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For as long as I can remember, I have used Emerson’s quote as an excuse to not have any kind of routine.  Who wants to be a hobgoblin?  More importantly, who wants to have a little mind?  Yeah, not me.  So, off I’ve gone on my merry life of inconsistency, content to have a not-so-little mind completely devoid of hobgoblins.

Two things are wrong with this approach:

1.  Hobgoblins are defined as mischievous, impish sprites.  They actually don’t sound too bad.  And, I think I have at least two living with me.  They answer to the names of Gracie and Abigail (and possibly Honey and Midnight)

2.  As I have done more often than I’d care to admit, I ignored one key word of the quote.  That word is “foolish”.  It changes everything.  Emerson isn’t saying that ALL consistency is bad, just FOOLISH consistency.  I’m thinking the quote could read just as easily “a foolish INCONSISTENCY is the hobgoblin of little minds.” 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.  There are some things that I want to do consistently.  And that’s not foolish.  I want to start my day with a walk. Every. Day.  I want to enjoy time with the girls.  Every. Day.  I want to nourish my body and my spirit and my mind.  Every. Day.  And I want to write.  Every. Day.  I don’t think that makes my mind little or fills my life with hobgoblins – although a hobgoblin here and there might actually make life more interesting.

I decided to try out this new approach to routine this summer.  Mainly because summer around here is a little more relaxed and I don’t feel so confined by the commitments and responsibilities we have during the school year.  Can I write every day of the summer?  Walk every day of the summer?  Play every day of the summer?  Maybe; maybe not.  But, it would be foolish not to try!

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Abigail looks down at me from her horse.  I can see nervousness pulling at her eyes and in her half-way-there smile, not her usual full-on grin that animates her whole face.  It’s show day and she’s jumping – only the second time ever in competition.  Last month, her first time, her horse spooked slightly on one of the first jumps and then Abigail was spooked the rest of the class.  So, I put her nervousness off to that playing around in her head.  I put my nervousness off to the fact that, try as hard as I can to fight against it, helicopter mom is my resting mama position.

I watch her and her horse, Dixie, enter the ring and then trot to the far fence.  I can see them clearly through my telephoto lens,even though they are 50 yards or so away.  They turn and take the first jump – much more smoothly than last month’s show.  I start to relax, thinking she has started to relax, too.  They turn and complete the second jump and I start to breathe.  The third jump comes and I’m clicking away with my camera as they cross it and then I see something that doesn’t compute for a millionth of a second.  Abigail is moving through space headed to the right and the horse is not.  I think, incongruously that she looks like a rag doll flying through the air, her purple hair bows and short hair that I worked so hard just minutes ago to get into neat French braids blowing in the wind.

In an instant, she is flat on her back on the ground, still as she has ever been.   “She fell, she fell”  I mantra, as if that isn’t painfully obvious to everyone in the arena.  “She fell, she fell” as if somehow saying it enough will act as some kind of incantation to undo what has just happened.  As I process what I’ve seen, I think or say or scream or cry.  “She’s okay.  She’s okay”  – she’ll get up and shoot us all a thumbs up – it wasn’t a bad fall.  Was it? 

A second passes and she doesn’t jump up, get up, give us a thumbs up.  She lays there, completely still, a tiny figure 200 feet from me.  And I’m not so sure anymore, but I’m still pretty sure.  “She’s okay.  She’s okay”  I say as I start walking toward the other end of the ring. 

Five steps, ten steps, twenty steps.  “She’s okay.  She’s okay.” 

But she doesn’t move – not a single gloved finger.    And I start to run and “she’s okay” changes to “PLEASE be okay, PLEASE be okay, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE” and I’m running and jumping the ring fence and I’m in the ring and running the last thirty feet in the sand and she still hasn’t moved and the last few steps, I force my feet to run because I don’t want to know what I’ll see.  The brim of her black show helmet is obscuring her face and I don’t know if her eyes are open or closed.  And I don’t know whether open or closed scares me more.

I get to her and drop to my knees and her eyes are open and suddenly her trainer is beside me and a man I don’t know and another trainer and the mom of one of her barn mates.  And her trainer says, “Abigail?  First, can you talk?”  And Abigail, finally shaking off the shock, says quietly and with a slight lilt as if she’s not quite sure herself,

“I’m fine!” 

She tries to hop up but we all convince her to stay flat and move her legs.  And she does.  And then her arms.  And then she’s standing up and walking out of the ring with me and everyone is clapping.  And I text Steve at work and type with shaking hands, “she fell. she’s okay” and two seconds later the phone rings and it’s his voice and I can’t even talk but can only choke out “yes” when he asks if she really fell. 

