Going Home

They supposedly say that you can’t go home again. Well “they” are wrong. Especially if you are a teacher and get three months off during the summer.

Growing up in a small town, I always swore that I would leave and never look back. I chose to go away to school when many of my friends stayed nearby. My freshman year of college, I went home only when they closed the dorms. When I left for the summer, I cried while I drove along Lake Michigan for the last time for three months. I was a bit dramatic.

In the weeks leading up to my return home, I was frantically searching for a summer job. A friend posted something on Facebook about a family needing a nanny. Bonus: They had a pool. I messaged her, she gave the family my phone number, and before I knew it, I was on the phone with the dad being given the details of the summer. Three very active girls, ages 10, 12, and 14. I would be spending most of my time making sure they were where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there. Upon my arrival back to town, I went to meet them. No one said anything about the “ferocious” dog, Jake, that greeted me at the door. I got to spend my summer days laughing, singing Taylor Swift, baking, introducing the girls to 90’s sitcoms, and settling the occasional sister argument. I also had a pantry filled with all I could eat snacks at my fingertips. It didn’t take long before I truly started to feel right at home. We stopped calling me a “nanny” and started calling me a “manager.”

Summer ended and we said our tearful goodbyes. I packed up my stuff and headed back to school. I worked a job on campus that offered me summer employment. I had a decision to make. Spoiler alert: I chose to go home, spend some quality time with my family, and manage the lives of tweenagers. Most people dreaded their summer jobs. Mine gave me the little sisters I always wanted.

Those summers shaped me. I fell in and out of love during those summers. Life slowed down a little bit during those summers. I returned to my roots during those summers. I was able to rebalance myself. They gave me the time and space I needed to take care of myself. I made big decisions during those summers. A friendship blossomed over Mexican food and long walk and talks. My bond with my family grew stronger, even with the occasional “I DON’T EVEN LIVE HERE!” argument. I never truly knew what to expect during those summers, but I always knew come fall, I would be a better person than I was when I arrived.

Five summers, two puppies, and a bunny named Moose later, my nanny days came to an end. The girls weren’t girls anymore. I watched them grow into beautiful young women who I am so fortunate to have in my life still. Only a few things remained in my childhood bedroom. I had my own apartment and a job that paid me year-round. I was sure my summer days in Washington were over.

Things never go the way you think they will. When my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer in March 2015, it was a no brainer that I would once again return home for the summer. That summer, I would not be chauffering girls to swim practice and summer jobs. I would be driving to doctor appointments, chemo treatments, and running out to pick up any food that my mom could possibly stomach. I wouldn’t be sitting poolside, but rather, bedside. We joked that my nannying experience best prepared me to care for a cancer patient.

I loaded my car with things from my apartment that I would need for the summer. I’ve always been a pretty terrible packer, especially for someone who loves to travel. I debated which black dress I needed to pack, just in case things took a turn for the worse. I paid my rent through the summer and forwarded my mail, unsure of what the next few months would bring.

When I first got home, my mom was still able to go up and down the stairs with minimal assistance to spend time in her favorite chair. A week later, I would help her from her bed to the couch for a few hours. Before long, my dad or brother would have to get her to the car so I could take her to appointments.

We spent five days in the hospital before saying our final goodbyes after two days in hospice. I didn’t know what to expect when I went home for the summer, but I don’t think it was this. I remember very vividly sitting in the kitchen after the funeral was done and everyone had left, thinking “What’s next?” With two months of summer left, I debated what I do next. Do I go back to my apartment? Do I run away forever? Do I sit in my twin bed and cry about my life? My summer plans had consisted entirely of taking care of my mom and now she was gone. That was when I realized I could do what I had always used my summers home to do: take care of me.

I helped care for my mom for 3 months and I would have continued for 300 more if I could have, but during that time, I didn’t take very good care of myself. So I slept and I stopped eating all of my meals straight from the bag while driving from point A to point B. I cut back on the coffee (just a little bit). I went to the gym and I went on long walks. I did a little bit of traveling. I spent time with friends and with my family. I cried when I felt like crying and I laughed when I felt like laughing. I was able to recharge after life had drained me.

A few months ago I started to think about how I would spend this summer. I knew I wanted to spend a lot of time traveling, so I started booking trips. But what about the time between trips? I LOVE where I live. Seriously, I talk about Madison like a giddy schoolgirl with a crush. There is so much to do and eat and see. Seriously, the tourism board should hire me. But the thought of returning to my small town kept creeping into my head. I have spent all of my other summers there, why stop now? My dad can help feed me AND he turns on the AC! He has a beautiful deck. A lot of my favorite people (and dogs) are in the area. My favorite coffee shop is there. All the Michael’s Italian Feast, Monical’s Pizza, and Steak ‘n Shake I could eat! I’d be about the same distance away from major airports wherever I lived. So I casually mentioned the idea to my dad to make sure he wasn’t planning on turning my childhood room into display room for his collegiate swimming memorabilia and made sure he knew I was (mostly) kidding about the feeding me part. It was decided. I was coming home.

