As I was planning Warren's funeral the funeral director asked if we had any pets. When I said that we had a dog, she asked if I wanted to bring him to the private viewing before the wake. At the time, I thought it was a weird question and I wish that I had asked her why she asked. Instead, I wasn't thinking and I said no. I envisioned our dog jumping up on to the casket, sniffing Warren profusely and maybe even knocking it over. I also thought of his excitability at new places and how hard it would be to keep him still and stop him from marking his territory all over the funeral home.
It never occurred to me that our dog would grieve the loss of his master. Baron was a Christmas gift to me from Warren a few years after our first dog had passed away. We had enjoyed being pet owners and when I was ready for another dog, I spent time looking for the same breed as our first dog because their temperament and energy level was a good match for our lifestyle. I remember when I first saw Baron's photo on petfinder.com. He had the saddest eyes and it was like they looked right at me. I couldn't stop thinking about him or talking about him for days. Warren said he would be my gift if I was ready to love another dog. I was, and Warren shared the excitement.
Baron was at a shelter about an hour north of our home so we made a visit to see if there was chemistry between the three of us. At first Baron was a little shy, but within a few minutes he was all over us as though he was ours. When we drove away to think about the commitment we were about to make, I watched Baron from the side-view mirror until I could no longer see him. He watched us just as long. It was painful leaving him behind, so a few days later we went back and adopted him.
From day one Warren called him a Mama's Boy. He said that he was more my dog than his because Baron would cry and mope when I left the house. Baron would look from window to window awaiting my return. I assured Warren that he looked from window to window when he left, too, but since Baron didn't cry for him, Warren was convinced the bond was stronger between me and Baron.
That didn't mean that Warren and Baron didn't have their adventures. On a camping trip in Oklahoma Baron got out of his harness and Warren, fresh from a shower, had to chase after him in the humidity and tackle him back into his harness, then into the car so we could pack up and head out. I still chuckle recalling Warren's frustration at the whole episode. You would think he would have learned his lesson, but nope. After swearing that Baron's camping days were over, he brought him along on an all-guys camping weekend with my brother and nephew. Guess who took off in the middle of the night and made Warren chase him through a dark campsite?
At home, Baron's favorite places were are Warren's feet in the living room, and on the floor on my side of the bed in our room. He loved being with either of us, but while he could easily pretend not to hear me when I commanded him to do something, it took one note of Warren's deep voice to get Baron to obey. It was clear that Warren was the leader of Baron's pack. Had I thought about that when he died, perhaps I could have made the transition easier on Baron.
Before Warren died, Baron had separation anxiety that manifested in two incidents of destructive behavior when left alone. On one occasion he chewed himself a doggie door into our room while we were out to dinner. Another time, when left in the car while I ran a errand, he chewed through the back of my driver's side seat. But, other than that, he was the ideal dog. He never growled at the babies in our lives, although they gave him plenty of reasons to. He was always calm when we had guests. He didn't bark incessantly, or make others feel uncomfortable. His one vice was escaping every chance he got, and Warren and I had multiple adventures dealing with his Houdini-like antics.
I don't recall Baron acting any different the day Warren died, not even in the hours when our house was filled with family and friends who came to pay their respects. I have one semi-clear memory of laying in bed, hugging Warren's pillow and Baron keeping me company in the room, while the rest of the house was filled with guests. In the days following, I have no memories of interacting any differently with Baron. It wasn't until the first thunderstorm that I noticed a change in him. He freaked out that night, jumping on the bed (which he's never been allowed on), trembling, breathing heavy and the only place he would sit was on my chest. Baron is sixty-five pounds. His place of solace cut off my air supply. At first I thought it was a fluke, a particularly bad storm he was weirdly reacting to. I was wrong. It happened every time there was thunder and lightning. I reached out to other pet owners and got their advice. I tried white noise, soft music, leaving lights on, a thunder shirt, wrapping him with something that smelled like me, and long walks the eve of an anticipated storm. Nothing soothed him. Finally, I got some tranquilizers from my vet and if given at just the right time before a storm, they allowed us to get some sleep on thunderous nights.
During a widows' support group I happened to mention what was happening with Baron and a few widows shared that they encountered the same thing. They said that it was a manifestation of the dog's grief. It all made sense. From one day to the next Baron lost his pack leader. In times of distress, like during storms, Warren made him feel safe and taken care of. Not knowing what happened to his leader left him vulnerable. In Baron's mind, there was no one in the pack who could protect him. Even though I was trying to be strong, apparently he sensed my weakness and didn't see me as a viable leader who made him feel as secure as Warren had.
To this day Baron has a storm phobia, and a host of other fear-based behaviors that developed after losing Warren. They are manageable and we work through them, but it makes me wish so much that I had been more with it when the funeral director asked about bringing Baron to say goodbye. Had I known how sensitive my sweet dog was to the loss, and how it was going to unleash so many fears, I would have brought him. He, too was loved by Warren and loved him back and I feel like I robbed them both of a final good-bye. I try to live free of regrets, but this one is definitely one that makes me take pause and remember that the power of love and loss is not limited to humans.
An article about love caught my attention, which was a surprise. I am not a sappy person. I don't read romance novels, look for romantic gestures, or prefer romantic comedies. Yet this one had a message that spoke to me deeply. I don't know that I agree with it in its entirety, but it certainly made me think. It said that we get three loves. The first is a puppy love that makes us feel like everything about love is ideal. The second is the love that demonstrates how you don't want to be loved. The third is the love that shows you the strength of it, how love can change you.
As with all people who cross our paths, these loves have a specific purpose. According to the article, the first love is more for show, it is what you think love should be like, even if you're not convinced that it's as great as you make it look. I disagree. I recall my first love. I was in eighth grade, he was in tenth. I had known him for years and not thought much of him until the day he told my neighbor that he was into me. All of a sudden, I liked him and wanted to be his girlfriend. In an unexpected turn of events, my parents allowed me to date him. There were a ton of rules, but we got to know each other and I saw him in a different light. I liked that he was older, that he was into sports, how he tried to impress me whenever he could. Looking back, it was definitely an innocent love. There was no pressure, we focused on spending time together when we could, but had most of our memories in a group with our families, cousins and friends around. It taught me that love doesn't have to be complicated. We broke up when I entered ninth grade and felt torn between spending time with him, and tending to my education. I chose education and learned that I was strong enough to choose myself when it came to matters of the heart. That is a lesson I am grateful to have learned young and with my first love.
