The X Factor

X as in the Roman numeral 10.  As in the number of years that my dear friend Maggie has been gone.  As in that dark mark on the calendar on December 6 that will never go away.  

I was recently chatting with a friend who lost her cousin around this time of year last year.  We were saying that of course there is never an ideal time for someone to die unexpectedly (or even expectedly), but the holidays are a particularly brutal time for that to happen.  To have that  unbearably sad anniversary coincide with the joyful season of Advent and Christmas is just hard.  It is why I found myself back in 2007, just a week after Maggie's passing, standing in the paper plate aisle of my local grocery store sobbing uncontrollably upon hearing the song Ave Maria playing.  The world around me was celebrating and happy and joyous ... and I was in the throes of grief with no way out.  But I got it together, I composed myself, took a deep breath, and finished my grocery shopping.  Step by step, day by day, forward forward forward.  Time doesn't stop for those who are grieving.  And that is how we got to this point - 10 years from the date of her death.  It's both the blink of an eye and a lifetime ago all at once.  

Which is how I arrived at the title of this post.  When I was thinking about it being the 10 year anniversary of her death, the Latin major in me immediately thought about that letter X for the number 10 ... which prompted me to think of the phrase "the X Factor."  I looked it up and it seems so fitting:  

a factor with unknown or unforeseeable consequences

Her death was the X Factor in my life ... those unknown and unforeseeable consequences: a certain smell, a certain song, a food, a flashbulb memory.  Things that are clearly connected to Maggie and her life and her memory, and then things that are seemingly unrelated, but for whatever reason, bring her to the forefront of my mind.  Her X factor is a cycle of simultaneous comfort and sadness: comfort in that she is always there; sadness in that she is not really there.

I think about Maggie every single day.  There is always something to remind me of her.  And while her death is now something that I remember and think about, rather than palpably feel like I did in the beginning, every anniversary is still quite hard.  We have all moved forward; we will never move "on".  She would have wanted us to move forward and live and love our lives and laugh and seek joy and happiness.  And I think that all of us who were left behind have done that.  But there is a piece of me that is, and forever will be, stuck back in 2007, back in that Maryland hospital room where she breathed her last breath surrounded by her loved ones.  I think of that often ... not in a morbid way, but as a not so gentle reminder that tomorrow is never promised. That we all went to bed on November 30 and said our goodnights and naively assumed December 1 would be a regular day and then the world turned upside down and then time and life paused -- for just a moment -- 5 days later on December 6 when she died.   

This picture, from my friend Missy's wedding, is so very Maggie. She always managed to find her way behind a DJ booth and it was no surprise that she did so at weddings.  I love that about this photo and love that she's so beautiful and smiling ... that she was grabbing that microphone and probably a second away from laughing that laugh that I miss so much.  I wanted to leave you all, and myself, with this image of her.  It makes me smile and my heart hurt just a bit less today.  December 6 will always hurt.  I will always be sad.  I will always remember. 


Maggie will always be young and beautiful.  She will always be missed.  I take great comfort in this traditional Irish blessing when I think of Maggie:

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind ever be at your back
May the sun shine warm on your face
and the rains fall soft upon your field
And until we meet again
may God hold you in the palm of His hand. 

I was blessed to know Maggie and more blessed to have been her friend.  I miss her.  
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The run will come out tomorrow

I'm running my first marathon in over two and a half years this weekend: the Philadelphia Marathon.  The last marathon I did was the NJ State Marathon in April 2015 and that race was, to be frank, an absolute, unmitigated disaster.  Honestly, that could be the end of this post - I'm running a marathon, it's been years since I did this distance, and for the first time in well over three years, I am actually excited, and somewhat anxious, to run 26.2 miles.

My training has been fun and not a chore.  Because this is not my first running rodeo, I know what to do.  I've been diligent about my long runs and logging a handful of runs during the week.  I have not been diligent about doing speedwork, but I know that I'll be fine come Sunday even without that.  My long runs have been consistently strong, with one or two demoralizing clunkers (which, for anyone who has trained for a marathon knows, is par for the course when training for this distance).  My head has been in the game. But more importantly, my heart has been in it.  Really truly, 100% invested and in it.  I have basically been like the below photo (from the 2017 Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Philadelphia, taken the moment I saw the five kids and my sweetheart cheering for me) for my entire training:


And therein lies the huge difference between this marathon and my last marathon back in 2015:  the heart.  In the training leading up to the NJ State Marathon, and on the race itself, my heart was simply not into it.  I tried to convince myself to the contrary ... that of course my heart was in this race, of course I cared, of course I wanted to run and to BQ and to PR and to race and to ... no.  It is like when my law school roommate and I decided to eat healthy and ate lots of tofu hot dogs for meals.  We tried to convince ourselves that the tofu hot dogs were just as good as real ones and OMG they are so so good right yes they are good yes they are super good ... until the two of us went out and got real hot dogs when we realized how, ok, no tofu hot dogs were nowhere near as delicious as real hot dogs, real hot dogs were amazing. And tofu is stupid.  My training for this race has been the real hot dog: I've loved every run, been thankful for every run, and even though I am not gunning for a BQ or a PR, I can't wait to lace up my shoes, play my horrendously amazing playlist and run 26.2 miles on a journey through the city I love. 

