Saturday, July 22, 2017

Survivor's Guilt

This month has been blur. Two weeks ago, my family and I traveled to Florida for the kickoff of an amazing vacation. We spent a day at Legoland then visited Sea World before boarding a Disney cruise ship to sail the seas with eleven additional family members (16 of us in all).

As many of you know, I'm a cruise gal. I love being whisked away to a different location with the taste of salt in the air, the ocean teasing me with its brilliance right outside my balcony door. I love being pampered (who doesn't?) and enjoying a few days of not cooking dinner, not making my bed, not being the source of entertainment for my children. It's a time for rest, reflection, rejuvenation. Even being disconnected from WiFi and cell service is a blissful change to my normally hectic world.

We plan our cruise vacations years in advance. The anticipation that builds prior to vacation is one that rivals birthday parties, holiday gift-giving, births and weddings. We talk about the activities we can't wait to do. We reminisce about experiences from the last time we cruised. We imagine what will happen the next time we travel.

I take hundreds of photos during our cruises. They are my souvenirs, more precious than any t-shirt or postcard you will find. They remind me of beauty. Kindness. Peace. Joy.

But now, as I'm scrolling through all the photos from our vacation, I feel the need to add another word to that list: Guilt.

See, the cruise we took this year was a gift from my father-in-law, in memory of my mother-in-law who passed away March 2016. They wanted the extended family to have something to look forward to after she was gone, so they arranged for this vacation with everyone together.

Everyone except for mom.

My in-laws have cruised before. In fact, we invited them to share in our own cruise vacation in 2010 when my youngest child was only ten months old. We had a fabulous time making a lifetime of memories that week. Even today, we tease my now seven-year-old how Grandma and Grandpa searched the entire ship for a hot dog bun to appease him. Not the hot dog itself. The hot dog bun.

But now it's different.

My mother-in-law is gone and we are still finding our own ways to heal from that loss.

During this cruise, we visited various ports. As we traveled to the same locations we had shared with her, I could feel her presence in so many ways. Oh, the memories that flooded my heart as we toured the aquarium at Atlantis and strolled the walkway at Castaway Cay! I felt her whisper on my shoulder from the gentle Caribbean breeze and her love from the warmth of the sun. Even at dinner I found myself lost in the conversation as I remembered the way she would smile and laugh at our reflections of the day.

We had an amazing vacation. Now we are home, re-acclimating to our everyday lives, and I am compiling the photos to share.

But now it's different.

My mom is gone, too.

This trip had nothing to do with my mom at all as this was a celebration with my husband's family. In fact, the loss of my mom was never mentioned by anyone the entire week. It wasn't the focus of the trip, therefore it didn't rise to the surface of conversation. It may have been the proverbial elephant in the room or perhaps not even a thought; either way, it wasn't discussed. I briefly referenced her in a passing conversation about childhood memories, but that was it. My mom, her life, her death, were topics only for me to dwell upon.

Now here I am, pouring over hundreds of photos, wondering, "Who do I share these with now?"

Survivor's guilt is real.

It's only been two months since my mom's death and I'm still riding the roller coaster of grief. I am paralyzed by the weight of sorrow as I remember the joy I experienced last week. How could I have allowed myself moments of fun on the heels of my mother's demise? Why am I deserving to be blessed by the generosity of a family-funded vacation? Who really cares about my stories anyway? Why even share this with the world?

I am quickly learning that grief and guilt are seatmates in the cargo space of my mind.

So bear with me a bit as I navigate these crashing waves and searing riptides. My heart is still mending and I may seem a bit disconnected at times.

This coming week I will share stories from my cruise with parallels to my experiences as a mom, an educator, a daughter and friend.  My goal this year is to be more transparent in my reflections, so I thought this would be a great place to start. For those of you still sifting through the pain of loss, perhaps these stories will help us heal together.

I can't share my stories with my mom anymore, so I will share them with you.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Your Story Matters

Today was the first day I've been "back in the groove" following vacation and I was delighted to spend time with my dear friend, Courtney Jones (@PrincipalCEJ). We've known each other about a decade and in that time I've had the pleasure of watching her rise through the ranks of gifted education teacher, assistant principal, and now principal. She is a passionate educator, always willing to share her insights and motivates me in unexpected ways.

One of the first things she said as I sat down was, "How's that book coming along?" I skirted the question with a laugh and told her she sounded just like my mom, always asking when I was going to share my stories between the pages of a hardback novel. Our conversation was free-flowing, one topic leading to the next. We talked about life-changing events like the passing of my mom and joyful moments focused on family and travel. Her eyes sparkled as she shared her experiences of attending the ISTE Conference in June.