My second love, the more toxic one came during college. I went back and forth with a guy that deep down I knew wasn't right for me. We even talked about marriage and a future. While my gut rejected that idea, my smile tried to convince me otherwise. I liked so many things about him, and isn't the plan supposed to be to find a husband in college and get married soon after? That's what I thought I was expected to do. At the same time, I wanted more for myself. I wanted to live on my own, start a career on my terms, live wherever that career took me, and experience living on my own away from family and the safety of a college campus. The fear that I wouldn't get to do all those things drew on the courage of my first love and when graduation came around, I was able to walk away and be true to myself and to him that we did not have a future. It was hard and I missed him. I missed the idea of having someone and sharing all the new things that were happening in my life, and I sometimes doubted my choice, but in time, I knew it was best.
As life often does, my third love came completely unexpectedly when I wasn't looking or even thinking about a man in my life. Warren was my friend for a year before telling me how he felt about me. I was completely taken off guard, but like my first love, once I knew how he felt, I began to feel it, too. We dated for another year, and were engaged for another before we were married. In that time, the love felt worlds different than any other. It was all encompassing. I loved loving him and being loved by him. When we talked about the future it was impossible to think of it without him in it. I didn't want anyone else. I knew with everything in me that this was my ultimate love. It would be the one that permeated all aspects of my life and made me into the woman I wanted to become.
In that love I learned what I want out of a partner. I learned how to intertwine my hopes and dreams with someone else, and how to support theirs without sacrificing mine. It was eye-opening to say the least. Our relationship wasn't perfect by any means, but the love still feels like the perfect love. It is the love I look for in all other loves. By that I am not only talking about romantic love. I want to learn and grow from and love loving all the loves of my life - from family and friends, to my passions and dreams. Loving them fiercely and without shame gives my life gusto. Being loved as I was lifted me to a place where anything seemed possible and I want to give that in return. Having felt that love so purely and all encompassing, I know it's out there. Unlike the article, I am not limiting my life's loves to three. Love is ever-evolving and comes with all kinds of new experiences, people and interests. Looking forward to 2017, it feels like the best time to think about how to let love flow and allow myself to be loved as I know I can be - whether that be by others, or by loving myself.
During graduate school I had a strict monthly deadline to get work turned in to my advisor. The only break I took was the one day it took for her to get back to me with feedback, and the two or so weeks between the last deadline of the semester and the new semester. I carved out time whenever I could, as I've blogged about before. But with life as busy as it is, I don't write nearly as often as I'd like. As I work on two novels while revising another, I realize that deadlines got me moving. Knowing I had to get done by a certain date got me in front of the keyboard. I thought that having an agent would be the push I needed to keep that momentum. Unfortunately, that's not how it's been. While I know that I owe her work, it's not the same when I know she is patient and busy with her other clients.
I have learned that it has to come from within. Maybe one day when I'm with a publisher I might have the kinds of deadlines that keep my fingers flying across keys, but as I wait for that I have to get batter at imposing deadlines for my writing. I don't know how best to do that. Not sure if I should write the deadline all over the house; set it as a task on my Outlook; create reminders on my phone, or all of the above. But, I have to do something because letting other things get in the way of writing is driving me crazy. Part of it is that it's a busy time, but then again, I stay busy, so that's a year-round excuse.
The more I think about it, the more I think that my barriers are emotional. I am so close to the characters I've created that I don't want to give myself a deadline to be done with them. I want to keep developing them. I keep recalling a lecture I heard at school that said that while as the author we would love to sit in a coffee shop for hours and listen to our characters talk to each other, develop their relationships, and get to know them, our readers aren't satisfied with that. They want something to happen, which is completely understandable. As a reader, I want that, too. But as a writer, I want to keep my characters close and so knowing that I'm working towards the end of the story, their story, makes me sad. I don't want to lose them even though more characters will come. At least, I hope they will. It's the never-ending fear of many writers - myself included, that the story we are working on, the characters we are creating are the last ones we will ever write - our last great idea. That insecurity becomes a self-imposed obstacle, leads me to procrastinate, to play with my characters in my head, avoiding getting my ideas on the page.
That said, I have to do better. I owe it to my characters, myself and my desire to be a writer. Even if no one ever wants to read my writing, I can't keep it in my head forever, I have to be brave and determined enough to set a deadline and finish their story.
At this time of reflecting on all that I am thankful for, I count the same things I did last year:
A job I enjoy
The health of my daughter
With those thoughts also come some reflections that elicit some sadness. Among all the good, I have had moments when I have thought that I am grateful that Warren hasn't had to experience things that would have caused him pain or disillusionment.
Most of the time thinking of what Warren has missed makes me angry. I hate that he missed the birth and milestones of his nephew; his sister's wedding; his parents' visits; our daughter's 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th birthdays; my graduation; seeing his brother-in-law live out his dream of being an entertainment wrestler; being at his best friend's wedding; and the every day occurrences that bring joy and energy to life.
On the flip side, there have been some tough times that have made me think, "Thank God Warren isn't here to see/experience this." Though brief, those thoughts in themselves are painful. I wish that Warren was here, period, but the reality is otherwise. In light of that, there are times when I can imagine his pain at seeing some of the things that have happened. Whether it's within the family, among friends, or the turn our society is taking, I am thankful that he is spared that pain. Yet, I would love to have his words of support and arms wrapped around me in assurance. I felt safe and strong in our union, like whatever I was facing would be OK. In those times when I ache for that feeling, I am slightly comforted knowing that he is in a place where that pain cannot touch him, where his joy cannot be interrupted. I am stronger because of what he taught me, and while it is not easy dealing with those moments of insecurity about whatever is causing me grief, time has taught me how to overcome. I have a wonderful network of support - some of it put in place because of Warren being in my life, and other relationships strengthened because of having been his partner. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Celebrating a birthday in the wake of last week's election results sucks. I didn't feel the joy it takes to truly celebrate. But, when it came down to it, there were two feelings I needed and those were love and safety and I got both, which merits celebrating.
As I wondered what to blog about this week, the words love and safety played through my head like a chorus, and I knew that was what my heart wanted to share. But the catch was that I wasn't sure how to articulate it in a genuine way that didn't come off as gloating, or paranoia. Then I reminded myself that I just turned thirty-seven damn it, and it's OK to be proud! I also realized that paranoia is fleeting and I won't allow it to take residence within, which took its power away and made it palatable to explore.