On one of my final long training runs, I was settling in about 3 miles in.  It was a picture perfect Fall day, and I was running so happy.  I had just spent a lovely morning with my husband and was feeling super happy, super strong, and super blessed.  I know in the age of the "hashtag blessed" phenomenon, that may be eyeroll inducing to some, but it's true and I really am blessed.  As I let myself sink into my happiness, the song "Tomorrow" (yes, from Annie) came on my playlist.  I had a flashbulb moment to mile 15 of the NJ State marathon where that song also came on.  I remember thinking during that race how I really did need tomorrow to get here - I was suffering on the run, I was suffering in general and was just so profoundly unhappy.  I had nothing left but hope that tomorrow would be better.  And now, two and a half years later, here I was at my tomorrow with a life so good it was almost too good to be true.  I had made it to the point that 2015 mile 15 me had hoped for.  It was a beautiful full circle moment for me. 

Here's to a great, fun run this weekend! I can't wait. 
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Sunrise Sunset Staircase

Back in late December 2016, I had to do a final clean-out of my townhome -- my little post-divorce landing pad that ended up being home for nearly five years.   I'd been dreading it.  There was just so much to do at our new home, and I really did not feel like taking a few hours of that precious time away to clean out my old place -- all of my furniture and things were gone, and the house was just an empty shell needing its final clean before I handed over the keys.  It was something I had to do, so I sucked it up and went to my old empty home with an armful of cleaners, my vacuum cleaner and Pandora's Lionel Richie station at the ready.

I had, as is customary for me, an itemized plan of attack: first spackle the nail holes, then work my way up from the basement to the main floor and finally finish up on the third floor with the bedrooms and baths.  Once all the nail holes were filled in, and about 15 minutes into my cleaning frenzy, I became acutely aware of just why it became necessary, rather than a luxury, to hire my house-cleaner.  The basement was a pretty easy space to clean -- it held the kids' playroom and a small tv/game playing area, and of course my bike trainer.  So.many.hours. on that bike trainer back in 2014.  Basement - check.  Up a floor I went.  I cleaned the kitchen, and the fridge and oven and cabinets.  I cleaned the living room.  The fireplace.  Tried in vain one last time to get out that purple nail polish stain in the one spot on the carpet where my then-5 year old had a pedicure mishap.  Main floor - check.  Up the steps to my last floor - first my bedroom and then my bathroom, which used to have horrible wallpaper that I painstakingly took down and painted instead.  Then the kids' bathroom - check.  Then the kids' rooms - check.  And finally, after about 4 hours on a cold December morning, I was done. The list was checked off.  The to-dos were done.


I grabbed all of the cleaning supplies and threw them (literally - I literally threw them) in the car, along with the vacuum.  I took out the last few bags of trash.  I did one final walk through to make sure I had cleaned every nook and cranny, turned off all of the lights, and taken all of my things.  Check.  Only, instead of bounding down the stairs and heading out the door without looking back, I found myself looking around with tears in my eyes at my now empty home.  And home it was:  what was intended to be a temporary landing pad had become my home for over four years. 

It was a good place.  It was a necessary step in my new life.  I sat down on the main staircase and remembered doing the exact same thing in the exact same spot right after I signed my lease.  I remember I was there on a weekday afternoon in April 2012 waiting for the cable people to come and for whatever reason, at that moment, sitting there on the grey carpeted steps of a completely empty home made my whole situation real: this is your home, this is happening, this is yours - yours, singular, yours.  It was overwhelming and terrifying and exciting and very, very real. That was one of those flashbulb moments that we all have in our lives - those little random snippets of time that stick with us forever.  I don't remember the day or what I was wearing or what else was happening otherwise in my life, but I remember sitting on those steps and realizing that life as I knew it had completely changed. Over those four + years, we made the townhouse a home - lost teeth, hugs, laughs, tears, milestones, Band-aids, boo-boos, messes, puzzles, good news, bad news, you  name it. 

And there I sat years later in the very same spot, but in a completely different place.  It was a true sunrise/sunset moment in my life.  

