It’s a hot, sunny July day in 2011. I’m camping with my boyfriend and 7 of our friends somewhere by Cass Lake, MN. My friend Bri and I are sitting on a couple of tree stumps, chatting and waiting for the boys to finish putting up the tents. I’m drinking a Rockstar energy drink on an empty stomach and notice that my hands are shaking uncontrollably, and I’m suddenly VERY hungry. Not just the regular hungry, but the “if I don’t eat this instant I’m going to burn every fucking one of those tents down” hungry. I tell Bri this and say it is very strange, because I’ve never had hunger come on this quick before and also, I live off of coffee and energy drinks, so why is my body reacting as if this is it’s first exposure to caffeine?? She jokingly says maybe you’re pregnant, and we begin to giggle. Our eyes lock and I think wow bestie, you are hilarious over there you little jokester. Comedian. Funny Funny Girl. But wait. Could it. What. No. Nope. Hell to the nah. Our eyes stay awkwardly locked and our light hearted giggles turn to nervous laughter. A few days later I am sitting on the toilet handing my boyfriend a third pregnancy test as he stares down in disbelief at the first two. All three are positive, and we are indeed going to be parents.
Eight months later our boy would enter the world, and 2.8 years after that we would have our daughter. By the time she is born I have mastered the art of claiming to be a “hot mess mom” because that is what’s trendy on Instagram, but I’m actually a very high strung, anxious mom. My identity is now 50% “Jesse’s wife” and 50% “Trey and Jaylie’s mom.” For awhile I substitute teach, but eventually my only means of “work” is a health and fitness MLM. I rarely leave my house and spend most of my days trying to make my life look appealing to my 900 Facebook friends. I’ve become the queen of homemade everything from teething biscuits to laundry detergent, and the more approval I get over this from strangers on the internet, the more I’m convinced this is what I need to do to prove to myself I’m a good mom. My husband struggles greatly with his mental health, but I still rely on him for ALL THE THINGS. What I consider as an inseparable team, a therapist would later label a “codependent marriage,” but what makes us happy is that we have the four of us, our plans for the future, our routines and favorite places, our Saturday morning pancakes and all the other little puzzle pieces that make up this life that is ours.
Life does not care about your perfect plan, and it certainly doesn’t give a shit about that death grip you have on controlling it. Life is unpredictable, wavering, and sometimes straight up cruel. I would learn this the hard way at 32 years old, on a rainy October day, when my husband walked out our back door, and ended his life.
In an instant I went from being a wife and mother of two, to a widowed, single mother of two. My entire world flipped upside down, and that carpet beneath my feet of everything I knew, completely ripped out from under me. Nothing from that moment on would be the same, and I was left to pick up the pieces of a life and three hearts that I didn’t shatter.
My wish came true with my new role as a single mother, I became the shit show I always wanted to be. Every rule of motherhood I had been following went completely out the window, and my only goal for the week now was survival. Take one day at a time, and as long as everyone is alive at the end of it, we’ve done well.
In the beginning I am terrified. On the inside I’m telling myself over and over I can’t do this on my own, and on the outside I am putting on a brave face and going through the motions of each day on autopilot. I no longer care what Instagram says about what makes a mom a good mom. I don’t have the energy to care. Every other meal is mac n cheese from a box. The only crafting going on is me handing each of them a pack of sidewalk chalk and hoping it keeps them occupied for more than 15 minutes. I put my youngest in daycare even though I don’t have a job, just to have a few days to breathe and scream and be sad by myself. I try to read the book “Girl Wash Your Face,” so as not to be the only female on the planet who hasn’t read it, but it all seems like horseshit to me so I put it down after Chapter 3. I know now that there are some things too big and too painful to be fixed by simply “washing my face” of it. I remember all of the times Jesse told me “the house can wait,” and I vow that I will never again put life and fun and people on hold in order to have a spot free house. I will not waste these precious minutes I’ve been given worrying about petty things. Every morning on my way to drop the tiny humans off at school and daycare, I play the song “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, and even though the cheesiness of it makes me want to puke, I tell them it’s our new morning mantra. It doesn’t matter if it feels like a lie, it’s my job to reassure them that we will be ok. Then after I drop them off, I drive around the countryside in Jesse’s pickup, sobbing, sipping coffee from my mug, and listening to every sad song I’ve ever downloaded.