Upon hearing my summer plans, a coworker joked that he could picture me loading my (far distant) future children into the car to head off to my childhood home for the summer. I think that sounds like an excellent idea (way) down the line!

My summers home have always led me somewhere unexpected. They gave me countless extra meals and late night conversations with my mom. They gave me a second family and a best friend. They made me, me. My mail has been forwarded, my bags have been packed, and in a few short days, I’ll do what they say can’t be done. I’ll be going home again (for the summer, that is).

 

Landing on My Feet

I accepted my first teaching job in the city where I had gone to college. I had completed my student teaching experience at the school, in fact, the same room, where I accepted my first job. Many of the students I worked with were classified as “At-Risk.” The school was underfunded. I was climbing a never-ending uphill battle. I felt overwhelmed and under supported. I was continually trying to pour myself into my kids, but I felt empty. I loved my kids with my whole heart and wanted to be the best teacher I could be for them, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. I constantly felt like I was fighting a losing battle. My classes were huge. Many of my students had concerns that had nothing to do with Algebra. Many of them had behavioral issues. A lot of my students tested at a 2nd grade math level, and I was expected to teach them Algebra. I spent lots of time with guidance counselors, social workers, gang liaisons, special education teachers, and deans. I called many disconnected phone lines. I watched students move in and out of the school every few months, wondering how they would ever catch up. I made seating charts based on who would need an outlet to charge their court-mandated ankle monitoring bracelets. My heart broke daily.

A few weeks in to my second year, I knew I needed a change. Education is a tough business to be in, no matter where you teach. I started thinking about what I would do if I didn’t teach. I did have a math degree, after all. As I always tell my students, it is one of the most employable degrees year after year. Don’t believe me? Look it up. I started looking for jobs elsewhere, teaching or not. I started to think about where I wanted to move to. Colorado and Madison were the places that kept creeping into my mind. I decided come spring, I would start my official job search. I set milestones that I had to make it to. Thanksgiving Break. Winter Break. The end of 1st Semester. Spring Break.

Spring brought my mom’s terminal cancer diagnosis. She told me to continue my job search, knowing how much my sanity was struggling in my current position. I did. I had a few interviews lined up when I found out that you have to work somewhere for a year before you are eligible for Family Medical Leave. I didn’t tell my mom that I called and cancelled my interviews. I had been driving back and forth every other week to help with caring for her, and there was no way I would be able to do that at a new job. For the right reasons, I told myself I would be able to stick it out for another year.

After a span of particularly terrible days at work, I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I tearfully called my dad and told him I didn’t know what to do. This was a phone call I would have usually made to my mom, but she had been so sick recently that speaking was too hard for her. This was truly my dad’s first time becoming my primary advice giver, a job my mom always did so well, and he hit it out of the park. “Do what you need to do. You’ll figure it out. You are smart and talented and passionate and capable of doing anything that you want. We love you, support you, and believe in you. You will land on your feet.” I wasn’t so sure about the landing on my feet part, but I figured if I landed on my ass, I could quote him and he would have to let me move back home and support me.

It still took a few more days for me to muster up the courage to really do it. I typed up my letter of resignation, effective at the end of the school year, and it stared at me for a few days. I looked around at my apartment and my take-out containers and my shoe collection and thought about how nice it was to be able to pay for those sorts of things. I looked at my bank account and calculated just how long I really had to land on my feet. On the last day to renew my contract, I took a deep breath, ripped my unsigned contract in half, and turned in my letter of resignation. I jumped and I was free-falling. I packed up my classroom. I felt as exposed as my bare walls. I went to eat Mexican  with my best friend (as everyone should do after making major life decisions) and tried not to think about how many paychecks I had left coming. I was really glad I had selected 12 months of checks instead of 9. The next day, I drove home to be with my mom for the summer, never expecting her to only have a few short weeks left on this earth.

I would sit with her during her at-home infusions and in waiting rooms while I searched for and applied for jobs, some teaching, some not, some close to home, some not so close. The week she was admitted to the hospital and eventually entered hospice, the phone calls and emails for interviews started coming in. I tried to figure out how to be in two places at once only to conclude that I was in no emotional state to be sitting in an interview. I held my mom’s hand with one of my hands and composed emails informing employers that my situation had changed with the other.