Taking stock of my life, I can't think of a time when I didn't have the security of love. From my parents and extended family, to teachers and pastors, I could read their love languages and that helped me feel secure in myself. It built my confidence and got me through the times when my ego was hurt, or my faith was rocked. In adulthood, I have the same base of love that continues to give me strength. Actively thinking about the love I have in my life, and the love I've known, I am humbled and strive to pass it along. My love language is to serve, but I understand that doesn't always translate. I have been trying to show love in other ways, and while it is a work in progress, I am committed to becoming versed in several love languages. Those whom I love deserve nothing less.
As I thought about the love in my life, I felt less afraid. These thoughts were with me as I drove my daughter and I two hours across rural Iowa on the eve of my birthday. It was dark and for the first time in over a decade, I feared for our safety on the road. I had tried to stay away from the media since the election, but I hadn't been able to escape the stories of hate and increasing assault happening against Latinos and women. When I saw that I needed gas, my heart raced and my stomach got the queasy feeling it had all week. I tried to calculate in my head how far I could get on E, while chastising myself for not filling up when it was light out. I also gave some serious thought to becoming a gun owner. Never in my life has that been a thought, yet here I was considering the logistics of living with a gun, while keeping the kids in my life away from it. I have never wanted to own a gun. There is nothing wrong with gun ownership, my dad has had one since I was a kid and I understood that it helped him feel safer raising his kids in a place where gun violence was a part of every day life. But for me, I wanted to believe that I would never have the kind of fear that would make me want to own a weapon that can take a life so swiftly, and yet here I was wishing I had that kind of power because I needed to stop for gas. With these thoughts came anger.
I have survived thirty-seven years without a gun. I didn't want to change that. I wanted to continue to believe that I was safe and a weapon of that magnitude was unnecessary. I had survived gang-infested neighborhoods and living on my own in cities where I didn't know a living soul. I have been raising a daughter on my own for the last four years and never felt that I could not keep her safe, but at that moment I questioned whether I could really do that. I calmed myself with the thought that my family was waiting for me at the end of this trip with warm soup and birthday wishes. They expected the brave woman they knew and loved to walk through their door, and that was exactly what I was going to deliver.
In the end, I got gas through a pounding heart and being diligent of my surroundings. It was uneventful and I was grateful. I finished that drive feeling less anxious, less afraid and more like myself again. By the time I had gotten all the hugs and kisses that comes from walking into a family event, I felt like my armor was back on, carried on the inside and made up of love.
I have lived a good thirty-seven years. Come what may, I plan to love and be loved well beyond another thirty-seven.
I purposely stayed away from the media last night. I cooked a healthy meal for my family, we listened to music, read a bit and stayed away from social media and television. I went to bed praying the United States wouldn't choose a man who brags about groping women, over a qualified woman. I woke up to the opposite. In my quest for feeling like someplace is "home" I find that Iowa is not home, nor does it want to be. If I am honest, America doesn't want me to feel at home here, either. Last night proved that my neighbors, colleagues and fellow citizens stand for cis-gendered, able-bodied, white males and sent that message loud and clear.
Maybe it came as such a shock because my circle is so liberal. For over a year my feed has been filled with messages of denial that last night's results could be possible. I was shielded from the masses who want to see women and ethnic people "in their place" so I had no idea just how many of them there are. I grew to believe that we're beyond the kind of thinking and actions that are so reminiscent of pre-WWII.
I grossly underestimated the power of fear and sexism that pervades so deep within the core belief systems of America.
To say I am disappointed would be an understatement. I am sad, hurt and feel betrayed by my country. Politics can be what they are, but at the end of the day, in my heart I know that this election was not about policies and government. It was about privilege taking its place above all else once again.
Because the news and other media are taking so much time to dissect this election, I won't attempt it. I wish that my previous feelings of hope and belief that at the core of us all, we want to be good and kind will return, because right now it is a gaping hole.
If we don't learn from history, we're doomed to repeat it. I'm paraphrasing a well-known quote by George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher. His point makes perfect sense. When we don't learn from our past, we continue to make the same mistakes. But, how can we expect to learn from a history we are never taught?
The sad truth is that most of us learned a watered down version of our history and did not question it. Maybe I shouldn't speak for others. I accepted it. At least, until eighth grade. Throughout my early years I enjoyed history class and the textbooks used to teach it. I had full trust in my teachers and school and expected that they told the whole truth. However, I was sitting in US History in Mr. Boyd's eighth grade class when I read a paragraph about Puerto Rico's role in United State's history. ONE PARAGRAPH. I remember flipping the page, thinking that the rest was on the other page. After all, how can a place that is neither its own country, nor a state, yet be so closely aligned with the United States only have a paragraph worth of information? I remember being pissed off that the publisher spent less than a quarter of a page on my history, and even more amazed that this could happen at a school named after a Puerto Rican poet! I asked my teacher about it and he stumbled in his response, trying to placate me with the little knowledge he had about the subject. I wasn't upset with him. He had he same limited history education that I did. I was upset with the whole education system that didn't think I was worth a complete history, that didn't think my history mattered. Flipping through the book, the same treatment was given to the Civil Rights Movement, Native Americans, and the role of the other Americas in regards to the US. Whole chunks of history were completely omitted.
As I got older and pursued these topics on my own, the exclusions made less and less sense. How are we supposed to avoid the past if we don't know the whole picture? I certainly did not know the whole picture about what happened to pave the way for me to attend the same public school as my German and Polish neighbor, or why certain members of my family could serve in the military, yet not vote for their own Commander in Chief. I did not know that lives had been lost to grant me, and other women the right to vote, or the intricacies of the many wars that has divided our world. What good was my education if it wasn't showing me the true story and all the gory details that led to systemic issues affecting me as a Latina, as a female, as an American? How was I supposed to influence my world when I didn't know what exactly had shaped it to begin with? It was all so unfair and made so little sense. I wish I could say that my daughter doesn't face the same questions, but the respect and regard for accurate history has not evolved. Some can argue that technology helps remediate this, but it only works if you actively seek the knowledge and sadly, that's not always possible if access, time or both are limited.
On the flip-side, digital information can easily be manipulated. You should question what you see on the Internet, and sadly, that's the same mindset that makes it easy to discredit the historic artifacts shared through this means. We wonder what's been doctored, or PhotoShopped. We aren't used to this information as part of the history we're taught, so where does it fit? How can we remember what we haven't accepted as truth? Knowledge is power and knowledge comes from experience - that of our own and those that came before us. It is unfair to expect that we learn from something that has never been shared. When we look at current events, how can we look to the past to help us resolve the future if the past that has been taught is incomplete?
One of the hardest questions I get about my writing seems like it should be the simplest:
"What's the story about?"
