Saturday, June 05, 2021

One year since he's been gone.

Today will be a year since Topher died.  
I could have told you that anyway because the magnolia blossoms are
 blooming out front of The White House.   
The night that Topher died I was sitting on my porch in the dark
 staring at bright the white blossoms that glowed under the moonlight. 
The first blossoms of the season.  Now they will always remind me of Topher.
Sometimes when I miss him I go back to his blog and re-read his entries.
They are so funny and full of his creative and clever personality.
He started a blog called The First Forty where he was documenting something
that happened to him in the first 40 years of his life.
It's been really cool to read since I will be turning 40 this month.
I read his 'Thirty-six" entry where he writes about my airplane crash.
And I can't read it without sobbing.
* * * * * *
"When I was thirty-six my sister Stephanie and her husband Christian were in a small engine plane crash on the border of Arizona and New Mexico. It's a pretty well-documented story by this point, so I don't need to go into the details of it. And my own interaction with the story was fairly minimal; not because I wasn't affected by it, but because the story wasn't really about me. I'm just a small piece of it. But it had a significant impact on me and my family anyway, and it's worth sharing my memory of it.

I remember flying home from London in mid-August; I'd been there for a month on study abroad, and I was listening to Andrew Bird on my ipod. Somewhere over Iceland his song "Fiery Crash" came on, and I smirked a little at the irony of being in a jet plane while listening to these lyrics:

turnstiles on mezzanine
jet ways and Dramamine fiends
and x-ray machines
you were hurling through space
g-forces twisting your face
breeding superstition
a fatal premonition
you know you've got to envision
the fiery crash

I was only home a day or so when I got a phone call from my sister-in-law Katy, telling me that Stephanie and Christian had been in a plane crash but they were going to be alright. Lisa wasn't home at the time, but when she got home I told her what had happened and assured her that they were fine. They weren't, but we didn't know that. My parents flew to Phoenix, where Stephanie and Christian were staying at the Maricopa Burn Unit. The next day was a Sunday, and Mom and Dad called a family meeting over the phone. This was the first time I think we realized that the situation was more grave than we had thought.

In a few moments, gathered at my sister Courtney's house, the situation morphed from a few bumps and burns into life and death. It broadsided me, to be honest. And the gravity of the situation settled in deftly and hopelessly. I felt like I only had a few moments of contemplation before making the inevitable preparations for the loss of a sibling. Everyone deals in grief in their own way, and I wish I could say I was a crier. Or a hugger. Or an emotional sharer. But all of these things make me uncomfortable, so I dealt with this situation by being strong, moving on, and assuring everyone that things would be fine. I kind of believed that, actually.

There were discussions among us, privately, of course, that Stephanie's death was probably the best thing at this point. She had been severely burned over 80% of her body. If she survived she would be in chronic pain for the rest of her life, and she would never look the same. In some ways, it felt selfish to hope for her survival, since it felt like we wanted her to live for us. So that we'd feel ok. Or to spare us the loss of a sister. But we also wanted her to live for Christian, who was burned as well, though not as badly, and Stephanie's four little children.

We took turns visiting Stephanie in Arizona. I flew down and met up with my parents and my older brother Matt. My first introduction to Stephanie was a look Matt gave me as we walked down the hall to her hospital room. Clearly not meant for my mother to see, Matt focused his eyes on me in a way that told me to prepare for a shock. But it wasn't a shock, necessarily. I had already been told to expect a mummy, and that's what I saw. My brain didn't really connect this white bandaged, comatose, slab of a form to my sister. Only her eyes were visible, but they fluttered and squinted and I couldn't see much there. We talked to her and I joked with her, but I had no faith that she was really hearing me. I'm a realist in these situations, and I go through the motions to make the people around me comfortable, but I never sensed that Stephanie thought my jokes were all that funny, or that she even heard them. I had made her a CD of mellow tunes, which I played in her room and which the nurse would quickly turn on when she saw us coming, though I do feel that this was just a gesture on my part.

