To My Husband

Almost exactly eight years ago, we met the first time. Your roommates lured me in under the pretense of studying — they wanted answers, I had them — and you were the only unknown among three others. In a sweeping act of bravado, you greeted me with embittered musings on the nature of females; that is, that there wasn’t a good one of us among the lot. I pretended my too-round eyes were a reaction to your speechifying; in truth, I’d never seen another human I so desperately wanted to know.

As you wallowed in the sort of self-pity that comes with a break-up, I prepped your roommates for inevitable testing success and left without another moment shared between the two of us. Until —

It was October, and somehow I’d been dragged back to the apartment — by our mutual friends, by your request, by my own compulsion — and you no longer rambled angrily at your misfortune. We were both doe-eyed, you moreso than I (of course, ahem). Your obsession with Legos and the messages you left on the whiteboard wall behind your living room couch became my selling point when I mentioned you to friends (So original! So strange! So lovely!) and I made it my objective to convince you you needed me.

Somehow, miraculously, it’s eight years later and you have been in my life for a quarter of my time — almost half of what I can remember — and there have been more sunshiney days than Eeyore ones; a gift. Your eyes crinkle at the outside corners when you laugh, still my favorite feature. And I find myself thinking how utterly fortuitous it was, discovering you, the boy who shares a birthday with my beloved autumn.

To the man who bought a forty of Corona Familiar last night to take to a BYOB gathering and still says things like, “Let’s eat Ramen noodles and watch tv on the nest in the basement,” — happy birthday. I love you best.

2018-06-17 11.33.13-3

Mom Badge, #32

My son is just over a year old, and over the past 370-some days, I’ve encountered a number of situations that seemed pretty gold-star-parenting worthy. When he was just a couple weeks old, I nailed the sorta-single parenting thing while my husband spent his waking hours on a combine and his not-waking hours, well, sleeping. At four months, I survived sleep training and was rewarded with a more independent sleeper. At seven months, I singlehandedly painted the little squirm’s feet and stamped a couple of canvases for his grandmas (note to readers: everyone should be naked for this process).  When he hit nine months and decided he hated baths, I found a way to get his hiney into the tub long enough to douse the bugger in suds. Hell, just last week, I taught the boy to accurately answer the question, “Henry, what’s the elephant say?”

I’d even — sort of — found a way for the tyke to cope during the four-hour car rides that constitute visits to Grandma and Papa Simon’s house on the other side of the state. Just a couple short months ago, I actually prided myself on discovering a healthy recipe for 75% scream-free roadtrips:

  • leave by 8:30 a.m.
  • hang a blanket from the window instead of a shade — instant fascination
  • keep a bucket o’ toys within reaching distance (and toss a new one back there every thirty minutes or so)
  • don’t ever stop — not even for cops (I kid, I kid . . . kinda . . . )
  • avoid talking too much (Hank gets angry when he’s tired and can hear Mom but not climb all over her)

These tricks, coupled with Henry’s recent discovery of the miraculous snack trap have made those lengthy drives a bit easier to manage, especially since we make the trip home solo most of the time.

Today, though — oh, Lordamercy, today was a game. changer.

Henry woke up crabby. He ran a high fever a couple days this week and only returned to his usual plucky self yesterday afternoon. I expected fussiness. I plopped his little rump down in the highchair at 8:00, played some nursery rhyme videos on YouTube, and shoveled some breakfast down the hatch. (We don’t normally watch videos while we eat, but did I mention he was a screechy demon this morning?)

He settled into the car just fine and we found ourselves on our merry way after a pitstop for gas. In fact, hubris hit hard about 60 minutes into the drive when Henry conked out, thumb in mouth. Like an out-of-body experience, I remember thinking, Gee, I make cute babies. Note to self: convince husband it’s time to add to the nest tonight. Wink, wink.


Forty-five minutes later, nearly halfway into the journey, we hit a stoplight. Henry woke up. I cursed my misfortune (a lot, really; look, nobody’s perfect, okay?) and waited for things to reach Threat Level Midnight. Again, I thought: Wow! He’s been awake for 20 minutes and hasn’t even cried, really. What a little blessing.

Ten minutes later, things started to escalate and it was clear he wouldn’t be falling asleep again any time soon, so I reached for my failsafe: the snack trap. As I began to reach back with the chalice of treats, I noticed he seemed to be playing with something in his seat. I arranged myself for a better look. (He’s rear-facing still, so if I want a good look, I have to push myself up from the seat a bit and twist back real quick.)