Eventually, I get a part time job working for the Juvenile Courts which gives a little purpose to my week other than sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. I realize I actually like leaving my house to work and I love my job, and maybe Facebook was wrong and what fulfills you is sometimes working a regular job while your kids are in daycare, and every mother should just do whatever the fuck is best for her at the time. Little by little I develop an independence I didn’t think I was capable of. I apply for a home loan all on my own and buy a house right next door to one of my best friends. It’s a very impulsive and irresponsible move considering I am only working part time, this house is a “fixer upper,” and I’m not even sure where my hammer is. But teach a woman how to use a drill, and she’ll convince her sister they are fully capable of putting pieces of wood together to build a set of steps. Putting my own blood, sweat, and tears into this house to make it the Thomas Trio’s home is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s made me realize how much more capable we are than we give ourselves credit for. You might put 47 hinges on backwards or get shocked by electricity because I guess you aren’t supposed to grab on to the sides of an outlet and pull, but the PTSD from that tile backsplash, that was a way bigger bite than you could chew, will be worth it when it’s finished, and you can step back and say I FUCKIN DID THAT!
Adding grief into the mix of navigating this new life can be exhausting. Grief at times has made me selfish, quick tempered, and distant. This leads to a level of guilt and worry that keeps me up into the wee hours of the night. Each of my kids feels the loss of their dad in a different way, and I feel helpless in that I know this is something I can’t fix for them. My boy, who was 5 when his dad died, can still recall the life he had with him. There is both joy and sadness in those memories, and also a fear of losing someone else he cares about. My daughter, who was only 2 1/2, only really knows a life without a daddy. She begins to notice at daycare and then at school, that she is one of the only kids without one, and so she asks me if we can “find” her a dad…as if it is as simple as putting an ad in the paper, picking the best option and inserting him into our lives without there being any expectations on me with this man. They will both go through whatever it is they need to go through, and I am just here for it. I find myself at times jealous of the parents who’s biggest worries are grades or friend drama or how much playing time their kid is getting, and then I quickly pull back, because why the hell would I want anyone else to know how this feels. Our pains and burdens and hard truths are different for all of us, that’s the human experience, and mine is the only one I’m responsible for.
We have an amazing support system, and I’m very well aware I wouldn’t be where I am without them. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay the people who have stepped in to give my kids the nurturing that kids need, when I didn’t have a drop of emotional energy left in me. They keep us busy and add so much joy and laughter to our days. I realize how much I need connection and enjoy the company of other humans who give me the space to be myself, and I look back at all those years I spent alone on the farm and realize how isolated and disconnected I actually was. I am sad for that girl who didn’t know what she was capable of, and who didn’t feel safe being herself.
I hate silver linings and make a barf face at the quote “Everything happens for a reason,” but when I look at the dynamics of our little trio now, it’s hard not to think it was all perfectly planned by something greater than us. One Sunday in church during the Children’s sermon, the minister asked the kids who they loved, and without missing a beat my son said his sister. They have grown so close. On J’s first day of preschool he was the one who said, “I’ll be worried about her today. I hope she does okay.” She was going to need a big brother who looked out for her, and he was going to need a little sister who made him laugh on his toughest days, and they both grew in to being just that. He keeps us running on time, while she’s a free spirit that reminds us not to take life too seriously. Their wit keeps my sarcasm in check, and humor has helped us survive. We have learned that life can be really good, even through the bad. It’s a duality that will probably always exist for us, but I think we’re better for it.
I will never go back to being the mom who follows all the rules. I serve them sugary cereal and toaster strudels for breakfast while simultaneously having a conversation about how fresh air and activity keep our brains and our bodies healthy. I suck at monitoring screen time, and I still hate doing crafts. We love ditching town for the weekend to find a hotel or take a roadtrip back to Minnesota. I picked up another position at work and am working way more hours, and they have learned to roll with the punches and nobody has died because of it.
The other day we sat at our kitchen table and played the “pass the phone” game from Tik Tok. It’s basically a game of quick witted insults, and my heart melted as I listened to them roast each other. There’s nothing a mother loves more than to see her offspring become just as dark humored as she is. I blinked and they became these not so little anymore people with real thoughts and ideas and personalities. There are so many things I want them to know.
Like how during those first days without their dad, they were the only reason I got out of bed in the morning.
That the reason I stepped in to the fire of hell that is healing was for them, because I’ll do whatever I can to keep them from being a part of the cycle.
How sorry I am for missing out on some of the most pivotal moments of their lives, because in my own grief I had become so numb and detached from the world around me.
And that I’m so incredibly proud of how brave they’ve been through it all.