While we were in Arizona we stayed at Stephanie and Christian's house. I felt bad for their dog, Jimmy, who seemed confused and left behind. The kids had been shuttled to Utah, but Jimmy was at home chasing birds and waiting for someone to fill him in. I played with Jimmy a little. I worried about my Mom, who tried to valiantly push through everything but seemed to swing between hope and futility. She seemed cheered to have Matt and me around, though, and maybe that was the best thing we could do. Although we gave Stephanie and Christian priesthood blessings and made daily visits, I think we were most useful in helping our parents cope. We took day trips to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West and local graveyards to find buried ancestors. We ate Mexican food and watched a BYU football game.

One night I sat at Stephanie's kitchen table answering emails online. Everyone was asleep; Matt had gone home to Utah. Through the kitchen windows, I saw sporadic lightning bolts above Mesa and Scottsdale. Everything outside was calm and smelled like oranges. The kitchen was dark and hushed, and I faintly made out the sound of someone approaching my chair from behind. I turned around to see who it was, and had a brief sense of Stephanie. I heard a voice say "Hi, Tophy!" and then it was gone. I still don't know if I imagined it, but it was pretty distinct at the time. I don't have any reason to doubt that her spirit wanted to stop by her old kitchen, 
say hello to her brother, and then get back to work healing her body.

I knew, after this, somehow, that Stephanie would recover. And she did. There was a swarm of publicity. We were on the Today Show and Oprah, and I had an interview with the New York Times at one point. All of this as her body slowly healed and her spirit gradually returned. I always felt like an outsider to this story; I didn't do anything heroic or particularly brave. I didn't heal her myself and I didn't spend hours at her bedside. But I was there off and on, as her life progressed and my life progressed, 
and she eventually came back and continues to mend.

There was one night, however, after she had transferred to the University of Utah burn unit when I slept alongside her in a foldout hospital chair. I had brought several DVD's to watch; classic movies and Christmas flicks, though she sort of drifted in and out of them. Around three in the morning, I could hear her moaning and recounting the crash, almost as if she were reliving it. The sounds she made scared me and I immediately grabbed her hand until she faded back into sleep. She won't remember that, and it doesn't matter if she does. I knew that I was there one night when she needed me. And this was God's way of letting me know that, in a peculiar way, this was my story too."

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Graduating COVID style

 It's that time of year!  
Yearbooks, caps, and gowns, graduating messages painted on cars,
 and senior graduating signs on front lawns.
 (Which I had never seen before moving here).
Even though our graduating senior Jane, is living 
a big girl life in Arizona, we're enjoying the festivities for her.
Today we picked up her yearbook, and it's the worst yearbook I've ever seen.  
COVID did a real doozy on the school year. 
Since the school year didn't start until this spring, 
most of the sports, clubs, dances, and activities were shut down.
Most kids didn't even have a photo inside since their
 school photos were never taken. (Ollie!).
Jane's beautiful senior photo did however 
make in since they did take senior photos!
She has had a great FFA photo and a super cute one
with and Ollie at the beach in the siblings at school section.
Of course, I put up the lawn sign
 (with a spotlight shining on it), 
and texted her screenshots of the yearbook.
One the way home I reminded Christian how crazy 
both of our girl's senior years
have been affected by COVID.  It's been such a bummer.
I'm so glad we see an end in sight!