Y’all. THERE WERE BLACK THINGS ALL OVER HIS LEGS. (Forgive me, but this is where we enter a caps-are-necessary zone.)

For a hot minute, I honestly thought some sort of evil bug had somehow gotten in the car and hatched a bunch of tiny evil bug babies all over my baby. My sweet, innocent, rosy-cheeked baby.

I dry-heaved for a moment before I went back for another glimpse: I needed to assess the damage. (Would I need to call an exterminator? Was I being punk’d? Would I have to trade my kid out for a newer model?) And that’s when shit got ugly.

Henry had lots of dark spots all over his legs, it’s true. He also had spots on his hands . . . and his arms . . . and his precious little face.

And the spots weren’t black. They were brown. Greenish-brown.

And they were wet. Or sticky. Or something.

Wait a minute. I asked my reflection, Does it smell funny in here to you?

One more quick look confirmed my worst nightmare — no, wait; that’s not right. I could’ve never dreamed this up: MY KID WAS COVERED IN SHIT, GUYS. 

From this point on, I blacked out a little bit and entered a world of being that was really just full of cursing (amazingly, not aloud) and bewilderment and just this sort of blind rage that really defies all description. We were on a four-lane, divided highway with twenty miles to rest stops in either direction, and my kid was covered in poop of his own making.

And alone. Did I say that already? I was alone. In the car. With my poop-bedazzled offspring. ALONE.

At this point, I was still driving and sort of deliriously hoping he wouldn’t do the unthinkable. And then, because #MurphysLaw, he did. While I watched the road with one eye and his seatback mirror with the other, my darling boy looked at me, looked at his poop-covered fist, and brought the damn thing to his mouth.


This. Is. SPARTA.

I had one hand on the wheel and my rump was hovering over the seat while I reached behind me with my other arm and started frantically half-shouting HENRY DON’T PUT YOUR FINGERS IN YOUR MOUTH! NO — HEN — HENRY, STOP IT! DON’T YOU DARE PUT THAT POOP IN YOUR — HENRY FREAKING CHARLES SCHAFFER!

At which point, he started wailing tremendously and I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to swerve single-handedly across fifteen more miles while simultaneously goaltending my child’s poop-mouth.

I was going to have to stop. On the side of the highway. Alone. And then? God knows what.

True to millenial form, I had the presence of mind to snap a quick photo of the little feller; although, to be quite honest, this was more of a stalling tactic at the moment. We were entering uncharted territory and I hadn’t a clue where to begin.

He screamed the entire time I wiped down his extremities, all the while finding more feces to rub all over the beloved Mama he kept yelling for so pitifully. (Hello? Right here, buddy. Maybe you can’t see me through the poop smears on my face . . . )

Somehow, I removed his onesie (on its first wear, of course) and swapped the worthless sonofabitchin’ diaper out for a clean one. Cars were zooming by and I have no idea how much they witnessed, but I hope at least a few of them were like, Gee, that poor poop-covered mommy. She deserves a massage.


Post-bath boy. He’s obviously pretty pleased with himself.

The expunging process depleted my wipes stash (diaper and all-purpose) and rendered my travel-sized bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer worthless. Against my better judgment, I nestled the little scoundrel back into his seat (on top of a blanket, RIP) sans-clothing, snack trap in hand. Given the vast amount of poop I’d just cleaned out of the car — and the two hours remaining ahead of us — I reasoned the boy couldn’t possibly lay another egg of such extreme proportions. So I gave him snacks, because positive reinforcement. Right? Way to poop! Wanna yogurt drop?

Two hours later, by the grace of God and Henry’s obedient bowels, we were home, with nary a toot between the two of us. Into the tub he went, a twinkle in his eyes, and I could’ve sworn the little sprite winked at me when his cheeks hit the water. Still in disbelief, I tore apart the carseat and threw its washable bits in the laundry before piling two packages of wipes, one industrial-sized bottle of Germ-X, and three washcloths into the Jeep.

