Five years ago, at this time,  I was stuffing my Suburban with garbage bags full of the belongings that I would take with me to start a new life. My husband, at the time, had put my two babies, one and three-years-old, in the front seat of his pickup and stood outside of it mocking me derisively as they watched, oblivious to the significance of the event. After the last bag was stuffed in, I collected my two babies and secured them in their car seats. Bella, my yellow lab and best friend, was in the passenger seat and I stuffed the cat carrier on top of our belongings between the children.  Living on an island, we drove about a half mile to the ferry terminal where I got the car in line and numbly unloaded the children to go into the terminal and get our tickets. While the children played, the length of our journey began to set in. We’d spend two days on the ferry traveling from SE Alaska to Bremerton, Washington. There, we’d disembark and I planned to drive over the North Cascade highway to Montana in order to avoid the Seattle traffic.  Returning to the car, I steeled myself for the journey and spoke excitedly to the kids, masking my true emotions. It was dark now and we were just getting ready to load when there was a tap at the window. It was him. He wanted me to take his laptop and the camera and was shoving them through the window at me.  I remember staring at him incredulously and pulled them into the car as he yelled goodbye to his children. And, just like that, he was gone.

That night, after the kids were soundly sleeping in the cabin bunks, I got up and stood looking out the ferry window at the pitch black water and sky.  Somewhere from deep within myself I gathered the strength for our journey and we passed the next two days uneventfully on the ferry. Being alone with my two babies was nothing new to me, I’d only had two breaks from them in three years.  My first was when my daughter was 18-months-old and I’d had to take a two-hour exam for my teaching certification. The second was a weekend trip to see my old friend Ashlie in Seattle. I didn’t really count that, though, because he’d called me the first night I was there and told me he was going for a walk (while the children were sleeping). I told him he couldn’t do that, they were babies, what if they woke up – and he got mad at me. The rest of my time in Seattle was a living hell as I counted every hour until I had them safely in my arms again. After that, I never left them again. I’d literally spent every hour with them outside of those two breaks, so being on my own with them was not a burden for me.  All I remember of that ferry trip was when we passed from the inland passages of SE Alaska and for a spell were on the open ocean where the swell rocked us sideways considerably, alarming passengers not familiar with the roll of the sea.

Arriving in Bremerton, I loaded the children in the car, let the cat out of her carrier and put Bella in the front seat. As cars began to unload, I took a deep breath and told myself I had this, I just had to get to the exit for the North Cascades. Heading up the plank off the boat, I glanced to my right and saw a couple of good looking guys watching us unload. It took me a second to realize it was two of my brothers. Tears were pouring down my face when I pulled off and they ran up to greet me. Any emotional strength I’d gathered was gone and I held them trying to borrow some of their strength. We set out, me following them as my children didn’t want them to drive us. Climbing onto the busy interstate I stayed as tight to them as I could, but it seemed if I opened up more than a few feet a car got between us. That’s when it hit me, and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I stuck my arm out the window waving wildly and heading for the nearest exit. My brothers followed and after we pulled off, agreed to get me to Snoqualmie Pass. With my middle brother Jess driving, we set out again. I concentrated on not looking at the road and all the cars. We got stuck in another traffic jam and I laid my head down on the seat, overwhelmed by the sound and the motion. “Just talk to me,” I told my brother, and he rubbed my head talking away. Finally we were clear of it all and pulled into North Bend for something to eat.

Whatever confidence I had was drained from me when my brother’s arrived and after the white knuckle drive I seriously doubted I could make it to Montana. But, I had two young children with me and I knew if I could get to Montana I’d be OK. So, after lunch, we said our farewells and I toughed it out to the top of the pass. There I pulled off and into a ski resort parking lot. I turned off the car and said to my kids, “I can’t do it, I just can’t do it.” And you know what those little suckers did? They both looked at me and said, “Yes, you can mom, you can do it.” I pulled every last bit of reserve that I had in me and pulled that car full of trash bags that were slapping in the wind from the rolled down windows back onto the highway. Milepost by milepost, exit by exit, I did make it to Montana. I will never forget the comfort I felt when I left the busy freeways of Washington State for the quiet Montana highways. But, what I remember most is the first time I saw Flathead Lake in the distance and the tears that poured down my cheeks. The Mighty Mission Range was still there peached in the early spring twilight and rolling the windows down as we came into Polson, it smelled like flowers. We had Van Morrison cranked loud and we were singing. My cat Green Eyes was flattened out like a pancake between the kids on top of everything with the wind blowing across her fur and Bella stuck her nose out the window.