For most of my stories, they start out being about a certain topic, but as I get farther into them, they grow layers, like an onion. Each layer is distinct, but makes up the whole. The surface layer is about a boy trying to fit in at a new school, or a girl falling in love. That's where the idea starts. It is usually that initial idea that introduces me to my characters. What gives them depth and hooks me to them is the layers that come later.
Sometimes I have no idea what those layers are when I sit to write. It is better to have something to work with later, than to have a bunch of ideas stuck in my head, so often I allow myself to get it out as it comes, even when I am not certain where it is going. This sounds like an easy, fluid task, but it's not. I have to constantly remind myself not to stop the flow to spot-check, or worry about timelines, but to let it come out as it needs to. I want it all to make sense, but it doesn't come to me that logically. To combat the feeling that the work might be lost, I create a Parking Lot folder. This is where I park scenes, ideas, conversations between characters, etc. that I haven't decided how they fit within the story, or am not sure how they move the plot along.
These parked items are valuable to flush out because they help me better understand the story, familiarize myself with the characters, try different elements of storytelling, and decide where I want the plot to go. It's a safe place for me to put those ideas that I can go back to as needed. The more layers that develop, the less I park. As the story takes on more elements, the original question becomes more complex. It's no longer just about a boy trying to fit in at a new school, it is also about how migrant families transformed a community. It is a relationship story between a boy and the older brother he idolizes. It exposes mental health issues as they relate to parents adjusting to as many changes as their children, even when the story is written from the child's perspective. It is about a girl mourning the loss of her father, longing for love. It is about a daughter scared her mother isn't strong enough to survive life without her soulmate. The story is more about two flawed people becoming stronger and healing together, than about a girl liking a boy.
Many of those layers start as seeds that end up in the parking lot. Some layers come about from writing out the story. Other times I stop writing and make lists, journal entries, or interview a character. Those parked items then morph into scenes and lead to major revisions. They have led me to omit or replace characters, change the setting and turn plot points that weren't immediately clear when I started the story.
This is the care that goes into the creative process. It doesn't look like in the movies where the writer writes furiously with a burst of inspiration that fits perfectly into the story. Often it is slow. I write and write for a few glorious minutes, and then I hit a wall. I read what I wrote. Sometimes with a smile, sometimes with disdain or confusion. Sometimes taking a few moments to read it and ponder whether it stays or gets parked sparks another idea and I go with it. Other times, I remain stuck. It's a maddening process that takes longer than I ever imagine when I start with that one idea. But, when I hit that sweet spot where I know my characters and they do as they need to advance and twist the plot, it becomes as exciting as watching magic. That's when I want someone to ask me, "So, what's the story about?" and I can say, "Do you have a few minutes? Let me tell you all that it's become!"
I've blogged about my attention to healthy living before, and gotten positive, motivating responses. But, there have been less than positive responses, too and up until an incident this weekend, I hadn't realized how much I had internalized it.
When I began working out and wanting to get fit, it had absolutely everything to do with becoming stronger. I felt weak from the inside, and the outside showed it. Some would say it's a natural reaction to shock, and it's common with PTSD. Either way, I was out of shape and sick of feeling fragile. Working out changed that for me. As my body grew stronger, so did my emotional state. I began to see the world as a place I could take on, not a place that had taken my heart and soul. It brought me to life as much as writing did. It still does, and because of that I value my workout time as much as my writing time. I feel strongest and most powerful when I am lifting weights, pushing through miles of running, or pounding out a heavy bag.
As the results started to show on my body, I received compliments. However, a strong dose of those compliments came with a modifier - the implication that I was doing it to find a man.
I am not naive. I understand that widows have a stigma, especially among non-widowed women. We are seen as desperate to find a replacement, by any means necessary, a threat to their marriages and unions. I recall the comments about how great I look, and that of course I want to look good now. I got the message loud and clear. What went unsaid was that now that I was single, I was looking for another husband. That is a common misconception about widows and widowers, that we are always hunting to replace what we lost. In all my widow support groups and events attended in relation to widowhood, I have yet to find this widow. But, I know she exists in the minds of those who have never walked that path.
The comments did not deflect from my desire to be fit and live a healthy life, but I certainly have allowed it to affect how I carry myself. I am particularly careful around the husbands and boyfriends of my friends, even close friends. The fear that something might be misunderstood as a come-on or an attraction terrifies me. I watch what I say, how I dress, what I do. I am a guarded version of myself. I keep my distance, and generally feel less than comfortable in those situations. Before becoming a widow, I didn't think twice about being myself around anyone. It is a sad realization because in most cases, I don't care what people think of me. I never thought of myself as the kind of person who changed who she was because of what others may think. I live a transparent life and those who know me best also know that about me. This blog is a testament to that. However, I recently felt the shame and judgement and it brought back those times when I doubted how I looked because I falsely bought into the hype that a widow should be more modest than most women; widows do not spend time alone with men who are spoken for; widows should not be desirable; widows shouldn't look for love before seven years of losing their spouse. As ludicrous as those statements may sound, I have been told all of them by people I am closest to. So, when someone I am not as close to implies that I take care of my body in order to use it as a man-magnet, I am extra sensitive to it.
I do not want to perpetuate any stereotypes of widows being any more threatening that any other person. I try to stay as far from that as possible in the hopes that someone who might have that false mentality will see my example and conclude that their opinions are inaccurate. They are also inappropriate, hurtful and cut at the character of a woman who is trying to survive, yet facing a new slew of labels that she may know nothing about. After nearly five years of widowhood, I discover different expectations placed on me because of this label. For the most part, I navigate them with confidence and grace, setting a brave exterior. But, every now and then, like this weekend, I get raw reminders that I'm still vulnerable in ways that will take years to overcome.
I read an article about being a first-generation college student that shot me right back to my days pursuing my first degree. While my undergrad experience was wonderful in many ways, there was so much going on inside that it was also the hardest internal struggle I faced until I was slapped with widowhood.
Growing up, college was always a given, financial limitations be damned. That's why there were scholarships, and I was going to use my GT status to the fullest to get as many as possible. Before it was as easy as typing a few words into a search engine, I did hours of research, talked to as many people as would listen, and checked out mountains of books on the application process. I was a sponge when it came to all things financial aid, grants, scholarships, and student loans. A cocktail of these aids that included a work/study program while I took on eighteen credits per semester and worked an off campus part-time job made college possible. I thought that getting accepted to the college of my choice was the hard part. Academics were never a problem for me, so on my first day of my undergraduate career, I thought it was smooth sailing from then on. I had visions of the college life I had seen on Beverly Hills 90210 (the original series, not the one with the waif model), full of parties, all-nighters that were centered more on my social circle than grades, football games, and huge auditoriums where I could get lost in the sea of students and not stick out as the only Latina in the class.