I’m still recovering from the trauma, but Henry’s just finished a two-hour nap and I don’t think he’s got the slightest memory of the Great Poop Problem of 2018. Meanwhile, I’m scheming up an actual line of mom-badges for those many moments we survive with at least an ounce of dignity (if not a bit of grace). Today’s badge? It definitely looks a bit like this: ūüí©

Smashing Cakes & Taking Names

Exactly 366 days + 19 hours ago, Henry was born via c-section and made me a mama. The first week of his life was rough — about 6 hours after birth, a nurse thought she saw seizure-like activity and he was whisked away on a helicopter at one in the morning. I wasn’t allowed to go with him — stupid surgery — and Zack couldn’t ride along on the med flight, so he had to drive the 3+ hours to Wichita by himself. The next morning, a mere 12 hours after my major surgery, I hauled my ass out of bed and made a dozen laps around the birth ward before choking down the most uninspired scrambled eggs of my life. I was determined to get back to my boys, no matter how uncomfortable my severed gut was feeling.

It was an exhausting, terrifying experience, made all the more frustrating by the fact that Henry then spent a week in NICU despite 0 tests or observations that indicated anything even remotely seizure-like (with the exception of the initial nurse). By the time we got our little guy home, I was nearing a full seven days without more than a couple of hours of sleep sprinkled in there — I wasn’t a “patient” at Wesley hospital, so I received no care or assistance while there; and let me tell you, I was hurting — and it only got worse: Zack was needed for harvest pretty much immediately following our return home.

It. Was. Awful.

I remember thinking in those first few weeks: Please, God, let us make it to five o’clock. Six o’clock. Seven o’clock. And with the setting of the sun each day, relief washed over me: we’d survived one more day. I felt terrible about it, friends: here I was, a new mother, and all I could do was beg for the resilience to survive — not enjoy, not cherish, not marvel at; but survive — another 24 hours. Henry screamed a lot that first week home. And the week after that. And the one after that. I called my mom crying on more than one occasion, certain that I wasn’t doing anything right. Zack was gone a lot, and when he was home at night, he was bone-tired with a full day’s work in the fields. I hated asking him to help with Henry throughout the night: I was terrified he’d fall asleep on the combine the next day.

Those first few weeks were some of the loneliest weeks of my life — and yet, here I am, a year later, wholeheartedly enamored with my not-so-squishy baby (erm, toddler?) boy who is clapping and standing and mimicking sounds like nobody’s business.

This whole turning-one business is pretty bittersweet. On the one hand, I get to marvel daily at the new things Henry has learned, or the cute sounds he’s making; on the other hand, he’s not my little squish anymore. And several times over the past few days, I’ve thought about the fact that I got to spend every single day with this little peanut — just the two of us! — for his entire first year, and I’m not going to get that with any of our other kids. It will never just be me + bebe again; not like it was with Henry. And man, that’s a hard pill to swallow some days. But I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last year — namely, in the words of Yul Brenner: I’m a badass mother, who won’t take no crap from nobody — and I wouldn’t give back a moment.

Motherhood is so freaking hard, you guys; but it’s also so freaking worth it.

Without further ado, here’s a celebration of Henry (and my first attempt at a legit photoshoot) (which was also the most fun thing I’ve done in basically ages) (please send me your babies so I can feed them cake and take their photos).

2018-06-05 15.02.01

And, my personal favorite:

2018-06-05 15.09.31

Man, oh man; I love this boy! Life with you is pretty sweet, Henry Charles.

Buddy Read: How (& Why) to Host Your Own

The month of March became the month I lost my¬†Outlander virginity (oh, boy, did I!) and the second buddy read I’ve participated in. In short, neither was a disappointment and as I gear up for round two, I’ve been reflecting on what makes the buddy-reading experience so wonderful.

First things first:¬†What the heck is a “buddy read”? Well, friends, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a couple of buddies reading the same book at the same time (or at a relatively similar pace) and discussing the book as they go.

There are a handful of ways to tackle a buddy read, but today I’m going to focus on my two (very different) buddy reading experiences. I’m a firm believer in sharing what works for me on the off chance that it might work for others, hence this post.

Buddy Read Experience #1: The Slow-Chat Method

My first time around, I fell into a buddy read by chance via the social-media-for-book-lovers app, Litsy. I had recently acquired the novel¬†Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich and stumbled upon the account of one of a few co-hosts for the buddy read. The method was straight-forward enough: the hosts broke the book into three parts and scheduled allotments of time by which readers should complete those parts. (I think we ended up spanning 4 weeks?) At the end of each “part” and its respective length of time, the hosts posted 4-5 questions on Litsy and those participating chimed in with their thoughts, questions, observations, etc.