Come July, I was motherless and jobless and feeling pretty directionless. Fall was creeping closer, and I realized that if I wanted to continue teaching, I only had a small window of opportunity to find a job before school started. I decided I owed it to myself to try one more year of teaching. I could stand to be miserable one more year if it wasn’t the right thing for me. I narrowed my search down to schools in the Madison, Wisconsin area. I applied for any posted jobs and checked my phone and email constantly. Nothing. Not a thing. I had two paychecks left coming to me from my old job. I started to think about hobbies I could acquire when I became a full-time stay-at-home daughter. Then suddenly, I had three interviews in two days. I went to two in one morning and had my first offer by noon. The next day I was offered a follow-up at the job I thought I really wanted. I went to my favorite crepe restaurant in Madison, because I have a tendency to eat when it comes to major life decisions, and I had a big decision to make. As a true Gilmore Girls fan, I decided to make a pro and con list. Some of the pros and cons were very serious. Some of them were a little out there. Pro for the school I chose: Color is purple. I own a lot of purple from my old job. Con for the school I chose: Mascot is a Norskie. What the heck is a Norskie? I didn’t want to make the wrong decision and spend another year as a miserable teacher. Students have enough miserable teachers in their lives. I didn’t need to be another one. I looked at my pro and con lists and noticed something about them. The cons for the school that I chose weren’t actually cons. They were just things that were new and unfamiliar. New schedule, new curriculum, weird mascot I had never heard of. Quitting my job and moving to a new city was also new and unfamiliar, and yet, here I was doing just that. Why not keep the trend going?

So I said yes. I asked what a Norskie was. It’s basically a Norwegian Viking, by the way. I put my toes on the ground. I found an apartment, went to several work trainings, and moved my stuff into my classroom. I wasn’t sure that stuff would ever see the inside of a classroom again. I took my traditional, mom required First Day of School picture, wishing I could send it to her to keep the tradition alive. I greeted my students at the door. They claim that I was singing to them as they walked into my classroom for the first time. I certainly don’t remember this, but I wouldn’t put it past me.

As the year went on, my feet settled into the ground. I fell in love with teaching again. I realized that no matter what school I was at, there were kids who needed someone like me in their life. About a month ago, I had my end of the year evaluation with my principal. I had to fight back tears of joy, it was that good. She ended the meeting by saying it certainly seemed like we found the right fit in each other. I didn’t tell her that the weird mascot nearly lost us that opportunity. I have started to say goodbye to my seniors as they prepare to graduate this weekend, and my heart is so full. Sometimes I am truly in awe that I get to sing and dance and joke and impart wisdom upon these teenagers. I am mesmerized by the lessons they teach me. I am inspired by those who work around me.

So, Papa G, you were right. I did land on my feet. In fact, I think you could go so far as to say that I stuck the landing. It wouldn’t have happened without your unfailing support and belief that I would land on my feet, even when I wasn’t so sure.

YOLO

A few years ago, the phrase “YOLO” was all the rage. You Only Live Once. People used it to justify doing just about anything. However, how very true it is that you only get so many days, and no one knows just how many days they will have.

Almost exactly a year ago, I was home visiting my parents. My brother was driving home for an engagement party and I decided to tag along (mainly because my parents still paid for his gas, so I could get home for free). While there, I witnessed first-hand the cough my mom had that I heard on the phone. By Sunday we had finally convinced her to go to prompt care, where she received a chest x-ray and we started on a journey that changed the course of all of our lives. She got home from prompt care as my brother and I needed to hit the road back to Wisconsin. I very vividly remember sitting on the couch with her, optimistically thinking that maybe we were jumping to worst case scenarios. She knew at the time my job was crushing my soul. She knew that I was feeling suffocated and stuck in my life. My ever practical mom told me to quit my job. She told me to book all of the trips I had ever talked about. She said it goes faster than you can ever imagine. You only live once.

Three of the longest and yet shortest months of my life later, I had resigned from my job. I had moved home to be with her with no idea what would come next in my life. After my mom passed, I was stuck. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a mom. I didn’t have direction. I was putting one foot in front of the other and even that was tedious. I applied for teaching jobs, not sure I wanted to teach anymore, not really sure what I wanted to do anymore. I knew I couldn’t go back to being miserable in a job. I wanted to move to a new city, but all things in my life seemed new and uncertain in the scariest of ways. Part of me wanted to stay in my childhood bedroom and pretend that life wasn’t scary. Part of me wanted to sell everything I owned and drift through the world.

I booked a trip to Colorado. I figured some time with my best friend and the mountain air would do me good. I started getting calls for jobs. My plane landed and I drove to Madison for several interviews. One thing lead to the next and I had accepted a job. For the first time in a long time. I felt good about something. I went on an annual road trip to Minneapolis with my hometown best friend. She listened for hours as I processed my life. On my way through Madison after Minneapolis I signed a lease. Things were moving forward, even if I felt like I was in a daze.