Those things all happened and I enjoyed them, but internally it was a different story. I lived with tremendous guilt. Not only did I feel bad for going so far from home, but having the privilege of going away to school felt like something I didn't deserve. Who was I to get this experience while other Latinx kids just as smart as me were delegated to city colleges and full time jobs post-high school? Why did I get away from the violence of Chicago, while my parents and siblings were left to fend for themselves in that danger? It was unfair, and I felt undeserving.
The guilt was palpable. It is still one of the things I remember very vividly about that time in my life. Going home on breaks made the guilt feel worse. I was different, but everyone at home expected me to the same. So much happened that I had no one at home to talk to who could relate. It's not that my parents didn't check on me and ask how things were going, but they mostly inquired about academics. What I struggled with was the feeling of abandonment. They were proud of me for leaving and I knew they saw it as my being a role model, but I constantly felt like I needed to apologize. I didn't understand those feelings and they turned into avoidance. I didn't like going home anymore, which added to my guilt. I was far enough away that I wasn't expected home often, but close enough that I could have gone home a lot more than I did. But being home felt out of place, too.
I loved being with my family, but I loved who I was when I was on campus. They were so distinct from one another. If I was too much of one in the other world I got strange looks and comments discounting my Latiness, my ability to related to other urban youth, my devotion to my roots and hometown. Both places were shaping me so rapidly and yet I had to keep them so separated.
Luckily, I had first-gen friends who could relate to the duality, and some even came home with me and met my family and offered me some relief at managing both worlds. Their observations of the person they knew on campus vs. the person they saw at home made me at times uncomfortable, like I was a fraud, other times I challenged the notion that I led two different lives. But, looking back, that's exactly what I did. Part of it was that I had no idea the reaction others would have at my being first-gen. I never heard the term or thought of it as defining me before getting to college. I wasn't comfortable with the label because it felt exclusive. It seemed to imply some achievement, but I did not feel like I had achieved anything yet. Secondly, it felt dismissive the accomplishments of those before me. My cousin had gone to a university; my dad had taken some classes at a city college, and my mom completed a vocational program. I was proud of them for that. Saying I was a first-generation college student felt as though their struggle wasn't as valid as mine, and I resented that.
It took time to see the label for the positives it can hold. Years later I realized that while getting to college wasn't unique, it was more of an achievement than I had ever given it credit for. Making it to a major university away from home with little to no family guidance, and then surviving the challenges that came with it was big. It set the precedence for those who would come after me, so they wouldn't have to be the lone "first". They could look at me and see it was possible, and better yet, have someone to help them get through it, just like I had.
As an adult, I still gravitate to YA (young adult) books. My mom doesn't get it. She says that the YA books I recommend are hard for her to get into. I don't understand it, because I love them, but it got me thinking about why I still love it as an adult.
I came up with a lot of reasons, here they are in no particular order:
YA spans genres
When I go to a bookstore or the library, I don't have to go from section to section looking for something interesting because YA books are all shelved together. I can look through contemporary, historical fiction, fantasy, mystery and sci-fi all within the same group of bookshelves. I have found many authors that I would otherwise not know about, and genres I wouldn't have tried had they all been scattered throughout.
They are the stories I would have loved to read as a child
Perhaps my reading growth got stunted somewhere between ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET, by Judy Blume, and HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende. One spoke to my place in the world, while the other opened my mind to the lack of Latina characters in the books I had read.
Coming of age stories take me back to those days when I was tucked in a corner of my house, ignoring the world around me in order to dive into the one on the page. The most common themes I read had suburban settings and characters that had little to nothing in common with me and my surroundings. Those books still dominate the market, but there are more and more by Latinas who write about growing up in inner cities in the US and loving flan and brownies, having trouble speaking Spanish, and battling the same identity questions I did. I read those books now and I am happy they exist, but sad that my twelve year-old self didn't have them back then. They would totally have blown my mind.
They help me understand my daughter's world better
My childhood was different from my daughter's in almost every way you can imagine. From the type of city, to the number of family members and the proximity of cousins, her world is distinct. Reading YA is an additional tool in learning about how today's kids process things. While the works I read are almost exclusively fiction, I know from experience that it doesn't automatically mean that the works are not heavily based on truth. The research it takes to write a book of fiction is rigorous and thorough. The author had to place herself in that world in order to do it justice. He had to spend hours dissecting, observing, processing and regurgitating all that he learned when creating the characters, setting, and plot. I appreciate their work and how much insight it provides me in learning about my kid.
It is something I can do with the kids in my life
I'm the aunt who loves to introduce her niece and nephews to audio books, graphic novels, and signed books as souvenirs. As the kids grow up and their reading choices become more sophisticated, I plan to be the person the kids call on for book recommendations, to discuss the books they love or hate, for writing advice, or at least invite me to see the movie version of the book they last read.
They're entertaining and complex
As I mentioned, my mother can't get into YA. However, she enjoys a lot of pop culture movies and television series. Most of those are based on YA, MG and children's books. When a good story is combined with special effects, invested actors and screenwriters devoted to the author's vision, you get some very intriguing entertainment that even my mom can be found watching with enthusiasm.
There are lots of reasons I enjoy YA and they influence why I write it. I am not limiting myself to only reading or writing it, but it definitely offers depth that I appreciate, and challenges that keep me going.
I've blogged about LLI before, the non-profit I have worked for since 2012. LLI empowers Latinas to become stronger leaders through leadership development sessions, one-on-one mentoring, and a six-month community service project. Through the process of completing the program, the participants become a family, a strong network of support to one another, along with their mentors and board members.
Recently, some life changes led to my deciding to step down as executive director. It was not an easy choice. The program was barely more than a website and idea when I was hired. I got to shape it into one of the most impacting programs for Latinas that I have ever seen. It is something I wish I would have had when I was first starting my career, and many other Latinas have shared that sentiment.
I was routinely in awe of the drive and tenacity of the participants who invested their time and money to develop themselves. Employers weren't forcing them to be there; they didn't get to stop their other commitments to focus on this; they didn't get college credit for it. They applied out of an inner-motivation to be better leaders. This in itself was impressive because so many applicants were already super involved and had accomplished so much. Their hunger for more, and their desire to give back kept me enthralled and in love with my job.