I’d made it, but only to Montana. The journey back to the strong woman that first got off that float plane in Pelican, Alaska continues.  It’s been five years and while I get glimpses, much of her still eludes me.  I may be only a shell of that woman, but I’ve done allright. With the encouragement of my two little bugs we’ve come a long ways from Snoqualmie Pass.

Wisdom is something I’m only now starting to realize, if I’m lucky, midway or so through this journey. The wisdom I’ve gained has been in many different realms, most notably relationships. And, despite how I would’ve liked to have had some of that 20 years ago, the most valuable I’ve gleaned has to do with time. You see, my entire life I have been waiting for the passage of time. Every mark, every goal, every dream, every desire meant waiting for time to pass. And, up until about eight years ago, that passage seemed excruciatingly slow. Whether waiting to start high school, get my license, graduate, go to college, graduate from college, start my career, it all took waiting patiently to pass through the hoops of time.

Then, for reasons which will always be inexplicable to me, about eight years ago God gave me the greatest gift any woman could ever desire – a child. And, from the moment she came out of me, time became something to hold onto, cling to, all the while searching desperately for nonexistent brakes.  If I think back, I believe this changing in the sense of time happened the moment I laid eyes on her – the moment that only another mom can understand – when you’re looking at a miracle that’s just come out of you.  Holding your child for the first time is like finally holding time in your hands. From then on time unravels moment-by-moment in that little being, as we bear witness. The fortunate mothers are mature enough to treasure every moment of that passage of time.

Because of this gift, the past eight years have been the richest I have ever known. I have never lived in the present as much in my life. I have never been a part of so many moments that have made me smile, laugh, cry, and want to etch forever in my mind.  Sure, there are times I have wanted to scream, pull my hair out, give up, yell at someone, but those were part of everyday life before kids.  I have never known before kids the power I have as a human being to love, comfort, and care for another.  

As a parent, I have magical powers I never knew I had. I can make a bad day good, make the boogie man go away, cure a sick tummy, or offer a comforting hug. I’m the one to go to when something’s broken, who can teach you how to ride a bike, throw a football, or ice skate. My kids taught me how to use my undiscovered magic in ways only they can. One of my favorite powers is my ability to make everything safe again. I love it when one of my babies climbs in bed with me, scared, and after being securely wrapped in my arms, is peacefully sound asleep in a matter of minutes.  My bed even has a magic smell that sometimes makes my kids ask me to lend them one of my pillows.

Had I known what a gift they are and the richness they would add to my life, I would’ve had them a lot earlier, but then I wouldn’t have had my Aleutia and Elias. So, I no longer waste the time I have looking back. Instead, I practice each day to live in the moment. To savor each laugh, each smile, each tear, knowing that once it passes it cannot be recaptured. I try not to even envision the future or what it might look like because what is the future really? It’s a dream, that’s all – it’s a hope, it’s a desire, nothing more. It’s not real. All that is real is right in front of us every day. It’s those who grace our lives – that’s all that’s real. And, whether they’re young, old, two-legged, or four-legged, I encourage you to relish your shared moments. Those are the real gift I’ve discovered. Those are what this ride is all about. That is the one true bit of wisdom I can hold onto, feel its heft, and know with certainty it is real.

It’s interesting to me that I apparently only have something to share of value about every other month. This, of course, leads me to wonder how all these other author/bloggers find something of value every single week or even every day. Perhaps it’s my life situation, a single mother with two young children, running my business from home. I’m too busy playing multiple roles, and trying to cover over any holes in the spackling of my children’s live’s with love, to give my own creative process much time.

The funny thing is I had someone tell me about a year ago that I’d better watch it, better find some time for me or I’d begin to resent them. This struck me as absurd, and I let the person who shared that with me know that. His kids grown and out of the house, he really did not understand the symbiotic nature of the relationship that I have with my children. We truly rely on one another in every way and that is just continuing to grow and flourish in more positive ways as we mature.