The rest of the day passes in a blur of watching her and making sure that she truly is okay.  Later that afternoon, she starts to complain of her back and head hurting and she seems more tired than she should be, so off to the ER we go.  We luck out again – the doctor says her back is bruised and she probably has a mild concussion but other than that, she is unmarred.  A couple of days of rest and she’ll be just fine.

But I’m not just fine.  I’m playing the What If game in my head.  What if?   What if?  What if?   And yesterday afternoon, the tears I’ve managed to keep mostly in check erupt into wracking sobs as I cling to Steve in the kitchen. 

I’m not sure if it’s the reality of the fall that hits me so hard or if it’s the reality of Abigail.  Whenever something happens to her, I am right back at the moment of her birth where she wasn’t breathing and was whisked off to the NICU and I couldn’t see her for more than twenty-four hours.  That feeling that every day we’ve had with her is a miracle and who am I to ask for more?   Or, was it that the day of the fall was one year to the day of my grandmother’s death, fifteen months to the day of my mother’s death?  And all that loss, loss, loss of 2015 is still floating around in my heart and what if all this time when I thought the other shoe dropping was my mom dying, my grandmother dying, my grandfather dying, all within ten months of each other, what if that other shoe is actually something happening to my little girl?  And where there should be joy that she is okay, there is only fear.  What if?  What if? What if?

Today, she is home from school with me mostly because she’s still sore, but a little bit because I want to be able to run my fingers through her hair and hear her giggle at cartoons to remind myself that what if, what if, what if didn’t happen.  Tomorrow she goes back to school and tomorrow night she goes back to riding lessons and the what ifs will start to quiet down and things will go on their merry way until the next what if.  I don’t want to forget, though.  I don’t want to forget to be thankful; I don’t want to forget that having her here with me every day is a gift; I don’t want to forget that being brave is sometimes nothing more than not listening to what if, what if, what if and letting that girl do what she loves.

Last week was my grandfather’s birthday.   After dinner, I ask Steve to call him and convince him that the girls and I want to sing Happy Birthday.  My grandfather is almost completely deaf, but a really deep loud voice can sometimes get through to him.  The only person in my immediate family whose voice fits that description is Steve.  Steve dials the number and yells out my grandfather’s name once, twice, three times.  I raise an eyebrow thinking if we aren’t getting through after three times, we should give up and send a card.  Steve shakes his head and says “No – he’s talking to someone else” and hands me the phone.  I think he means that my grandfather thinks it is someone else on the phone and am prepared to try and convince him that it is me. 

When I put the phone up to my ear, I realize that my grandfather is in fact talking to someone else; I believe it one of his neighbors.  I listen, thinking in just a minute he’ll tell this person to hold on a second and talk to me.  My grandfather is talking about where my mother went to college and I smile a bittersweet smile thinking that today must be difficult for him since he shares his birthday with his only daughter, my mother.  This is his first birthday without her and the first one without either of his children.  Within a minute or two, though, the conversation takes a rapid turn and my grandfather is talking about me and letting this woman (who is a stranger to me) know all about what he thinks about me.  It is not pretty; it is not kind.  And I, like a rubbernecker at a accident, cant’ stop listening.

And with each word he utters and each response the stranger gives back judging a person she has never met, my spirit wilts a little more.  After a few minutes of basically demolishing my character, my grandfather reveals his opinions about my husband which again are not exactly flattering (trust me, he obviously thinks higher of Steve than he does of me, but Steve isn’t exactly going up to the top off his list of admired people either).   I hung up before he could reveal his opinion of my daughters;  I can handle his opinion of me; I can handle his opinion of Steve.  I was afraid of what I might do or say if I heard mean things about my girls being said to by someone who is supposed to love them to someone who has never met them.

I’m going to be honest here: it crushed me.  I know I never should have listened in on a conversation when the people talking had no idea I was “there”.  I know that eavesdropping isn’t exactly polite behavior and I would have been better off if I’d just hung up the phone immediately.  That is on me.  I also know that my grandfather is never going to change his opinion of me and would never regret what he said; possibly, he might regret that I heard him, but just as possibly, he might think it was good for me to “hear some truth”. 

So, knowing there is no benefit in dwelling in my feeling of worthlessness, I thought about what I could possibly do to make something good out of this and I think I’ve found something.

I wonder how many times I’ve said something about someone that had they overheard me, my words would have wounded them.  Hear this:  I never want to make someone feel like I felt the other night.  Never. Never. Never.  So, I am going to start choosing my words more carefully.  Before I speak, I am going to think about how the person I’m talking about would feel if they could hear me accidentally over a speaker phone.  I will admit that I have not always been kind when I speak of other people.  It stops now.    I remember a quote I heard years ago:

“Great people talk about ideas; Average people talk about things; small people talk about others” 

I don’t want to be great, but I do want to be kind.