For four years Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines was my baby. The women who graduated from the program felt like my kids going off into the world to change it and make it better for their sisters. For as cheesy as that sounds, it is also very accurate. I can recall every graduate and feel a connection to them that I can't imagine will ever go away. Seeing them continue to make amazing accomplishments fills me with a pride that is almost unparalleled. What sticks with me the most is seeing the women bond in a way that is unique to the environment of trust I helped build.
As I move on to other adventures, I am enthusiastically elated that it will be in the hands of one of the women who invested in herself two years ago as part of LLI's Class of 2015. Vivian applied in hopes of finding direction, community and a place that valued and strengthened her talents. During her time in the program I saw her confidence escalate, and her passion grow. She developed a stronger voice of conviction and advocacy that is becoming a lifelong part of who she is. Almost immediately after graduating from the program she got together with her fellow graduates and helped launch the LLI alumni association, designed to offer continued leadership development opportunities, networking and continue the sisterhood developed during the program. Shortly thereafter she joined the board of directors and brought a new perspective to the table. A year later she was voted the president of the board and led with respect, integrity and unrelenting enthusiasm and dedication to the program and the women it serves.
When I alerted the board of my plans to leave my position, I secretly hoped that Vivian would apply. She is the embodiment of what the program is designed to do. We want our graduates to push themselves, try things they have never done, take risks when opportunities come their way and feel confident in their support systems to take them on. Vivian is doing that. She had never been a board president, but that didn't stop her from running. She hadn't been an executive director, but her zealousness for giving back to a program that meant so much to her was greater then her doubt or fear.
Her earnestness to learn and devotion to her LLI sisters shines every time she talks about LLI, and it is genuine in a way that makes people want to know more about LLI. That is what the program needs as it moves towards growth and financial stability. When Vivian shares her story with potential funders, participants, mentors and community supporters it will be hard for them not to become enraptured by the positive energy she emits when talking about LLI. This assures me that I am leaving it in the right hands and can face my next steps confident that my baby is still getting the same love and attention I have been pouring out these last four years.
Back in 2001, when I first moved to Des Moines, I was invited to join a group of volunteers who wanted to have a festival to celebrate Latino culture in Iowa. I wanted to get involved with the community and I liked the idea, so I signed on. Warren was one of the volunteers and over the course of planning the first Iowa Latino Heritage Festival he and I got to know each other pretty well and spent lots of time together working on the various details.
We were an impressive cross-section of young professionals and established community leaders who put countless hours into finding a way to celebrate the various Latino cultures represented across the state. None of us had done anything like that before. We were learning as we went, and becoming friends in the process. To this day I have dear friends I met through the festival.
The first festival was scheduled to take place Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001. We had the permits in place for closing off streets. Tent vendors had paid deposits, a full day of entertainment had been mapped out, food vendors had committed to selling tacos, pupusas, arepas and other Latin American delicacies. Then September 11th happened. We were as stunned as everyone else. There was no way were going to have a celebration in the midst of mourning. We postponed the festival to the following spring.
In the meantime, Iowa became a tense place to live for people of olive skin and accents. The English-only laws were being challenged by the growing Latino community and it seldom felt comfortable or safe to speak Spanish in public. There was a bomb scare at the local Jewish school where a friend of mine had a daughter. I got suspicious looks when I was out and about. As a Peruvian friend and I walked down the street, a white guy in a pick-up truck yelled out, TERRORISTS and threw a Coke bottle at us. I seriously began second-guessing my choice to live here.
Since all the deposits we had made for the festival were non-refundable, we had to start fund-raising again. It took over six months to launch the first Latino Festival in Iowa. It was a beautiful spring day, perfectly clear skies and warm enough that everyone wanted to be outdoors after a cold winter. Having never put on an event of this magnitude, we didn't know what to expect in terms of attendance. We told vendors to plan for three to five-thousand people. We were seriously underestimating this community's desire to celebrate.
Roughly ten-thousand people came to that first festival. Food vendors that also had restaurants called their employees and told them to close the restaurant and come help with the festival. They made runs to buy more supplies. Buses from rural communities came packed to the brim with Latinos who organized through their churches to get to and from the festival. It was amazing to see that unfold.
The most impacting memory I have of the day is walking around with my festival volunteer t-shirt, and someone grabbed my arm. It was an elderly Latina with tears in her eyes. In Spanish, she asked me, "Did you help do this?" "Yes," I told her. She closed her eyes and squeezed my arm and thanked me. She pointed at a Latino teen a few feet away wearing a shirt with the flag of the Dominican Republic and he was laughing and talking with another teen. She said, "That's my grandson. He has refused to speak Spanish to me, or anyone else since the bombing. But look at him now, speaking our language and wearing his flag with pride, at peace." I was floored, moved beyond words at what this moment meant to this older lady, who had probably been through so much to be in this country, to see her grandchildren have more than she could offer her own children. She hugged me and thanked me again. To this day, that moment is clear as day in my mind and makes me smile when I recall it.
At the end of the day, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the bathtub, but I was also so content and proud of what we had done. We didn't set out to change the cultural landscape of the city, or the state, but in putting our hearts and talents to work in ways that challenged us, for the good of our community as a whole, we did just that. Today this festival is the largest cultural festival in the state. It has expanded to a two-day celebration and draws nearly thirty-thousand people. I served on the board and volunteered for ten years. Since Warren's passing I have had to diminish my role to running a cultural booth to showcase Puerto Rican culture, but I still look forward to it every year, and walk around and feel that same pride and sense of purpose I did at the first festival, knowing that I was part of making history.
A man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES.
- Hunter S. Thompson, Writer
April 22, 1958
Aside from being a newlywed, some of my happiest times were spent on a college campus. Truth is, if I could afford to do so, I would be a professional student, collecting Masters degrees and PhDs in a bunch of different subjects of interest. Unfortunately, that is not the case. So, the next best thing is to work at a university, which I currently do. I get a lot of energy from the students, and love seeing their growth in knowledge, but also seeing them overcome personal challenges that come with pursuing higher education.
I was a first generation college student. I didn't have someone at home to help me through the application process or help finding grants. What I had were committed parents who believed I could do it, and encouraged me to find resources to help me when they could not. I was lucky to have a college counselor and knew some people who had gone through the process. Maybe I was cocky, but I never questioned my ability to get into college. My desire to pursue that path was too strong to stand in my way. Lack of experience with the process was not a barrier or deterrent. If anything, it probably made me more determined to succeed.
