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Vignette 39/52. Part Three: WOW.

“When we are stunned to the place beyond words, we’re finally starting to get somewhere. It is so much more comfortable to think that we know what it all means, what to expect and how it all hangs together. When we are stunned to the place beyond words, when an aspect of life takes us away from being able to chip away at something until it’s down to a manageable size and then to file it nicely away, when all we can say in response is “Wow,” that’s a prayer.”
― Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers

We closed the learning center for two weeks on Friday. These two weeks will represent the longest break I have had in two years. It won’t be a real break of course. There are emails to write, lessons to plan, research to record, and of course, meetings.

But before all that, I pause to say this one small word about this inaugural year that contained a world of multitudes – a world of patience, emotion, and stamina.

Wow.

I am utterly astonished we made it and in awe of how I am still standing ready to commit to what seems like a repeating Sisyphus-type feat.

How many times does that godforsaken boulder keep rolling down the hill? Just when I think I can rest or pause to take a breath, something goes wrong and I find myself at the bottom.

Wow.

It’s amazing how many ways I can disappoint and offend people especially when I create boundaries that force people to take responsibility for what they want and to communicate it clearly.

As the people on the outside of my safety circle pick me a part because I am deciding to risk and put myself out there, carrying a lot of responsibility, I wonder if they remember I have five children who need me too. I wonder if they think about how my children are handling this situation where their mom no longer is devoted only to them, when she has to explain that there are others who need her too, and when she asks them to be patient and that she will spend time with them soon.

Wow.

But it’s also amazing how many ways people can show me their support and understand that I am doing the best that I can. The beautiful testimonials from families who have witnessed this year of zigging and zagging and who have stood by me in the worst of times even when I barely had time to say hello, were what helped me endure.

My own children and my husband have been beside as I receive harsh criticism from the outside world but they see what I do and who I am all day. They are the ones both reassuring me and rolling up their sleeves for another collective push of the boulder.

Wow.

And it is a different type of awe when I look back on both the fragility and the resilience of human beings. How delicate yet determined is this one wild and precious life. This life where we get to choose how to create and ask for what we want. When we do that, we are always stunned by the miracles that appear and all we can do is say,

Wow.

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Vignette 38/52. Part Two: THANKS.

“Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.”

Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

The second prayer is “Thanks.”

Not even “Thank you.” Sometimes that seems loaded. Who is this ‘you’? Sometimes I just need to give thanks.

Yesterday a family donated some money to our little learning center project. I hugged the mom and whispered, “Thanks.” As I whispered this one word, I broke down in tears. I sobbed and she held me. I cried because of all that I felt about THIS year broke me open with this one word as I recognized this generous gesture. She cried too because she knew. She had been there since the beginning.

Just when I think this is all too hard – trying to preserve childhood, trying to show how beautiful this world is to kids who are forgetting, trying to carry it all – the miracles hold me steady.

This is the miracle of this word ‘thanks.’ It is the already received, of understanding the true gift. This family represented all the families that supported us this year, supported me and the staff of Casa Morpho who tried to keep the love of learning, and loving the world, alive. Despite all the closures and lockdowns, the virtual learning experiments, the part-time social distanced outdoor lessons with erratic schedules, these families did not leave. They gave what they could when they could even when sometimes it was a text saying that they were still with us.

While everyone stayed at home, my family drove to find internet every day so I could facilitate classes on zoom to keep the connection. We locked down and I had an emergency meeting with my guides. I told them, “We go on zoom tomorrow. I will show you how to do it and then set up your google classrooms asap. We don’t stop. We need to keep tethered.”

And they did. These guides who took a huge reduction in pay but put in the same hours of preparation and commitment kept going. Families left and we pushed on. I told them that it all mattered. The texts to parents. Telling jokes or drawing on the virtual whiteboard together instead of a formal lesson on a zoom call. Asking each student to please come on video and share what you feel. The frustrations of bad internet and lack of in-person social interaction made us become creative.