And, this, from Proverbs is going to be my new mantra:

‘The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.”    Proverbs 26:22

For me, this is true.  I felt my grandfather’s words deep in the pit of my stomach for hours after I hung up the phone.  The only delicious morsels I want to pass along are bites from some amazing recipe that I’ve cooked with love. 

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(photos by Amy Konieczka Photography)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved stories – to read them, to tell them, to share them, to soak them up like the last bit of sauce in a delicious bowl of shrimp scampi, to store them up and keep them close for days that just need a good story.  So, several years ago, when I first heard about Listen To Your Mother, my storyteller’s heart skipped a beat.  A stage, both literal and figurative, for stories about motherhood?  I.AM.IN!

Unfortunately, in the early years, none of the Listen To Your Mother shows were even in my time zone.    Last year, I flirted with the idea of auditioning for the show in Little Rock.   I almost sent an email for sign-ups but at the last minute realized that life was too chaotic to commit to making three drives to Little Rock in three months. When they made the announcement about the 2015 show cities, I saw Baton Rouge on the list and I was almost giddy.  Baton Rouge is only four hours from my house.  Surely, I could make it that distance for practices and the performance.

The initial Baton Rouge post was November 10th, 2014.  My mother was still in the nursing home after her fall in September; she was not speaking to me yet again.  I decided since I was disowned I might as well audition for a show about motherhood – I’m sure that makes sense to someone somewhere.  Forget that fact that my life was even crazier than it was the year before; forget the fact that I had no idea what in the world I was going to submit; I just focused on the fact that I was passionate about wanting to audition.

I stalked the website and finally, finally, finally, audition details were released on January 12th, my niece Emmie’s birthday.  Since November, my mother had been released from the nursing facility and returned to her house with my ninety-year-old grandfather as her “caregiver” (side note – no one in the universe save my mother and  my grandfather thought that was a good idea) which lasted two weeks.  In those two weeks, mom made a trip to the emergency room and then the next weekend fell repeatedly and was admitted back to the hospital.  She was released from the hospital back again to the skilled nursing facility where her health and her mental status deteriorated rapidly.  At the end of December, we moved her to the facility where Steve works and realized that she probably wasn’t going to recover enough from this event to even go to an Assisted Living facility.  By the time audition details were released, I had signed papers confirming that mom was only to receive comfort care.

When I saw the LTYM Baton Rouge details, I talked to Steve about the lunacy of auditioning for a show when everything was so up in the air with mom.  He encouraged me to at least try.  So, that Friday, the 16th of January, around 2:00 p.m., I emailed Meghan, the director of the show asking if I could possibly set up an audition.  She replied back that I was crazy to drive that far three times for rehearsals and the show (not really, she just wanted to make sure I knew what was involved).  I told her that I really wanted to try this and she offered to let me Skype my interview.  I said “sign me up”.  Seven hours after I sent that email, my mom died peacefully.

I spent the next couple of weeks helping to plan her funeral and trying to get her estate set up and the probate process started (friends, that is a long story for another day).

My audition was set for 11:00 a.m. on February 7th.  I woke up that morning just before dawn with nothing to read for the audition.  I considered emailing Meghan and cancelling.  But two very different stories, based on two encounters with my mom and one with the girls in the van on the way to school, were swirling around in my head and I thought I could make one of them work.  I sat down at the computer and started to type and somehow, someway, the two stories melded together into one that I wanted to share.  I finished about 9:30 and shared it with Steve.  He cried and said it was his favorite of anything I’d ever written.

So, I auditioned.  And I waited. and waited. and waited.  Okay..it wasn’t that long.  I waited two days and then the email from Meghan was in my inbox and I was scared to open it.   The email started out thanking me for auditioning and reminding me that the show was about more than individual stories, it was about how those stories wove together to make a larger tapestry.  Right then I knew I didn’t get a spot.  My heart dropped.  I read the next line that said CONGRATULATIONS!  And, possibly for the first time ever, I was speechless.  And terrified.

Somehow, the next few weeks passed quickly and in March, we had our first group practice.  IT.WAS.AMAZING!  Meeting the other eleven women in the show and hearing their stories – I can’t even explain it.  Just know that being a part of this group of storytellers changed me forever.

Unfortunately, sadness has mixed equally with joy this year and on April 16th, two days before our second rehearsal, my grandmother died (If you’re keeping track, yes, that was exactly three months to the day after my mother died)   I wondered if I would be able to read my story on stage so close to Mother’s Day.  Then, I realized that what better way to celebrate their memories than to share my story and honestly, it helped to distract me a little (or  a lot).ListenToYourMotherCast

So, on May 3rd at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge with my husband and my daughters and my sister and my brother-in-law and my nieces sitting in the audience, I took the stage with eleven other incredibly gifted mothers, and read my piece called Labels (click here if you’d like to read it)

I will never be the same.  I did something that day that was for me.  Even though my piece was about being a mother and a daughter, I read it for me, not for my mom and not for Gracie and not for Abigail.  I did it to share my story and if you never listen to anything I’ve ever said or will say, listen to this:  share.your.story.