This format may work well for some; but it definitely wasn’t for me. Here’s why:

  • The use of social media to host our discussions made for delayed, hasty attempts to convey deep thought in short chunks. There isn’t a chat feature on Litsy (maybe there is now, it’s been a few months since I’ve been on — thanks, Bookstagram), so all of our conversations took place in the comments section of a post. Talk about a headache!
  • Since conversations took place publicly, there was more risk of spoiling the book for others. In Litsy, there is a¬†fabulous feature that allows users to mark comments and reviews as “spoilers,” but even so — when you’re caught up in a book discussion, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has read the book and therefore forget to mark spoilers.
  • It felt vastly impersonal. Lots of people participated — maybe ten total — and I was only “familiar” with a couple. This is seemingly a minute issue to have when it comes to talking over the finer points of a book with others; but for me, it made the experience more superficial. I was afraid of hurting someone’s feelings if I said something too harshly, because I didn’t¬†know the other readers.

Overall, it wasn’t a¬†bad way to buddy read; the method just wasn’t for me. I felt like I was tied to my phone when the conversations were happening, and since the comment-method was so dependent on the speed of other users, discussions took hours. Since I’m married and have a little one, it’s just not realistic for me to drag out a conversation that long.

Buddy Read Experience #2: The Video-Chat Method

My second go-round also came about thanks to social media; this time, however, due to some random comments on an Instagram picture I posted in January. I had taken a “shelfie” to post on my Bookstagram account and asked a question that I didn’t *really* expect to get any replies to: “See any favorites on my shelves?” Two users I hadn’t really interacted with before pointed out my copy of¬†Outlander, both of them mentioning that they had the same title on their shelves but they were daunted by its length.¬†I suggested a buddy read, they thought that sounded fun, and we went our separate ways for a few weeks.

In February, though, I knew I wanted to read the book so I reached out to see if they were interested in starting it in March. We didn’t know each other, we didn’t know each other’s reading abilities or needs, and the other two had never participated in a buddy read before — so our initial chat conversations were stilted a bit. I suggested that we break the reading into chunks, see how the first bit went pace-wise, and set weekly video-chat dates when we had a better feel for pacing.

This method quickly became my idea of the Gold Standard of Buddy Reading. Here’s why it works:

  • We were able to use a group chat via Instagram for as-you-go banter and observations. I can’t tell you how many times I received a message from Taylor or Betsy that made me snort with laughter or flush the deepest of reds. As much as I enjoyed this component of our buddy read, though . . .
  • Our video chats became the highlight of my week — and one of the best parts of the reading experience. Usually we aimed for weekends while Henry was napping (I live in Kansas, and they’re back East, so I was constantly thanking them for accommodating not just my time zone, but also my kid’s sleep schedule). We used Google Hangouts, mostly because I was familiar with the platform and I knew we’d be able to have 3+ people in our video calls. These “face-to-face” discussions were much more fluid, easier to navigate, and lent an air of familiarity to our reading experience.
  • Because we were meeting via video chats, I came to consider the other two girls my friends. We learned a bit about each other, which made our book discussions more open: no need to fear stepping on anyone’s toes.
  • And again — video chats meant that I could plan for an hour or two of scheduled discussion time each week while my husband was working and my kid was sleeping. I didn’t need to feel guilty about being on my phone nonstop or ignoring them for an extended period of time.

Here’s a few tips to get your own buddy read established:

  1. Find a couple of people with interest in reading the same book as you (OR people who share similar reading tastes). 
  2. Keep the grouping small: more people = more opinions, yes; but too many readers and you’ll end up chatting for an entire day. Nobody’s got time for that.
  3. Incorporate a messaging tool for as-you-read chats. We used Instagram’s private messaging system, but I can also see this working well via iMessages or text messages. In fact, I may eventually suggest we switch to iMessages because I’m all about that GIF life and IG just isn’t there yet.
  4. Be flexible. In the first buddy read I did, dates to have finished reading by were already established and since I was in the middle of some other books, I sometimes didn’t quite get the selections finished in time. Since Taylor and Betsy and I opted to start slow and get a feel for the book and each other’s reading needs, there wasn’t any guilt about not being fast enough or not getting the text finished in time. Again, this is where a small group comes in handy: no need to cater to fourteen readers’ needs.
  5. Find a video-chat platform that works for everyone. Google Hangouts is easily accessible via phone, tablet, or computer; but you do have to utilize Google Chrome or the app. Zoom is another great tool for multi-person video calls.
  6. Mark passages as you go and search for reader’s guide discussion questions — but don’t limit your talking points to a strict set of discussion points. Our video chats were¬†hilarious and so much fun — mostly because no one was operating on a script or felt the need to address specific questions.