One day, my younger teen class surprised the kindergarten class on their zoom call and the little ones squealed with delight seeing their “best friends” again. They had a dance party and had show and tell – the kindy kids all had tadpoles that they were raising and would update the changes on their zoom calls.

It was rough. We all wanted to go and be with all of the kids. We wanted to high-five and hug. We wanted to quit. It was so hard to engage some days. I didn’t have answers or certainty. All I had were the families, my students, and the guides to pull me through. I also had Chris and the kids. AJ was here and she would put her arms around me and tell me what I was doing was amazing and to keep going. I gave up pay so my staff could put food on the table. My prayers alternate between help and thanks as my prayers feel like that they are heard and answered. Small miracles begin to accumulate. Outdoor learning alternatives. Collaborative neighbours. More families who believe in a different way to educate.

As I stood in her arms and sobbed, I felt the weight of my thanks. A year’s worth of gratitude. I felt my gratitude for the support, the love, and the loyalty especially when I had no idea where the money would come from as we all struggled in the uncertainty of the future. All I knew is that we had to maintain the relationships with the children, the families, and with each other. Casa Morpho is not a place. It is the community of people – in the most raw form, the form of tough conversations and giving before receiving.

Thank you all for your trust. Thank you for the words of encouragement. Thank you for the gifts of sparkling water, chocolate, and belief in me. Thank you for walking beside me every step of the way.

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Vignette 37/52. Part One: HELP.

“But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.”

― Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

Anne Lamott is one of my favourite writers. She wrote a book about her three types of prayers – help, thanks, and wow.

When I am so mad at the people I love, I try to force one of these as a stopper to the volcanic lava flow projecting at anyone in a 100 metre radius.

I relied on these prayers this year to give me strength as I carried the weight of supporting multiple families, my exhausted yet persistent guides I worked alongside with, and my own family’s feelings of safety and love.

As I prayed “help,” I would often think of the beginnings of my journey in homeschooling.

Today I want to specifically acknowledge key people on this epic voyage for the last decade. My allies and mentors. My comrades and cohorts. My people who helped me slay dragons of doubt and who through tea and knitting, helped me stay the course. My gang of rebels and royalty, who like Glenda the Good Witch, pointed out that I always had the treasure within me.

Homeschooling never crossed my mind until two good friends jumped our collective ship – the alternative school we all worked so hard to help start.

Help.

In the beginning, I had no idea if I wanted to do this but there is a short list of people who took me by the hand to cross the threshold into this supernatural world of homeschooling. My own hero’s journey of sorts.

Two people in particular were Junyee and Lara. Their kids had been in the same alternative school as two of my kids. There was something mystical about this decision. Their disappearance made me wonder what magical world did they travel to?

Junyee was the first to walk me through her decision and the philosophy behind it. She led me to many resources and books to read for myself. Lara also was instrumental in guiding me through the process. She shared with everything with me. I secretly wanted to be her best friend before we officially met and then my wish came true.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

I joined all the Yahoo groups – Unschooling Canada, Ms Marsha’s Waldorf Group, Toronto Homeschoolers.

Help also came with the following blogs:
Soulemama
Simple Homeschool
Rhythm of the Home – (the website shut down a long time…there are others out there with this name but not the one that carried me.)

Homeschool groups helped sustain this journey. The value of our group that met consistently, over six years, was beyond my expectations. We became accountable to each other in the most difficult and most rewarding ways.

A huge thanks to Lara, Brooke, Lynn, Falon, Ama, and Lorraine. Without these ladies, my children would not have had the magical childhood that they did – not because of what we did, but because of how they contributed to my own growth.

When we moved to Costa Rica, it was one of the most difficult goodbyes that our family had to make, just as difficult as saying goodbye to our family because they were our family.

We raised our children together. We laughed and cried. We encouraged one another. We disagreed. We made amends. We went on field trips and camping trips. Our group of kids ranged from baby to teen and they all hung out together. We taught each other’s children. We hugged each other’s children. We disciplined each other’s children.