I remembered that conversation with my mom on the couch. She wanted good things and happiness for me. She wanted me to love my life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. She wanted me to take control of the things I could control. There are a lot of terrible, ugly, awful things in this world. It can become very easy to become so scared of the bad that you don’t even want to seek out the good. It can be scary to start. Sometimes starting can actually be ending.

I started though. Somedays it is still hard to put one foot in front of the other. I get so very scared about navigating life without my mom. I remember how very quickly your life can be turned upside down. Sometimes that can make us scared to live life, other times it can make you want to soak in all life could possibly ever have to offer.

Tonight I booked a trip to Spain. This is a trip I’ve talked about since the wheels of my plane touched down following a trip to Paris in 2013. Tears streamed down my face as I entered my information. For a moment, I thought maybe it was because my precious savings account was about to take quite the hit. But then I realized it was because I’m doing exactly what my mom told me to do. They were happy tears. This is living. I’ve been living. It doesn’t have to be big, elaborate things like booking a trip. It’s making the choice to live the life you want, in all of the big and small ways. It is cliche. But it is cliche for a reason. None of us are immune to our on mortality. You only get so many trip around the sun. So make sure you are living the life you want to be living, even when it is hard and scary. After all, you only live once.

Who Are You Cheering For?

Who are you cheering for? In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, that question was asked an exhausting amount. Personally, I’m more of a baseball girl (10 days until Spring Training). In fact, I decided to go grocery shopping during the game tonight, and it was one of the better ideas that I have had.

However, I am very much cheering for Peyton Manning. I was raised in a Manning loving family. When my brother, Brett, was young, he took an interest in the Indianapolis Colts. My mom was famous for taking our interests to the extreme. Watching Colts games became a family affair and many trips were made to Indianapolis. One day I got the idea to turn Brett’s room into a Colts locker room. I was sure she would say no, based solely on the time I asked her if I could redo my room in 5th Grade based on the most recent trends in my American Girl Magazine. Her response? “You’re going to college soon so there is no point.” 5th Grade, people. But when I wanted to paint his room Colts blue, she was all for it.

When there were talks of Peyton leaving the Colts, my mom had a bit of an identity crisis. In a sport filled with bad influences, she could not have asked for a better role model for her son. Brett kept his allegiances to the Colts.  My mom declared herself a Denver Broncos fan. For Christmas one year, I found her the perfect shirt. It said “All Colts Grow Up to be Broncos.”

Her enthusiasm for the Colts never faded though, because she loved what her kids loved.

My mom grew up just outside of Chicago and was raised as a Chicago Cubs fan. In fact, her dad was friends with the candy supplier at Wrigley Field, so she spent a lot of time at baseball games, with her favorite candy (anything chocolate) waiting for her when she arrived. She felt it was important that her kids also grew up going to baseball games. It was easier for us to get to St. Louis, so we went to Cardinals games. Therefore, I grew up under the false assumption that we were Cardinals fans. I fell in love with Cardinals baseball and she supported that love in every way she could. Once I realized she was a Cubs fan cheering for the Cardinals, I told her she couldn’t have it both ways. She responded, “I’m not a Cardinals fan, I’m a Laura fan!”

As the game came to an end tonight, the stream of text messages coming through my phone is a beautiful reminder of how many people were “Sybs fans” cheering for the Manning and the Broncos tonight, thinking of her. Anyone who had ever watched football with my mom knows that it is a special (and stressful) experience. I can only imagine the very special first-hand experience God had this evening with the one and only Sybs cheering on her precious Peyton Manning.

You Should Write a Blog…

Anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes with me knows that I have a story for everything, and I am always more than willing to share my story with anyone who will listen. After my story, more often than not (naught? ugh, this is already stressful), people tell me I should write a book or blog. It is very likely that they are just saying this in an attempt to have me channel my energy into writing something that no one will ever read so that they do not have to listen to any more of my stories. Well in all likelihood, I am going to continue telling stories to anyone who will listen, but I think I will give a blog a go as well.

So what are my stories about? Really just about anything (which is why it would be really hard to compile it into a book. I’m no Amy Poehler or Mindy Kaling. No one is going to buy a book about weird life situations written by a nobody). Sometimes my stories are about my adventures as a high school math teacher. Sometimes they are about navigating life after the loss of my mom. Sometimes they are about my personal life or going through life as a talkative introvert. Other times they are about my travel adventures, or the adventures I get myself into on a seemingly daily basis. The majority of my stories involve food of sorts. Occasionally my stories are just a hodgepodge of all of the thoughts in my mind and the everyday obscurities that make up my day to day life.

I guess you could say this blog is a work in progress, but then again, so is my life.