One more thing before you leave: the¬†why of buddy reads. I don’t want to buddy read¬†everything that comes my way — trust me, I don’t have the patience to read every single book at a pace that suits someone else — but I do plan to buddy read a few times a year, from here on out. Why? It’s simple: buddy reading forces me to take books into deeper consideration, like I did in my English-major college days. I’m a voracious reader and often get through 2-3 books per week . . . but I don’t like that I’m not always challenging myself to meaningfully examine each book that comes my way. Buddy reading is the perfect solution, and a great way to make new friends in the process.

Now tell me — what’s a big book that’s been daunting you for years, or a title you’re otherwise interested in buddy reading?


Motherhood, No. 3

You are playing on the shag carpet, the fat of your milky thighs spread luxuriously while you sit erect, spine rigid, arms waving erratically. It’s great fun to your ten-month-old self, this arm flapping extravaganza: every so often, a shrieking squeal tumbles up from your throat and you look at me with glittering eyes — See what I did, Mama?

You’ve begun to suck your thumb at odd times — no longer just for naps and bedtime — and as I watch you examine a battered wooden block, you suddenly pop your right thumb between your pink lips and begin slurping while the other fingers of your hand reach up toward your nose, feeling, and your left hand immediately floats up to your hair. With an open palm, you sweep your left hand across your scalp, ruffling wispy silver-blonde locks in that comfort-seeking manner of small children. Our eyes lock — your unfathomably navy blues trained on my deep chocolate browns — and you slurp a few more times, content. I’m suddenly struck: there is no greater stage in life, I am certain of it. Your every moment is somehow both remarkably simple and exhilarating. Children must be so generally joyous because they live in a constant state of discovery.

Still watching me, your lips part and curve upward, thumb sliding out as you break into a toothy beam. I smirk back at you, incapable of resisting your wily charms. I brush aside the faint echo of a thought I’ve had more than once: we’ll have to fend off teenage girls with a stick, someday.

“Henry-boy, hello! Can you wave hi to Mama?”

At the lilt of my voice, your face takes on a look of concentration and you wave your left fist in my direction.

“Hi there! Hello, baby!” I proclaim, wiggling my hands to your delight. You raise the right arm now, fingers spread wide, and flap at me. I think, not for the first — or last — time: I would give ten years of my life to preserve these unremarkable moments forever.¬†

In a blink, you’ve twisted around, back to me, as you blaze a trail to something more interesting and stimulating than just plain ‘ole Mama.

The Mom Admission Nobody Wants to Make

I’ve been in the heart of baby season for a year now — my own firstborn arrived last June, and the calendar has been peppered with the arrivals of various friends’ own first children since that date. I don’t want to say that Zack and I “started something,” but, it’s possible, right? . . . (I kid, I kid. Pun intended.)

The year has brought an onslaught of firsts and in the early months, I found myself bombarding two of my longtime gal pals (and seasoned moms) with daily texts about poop, nursing, rice cereal, poop, fevers, poop, bath time shenanigans, travel solutions, poop, and more poop. (Side note: there aren’t enough resources in the world about the weird stuff that comes out of babies’ bums.) Time and again, I thought:¬†Damn. I’ve got a great mom tribe. I am so lucky.

Before I knew it, I was the one getting texts from new moms, desperate for advice (despite my¬†clear lack of what one might call “expertise”). I guess, at least, there’s something to be said for having gone through the same experiences just months previously, rather than decades earlier like our own moms. So I tried helping the best I could.

Travel during nap times.

Use Aveeno bath products for sensitive skin.

Try Selsen Blue for cradle cap, if it’s really bad. But be careful! That stuff will burn through their eyeballs like acid.

Make your husband go with you to get your child’s vaccines.

Don’t apologize for not letting everyone and their mother hold your child in the heart of flu season.

And then I got a text, a few weeks ago, that was filled with remorse and pleading and probably a bit of shame: Do you sometimes resent your child?

Oh. Oh. This text made me stop in my tracks for a few moments before I fired back —


Plus some other stuff, meant to reassure my friend that she isn’t a garbage mom (because she’s not) and that she isn’t a weirdo (because she’s not, at least not in this particular sense) and that she isn’t alone (because, let’s get real — she’s definitely not). This was a question I hadn’t been brave enough to ask my own girlfriends in the frustrating, tiresome early months of my own motherhood; in truth, it wasn’t a realization I could even admit to myself. So I knew the courage it took to ask and I knew it was something I wanted to write about later, at the risk of being mom-bashed on social media by friends who¬†don’tevenhavekids and moms who won’t admit the truth to themselves.