About a month ago, I was busy trying to get the house winterized. Nearly 100-years-old, she’s a cheeky old dame, but needs a little make-up to get through winter’s grand ball. One of the things that I do to prepare her is to cover all of her old windows in plastic. I generally wait as long as I can to do this, but this year when we went from 70 to –20 in the course of a week, I was left no choice. I was nearly done upstairs and running out of plastic when one of the sheets tore that I was applying. Tired, frazzled, I let myself have a good old tizzy, as my mother always called them. It went something like this: “I hate this house,” fist hitting wall and tears following. Then the same phrase repeated several times as I finally sat down on the floor and had a good cry.

After my breakdown, I sat down with my kids to try and explain why I’d gotten so upset at the house. My son had started crying telling me, “I love this house mom.” I told them that I was mentally and physically exhausted, that every once in a while it sounded really nice to have somebody give me a hand. I told them that sometimes I get tired of trying to do everything myself – the usual laments of a single mom. My children listened, comforting me as I spoke. And, finally, they both said, “But, you’re not alone mom, we’re here.” “I can help you,” Elias pointed out. I looked at him and realized that he was right, it wouldn’t be long and I’d have a little man around the house to help. Squeezing them both, I told them they were right and the moment passed.

About a week ago I was in my office working when Elias walked in with a note for me. It said, “I Love you mom. I am happy if you are happy. You are my mom and I Love you.” The spelling was all correct, it was written in yellow, and interestingly both I and love were capitalized. I sat looking at it, and my first thought was, leave it to a kid to figure out that Love should always be capitalized. Then, I set it in my printer feed tray next to my computer so I could meditate on it often.

How many times have other adults told me that if I’m happy, my kids will be happy, and here it is coming directly from my 6-year-old’s loving hand.  Prophetically, a client and friend of mine sent me a couple books for Christmas that address this very subject. So far, they’ve both captivated me and appear to offer a lot of wisdom into this matter of discovering your own happiness. It appears that the meat of one book is that you can’t base your happiness on events out of your control – like me becoming a great author, for example.

So, here I sit, knowing that I will never resent my children. Fearing that if I don’t create a life for myself and find happiness inside myself I will saddle them with a needy, overbearing mom as they begin to grow apart from me and develop into their own individual branches. It’s an awesome thing to contemplate. I always thought the Holy Grail of being published was my only dream. But, now alone, I realize that it will take a great deal more for me to find fulfillment – a great deal more.

Legs bent and tucked underneath, hands flung skyward, he is captured in midair above the richly colored leaf pile below. His long, blond hair disheveled, cheeks aglow with the autumn chill, his smile can only be called that of childhood. He is the innocent barefoot boy, slipping into fall, begging to stay out after dinner despite the early darkness settling in. 

I posted this picture to my Facebook account last night after finally learning how to transfer the photos from my phone to my computer. There were several albums that I created actually. “Limekiln,” “Hay Bales,” and “the Pool.” After I uploaded all these pictures, I sat sipping a glass of wine, on my couch and examined them slowly, studying each detail. In them, my kids are happy, taking joy in the simple pleasures that I remember as a child. They are outdoors – at the pool, by the creek, on top of a hay bale, jumping into a pile of leaves, on the top of a mountain – in Mother Montana’s playground.

It wasn’t that long ago that I told them at the dinner table I had an important announcement. “What is it mom?” they asked, excitedly. “I have decided that we are not moving,” I replied. Before I could elaborate they were out of their seats, hugging me and expressing their agreement. Earlier in the summer my youngest had told me, “I want to die in this house.” After their long summer away with their father I’d had a lot of time to investigate my need to move. What I’d concluded was that the reasons for staying outweighed the reasons for leaving. I didn’t tell them any of this, of course, but their reaction only confirmed what my gut had been telling me.

We have a simple life. Our days are full of walks to the creek, hikes in the mountains, ice skating or swimming across the street, sledding on the nearby hills, fishing in the reservoirs, catching crawfish at the fish hatchery, and evening drives just to “get out.” Commerce occupies our lives only in our trips to the grocery store or our local discount store. The kids save their money and buy themselves little gifts at the Feed store or the Army/Navy store. The nearest mall is a blessed two hours away in either direction. We have one small movie theatre in town and have seen three movies there in four years. Come March, the T.V. is turned off until September. Our days become endless as spring stretches into summer and by the time fall arrives we’re excited to once again enjoy the distraction of television.