That's the same desire and determination I am applying to becoming published. It is a grueling process, full of rejection, doubt and hard work. I second guess decisions in my journey, and there are times that it frustrates me to no end - feelings very similar to those I felt when I was navigating the college application process. The difference is that I have trouble focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel, whereas in my younger days, I think I had tunnel vision. Perhaps it's my faulty memory, but I don't recall feeling like college acceptance was out of my reach.
Living on a college campus, attending classes in lecture halls filled with hundreds of other students, meeting people from all over the country and the world, those were the visions that kept me moving forward. This week I got to spend time on a different college campus than where I work. I talked to a a bunch of first generation Latinx students who reminded me of myself when I was first at Iowa State University. We talked about the pull of family, the guilt that comes with the privilege of higher education, the pressure to make our families proud, and the need for more of us to reach out and help others facing the same challenges we faced. They shared their goals for post-college and their excitement was infectious. It put me back on that campus where I have so many delightful memories and moments that helped form the woman I am today. College for me was life-changing in more ways than gained knowledge.
Talking to those students, I couldn't help but ponder my abilities and desires, much as I did when I was their age. My immediate goals have changed, but above all, I want to be happy and good role model for my daughter. In doing so, I want to be fearless, a risk-taker, and a woman who doesn't give up, or let obstacles stop me from reaching goals, even when they seem out of reach. That was who I became those years of living on my own in a small city that was the complete opposite of home. Over time, I think I have softened, and I don't like it.
I'm not as fearless as I once was. There are so many factors to consider when thinking about what it takes to reach and maintain happiness. Taking risks affects more lives for me today than it did back then. I don't recall college rejections, but editors passing on my book are recent, fresh and sting more than I care to admit. It doesn't make me want to give up, but it does often give me a bad case of writer's block, with a healthy does of writer's envy.
The sacrifices of risk in the pursuit of happiness are many. Happiness doesn't come without hard work, tears, frustrations and struggles along the way. There are scary moments, and times when it feels excessively out of reach. But, I'm confident that the outcome on the other side is worth it. The ultimate challenge is remembering that I have the abilities to fulfill my desires, and I have proven that to myself time and time again. Time to start reminding myself of this daily.
Last week I had lunch with a friend who is also a widow with a story much like mine. I met her in a grief support group and we connected right away. She reached out to me one day and the bond was almost instant. It's crazy how our grief brought us so close so quickly and deeply, but she is a gift that Warren gave, even in death.
Speaking of gifts after death, she and I talked a lot about organ donation. Both our husbands were donors and saved several lives. Since her loss she has been an avid proponent of organ and tissue donation, speaking on behalf of the Iowa Donor Network for a little over three years. Doing so gave her a purpose, a message to share in relation to her tremendous loss. It was therapeutic for her to share the story, and in many ways, sharing that story was a gift from her husband that led to her healing.
As we talked, we agreed that all organs give life. People often think of hearts giving life, but even corneas can give new life to someone facing blindness. Sure, people can live with blindness and millions do. However, if you've ever talked to someone who was losing their sight and then was given the chance to see again, or see for the first time opens a new life for that person. We talked about how quality of life is as important as life itself. While being able to see may not sound like life or death, it adds to the quality of life and without it, some afflicted with new blindness go through deep depression that can lead to suicide.
That has been on my mind lately because it is part of the plot of my new novel that I am working on while my other story is on submission. It keeps me busy while editors pass on my earlier writing, but it is also a story I feel emotionally attached to. The topics and themes are ripped from my life, that of my daughter's, and of other people who have endured a death of someone close to them. I wrote from incidents that happened the night Warren died, and took my feelings and explored them through a fictional widow and her daughter. Their relationship is a mosaic of many of the relationships I've had over the years with people who have offered support and understanding; as well as those who were at a loss and shied away; or who came into my life afterwards and have gotten to know me as the woman navigating life without her soulmate, the angry single mom, the frenzied MFA student, and the aspiring writer.
All these parts of me are coming together in this story and I get excited to work on it, even as I dread going to the places the story leads. There is darkness and confusion, hope and love, but most of all it is a story about relationships. Aside from relationships between characters, there is the relationship between a specific character and his future, which is threatened by blindness, revitalized by the gift of organ donation. But, like any relationship, it's not that simple. Donors often deal with the weight of the receiving such a life-changing gift, as does this character. Writing this story has given me a chance to look at life and death from a different perspective. It has taught me about the process and the need for organ donors. It has made me think about the gifts that Warren continues to give, to myself and to complete strangers, serving as a role model for a decision he made without hesitation for no reason other than to give. I am proud of him for that decision that is providing me the gift of story, based on one of my personal heroes.
There's recently been a teacher's note that went viral about why she was not going to assign homework this school year:
It states that homework will not be assigned, and that studies have been unable to prove that homework improves learning. She goes on to give ideas or time better spent in the evenings such as eating dinner as a family, reading, playing and getting more sleep. I agree with her list of alternatives - all those things make for a more well-rounded, kind, and more confident kid. I have not taken the time to look at studies about the topic, although I'm pretty sure that if I looked hard enough I can find studies that support and debunk her theory. But, I can recall my experience with homework and the struggle I have as a parent when my daughter comes home time and time again with no homework.
I got homework in nearly every subject every night. We were assigned work to do in the class room and if that wasn't complete by the end of the lesson, it was added to the homework already assigned. Aside from core subjects, I had weekly spelling words, religion homework and memory work. I recall falling asleep on my textbooks, crying because my bedtime was approaching and I was not finished, worrying that I would forget the order of letters for my weekly spelling test, and even doing homework in the back of a family room during a funeral.
Homework was serious business in my household. But, we still did all the other things on the list the teacher provided. Family dinner was a must and the books were to be put away before my mom set the table. The rule was that homework and studying had to be done by bath time, which was about half hour before bedtime. If I could not meet that deadline, I knew I was going to lose out on a privilege or treat later that week. I found the time to read for fun, play with my siblings and friends, and even get about 10 hours of sleep per night. I also rode my bike and played in the snow, despite having hours of homework.
Maybe I was a super nerd, but for the most part, I enjoyed doing homework. It wasn't necessarily the act of the work, but doing a good job, turning in neat and completed assignments that showed my understanding of the subject matter, and making my teacher and parents proud were important to me. Aside from that, I felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of week when I knew that I had kept up with everything that was expected of me. Sure, there were times when I didn't want to do it and whined and cried about it, but that was not the majority of the time.
Looking back, having regular homework taught me a lot about myself, what I am capable of and how to study. That feeling of doing a good job and taking pride in my work stayed with me well beyond my school days. It is part of my every day whether at work or writing a story. It was what pushed me to get an MFA in writing even though I know that publication is possible without an advanced degree.