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Camelot reclaimed

 Yesterday I was at the pet store with 30 crickets in a sack
 for Gigs to feed the scorpions he smuggled from Arizona last month. 
As I waited in line to check out I noticed a young beautiful mother 
holding the hands of her two darling children probably ages 3 and 5.
On their way out of the store, 
they stopped to look at the adopt-a-pet board on the wall. 
The kids pointed to a picture of a cat with a silly costume on
and asked the mom to read what it said under the photo.
"This is Penny" she began,  "it says that she likes lying in the warm sun."
"Read that one, mommy".  The little girl asked pointing to another photo.
"This is Tiger, he likes tummy tickles."  The kids laughed.
She read every single animal on the board while her kids laughed and smiled.
I watched the way she held her kid's hands, 
and how she responded to them with love.
I felt a HUGE wave of emotion hit me and I started to feel sorry for myself.
And before I knew it, I was crying.
I was that mommy once.  I remember many trips to stores and
 outings with my little brood in tow.
With Claire as second in command, I felt like I could go anywhere
 with them even though they were all so young and so close together in age.
My heart was sad as I reflected on those days. 
 They were some of the best and most beautiful days of my life, 
and then one day it was all gone. 
I mean, not totally gone because I was still a mother 
and nothing could ever take that away from me, 
but I was a different young mother now with so many physical and 
emotional challenges.  I wasn't the same and it
wasn't as easy and carefree as it used to be.
My Camelot had exploded and now motherhood became frustrating.  
I was in pain a lot, in fact, I don't even remember being present 
after the accident for many, many years.  
Christian, family members, and wonderful neighbors did everything.
 They went shopping for me, they planned birthday parties for my kids
 and holiday meals, they cooked, they cleaned, they read stories, 
and they went to parent-teacher conferences and school field trips.
I did my best, but it wasn't the same.  Ever.
I thought I had worked through these emotions
 until yesterday when I watched this young mom with her kids.
I wanted to go over to her and tell her what a wonderful mom she was.
I wanted to thank her for taking the time to read about
 every single pet that needed to be adopted.  
Then I wanted to tell her to never take for granted the time she 
gets to spend being a young mom raising them.
I wanted to tell her to go to the park without her phone and enjoy
watching them go down the slide for the 1000th time. 
I wanted to tell her to sign up for the field trips and school parties,
and to relish in reading the same book over and over and over again, 
because you never know.
I didn't take my life for granted before August of 2008, 
I just literally woke up 
in a life and in a house and never went back.  Never.
And it has never been the same since.
My story has a happy ending because I was able to reclaim most of that life.  
It's a little different now, and it's taken a lot of energy and time to rebuild
and to find my new normal and that's OK.  That's what life is all about.
Progressing even when we get kicked down.
There is always something to learn, always a way to grow,
and I'm surprising myself by feeling emotions I thought I was over.
I know the Lord wants me to feel these emotions, so He can teach me
what wants me to know and learn.
He has given me a way to move on. He has given me that hope.
It's His plan, His way, and through His timing that I have a purpose.
I don't understand it, sometimes I admit, resent it, but I know He's there.
He's picking up the pieces and is teaching me where they go.
I believe that someday everything will make sense.
 Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said:
 "Every life has peaks and shadows
 and times when it seems that the birds don’t sing and bells don’t ring.
 Yet in spite of discouragement and adversity, those who are happiest
 seem to have a way of learning from difficult times, becoming stronger, 
wiser, and happier as a result."
In the middle of my deep grief and heartache, I was blessed to be that
"young mom" again, and Lottie came to me.
She has come with so much life and a future.
Last night we snuggled and read Tales of a Fourth grade nothing
together on my bed.  She gives me purpose and reminds me that God
knows what He's doing and there is so much life yet to be lived
as a not so young (but healthy) mom!

Monday, May 17, 2021

Gigs, just follow along!

Today I took Gigs to the high school where 
You heard me right, I said HIGH SCHOOL! 
 What?  Where has the time gone?  
I can't believe it.
Anyway, Gigs completed DRIVER ED!  
You heard me right, I said DRIVERS ED!  What?  
Again, time! what are you doing to me?!
Anyway, he needed to go to the school to get his eyes checked. 
Lottie and I sat in the car listening to Taylor Swift while he
 inched his way to the front of the line.
Together we have successfully (mostly) finished his 8th-grade year using 
There were days where I wanted to die but most days were enjoyable
 and I really like studying and learning right along with him.
Our end-of-the-year botany experiment project is currently
 sitting on my laundry room windowsill with
four sunflower plants planted in styrofoam cups.
He's watering each plant exactly the same but with different types of water
like water/milk, water/sugar, water/salt.
It's been fun to watch him get excited over his discoveries.