It is a life similar to the one my parents knew – slower, and richer than the one I knew as a child after we left Montana. Those childhood memories, my two brief years on the shore of a small lake in Northwest Montana, are what keep me here. I came here to give them this gift. This sense of place, of the rich passing of days marked by small things found mostly out-of-doors. There are other treasures too, like the deeply forged bonds of friendship that can only come from spending time and creating memories together. Mostly there is a sense of community, of being part of a larger group of hardy individuals that look out for one another and relish the same lifestyle.

The days of fall are marked and the leaf pile may last another week. After that, all bets are off as Old Man Winter has made it clear he’s on his way. I’m ready for his arrival. The hockey skates are sitting by the front door.

I made it. For the past two weeks I’ve had my children back in my loving arms. It occurred to me to share the story of our reunion. But, I can sum that up in one word – blissful. So, I sit here in my nest, which feels warm, secure, and richly complete with two little bodies snug in their beds.

Instead, tonight, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own inner journey over the seven weeks that they were gone. I’m trying to take an accounting of what I’ve accomplished, and the most rewarding things I can point to took place internally – deep inside the narrow, winding maze of passageways in my mind.

When the kids left I can only describe my mental state as being akin to “trigger finger.” My poor body and mind were on such high alert that the slightest unexpected news which might be construed as bad sent me into mental fits. Me, a lover of world news and events, had gotten to where I didn’t read my beloved New York Times in the morning. I had shut out the world of news as it was overload to what I had to deal with in my life.

I should back up for a moment. In the prior nine months, my youngest son, who just turned 6, had developed asthma. In that time he’d endured five or six illnesses requiring many emergency visits and sleepless nights applying a nebulizer so he could breathe.  By the time late spring came around we’d taken a train ride to Seattle to see specialists and I was ever vigilant. The slightest cough or runny nose and I went into “battle mode.”

Without knowing it, I’d lost control of my thought process. I’d let worry control my mind and permeate all of my thoughts. My poor body, in response, had nothing to do with this information. So, I’d begun to suffer from anxiety. I spent many winter nights, curled up in my bed, heart pounding, feeling isolated and alone, with prayer as my only security net. But, even the Holy Mother, could not give me the solace I needed.

No, what I needed, I discovered was a break from the 24 x 7 responsibility of child-raising. I needed that time to realize that I’d let my thoughts run amuck and that I’d given my body no outlet for my thoughts. Without the children here, I began to recognize the irrational nature of my thoughts and slowly I began to reign them in. But, it took work, and I read something that really helped. It was such simple advice, but the most helpful I ever read. It said, “Your mind can only truly concentrate on one thought at a time.” And, I took that and ran with it, slowly replacing every worry, every unnerving thought with peaceful, calming, secure thoughts.

I also gave my body the outlet that it needed. I began a workout program in earnest, pushing myself until exhaustion so that my body had something to do with my anxious energy. I became addicted to the calm after a workout, and the peace that permeated my body because it’d been given an opportunity to transform that anxious energy and release it. I’ve always been a runner for that very reason, but being a single mom with a sick boy, you don’t have the luxury of heading out for a run. So, all winter my body had not had an outlet for my anxious, dire thoughts.

This process took weeks and the transformation was subtle. But, one day, I found myself going to the New York Times and diving into the headlines again, ravenous for world news. When the headlines appeared on my Yahoo browser or CNN, I didn’t immediately flip away from them; instead I read them with compassion and empathy, but not with irrational fear.  When I crawled into bed at night, I let go of my worry, releasing it in prayer and slept soundly.

Through this process, I found a peace that has remained, a peace that permeates not only me, but this house and my children. It is a gift that I am able to give to them and I am grateful. I’ve always believed in the healing power of the mind and body, as well as the interconnectedness. The journey I made over the course of seven weeks convinced me of how deep this connection is. So, while the time away from my children was unbearable at times, it also was necessary for my own healing.

I can now say that I have let go of fear and worry; as any mother will tell you – both, significant accomplishments.  Peace be with you.

The silver-black embers cradled my thoughts, which I’d carefully composed, and then tossed into the orange fiery glow.
 
I stood reverently above, staring, as the paper curled, folded, blackened, and lifted into the gray smoke above.
 
“May the Montana winds carry these ashes, and by one of God’s miracles, touch yours.” That’s what I’d written to my dear, dead friend.
 

I stood there a long time, waiting for the emotion to come. I’d invited it. I was ready to grieve.