As I sit in the position of building relationships again in a completely different community model, I think of our old picnic blanket days. I think of the emergency texts requesting a phone call. I think of them holding my hand as I was the first to have a teenager.

Growing up with a mother who did everything on her own, I had trouble asking for help so these women showered it on me whether I liked it or not. I learned to trust this circle of women before I even knew how to trust myself.

Now I am better at asking for help – from God, from my husband, from my kids, from my friends and my family, and even from the stranger that helps me carry the groceries.

When I ask for help, I receive “the grace of a second wind” as Anne Lamott says. And my kids watch as I learn to lean into the gift of being human.

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Vignette 35/52. Home.

No I did not put the vignettes out of order because I am in a fasted state.

(Today is Day 10 – we break tomorrow!)

Vignette 35 was started on the one day of the week that I get to stay home all day. Staying home is my magic time.

I wrote about my home. I wrote about falling in love with sitting and watching. I wrote about the details of my sofa pillow that makes me happy. I wrote about the ease of our day – the relaxed morning as the kids join us one by one on the couch for their own morning rituals. I wrote about sleeping straight through the night and waking naturally with my big Rottweiler and German Shepherd howling with the Howler Monkeys.

Every day feels like a cherry on top only because I know how delicate my life is which is like a cloth I have woven slowly with the finest of threads. At any point, they can easily be snagged or a stray thread unwound.

I am not going to share what I wrote because this is the vignette I want to cherish – the one where I couldn’t post because we live without internet. The one I didn’t plan.

It’s my private sigh of relief and the thing I am most scared to lose.

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Vignette 36/52. Michael Jordan.

“I can’t accept not trying.” – Michael Jordan

In 1994, Chris called me on the phone for the first time. After some initial awkward small talk, we talked for 3 1/2 hours. What finally broke the ice, and what sustained this conversation, was our love of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Putting aside his personal flaws which all great achievers and innovators have, I was in awe of his athletic ability, his dedication to practice, his need for challenge, and most of all, his mental discipline.

Our oldest daughter’s middle name is Jordan.

I can’t accept not trying became one of our family mottoes.

When the Netflix series came out, The Last Dance, we were stuck at home wondering how we would be able to download it so we could watch it on the bigger screen. We can only download Netflix to our devices. Chris was fortunate enough to work with an NBA player who was able to connect us with some links to the episodes.

As a family, we watched them as a weekly treat. We savoured each episode. As we sat together to watch the doc, Chris and I explained to the kids why we cared about it so much, why sports matter, and why greatness matters.

Not everyone understands sports and competition. They see the surface. The big money for entertaining the masses. The aggression. The questionable benefit to civilization. No war that is being fought. There is no winning at the expense of millions of lives.

But I remember when the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1994 and in 1995. I remember the collective joy of a whole city and feeling that energy. I remember high-fiving strangers and hugging random people. It’s a beautiful feeling to connect with normal people who have jobs and families and who suffer and who laugh just like me. For that moment, we were all connected.

When I watch Michael Jordan, I am inspired to push my mental edge. We watch the work ethic and the physical and emotional toll of achieving difficult goals, goals that no one else has achieved while millions watch.

Many philosophical questions arise around the dinner table:
When is it enough?
Are some people hard-wired to never be satisfied without challenges?
Why are people complacent and others driven?
How do you cultivate a work ethic and a disciplined mind?
Can we accept not trying? What is the cost?

Chris and I watch with nostalgia because of the basketball highlights we relive through the documentary and because we relive our own highlights in our early years. We watched games on TV, talked statistics, and finally watched him play live against the Raptors – we were the only ones in Bulls jerseys. Today we still go to sleep listening to a podcast on basketball. It is part of our own identity as a couple.

The kids watch intensely at this man who is neither a hero or a villain. He is human with human frailties and weaknesses. They see the cost of this type of journey. We often don’t talk about these costs – the isolation, the solitary choice, and the loneliness. The cost of being the best and the cost of trying to stay that way.

There is a flip side to everything, good and bad, but we won’t know unless we try.

