my neighbor to the shoveling.

There were two more big storms that winter, and each time I’d wake up to two perfectly shoveled spots. In the years to come, my neighbor moved, but by then, I knew I could manage it on my own. In those early days of separation, I learned quite a bit about myself. I learned how to be alone and not just in a snowstorm. I learned that figuring out how to do things on your own didn’t mean having to do it yourself. I later learned to accept Adam’s kindness, that it wasn’t a sign of weakness. I did not, however, ever learn how to keep gloves on a kid.