But the grief didn’t come, so I sat back down on the picnic table seat and took a long, slow swig of lukewarm Miller beer. It was camping beer. I’d picked it up at “The Fort” in Big Timber before heading up the Boulder River.

The day was hot. Bella, my 12-year-old yellow lab, and I had spent the morning on the prairie – in Rapelje – to meet some friends and watch a mountain bike race.

I was antsy. The passing thunderstorm and heat played on my nerves.

All I wanted – needed – was to get out of there. Get next to one of Montana’s rivers and I’d be fine.

I felt it when we pulled up to the banks of the Boulder. The sound of the rushing water, the wind blowing across the Crazies, the sun on my shoulders – Mother Montana was working it out of me, like an expert masseuse.

We’d taken the top off the Jeep before leaving Rapelje and arrived hot. After wading in the river, we crawled in back for a nap.

Waking up, I looked at Bella and said, “Shoot, no reason to go home – nobody waiting for us there.”

The dry grasses and twigs I gathered for the fire lit in an instant, thanks to the wind. I carved up a stick and carelessly roasted two hot dogs till they were black and scarred, one for each of us.

The rippling song of the aspens in the afternoon breeze made me think of her.

I’d gotten a call a week ago from my lifelong friend. “She passed away,” she said in a heavy, flat tone on my voicemail, “I can’t believe it.”

We both had guilt. Our mutual friend for many years had slipped into alcoholism and our friendship had slipped away with it. Too many late-night drunken calls had tested the bounds of what we’d tolerate.

“I wondered if you called me to say goodbye? Did I not pick up?” I’d scrawled in the eulogy I never gave.

Regret coursed through my veins, like time I’d never be able to recapture.

I felt the pulse of life brush across my sunburned shoulders and stared at the churning milky brown river rushing by.

“Where is my pulse?” I brooded.

– In memory of Sharon Warning, a dear friend.

 

 

My hands give one final push across the golden hair as I bend over giving an impossibly brief hug. I avoid Elias’ inquisitive, caring, big brown eyes and tell him I love him, I’ll see him soon. Aleutia’s farewell is even briefer, she copes by going within. I stare into her sea green eyes and connect briefly. I tell her I love her and she looks away while I step out the door.
 
Walking down the hallway, the emotion overcomes me and I hurry to get out of sight. I only have a few brief moments to let it all out. In my family, there is little tolerance for tears or self-pity. I believe, however, that emotions must be acknowledged, respected, and let go. I do not believe in dwelling on them, but I do believe in honoring them. In this case, I am a mother of a five and seven-year-old whom I’ve just sent off with their father for seven weeks. I let the volcano erupting in my heart overflow until all that I feel is ash inside. I pause, wipe away the tears, and crawl into the truck with my brother.
 
We leave Spokane, weaving through traffic that normally would have me on edge, but I am gone. My grounding is gone. The two cords that tethered me to the present, to my life, to all that I am, have been cut off – I’m adrift. My brother chats incessantly about anything that comes to mind, trying to distract me I’m sure. But, he does not realize that I’m already gone and he can’t reach me. I make subtle acknowledgements to keep him from worrying, but inside my heart is pounding, my breath is shallow and I’m simply concentrating on control.
 
My instincts are shouting at me, “Go back. Run. Go get those children. Take them and run.” Handing them over – especially to him – goes against every primitive maternal instinct in me. It’s not like they’re going down the block, or even across town, they’re going thousands of miles away. They are literally outside of my loving grasp and will be for seven weeks. The numbness sets in and I rejoin the world in the way that I do while they’re gone. Never really present, never really accounted for – merely functioning. And, for some reason, many people don’t get that.
 
That’s the hard part. Why is it so difficult to understand that this is not party time for me? “Just enjoy the break. Take a vacation. Have a fling.” These are the kinds of platitudes conveyed to me when I tell people my kids are gone. The fact is, what I do is survive. This is the fourth summer, however, and I am determined to get some things accomplished. This morning I reviewed three manuscripts in my mind and settled on the one I will tackle. Also, I must edit and get out the first manuscript. I should also make a note to add a blog post more than once a quarter.
 
Bella is at my feet. We’ve been out for a long walk, I’ve had my coffee on the deck with her. Our workday has begun. Right now, I have one mission – to make it till next Tuesday when I can mark off week one.