Hi. My name’s Renee, and sometimes I resent my kid.

There. I said it.

I find myself experiencing bitterness when I’m run ragged, firing on a few measly hours of sleep and in a state of self loathing because #mombodprobs (which, of course, never keeps me from eating more chocolate . . . ). The resentment grows when he wakes up every night for weeks to cry inconsolably, even though I know the appropriate emotional response should be only compassion. It doubles when my husband lifts weights in the evenings — just steps out of the shop, gets in his car, drives to the weight room, lifts for a couple hours — while I have to fight guilt to ask my mother-in-law to watch Henry for another hour this week so that I can go for a run or meet the girls for a workout. The resentment deepens when I can’t drive three hours to meet a friend who’s passing through Kansas because Henry hates the car and it wouldn’t be fair to drag him all that way and I can’t ask Cindy to watch him again this week. It grows exponentially when we travel to my parents’ house and he screams three of the four hours in the car. It sneaks up on me when we’re with family for the holidays, and everyone wants to go to a movie or out to eat or stay up till 3 playing games and I’ve got to wreck their plans —¬†I’m staying in with Henry — or go to bed at ten, because he’ll be up at midnight, anyway.

I don’t remember the first time I was hit with a wave of nauseating resentment toward Henry, but I know I haven’t experienced the last — and I’m forgiving myself for each of those times and the moments to come, without hesitation. Here’s why:

  • Momming is friggin’ hard work. It’s often thankless, and the constant state of being needed but not appreciated can wear away at a girl.
  • It doesn’t mean I don’t¬†want my kid. I just don’t want him to cry all night, dammit.
  • I’m human, too. I’m selfish, even when I don’t want to be. I can try to repress the feelings as much as I want, but being a mom is a transition and it’s ridiculous to expect my own selfish desires about how I want to spend my time to just fade or disappear —¬†poof! — overnight.
  • The resentment always,¬†always melts away. Usually just as quickly as it’s come.

And here’s the big one:¬†for every moment of bittnerness or childish resentment I feel toward my little guy, there are a thousand moments of boundless adoration, overwhelming love, and sheer joy.

It’s a challenge, admitting this sort of truth to yourself; especially when you tried for so long to become pregnant or when you acknowledge that these feelings are directed toward a helpless, ten-pound squish. These rare moments of bitterness overwhelm me with shame. They make me feel lesser, even though I¬†know I am a good mama. They make me feel embarrassed and unnatural and cruel — and human.

In the past year, I’ve grown to appreciate just how much struggle, devotion, and sacrifice it takes to be a good mother. I’ve seen old friends with new eyes, regretted my years of teenage jackass-ery (sorry, Ma & Dad), and generally come to accept that motherhood demands nothing short of superhero status on a daily basis.

I’ve watched Batman, though, and I know that sometimes, even the best heroes have moments of darkly humiliating weakness.

It’s what makes them human.

On Loss

Tuesday afternoon, I received the message no educator¬†ever wants to get in their lifetime:¬†A student has died. More specifically, a student I had taught and coached and ribbed and soothed and loved — decided to end her life.

And so, my world changed a bit. It shifted. Things were no longer quite as reasonable as they’d seemed yesterday. Six hours previously, I’d been changing a diaper and bouncing a ball into my kid’s face and trying to eat something that resembled “moderately healthful” for breakfast and my student was being discovered by her mother and younger brother, dead by her own hand.

The world stopped turning. Not when it should have, I thought; not in the morning hours that J. ceased to breathe during, but rather, hours later when the message came through. It stopped turning, and since then, it’s been rotating backward or sideways or at a crawl barely recognizable as motion at all.

She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead. — This thought is hammered into my brain at least a dozen times a day, while I am heating pureed vegetables for Henry’s lunch or watching the sun dip below the unobstructed horizon or kissing my husband’s cheek before he heads out the door. As life continues to inhale and exhale around me, J.’s cessation comes to me at seemingly random moments, knocking the wind from the pit of my stomach.

It’s a queasy feeling, an uncertainty that I’m ill prepared for at 28 years old. The math is easy, she is — she was — ten years younger than me, on the cusp of womanhood. She was supposed to live another 80 years, outlasting me and all of her other teachers. We should have received invitations to her high school graduation, we should have watched her perform her serious solo at State forensics, we should have heard about her career and her marriage and her kids.