It was during that conference that her virtual world of Twitter exploded as she had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring educators, including two of my PLN friends Jennifer Casa-Todd (@JCasaTodd) and Aaron Hogan (@aaron_hogan). It was heartwarming to hear the connection she made with Jennifer, sharing in a hug that was sent all the way from me in Virginia.

Courtney and I chatted about the impact Twitter has had on our professional learning, how the platform has provided an open door to connect with those for whom a connection may have never been made, and we shared a story or two about our "awestruck moments" of meeting our favorite authors in real life.

She told me how Aaron asked why she wasn't blogging. His matter-of-fact approach in questioning Courtney resulted in a quick scroll through her Twitter page and commenting on what he saw. Listening to her retell the story had me laughing as she recounted all the excuses she gave him, none of which deterred him from asking, again, why she wasn't blogging. When she finally admitted that she had started a blog for her school, documenting different events and activities, he looked her straight in the eyes and said these words that stopped her in her tracks:

"You need to tell YOUR story."

Whoa! Wait... what? MY story? About my experiences? Who would want to read THAT?

The answer, my friend, is me.

I want to read your story. I want to know about your experiences. I want to soak up all the knowledge you have gained as an educator, a parent, a volunteer, a lacrosse coach, a surgical patient, a leader and a follower. You have life lessons that I need to hear!

Right now. 


See, your story matters. You took time out of your busy day to share your stories with me and now I am reflecting on your words, savoring the knowledge that seeps out as I relate your stories to my life. I walked away from our time together lifted up, inspired, challenged, and a bit humbled as I processed everything you shared.

We don't live in the same town. I'm not sure when we will meet again. But I do know that your words inspire. Your experiences remind me that life is filled with highs and lows; it's ok to be real, authentic, embracing the crazy, zany, exuberant people we are. It's ok to fail, to feel the angst of frustration, to find joy in simple moments of the day. And if you start sharing your stories through written text, I can connect with you anywhere, anytime. I can share your story with others. I can refer to your experiences as I'm sharing my own stories and together we can learn and grow.

Your story matters and your story must be told! Jot those notes. Start that blog. Post that link. To quote the very words you spoke today: "You just never know the people you touch when you share your stories with the world." Whether you are writing for #compelledtribe, #teacherswrite, or just #amwriting, your story can impact thousands with just a few clicks of a keyboard.

Thank you for rejuvenating me in ways I didn't even know I needed. Now get to writing! You know Jennifer and Aaron will be messaging you soon asking, "Have you started that blog yet?" After all, to quote Dave Burgess (@burgessdave), "Only YOU can tell the story someone else needs to hear!"

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cube Curiosity

Two months ago I discovered my oldest son has a hidden talent: he knows how to solve a Rubik's Cube.

Now for some of you parents (and even teachers!) you may not think this is a big deal; however, let me add another detail.

We don't own a Rubik's Cube.

It all started when his younger brother came home to share the latest trinket he received from his friends. There's a fair trade of bartering going on during and after school, so we're always ooohing and aaahhhhing over his latest acquisition. On this particular day, it was a tiny cube with brightly colored stickers, a knock-off version of the classic Rubik's Cube.

I sat on the sofa, showing my little guy how to twist and turn the cube to make three colors in a row (which is just about the apex of my knowledge when it comes to this gadget) when my older son plopped down beside me and asked the question that opened the door to discovery:

"You want me to solve that for you?"

I turned to him and replied with slight sarcasm in my voice, "YOU know how to solve a Rubik's Cube?"

He smiled in that nonchalant way, as if we were chatting about a common task like making a paper airplane, and simply stated, "Yeah, sure. I know how to solve it."

I laughed out loud. Such absurdity. In an instant I was thrown back to my own middle school years where I would go to my room, secretly peel off the stickers and rearrange them correctly to "prove" that I was just as smart as my friends (whom I later discovered were doing exactly the same thing as me!) I never wanted to admit defeat, the seed of perfectionism already planted deep in my soul.

My son shares many of my attributes. His unwavering confidence is something we tease him about; even though he's only thirteen, he can be quite smug about his ability to do all things. This was no different.

I handed him the cube and watched as he turned the blocks this way and that. He paused, turning the cube around and continued again. Within minutes he handed it back to me, solved.

I. Was. Dumbfounded.

Then I was intrigued.

"How did you learn how to do that?" I asked in utter amazement. Keep in mind, we don't own a Rubik's cube. I had never seen him even hold one, much less solve it!

"Oh it was easy," he shared, "I just memorized the algorithms."

