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A Bride’s Vow

Februrary 28, 2009. Eleven years ago. I look at this photo and I don’t even recognize the bride, but she is me and I am her.

Her decision to love that man has brought me to where I am today.

At the altar, she mingled her bowl of salt with his, the only way they would be separated was if her grains and his could be separated, one by one. The small box they were poured into still sits in my closet, eleven years later, next to the small box that contains his ashes.

She said her vows to him, on that day. To love him through poverty and wealth, sickness and health, the good and the bad…until death parted them. She knew the sickness would be more prevalent than the health, marrying a man with cancer, therefore, she knew the death would come with it…someday.

Some day, but not on that day, on that day, love covered it all with a veil.

Either way, she vowed to hold his hand, and he hers.

And they did.

He held her hand as they walked into their first home together.

He held her hand as she succumbed to morning sickness when she was pregnant with their twins.

He held her hand when they welcomed their babies into the world.

He held her hand on the late nights when the circus of feeding and changing two babies in the dark never seemed to end.

He held her hand as she told him she was expecting again.

He held her hand, and quietly smiled, when he saw, this time, he was going to have a daughter.

She held his hand when his CT scans came through crystal clear revealing the monster in his body that had finally began to rear its ugly head.

She held it tightly when they were told he was only expected to live six more weeks, a week before their daughter was to be born.

His handhold started to loosen, as he grew weaker. But she held on, for as long as she could.

He wasn’t there to hold her hand when her daughter came into this world. He was in the wheelchair next to her, holding onto life for just a little longer to catch a glimpse of his baby girl.

She held onto that baby and his hand on the late nights she fed the baby and comforted him as his days mixed with his nights and morphine brought with it nightmares and daze.

She held that baby’s hand and his in his last hours. But he didn’t hold it back.

When he took his last breath, she didn’t let go of his hand. For what seemed a second and a lifetime in the same breath, she held on for him, until she had to let go.

She held onto their baby as she walked out of the hospital room. That bride you see in the photo died that day too.

What walked out of the room…well I’m still trying to find her, to pin her down exactly, but I know she’s still me.

I grab hold of our three children’s hands and I am reminded of our vows on that day, February 28, 2009.

They hold my hands in return and I am reminded of vows fulfilled. A lifetime lived in four years.

A life forever changed, because a bride decided to stay and hold her groom’s hand.

copyright 2020: @NicoleHastings/JustAMom

photo credit: Adam HousemanStudios

Share the Orange

In junior high, I had an assignment to interview someone who had lived through America’s Great Depression.

I chose my grandma. She was not known for opening up and sharing her feelings and memories about very hard things. She had come over to my parent’s house for a visit and I approached her with my notepad and pen and asked her to share her experience. At first, she declined my request. But about an hour later, she sat next to me on the couch and said:

“I don’t like talking about these things, but people should know. They should know about them, so I will tell you”

She told me the Depression hit when she was a young girl. Her father left to find work and never returned home, leaving her mother to care for my grandma and her sister and brothers. She told me how her brothers had to go find work while she and her sister and mother worked to figure out how to provide for and feed the family.

A small smile came to her face as she told me about the exciting Christmas present that had arrived at their door one cold December night. She told me a pair of nuns from the local parish were going around the neighborhood with a basket of oranges and handing them out to the families.

I loved that story. Just thinking about something so ordinary to me as an orange being such a gift to my grandma as a young girl.

I thought of this story yesterday as I was working a personal shopping order at our local grocery story. I’ve been doing it to make money for my family, but also, to provide a need for people who are not able to leave their home and shop for themselves. People like my grandma who would be in that category if she didn’t embark for Heaven last year.

Anyway, I strolled through the store with my client’s list. Continually communicating back and forth about what was out of stock and what could I get for them instead. One of the items my client had ordered was almond milk. We drink almond milk in our house too and we were running low. When I had arrived at the dairy aisle I was met with empty shelves. I wasn’t surprised. I’d been in all the stores for shopping orders all week.

But then, there it was. One gallon of almond milk was left. I reached for it, and for a moment, I thought, “What if I just said it was out of stock so I could get it for my family…” I didn’t like the thought. It was unwelcome, but it happened, I’m sure we’ve all had thoughts that go against our morals, especially in times of uncertainty and lack like right now. I stood in that aisle holding the gallon, and I thought of my grandma’s story. It was as if I were holding an orange. Something so ordinary to me, but precious to someone else.

I thought about the nuns who showed up to my grandma’s door with the basket of oranges that they could have kept for themselves to keep at the parish, after all, they had to eat too. But they didn’t keep it. They shared it. They shared their abundance to meet other families’ lack.

If you were wondering, I didn’t keep the milk. I wasn’t there for myself, I was there because someone else couldn’t be there. I didn’t know who was on the other end of the shopping list, but I knew that my job was to fulfill my client’s order.

We may see empty shelves and feel an overwhelming sense of lack and panic. But I’ve lived long enough to know that God has His ways to fulfill our list of needs and all He’s called us to do our best to try to fulfill the list of needs for others.