We should not have been preceded in death by this student. No teacher should ever be preceded in death by any student.

It’s perverse, this reversal of universal Rightness, and I cannot find a way to correct the problem in my brain. I’ve balled it up and tried shoving it into discreet nooks and crannies but my mind refuses the intrusion, pushing the knowledge forth and springing it open again —¬†She’s gone.

And while it feels like a sucker punch delivered to the kidneys over and over and over again, I know that soon my world will resume as normal. I will think of her less frequently, though never not altogether; I’ll somehow go days and then weeks and months at a time without wondering who she would be or where she would be or how many lives she would have made different just by smiling in someone’s direction . . . and I feel guilty at this acknowledgement. Because for me, the sucker punches will come to an end and remembering will be more of a dull ache of remorse; but for her family, those punches will only keep coming. And coming. And coming.

I wish I could put my arm around J. now, and just hold her. I wish I could tell her, I wish I¬†had told her —¬†I was in your shoes, once upon a time. I tried. More than once. And I’m so very glad I failed, because damn, does it get better.

I wish I could tell her that her suicide has left me reeling, even though we only knew each other for a few years and I really have no right to this profound grief given my minimal impact on her world, but I’m reeling nonetheless and so many others are, too — the community is collectively sighing this sob of remorse and anger and hurt.

I wish I could confirm what I know she had to wonder —¬†Yes, you will be missed. You are. You are. You are.

But I cannot do any of these things because J. is gone, she’s dead, and those things we do not say cannot be saved for better moments.

For now, this will have to suffice. Goodbye, dear one. Goodbye.

March on the Plains

There’s not a green shoot of grass in sight, other than — somehow, miraculously — the tufts of wheat crawling up from the powdery dust that passes for soil in the field across from our house. The earth hasn’t seen rain in seven months and it shows: trees are shriveled, their bark wrinkled and cracked like the flesh of a centuries-old tortoise; last year’s grass looks more like last decade’s grass; even the slightest cough from the sky sends chalky particles upward in a dizzying pirouette to the sky.

Today, yesterday, tomorrow (most likely) — the wind batters from the south. And the west. And sometimes, the north. It shrieks and moans as it whips around the walls of our abode, which emit their own protestations at the unrelenting battering ram. Together, the wind and the walls squeal out a song of misery, day and night.

The floor lamp flickers again and again, its light a wavering attempt at courage in the wind-storm that rages outside. Its brilliance ebbs and flows, mimicking my inner dialogue —¬†I will not last another day in this desert wasteland. Oh, but you must! Mmph…

Another gust blasts against the door, followed by another and another and another. I imagine our house a dinghy tossed about on the ocean — oh, to be surrounded by water! — it creeps beneath the door, the wind: an unadmitted visitor paying no heed to social niceties, barging in coldly to wrap its wispy fingers around my ankles.

The chill rises, a tingling slowness as though I have been lowered into a pool of water feet-first. Whispers of the furious gales outside crawl deliberately upward, snaking ever closer toward the destination. I am certain — the wind is alive, burning with the icy fire of the soulless wicked.

Hand on the brass knob, I repress a shudder and twist. For an instant, respite: silence descends, dirt hangs motionless on the horizon, tumbleweeds relax their grip on the barbed fence.

In another instant, the door is wrenched from my grasp and Chaos resumes its descent, drawing me into the fray.

Reflections on a Life Unlived

I sat down last night and, for the first time in a long while, I didn’t pick up a book or fiddle with my planner (to make myself feel as though I’m far more productive, busy, and important than I actually am). I just kind of sat there, eyes glazed over with the exhaustion that sometimes comes at the end of a day with Henry. And I thought,¬†Hey. You. You haven’t written anything in a long while. Not even a book review. Not even a reflective idea.

And then I thought —¬† You haven’t even acknowledged your thoughts for a while.

Sadly, I had to admit, these revelations are accurate. I’ve always been fairly adept at deflecting inquiries as to how I’m¬†really doing —¬†I’m fine; I’m busy; I’m doing okay, no complaints here¬†— so it should come as no surprise that I am not always entirely honest with myself. But still. Sometimes, I am surprised. Like, whoa — there’s that dark place again; how did we get here, Renee?