Sometimes I don't give my children enough credit for the things they learn on their own. I still hold tight to that misconception that they need me to be their teacher. I forget just how smart they really are and assume that their knowledge doesn't supersede my own.

Each day I see my child sitting on the sofa, eyes staring at his phone, earbuds dangling from his ears. My impulse is to fuss at him for wasting time watching so many YouTube videos and push him out the door to ride bikes with his friends like we did at his age.

The irony is that his friends are doing the same thing. They, too, are obsessed with YouTube videos and use it as their primary source for learning. They literally hold the world in their fingertips with one website URL, a global agency of collective learning available with a few taps on a digital keyboard.

When I was thirteen, I rode bikes. He's memorizing algorithms. Just because his learning is virtual, does that make it any less relevant?

After 18 years of being a mom, I'm still learning from my children.

Over spring break my son received the ultimate challenge - to solve 36 Rubik's Cubes in less than an hour. He not only accepted and completed the challenge, but had to do it twice because his oh-so-perfect mom who is also a technologist (that would be me), recorded the first round on slow-mo instead of time-lapse. Egads!

If you would like to see the Rubik's Cube time-lapse video, click here. It really is quite impressive!

I'm happy to share that my son finally received a Rubik's cube of his own to keep and now that the skill is mastered, he's diving into other passions for the summer. Imagine if we gave every child the opportunity to seek out information and support their interests, to follow their own path to understanding. We might just learn a thing or two from them in the process!

I'm sharing experiences as a mom on Family Friday - subscribe below so you never miss a post!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

One Month

It's been exactly one month.

One month since she held my hand. Once month since I heard her laughter ringing against the walls. One month since I kissed her cheek. One month since I watched her take her final breath.

The pain is real.

I have replayed her last day with us so many times in my memory that one month feels like yesterday. The numbing shock of expected demise is now an aching grief. I try to write about the memories from our final week together and my fingers simply can't type out the words. 

There have been times in this past month where I have literally been paralyzed by grief. For those who know me well, this is quite a surprise because I am always on the go, a quintessential Pollyanna who always wears a smile. However, this month has been different. It's been a month of mourning; her loss creating a pang of sweet sorrow in my heart. Her memory wraps itself around me like a warm blanket on a chilly morning. I feel her love and strength flowing through my soul and I can already see how her life and death has changed me.

This month has been surreal.

My thank-you notes still sit on my desk, the envelopes unmarked. I can hear her voice nagging in my head: "I did not raise you like that. You need to write those thank you notes because it's the right thing to do."

Her voice makes me laugh, then cry.

She's right. I need to write the thank-you notes. I need to press on, move forward, stop sitting stagnant in my grief. The world isn't going to stop for my mourning, nor should it. We all experience sadness and loss in our life at one time or another. 

I am no different than you.

Today I've reached the one month mark and I'm surfacing from the crashing waves to take a breath. I feel the virtual veil of woe lifted and I can see the world around me with a deeper clarity than before. It's time. Today is here. Let's get this party started.

One way we decided to honor my mom was to create a GoFundMe page as a final act of kindness for her and today I have the privilege of blessing every single nurse who works on the Third Floor - Oncology Department at Henrico Doctor's Hospital - Forest Campus.

For those who are just catching up with our story, my mom has battled Stage 4 Small Cell Lung since June 2015, a journey of highs and lows. On April 20, 2017, she was hospitalized so doctors could "do something about that breathing," but she never left. On May 4, 2017 she passed away in the same room she entered two weeks before.

During her time at Henrico Doctor's Hospital, she received the best care possible for her deteriorating condition. Each and every person who entered her room had a smile and kind word to say to my mom. She often remarked that it didn't matter that this hospital was a half-hour away, on the other side of town. This was HER hospital. These were HER people.

And now they are mine as well.

Each day she would have a new crop of faces to greet her. "Good morning, Mrs. Shaver! How are you feeling today?" While I know it's part of their job to greet the patient each morning and afternoon, I think we all knew there was something a little different about my mom.

She wasn't just a cancer patient. She wasn't here for a quick fix.

She was dying.

As my mom prepared for the final stage of her journey, these amazing people were her entourage. We designated them as her "personal concierge staff" as they made arrangements for her to have the best experience during her stay. We put on "sparkle lip gloss" (petroleum based Chapstick) and wore our "party clothes" (pajamas from home) so we were always ready for any new people to meet.

They made her feel like a superstar.

They took time to greet us and get to know us, asking about our other family members. They offered us makeshift beds and tried their best to lighten our load. They even stopped to smell the flowers, literally.

They helped us create a room of joy and laughter. They didn't chastise us when we delivered a dozen Duck Donuts to the woman who had "no food by mouth" listed on her sheet. (Ooops, sorry! We truly didn't know that was written until later!)