Share the orange, friends. Share the orange.

Widowed: Dating won’t fix you (because you’re not broken)

It wasn’t even two weeks after my husband died leaving me with a newborn and twin two-year olds that the comments starting rolling in: “You’re so young, you’ll find another dad for your kids.” “You’ll find someone else,” someone even told me, “All you need is a one-night stand.”

Now, four years later, I still hear advice and promptings encouraging me to date and “find someone.” Although, the only thing that was missing, was anyone actually asking me what I wanted in my life and if I was ready or not, I didn’t give myself permission to explore that and to appease friends, and albeit my own curiosity, I signed up for the dating sites. I went on more than a dozen dates and it was all just “meh.”

Why? What was wrong with me that I just wasn’t interested in meeting someone and starting a romantic relationship? I had done a lot of hard grief-work, I had processed and reconciled my grief with my late husband, and while I miss him every day, I’m not pining after a dead man. I know he’s not coming back, I know he’s not here, and I know there’s no replacing the man that took up so much of my heart–sounds harsh, but it’s something I had to be blunt with myself about. I figured out why I felt so disconnected with the dating process and it, for the most part, had nothing to do with my late husband. I had spent SO much time and energy on processing the loss of my husband, going ALL the way back to when he was still living. Because he died from cancer, I grieved the loss of him before he even died as a little part of him faded away every day. As a cancer caregiver and then becoming a widowed parents, the last person on the “care” list was myself. I was so busy keeping everyone else alive, I didn’t realize I was fading away too. My vitality. My motivation. My love for and acceptance of myself. I was so used to being a part of a pair, that when he died, I completely lost myself. One of the most common phrases I hear from other widows and widowers is “I feel like I died too.” I said it too, I felt that too, but the truth is, I didn’t. I didn’t die, instead I got lost. I got lost in the tangled mess of cancer, death, and trying to navigate parenting on my own, throw “You should date and find another dad for your kids into the mix”…well that just threw me even further off-course.

What I’ve finally realized I had a broken heart, but I wasn’t broken. The scars left from the pain of losing my husband will always be there and no amount of moving forward would ever equate to forgetting, but the gaping wound has since healed and those scars are what remains, but they don’t define who I am. I define who I am and that’s why I deleted the dating apps, because I didn’t know who I was. So I’ll repeat, dating, one-night stands, friends with benefits, won’t fix you, because you’re not broken.

My late husband and I didn’t talk about death even when he was dying, but I do remember a moment when I was so exhausted, so poured out, so beside myself with heartache that I fell to my knees at his bedside one night, weeping into his shoulder as he held me. He told me, “Nothing around you can make you happy. I can’t make you happy. No one else can make you happy. You have to find it in yourself. You have to find it above, in God.” I know, it probably sounds like a Hallmark card, but that’s one of the final conversations I remember having with him and it’s stuck with me since. Stuck with me so much that I knew, deep inside, when I felt the itch to start dating because other widows I knew started dating, or because someone told me the Bible tells me I should find someone else, or because my friends want to set me up with someone, or just because I’m so damn tired of feeling lonely and going to be alone, that I knew that I was doing it for the wrong reasons (my own personal reasons).

Finding someone, for sure, can compliment your life, he or she can add to it abundantly, but using it as a distraction, or a band-aid to the wounds that haven’t been attended to just won’t work.  Putting the responsibility on someone else to fix you, rescue you or make you happy isn’t a fair expectation to put on him or her, and it shortchanges yourself. Rather, looking at it to fill a void or to complete something that is allegedly incomplete, might end up in more heartbreak.

There isn’t limited space in our hearts for love, if that was true, no one would have multiple children. Instead, if I allow it, my heart can expand, but it starts with loving myself. I’m not waiting for anyone to rescue me, to fix my broken life, because I refuse to believe either. I don’t need to be rescued and I’m not broken. I don’t need to be set up with yet another man, because I need to make time for myself, to get to know the woman who carried and delivered three lives, the woman who held her husband’s hand through sickness and in health ‘til death parted us. The woman who fought to see the light when darkness closed in. The woman who persists and continues to conquer the darkest days in order to be whole and healthy for not only her children and others, but for herself. If I can’t look in the mirror and see that woman, to love and accept her, I can’t expect anyone else to either. I’m not out to “find” a man, I’m finding myself, fully trusting that my future love is waiting, we just haven’t met yet. In the meantime, I’m getting to know myself.

Those who have gone before

In the season of raising young children when we are reminded time and time again to cherish the season, to enjoy every moment, well-meaning unsolicited advice and self-inflicted guilt is overwhelming to me. As a widowed single parent, the glaring absence of my other half makes the stress and guilt unbearable at times.

My 4-year-old boys are very energetic, outgoing and exude confidence wherever they go. I consider this a beautiful part of their personality—particularly because I was an incredibly shy child. I probably missed out on trying a lot of new things, as my shyness would sometimes paralyze my personality. However, in public places, they take their energy and double it with their strange twin powers, and it can be like dynamite! We become very conspicuous, and their beautiful little spit-fire spirits can be an incredible source of stress and anxiety for me in these moments.