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Vignette 34/52. Consistency.

Warning: This blog post may put you to sleep.

I am in love with this word.

A friend said that she read somewhere that the source of happiness is consistency.

YES. YES. YES.

Consistency is an endangered species at this time. And of course, we like to zag when everyone zigs so Chris and I have become the king and queen of the kingdom of Consistency.

The same dear friend who is also a guide at our learning center said that she had never been a part of a project that put relationships first until she joined this project. For me, I remain consistent with this belief especially at this time.

I have not missed a day of work this year. In fact, other than travel days, I have not missed a day of work in two years. Maintaining relationships is important to me because continuity strengthens the connection.

I can only hold this consistency in this realm of my life because of the consistency that exists in everything else that I do.

My routines are the same. I rise before first light at 4:00am and I go to bed shortly after 8:00pm. I have morning coffee with Chris while we do our morning pages, meditate, write, plan, train, and then we walk the dogs. Before bed we listen to a podcast together, most likely one on sports, and then I fall asleep before he does and he takes the air pod out of my ear.

I train 6 days a week – 4 days with kettlebells and 2 days of hills.

When I am not in the middle of a 10 Day fast, I fast two days a week: Tuesdays and Fridays.

I teach from 9:00-2:00pm and then I take the kids to their programs after while I sit and catch up on internet or have meetings.

At this moment in my life, I limit social outings. Any free time is spent at the beach relaxing or at home reading everything other than books on education.

Consistency also shows up in the way I parent. Every night, during dinner, the kids talk profusely about their days and experiences. We talk about our words and actions that day, how we feel about them, and how they may have done better. They always share an act of kindness they were able to perform. I give honest feedback to them and hold them accountable for mistakes and also give them chances to try again. I share my own failures and frustrations and they also give me chances to try again.

I am consistent with my marriage. Chris and I talk in the mornings and we are silent with each other at bed time. After 26 years, we both have found that this is the healthiest routine for our marriage. There are a lot less arguments and we sleep better.

Being consistent is harder than it seems. We tell ourselves FOMO stories or that this type of life is boring. Remaining steadfast with equanimity regardless of what is happening around me has been one of the most challenging things of my life as I adapt to changing laws, anxious children, emotional families, and guides that need to be supported as they walk this road of consistency beside me.

Chris has run a beach volleyball program for the last four years and a strength club for young men and women for a year and a half.

We show up. We show up even when we are tired and even when there are things in our life that rock our world. When people ask me how I do it, it’s hard to explain how consistency is like a soothing balm. It is our saving grace when others need to retreat. When we face difficulty, we do the opposite.

We show up to our routine and we heal in the evenness and ease of it all.

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Vignette 33/52. Reading and re-reading.

“Mama, have you seen Marcus Aurelius and did we find Rumi?”

“No, but I know they’re in a pile in the office with Emily Dickinson and Thoreau.”

Montaigne, Walt Whitman, Seneca, Mary Oliver, Ursula Le Guin, Emerson, John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, Homer, Rebecca Solnit, Richard Dawkins, Oliver Sacks, Livy, Viktor Frankl, Marcus Aurelius, Mary Beard, Shakespeare.

These are some of the names that line our book shelf. We have books on philosophy, history, neuroscience, productivity, art history, poetry, classic literature, politics, business, women’s studies, evolutionary biology, organizational behaviour, biographies, education, plants and trees, and many of the kids’ favourite fiction.

Over the years, these people have been my closest companions. Lately, I watch as my kids build their own relationship with them. I never forced them to read any of it. I have read passages aloud because I found them beautiful. Since they were little, there have always been books on the coffee table.

In a place where mold and moisture are enemies to the written word, we took a risk and brought most of our library with us to the jungle. It was non-negotiable for my family especially because we have no internet.