We love going to the nursery together to look at and identify plants,
and almost subconsciously I keep every little container and jar for him
to store his trinkets and stuff in even though I know it just adds
to the creative mess in his room.
I found myself picking up 30 small crickets at the pet store
to feed to his Arizona scorpions and hissing cockroaches.
But if I try and get him to read a book or work on his math facts he turns 
into 4-year-old Gigs and puts up a fight.
He's reading the second Harry Potter book long-distance with Jane in Arizona.
They finished the first book last month.
While they were reading and I overheard Jane stop suddenly and say:
"Gigs!  Are you listening to me?"
"Yes, I am JANE!"
"You don't look like it, you're not even looking at the book.
What did I just read?"
"Jane, I'm listening, sometimes I look out the window 
when it's your turn, but I'm still reading."
"Gigs, is the TV on?"
"No.............maybe but I'm not watching it."
"GIGS! Turn off the TV!  You weren't even following along
the whole time I was reading were you?
"Yes, I was!"
Then Jane rattled off several questions to Gigs to test him and see
if in fact he really was following along.
I was shocked when Gigs not only got all the questions spot-on, 
but he also summarized the whole page she had read.
"See Jane!  I was listening."
"Well, Ok...good.  But just follow along!  We're on page-"
"67"  he yelled.  See Jane, I know!"

I've had the same conversations during school with him
 a million times this past year.
And I'd always say to him,
 "I'm going to be testing you on this, 
so I hope you are listening."
And turns out he always was because he'd always score really well.
It's just Gigs.
A few days ago on the way to pick up Lottie from school, I drove
past a newly deceased giant snapping turtle near our home.
I immediately called Gigs and told him.  He was on his bike headed that way
as soon as we hung up  Then he messaged me to tell me what kind of a
turtle it was, and how he thought he died.
(Hit by a car, for obvious reasons).
I'm going to miss having Gigs home next year.
But it's time for him to share his wisdom, wit, and charms as a freshman
with his new teachers and with all girls, of course.

(To me, this is how Gigs will always be)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

I miss you, Jane!

We turned Lottie's room upside down as we
 began the slow meticulous process of going through toys, clothes,
 and stuff for the pending move at the end of the month.
For three days her room was a mess, but we got through it ending up
with several bags of garbage and several bags to give away.
On the third day, of simultaneously helping Gigs with homeschool
 and going through baskets of stuff I went downstairs
 because I needed a Dr. Pepper in the worst way- and it wasn't even the weekend!
I went into the garage fridge to retrieve the prize and saw the
 mailman out the window delivering our mail so before going inside
 I picked up the mail where I discovered a letter from Jane to me.
It was a late Mother's Day card.  I opened it up even before I went inside.
I read it and sobbed. I know I am Jane's mother and 22 years older than her,
 but the wisdom and love in her card to me was just what I needed 
to hear at that exact moment.  
How did I get so lucky to have such beautiful wonderful children?
Jane and I use Marco Polo to communicate while she's in Arizona.
Since there is a three-hour time difference we can't 
seem to be on at the same time, 
but I grabbed my phone to message her (even though I knew she was at work)
 to let her know how much her card meant to me.
I also thanked her for coordinating the Nies Mother's Day gift to me
 (a weighted blanket.  I've always wanted one!)
And almost daily I photograph the plants around the house because
we get so excited when we see a new leaf sprouting especially 
from the plants, she propagated herself.
She's quite the green tumb.

I showed her a photo that I had taken a year ago of Lottie in front of my 
plant window and what it looks like today.  It's amazing!
Or sometimes I take photos of Angus being cute (and naughty on my couch)
because I know she would appreciate it:
Or we laugh at how horrible we look while we talk to each other.
For example:

I miss her so much.