“Mother!” she yells, her frustration with me all too apparent in her tone. Sitting in the overstuffed leather chair across from her bed, I turn my head slightly so that I’m out of her line of sight and roll my eyes.

“DON’T ROLL YOUR EYES AT ME!” oops. I sigh that exasperated, exhausted sigh of mothers everywhere. You know the one – the one reserved for toddlers and tweens who refuse to listen, the one reserved for the night before science fair projects are due when glue and poster board and cranky fifth graders all collide to make you rethink this entire parenting gig. It’s a sigh I have perfected over the last decade.

Luckily, her anger with me is fleeting

“Mother!” she yells again. “Where is Terry? Where is my brother?”

“I don’t know”, I answer.

Here’s the thing. I do know where Terry is. Terry died four years ago. Telling her won’t help. She’ll just ask again next week, tomorrow, in an hour. Here’s the other thing – she’s not my daughter; I’m not her mother. In fact, it’s just the opposite. She is seventy years old and I am her daughter. At least once upon a time I was.

My relationship with my mother has always been difficult at its best, ridiculous at its worst. Her lifelong struggle with depression and her insatiable desire to prove her worth to everyone made for an, at times, interesting childhood. Because she couldn’t let others see her faults, she turned to me as her confidante. Because she couldn’t admit any type of failure, my brother, sister, and I could not fail either. Perfection was expected. The perfect daughter. A label that I have strived to earn my entire life. A label that I have never, ever come close to achieving. There are times when I have wondered if I was ever even a good daughter, a decent daughter, a passable daughter. My mother loves me – this I know on some guttural level, but practically, I always wonder, would she love me more if I was a “better daughter”? The mantle of daughter is a difficult one for me to wear.

Over the last year, my mother’s health has taken an atmospheric decline. Between the infections and the falls and the grave injuries, dementia has wrapped its heartbreaking vines around her. Subtle at first, noticeable only to those who know her well, it has been a roller coaster. In the last year, she has disowned me twice, called me names, begged for me to help her, cried because I’m there for her, cried because I’m not there for her, called me screaming in the middle of the night to rescue her from the doctors. I have been an evil villain, a saint, a caregiver, a withholder of kindness, a fool, a genius. I have been labeled more things than a Roget’s Thesaurus. Scratch that roller coaster analogy. This last year has been a hurricane. Now, my mother is in long term care in a nice private room at the nursing home where my husband works. It is the best possible scenario for a difficult situation. And, now, for reasons unknown to me, my label is mother. Oddly enough, this feels easier and truer than daughter. I wonder about labels, about who we call what. Sister, brother, wife, daughter, mother, friend….

“Mommy?” asks Abigail from the back seat of our van. Abigail is eight years old. She is also extremely precocious. This is just a euphemism for you never know what in the world will come out of her mouth.

“Mommy, why did you name me Abigail? Why didn’t you call me Faith or Hope or maybe Holy Spirit? “

I choke on my diet dr. pepper and try not to run the car off the road. Her sister, Gracie, always my deadpan child says, “Holy Spirit? Holy Spirit? Now, that would have been awesome. Then when you were born, Aunt Dianne could have posted on Facebook, let’s all welcome little Holy Spirit into the world.” And I am laughing and Gracie is laughing. And Abigail?

“Welll….”, Abigail says, “It doesn’t matter anyway. As soon as I’m eighteen, I’m legally changing my name to Stephanie Einstein.”

And there it is….labels don’t matter to Abigail. She is Abigail or Holy Spirit or Stephanie Einstein. I am mother or daughter or sister or friend. I am caretaker or villain or saint. The labels don’t matter – the love between us does.

We are back in my mom’s room at the nursing home. It’s time to leave for the evening, so Abigail is pushing her wheelchair out to the nurses’ station and I am walking ahead.

“HEY!” My mother calls. I stop and turn around. She grabs my hand and pulls it to her face.

“Hey!” She whispers, “You are a good mommy.”

I lean down and kiss the top of her head as tears fill my eyes. “And you are a good daughter.”

She smiles a small, lopsided smile and somehow these labels work and I love her and she loves me.

It was the last conversation we ever had. Within days, she was non-responsive and within a week she was gone – all the labels of all the years reduced to nothing but the love and those last sweet words, “you are a good mommy.”