I’m not sure what’s changed, or what’s spurred the recent self-evaluations that have become so all-consuming in my world, but suddenly I am considering my self and my place daily. It’s an absentminded sort of pastime, admittedly; and I’ve deflected my realizations a bit so that they haven’t arrived fully at the forefront of my mind until just last evening. But here we are, in a place of wonderment where I have begun to ponder —

who are you?

what are you even doing with this solitary life of yours?


when you die, what the hell will you leave behind?

When I was ten, I could’ve told any old stranger, without hesitation, that by the time I was twenty-eight I’d be a novelist. People would be reading my stories and they would be smiling and laughing and crying at all the right places; they would be touched in their souls by these words that somehow evoked feelings they didn’t even know could be held in common with a complete stranger from some remote home in a state called Kansas.

I would be special. I’d be a writer. My name would be on the cover of a book, people would speak of my ideas, they would press copies of my work into their friends’ hands saying You have to read this really great book, it’s amazing¬†—

I would be somebody.

But I am twenty-eight, and I am not a writer, and I am not an author, and I do not have an editor or a publisher, and I have not done



at all.

And all that I can think of is — how very disappointed ten-year-old me would be to discover this version of myself.

I don’t even have to imagine.

She is still within.

Motherhood, No. 2

It is early morning — somewhere between the hours of three and four, when my brain is too fogged with interrupted sleep to comprehend things like time — and you have awakened me with your intermittent cries. Yelps, more like. Between outbursts, a pause of several seconds — long enough for me to think¬†Sure, he’s okay then and sink back onto my pillow before another cry wakes me from my sleep-drunken stupor.

Grumbling, I untangle my legs from the winding vines that the sheets have become overnight: your father doesn’t believe in sleeping like a normal human being (under the covers), so he is forever bringing a blanket to bed and hunkering down in it, pushing the sheets and bedspread to the side or foot of the mattress so that I end up in some sort of twisted pile of bedding that seems intent on strangling me as I sleep. You cry out again — I think you’re probably mostly asleep, the cries are so far apart — and I murmur reassurances that I know you can’t hear as I blindly walk the familiar path from our room to yours.

Your room is awash in the eerie glow of a too-bright nightlight that casts shadows on every wall. The worst is a spidery looking apparition that covers half of the room, mostly over your crib: the ghastly result of light striking your woodland-animals mobile. I secretly shudder at that leggy shadow every night, certain that your cries must have something to do with its looming appearance above your resting place. Can infants fear spiders? I’m sure any child of mine must.

On tiptoes, I lean over the top edge of your crib, my gut — still not recovered from carrying you, seven months later — creased in half by the hard walnut edges smoothed by your father’s shop machines.¬†Shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh, Mama’s here — you stop the instant my hands grasp your torso and I lift you gingerly from the confines of your bed. You’re hungry, though, and begin to grizzle feverishly as I carry you to our chair. I brace myself against the shocking chill of polished wood against the backs of my thighs and shoulders. In the dark, your mouth works like that of a little milk zombie: open, shut, open, shut, open shut — until finally, you find what you’re searching for and your eyes fold shut in a mixture of relief and ecstasy.

As you feast, I close my eyes and lean back, wondering who you will become. It is three-something in the morning and I am awake, picturing you twenty years down the road, always with that cheeky grin and creamy, smooth skin. You stroke my hand with your tiny plump palm, occasionally pausing to wrap a finger in your fist, as if to tell me¬†Thank you, Mama or — I like to pretend —¬†I love you most. Not that it’s a competition between your father and me; just, I am your most beloved now, and I will savor that, because later you will have friends and classmates and girlfriends and lovers and I will surely lose the privilege of that¬†most as I drift along in the wake of your expanding horizons.

Looking down at the rounded nub of your nose, I think of my teacher’s son, David, who took his own life a few months ago. Tracing the soft curve of your cheek with my fingertip, I pray.¬†Please let this child grow up to know he is beloved and help him to find fulfillment. And¬†Please always bring him home to me, whole. And¬†Please make him need me always.

You’re through with the midnight snack, your head has lolled back onto my forearm and your mouth is agape, a stream of milk leaking from the corner where your lips meet and trailing down your neck: you are one satisfied little boy. I’m not tired any longer; I’m wide awake with the kind of fervent panic I can only assume all mothers experience at one time or another. It’s a futile panic: you will get older, you will grow up and out, you will leave me for a different life. These are certainties, and though I hate the leaving, I know that it is better than the alternative.

I am not tired anymore, though, so I will hold you a little longer now. I love you, I love you.

I love you.