When there was no option to buy new books during lockdown, we could rediscover old ones. Here is a list of some that I re-read:

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for presence.
David Haskell’s The Song of Trees to maintain my wonder and awe at the beauty of nature.
David Epstein’s Range for encouragement.
Cal Newport’s Deep Work for research.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath for perspective.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lao Tzu and The Tao Te Ching for equanimity.
Anne Lamott’s Grace (Eventually),of course, because it’s Anne Lamott.
Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems for hope.

I do this all for me. I never had an agenda to push this onto my kids.

But one day, one tells me that she wants to learn more about the Transcendentalists. Another one copies down the Stoic quotes by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius daily. Another one decides she wants to get to know Virginia Woolf better. When she finishes To The Lighthouse , she says, “How can something be so beautiful and so sad?” Another one doesn’t really want to read but when we are all reading, decides to grab one of his favourite graphic novels that I have read to him a hundred times and starts reading it on his own.

Another one hates washing dishes. As she slowly walked to the sink, I heard her talking to herself:


“Is the soul solid like iron? Or is it tender and breakable, like the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl? Who has it, and who doesn’t? I keep looking around me…”


I wanted to remark, “I am glad that Mary Oliver can get you to do the dishes.” But I bit my tongue and appreciated the moment.

Books offer us a world beyond our reality and help us envision a new one. Looking back, I see how this all started with Chris and our love of learning;our love of seeking and asking over and over again the same sages but a different stages of our life. Each time I open Rumi, he has something new to give – a tiny parcel of a piece of me I had forgotten.

A child just called me from their bedroom to say, “Mom! I just found this quote that I never noticed before in A Wrinkle in Time! I have read this book five times and never saw it!”

She flips to the page and it’s at the very end where Madeleine L’Engle’s Newberry Medal acceptance speech is added. She reads to me the quote that has made her heart leap:

A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.

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32/52 Vignette. Shit.

Warning: Don’t read this post if you have just eaten or are about to eat. It could cause nausea and loss of appetite._

Our neighbors were building and there was a lot of sawdust lying around. I saw her making charcoal and she called to me, “Hay muchísima serrín si necesitas!”

I yelled back, “Si, tenemos muchísimo shit!”

She answered, “Claro que si!!!” And we laugh.

We were kind of done with the poo buckets. Correction: Our oldest daughter who had come to live with us at the onset of the pandemic was done with them. To prevent any digestive dysfunction on her part, we decided to install a biodigester flushing toilet.

Originally we were worried about water consumption and flushing toilets. Now that we have lived up here on the land for two years, with 15000L of rainwater storage, we have never really come close to running out.

Our conclusion after a two-year analysis of our shit patterns and water consumption:

We could get a flushing toilet. The resounding joy was felt throughout the house by all. (Remember, Chris and I are masters at setting the bar low.)

There is something to be set about dealing with your own shit. It’s been an experience in cleaning out buckets and looking at our shit, and of course smelling it. Chris was the one dealing with all the shit but when he busted his knee for two months last year, the responsibility rested on my shoulders and it was not pretty.

By late August, we had our bathrooms tiled and finished and the final task was the toilet installation. It truly looked like a porcelain gift sent from heaven. I was still a little paranoid about water consumption and I gently reminded the kids to flush only in certain situations.

This process made me realize how we tend to turn away from the dirt and grime and waste of life. Dealing with our family’s shit empowered us because if we could do that, we _really_could do anything. Our choices have not only pushed our edges but also made us confront that things that we didn’t really want to see.

What if we all looked at the landfills, the sewage, and our own crap? Would that help us reset to find appreciation in the small luxuries of life like a flushing toilet and to make more conscious choices or look at what makes us uneasy?

Our journey into the jungle was not meant as an escape or a distraction. It was meant as a challenge in creativity and resilience and a rare opportunity to deal with our shit once and for all.

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Vignette 31/52. A vignette within a vignette.

“I don’t think I can do this.”

“I am so nervous.”

“Can I do it in Italian?”

I challenged my students to improvise a one-minute speech. This speech couldn’t be a disorganized rant or run-on rambling sentence. They had to tell a thoughtful story. This activity struck fear in half of them and the other half was excited.