When I was a little more than seven months pregnant with my third child, my husband had just started palliative care and full-time oxygen support as a Stage 4 terminal cancer patient. We were a little overzealous one day, and tried to “grab a couple things” at Target. I quickly lost sight of my husband who had wandered off—he was getting more and more confused about simple things and it took a lot of concentration to maintain focus on the item he was looking for—and I also lost sight of my boys, who were two at the time. They had wandered off because, well, they were two-year-old twin boys and their mom was a tired, stressed, waddling pregnant woman. Twins-1, Mom-0. I finally located the boys and tried to corral them through the aisles while looking for my husband. My back was aching, the boys were out of control and there was always a slight anxiousness bubbling inside me for the entirety of the situation–cancer, babies, pregnancy–which at the time I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around. I was waddling down the aisles, the boys going every which way, huffing and puffing and feeling light-headed, when down the other side of the aisle comes a woman. She’s smiling as she walks past us and chuckles, “Oh my, you’ve got your hands full…enjoy this age,” and goes on her merry way, when inside me I’m screaming for help and no one could hear me.

So, next time you see a mom or dad in complete exasperation at their child, consider that it’s not because of their child at all; perhaps that one moment you see them, tired and overwhelmed, is because their divorce just got finalized, or they just received a grim diagnosis, or just went bankrupt. Maybe they really do enjoy their children, and what you see is them fighting to survive for the children they adore so much. The last thing tired, exasperated parents need is someone telling them how full their hands are. Believe me, they live it, day and night, the fullness overflowing around their ankles at times. Throughout my family’s crisis, I grew to resent these comments. Each remark felt like another hole torn in an already gaping wound of single parenting. And the reality, at that moment in the store with Phil’s absence (we did finally run into him obviously), was that even though he was still alive, cancer is a thief that slowly tears someone away from you; I realized I was already a single mom.

Since my husband’s death almost two years ago, there have been times at the grocery store I’ve had to leave a full cart to escort two pint-sized, egg carton vandals (now four years old and more rambunctious than ever) with baby in tow to the minivan. At these moments, I feel like dropping to my knees in the middle of the aisle to cry and throw my own temper tantrum, because there seems to be an underlying sense of judgement of one’s parenting when kids act up. And at these moments, it seems there is always a well-meaning person who comes up to me smiling and says, “They grow up so fast, enjoy them while you can.” Or, “Oh, boys will be boys.” Instead of feeling encouraged, I now feel a little bit worse, because while I do enjoy my kids, I’m not enjoying that particular moment! My inner “am-I-a-good-mommy?” meter is way off kilter!

These deep feelings are the feelings that don’t show when my blood pressure rises as my kids are acting up and I appear agitated with them. When one of my boys is biting off the ends of carrots in the grocery store and putting them back, or the other is playing hacky sack with eggs when I turn to wipe the baby’s face because somehow she ended up with a ketchup packet that she bit and got all over her face. My brain just wants to leave the store, but knows I can’t because we’re out of everything as I’ve avoided the store for so long. My soul is feeling crushed because no matter how much grace and love and second chances or following through with natural consequences or reading parenting book after parenting book, after all that I still feel like I’m failing as a parent—all alone.

Over time, the comments of, “Oh they’re just being kids,” or, “They grow up so fast, enjoy them,” don’t bowl me over as much as they used to. I now try to focus on a detail I was overlooking before: these veteran parents have made it to another season in parenting. They have been through the tantrums in the shopping aisles, the chaos at a restaurant, the drama of a knickknack breaking at a friend’s home — and what they remember through all of it is how precious the whole experience of parenting little ones was, not individual events. This tells me that the good moments add up to be far more memorable than the hair-pulling, vein-in-the-middle of the forehead-popping, exhausting moments. And now I choose to allow those comments to give me a little glimmer of hope when I’m holding a kicking and screaming boy with one arm and pushing a full grocery cart with a baby (well now she’s a toddler, but still feels like my baby!) in the other, making sure the other boy is following closely behind. I’ll think, “I’m doing this and I’m not doing it alone, there are thousands of others who’ve braved the parenting path and survived and thrived with wonderful things to say about the hardest job in the world.”

The truth is, we shouldn’t be expected to parent alone. Whether we’re single by choice or by circumstance (this applies to married parents as well), we’re not parenting alone. All of you veteran parents can offer something valuable to young parents like me: it’s encouragement.

And I’m sure, many years from now, I’ll be old and gray, meandering through a grocery aisle, longingly looking at a child making art from a box of Fruit Loops he poured in the middle of the floor. I’ll say to an exasperated mom or dad, “One day you’ll enjoy these moments, but for now, you’re not alone and parenting is so hard. Power through and hang on! You’ll see how beautiful these many messy moments end up being…By the way, can I buy your groceries for you?…or at the very least, a latte?”