I learned to be disciplined. Playing, reading and being with family and friends were all more attractive ways to spend time that doing homework, but I knew those things were waiting for me at the finish line and the faster I did my work, the sooner I could get to them. Homework taught me to prioritize my time, which has paid off in the time management I use on a daily basis. People often ask me how I find time to blog, write novels, raise a child, work and full and part time job, volunteer and make time for a social life. It's thanks in part to learning how to set and manage time from the days of sitting at my kitchen table completing assignment after assignment.
If I hadn't created the habit of homework plus studying for weekly spelling and memory tests I might have been one of those first-generation college undergrads who doesn't survive their first semester because they don't know how to study. As sad as that sounds, I saw a lot of that my first year in college and am proud to this day that I did not fall into that statistic.
Day after day my daughter comes home with no homework. I have had to implement a daily reading and math practice regimen in order to try to help her develop some of the habits and learn some of the life lessons that regular homework taught me. It's tough, though because she knows she isn't getting credit for it and she doesn't understand the long-term benefits those habits can lead to. I get it. I didn't see it at her age, either, but I didn't have the option of resisting. I knew good grades would be my ticket out of my neighborhood and there was no time to waste complaining or bucking the responsibility. Besides, my parents would never have allowed that kind of slack and poor attitude from me. I try, but I am afraid that I am failing to create the same helpful lessons in my kid. I fear that she will become a statistic and will be ill-prepared to face the self-motivation and resolve it takes to be a high achieving adult. When she gets to college, I worry that she won't know how to manage her time to ensure success because she will expect to learn everything she needs to know from lecture, not having a clue the extra time and attention professors expect to happen beyond their class.
I have friends who are teachers who have expressed the frustration of policing homework and I get that, too. But, maybe I'm old-school, but I believe students are missing an opportunity to learn something well beyond the subject matter or preparing for tests when homework is taken out of their educational experience. I wish I could find a happy medium that would relieve my fears about my daughter's lack of preparation for the real world, yet not add undue stress to teachers. In the meantime, I am grateful that I grew up with teachers who believed I could do the extra work, parents who believed in my abilities, and that I was smart enough to get more out of it than the assigned task and subsequent quiz score. To those teachers who assigned homework and expected it completed and on time, I thank you. I hope my daughter runs into more like you throughout her education so she, too can learn more about herself and all that she is capable of.
Growing up Lutheran, I believed that everything happened for a reason, and that reason was God's will. That was ingrained in my head and I believed it without reason to question. Having a relatively tragedy-free childhood, that belief was never challenged.
Now that I have been through not only my loss, but heard of others as well, the saying "Everything happens for a reason" is like acid on my heart. I don't buy it. How can there be a logical reason why a person as caring, driven and kind as Warren is gone? What reason can possibly make sense?
I heard that so many times during the wake, funeral and weeks after Warren died, and I was thinking too foggily to respond appropriately. But that didn't stop it from being one of the more painful things I ever heard. It implies that there is a reason greater than logic, greater than love, greater than what Warren and I deserved, greater than what everyone who loved Warren deserved. I could not - will not accept that as truth.
That statement is hurtful even when it does not apply to me. How can a mother watching her child suffer from illness believe that there is a purpose more potent than her love and will and protect her child? How does that statement bring comfort to someone who is in pain, wondering how they are going to survive a tragedy or horrible incident?
Do the refugees of war sleep better at night knowing that their loss and suffering have a purpose they may never know? Do rape victims feel safer because their pain was for a reason that perhaps they can learn and grow from?
In times of hurt, people often want to find a scapegoat, but we know deep down that it will not bring comfort. Implying that we should be looking for a silver lining in the face of devastation diminishes our healing process. Part of the process involves questioning why the hurtful incident happened, but I am willing to bet there hasn't been a reason offered that feels satisfactory to the person asking. There are more sensitive ways to offer support to the grieving because to us, there is no reason great enough to justify the pain of our loss. All the reasons in the world do no lessen the blow of the tragedy, and trying to explain it away only devalues something that is of utmost importance.
Please, the next time you are looking for the words to comfort someone who is in pain, grieving, scared, or in need of some form of healing do NOT invalidate them by telling them that there is some greater purpose for their suffering. If you're at a loss for words, say that. If you are scared for them, share your feelings. If words fail you hug them.
When I became a widow there were a lot of things I learned from other widows about the new world I had become a part of. One of the things that was surprising was how many widows were completely ignored and dismissed by their in-laws. Many had children with the deceased, yet the grandparents of those kids removed themselves from their lives after their loss. I heard sad story after sad story about families walking away and not looking back, or causing more drama to the lives of those surviving the loss. In fact, within the widow community, the common term for in-laws is out-laws.
That would be devastating to me. One of the greatest gifts I got on my wedding day was a set of incredible in-laws. From Warren's parents and sister, to his aunts, uncles and cousins, they are ALL family. My family. My daughter's family. They didn't turn their backs on us just because our initial connection was gone. We mourned together. We remember him as a family. The love is genuine and lasting, even as they meet my new love interest and see how much my life has changed. Our relationship is deep and goes beyond a piece of paper.
I take it for granted until something reminds me how lucky I am. Most recently, it was a visit from my parents in law. They came for a week and it felt so good to have them in my home. They are a wonderful couple, but aside from that I paid attention to how much of a family we are. They get along great with my parents; they shower my daughter with love and attention; they genuinely enjoy spending time with my siblings and their children; they support me and take pride in what I do with no pretense that ties my accomplishments to Warren.
The day Warren died my mother in law told me that she wanted me to find love again. When I found it she wanted me to feel comfortable introducing him to her, knowing that I have her support. At the time I thought it was terribly insensitive and couldn't imagine the day I would do so. Fast forward four and a half years when I did just that. I was nervous and had no idea how it would go. I shouldn't have been worried. She was gracious and welcoming. My nervousness melted right away. They got along and we laughing and sharing stories right away. My father in law was just as accepting. We shared meals and time and it never felt awkward.
It could have gone very differently. Finding romantic love could have meant losing familial love. or brought on shame, but instead, it showed me true humility and honesty. They want my happiness as much as their son did. It's a reminder that family isn't limited to blood. It is a choice to show unconditional love and acceptance even when you don't have to. It lasts beyond tragedy and loss, death and legal documents. I am so lucky to have learned it from personal experience and examples. I hope it is a lesson that is carried on by my daughter and the kids who have seen and felt the same love that I have from the family who said their "I do's" about me the same day I said mine about them.