I wrote simple topics on pieces of paper like donuts, eyes, volleyball, friends, and pizza. They had to pick one out of a hat. Then they had five minutes to prepare.

I watched the five-minute frenzy. Some wrote out what they said. Some gazed into the distance sweating profusely. Some were relaxed chatting with others – the ones that I figured would wing. Some were flitting from classmate to classmate to try to get ideas.

I watched each of them speak. Some wanted to throw up. Some were a little too theatrical. Some were so nervous that they repeated the same line for thirty seconds before realizing it. Some were relied on humour. Some nailed it – a crafted story that interested the audience using metaphor.

Of course, I went last. I pulled the topic of “cake.” I immediately thought of birthday cakes. I didn’t prepare too much because of years of practice of telling stories to my children on the spot.

I began with this line, “My mom never baked me a cake for my birthday.”

I decided to talk about the Black Forest birthday cake that my mom bought me from the local grocery store that I did not like. She bought it for me every year. She would bake my favourite marble cake for other events but for my birthday, yet she would always by this cake with the unnatural-looking maraschino cherries on top. Finally one day I asked her about the cake and she looked at me confused. She assumed I liked it. I always had a piece and said how delicious it was so she kept buying it. She thought it was my favourite. I realized in that I had never said I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings considering how much money it costs and we didn’t have enough money at the time. That was my first lesson in finding my voice and not pleasing people but having the courage to choose what I want.

After my speech, I didn’t expect their reaction given the dramatic turmoil they felt as they prepared.

They asked if they can do it again tomorrow, even the ones who wanted to throw up. They asked to do this weekly or even daily. This was challenging but they want to get better.

I tell them the trick is to think bite-sized. You have one minute to make an impact. Focus on one detail and the emotion of it, and tell the heck out of it.

Don’t forget the minutiae. It is the place where you find the hidden treasures of life.

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Vignette 30/52. Death.

“Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible – by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” – Epictetus

It doesn’t take long living in the middle of the jungle to recognize the prevalence of death.

I see the vultures circling. They swoop down somewhere on our land and begin to feast. Something is dead. We stop and watch fascinated and repulsed.

The cat brings me a dead mouse, bird, frog, or lizard a few times a week.

We have lost two pets, killed by other pets. Both I believe were accidental or at least driven by an instinct still alive under the domesticity. An impulse of predation I think all of us at the top of the food chain can’t deny.

How many trees have fallen? How many leaves fall? How many parasites? The mulch – a dirty sounding word for dead leaves. The dead in the spider webs. Rotting food in a cooler, in a life pre-refrigeration.

The death we witness every day feels like part of a natural cycle of life because we see life overlap death. Out of the fallen tree that fell on our land three years ago, life has sprouted from its stump and small ferns and bromeliads are spread over what’s left of its trunk.

But the death of loved ones is another story. Since we moved here, there are many of our loved ones that have died in Toronto. 3000 km away. For some, we have been able to fly back to say goodbye, while others, we send our love via FaceTime and Zoom and text while we hold each other here grieving in the jungle.

It’s an odd thing being physically distant. We don’t see people for awhile and when they pass, it’s feels heavy because the hope of seeing them again and reconnecting is extinguished. Once we reconcile overwhelming sense of guilt pours over us that we can’t be there to support and to care for our loved ones that have to pick up the pieces, we recall memories of the person or imagine our family and friends’ loss to feel the death in an almost abstract way.

Because we are not physically there, we are removed from the process. All we can do is to accept in our minds and in our hearts the absence as permanent.

Death itself is a shadow of the real. Existence feels more precarious and mysterious.

Last night a dear friend passed away and my daughter felt helpless. She said, “Mom, we should be there.”

I told her, “I know. But what we can do is offer our presence and support and love in any way they need it. This is all we can do. We will hold their family in our hearts and love them through this from wherever we are.”

Chris and I hold our children and each other.

Death enters our home again. We welcome it as a guest in our house to remind us of what is real.

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