They turned a blind eye as we brought yet another person into my mom's packed room to celebrate upcoming events we knew my mom would miss. (I think she may have broken the hospital record for the most visitors on a daily basis.)

They helped us prepare for the stages they knew were to come. They were honest, kind, and compassionate. They listened to our fears and hugged us when the words wouldn't come. They offered creative suggestions to ease my mom's pain, like making hospital smoothies with orange sherbert ice cream and ginger ale when the pain of swallowing became too difficult a task to bear. They even allowed me to bring in a wine glass for my mom to drink from (which is pretty funny when you realize my mom was in Alcoholics Anonymous for almost 25 years!)

They treated my mom with respect and dignity and when the time came to say goodbye, they came in together as "her crew" and posed for one last memory-making picture before their shifts changed for the night. One nurse even brought her seven-month son just to "soak up a little bit of the joy" as we celebrated our final moments together.

My mom adored these nurses so very much. Her eyes always lit up when they came into her room. 

Alex. Jessica. Sara. Ellen. Audrey. Shannon.

We learned their names because they mattered to her;

We learned their names because they they mattered to us.

Today, one month later, I am surprising all 23 nurses on the oncology staff with a photo card of me and my mom drinking strawberry smoothies, one of the last drinks we enjoyed together. Attached to the photo is a Starbucks gift card so they can share in our joy with a strawberry smoothie, too.

It's been exactly one month of mourning.

Now it's time to live.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Prom and Graduation

If you know anything at all about my mom, you know she loves a good party.

Well, let me tell you friends... we partied it up each and every day while she was in the hospital!

On Friday, I told her of my plans. "Mom... I know you are doing everything you can to be here for every milestone moment... but I think it would be tons of fun if we could celebrate some things early! You need to mark your calendar right now for Sunday because we are going to have so much fun!"

She pulled out her phone and we both became painfully aware that the pain meds were taking their toll on her fine motor skills. She was struggling to open her calendar app as she marked her "agenda". I wanted to respect her ability to do it herself, but it was heart-wrenching to watch her fingers not move the way she wanted.

It took about 15 minutes, but she finally completed the task, our special day marked with digital ink. I knew in my heart she would live to see Sunday, for no one would dare miss the excitement we had in store.

We were going to celebrate Prom and Graduation all in one fell swoop.

I spent Sunday morning in her hospital room sipping on our strawberry smoothies as we chatted about this and that. She was feeling a little loopy from her pain meds again (I SWEAR I did not spike her drink!), so I let our conversation drift away as her eyes became heavy again.

Around noon, I left the hospital to head home and get my daughter ready to see her Grammy. We spent 30 minutes curling her hair and another 15 minutes creating a fancy "up-do". She put on her Prom dress for the first time since it had been altered the week before.

Her Prom night isn't until May 20, but I just knew in my heart my mom would be gone before then.

We arrived at the hospital and I felt like I was escorting Cinderella to the ball. My eighteen year old daughter walked through the halls, her head held high. You would never know that she is shy and reserved by watching her walk through the hospital that day. It really was magical to watch! People stopped in their tracks, admiring her, clearing the path for our steps. We stopped along the way and took a few photos before making our grand entrance into my mom's hospital room.

Oh, how I wish I had recorded my mom's expression when Katrina walked into the room. She was in the bed chatting with her childhood friend, Kathy, and her eyes just lit up at the sight of her granddaughter all dressed up for Prom.

My mom kept saying, "Wow" and "You are so beautiful!" as she admired my daughter's attire. "I knew you would have a purple dress!" (Purple has been Katrina's favorite color since she could draw with crayons.)

Katrina twirled for her, the chiffon overlay swirling gracefully around the silk layers underneath. Katrina even showed my mom her silver heels with the diamond rhinestones, knowing they both share a love for really cute shoes.

As more visitors arrived, Katrina and I slipped out of the room to get dressed for graduation. In perfect timing, Katrina had received her cap and gown at school when my mom first entered the hospital. Although we were still missing the NHS drape, the Beta cord and the Hanover Scholar purple tassel, we had enough to make it feel like a real graduation day.

I offered to play the graduation march on my phone, but we simply hummed the tune as Katrina walked in. Again, my mom's eyes shone brightly - proud, awed, speechless.

And with one final hug to say goodbye, my mom knew she hadn't missed a single milestone.

Check back soon for our next story as we celebrate my mom's final week on earth. Her funeral will be Saturday, May 13, 2017. If you would like to donate to "Dottie's Final Act of Kindness" campaign, please click here.