I was ready and excited for my new home with my soon to be husband and our new family.  But there was something so bittersweet about saying goodbye to the home that saw me from those first moments of bewilderment and fear to the woman I had become and to the life that I had obtained.  I wouldn't necessarily miss the house, but I felt a twinge of sadness to say goodbye to the home.  Which brings it all full circle ... back to the first blog post I published upon my separation.  Over those four years, I realized that a home was not a house and a house was not a home - that "home" was the people you love, rather than a structure in which you live.  And now, almost a year later, my home is with my darling husband and children in the wonderful family that we have created in the beautiful house in which we live.  But there will be forever a piece of me that is grateful for that little home that was there for me when I started my life over, at my most vulnerable, and became a place of safety, security and love.  


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stuck in the middle with you

Unbelievably, my son is heading off to middle school next year.  He is but days away from going from elementary school to middle school -- from child to tween overnight.  From little kid to kid.  It happened in the blink of an eye - baby to toddler to preschool to kindergarten to fifth grade.  And now we are here - right in the middle.

I am certainly not the first parent to hit this watershed moment.  I'm not the first to clutch her child's wrists and say "ahhhh I am so excited for you!" with genuine love and real excitement, but with a sharp twinge of trepidation.  Sending my child to middle school is big time.  It's a palpable letting go, and on the mom scale, or at least my own personal mom scale, it's painful.  It's more painful than dropping off my infant at daycare; it's more painful than dropping my kindergartener at his first day; it's more painful than the first overnight apart; it's more painful than any of those moments because in all of those, I knew he needed me and I would be there.  Now, he still needs me, and I am still there, but this is a time for me to let go and for him to take a giant step forward on his own.  There's no going or looking back.  Onward we go.  Together, but with him taking the lead.


Middle school is a "wings" moment.  I once read that the most lasting bequests a parent can give her child is roots and wings.  I think of parenting, and so many of these important moments, in those terms.  To be sure, the move to middle school is a big wings moment.  It's time for him to spread his wings, and it is time for me to let him do it and for me to not only let go quite a bit, but also to trust that the roots I've helped him set down thus far are strong ones.  

I have seen the transformation this year, and it has been like watching erosion -- subtle, slow changes that hit me not at all in the moment in which they happened, but dramatically as I look back.  I have watched my then-10 year old 5th grader on his first day walk in to his elementary school with childlike excitement slowly grow into a nearly middle school kid with dreams of bigger and more ... bigger school, bigger kids, more challenges, more excitement, more freedom. He is ready.  I am the one who is anxious.  

I went to his middle school orientation the other night.  It all sounded amazing ... all the challenges and the curriculum and the activities and opportunities -- so many incredible things that are all there for the taking.  Every single administrator, teacher, counselor, and volunteer stressed what a fantastic experience the school would be.  And every single one touched on one common theme: it is time to let go a little.  It's scary, yes.  But it is time.  

And as I sat there and listened and took it all in, I realized how apropos that it is called "middle" school.  He is heading into that middle period of adolescence -- the middle, the muck, where you do the hard work and figure out who you are (and who you're not) and what you're made of (and what you're not) and what true mettle is.  It is a temporary, and yet an extraordinarily difficult and necessary, step in what makes someone who he or she is.  It reminds me of the training period for a big race: it isn't always fun, it isn't always pretty, it's long and sustained and hard and challenging and there are moments of progress but for the most part it is a lot of hard work and grind and put your head down and forge your way to a future that you aren't really sure of, all the while with lingering doubt in your head of whether you can do it, surely you can do it ... yes you can do it and you will do it, but man is this hard.  lather-rinse-repeat. round and round we go.  

I, of course, have the benefit, and perhaps the curse, of hindsight.  I vividly remember middle school, and while I work hard to separate my own experiences from those that my children have so that I do not project my own fears and past onto them, I still remember.  I remember that exhilaration of my first real brush with freedom. I remember actually feeling like a big kid.  I remember meeting the older kids when I was in 6th grade and on the third day of school, 7th grader Kathy Vazquez told me that I was pretty ... which was the first time in my life anyone not a family member had said that to me.  I remember devastation and heartache and challenges.  I remember that push/pull of simultaneously wanting to be big but wanting to be little, of wanting to be a teenager but secretly wanting to play and to be a child ... of being completely stuck in this seemingly permanent middle.

I hope in middle school my son takes advantage of every opportunity to grow.  I hope that the inevitable heartache and struggles that he will experience will also teach him empathy and fortitude.  I hope that he tries things he never dreamed possible.  I hope that when he makes mistakes that he says he is sorry and tries again.  I hope that he tries his very best.  I hope that when he fails, he picks up the pieces and tries again.  I hope that he holds true to the child who he is now - that he preserves the essence of him, of the same little sweet soul that stole my heart when he was born.  I hope he knows that his family - and especially his mommy - will always have his back.

 My kids told me that it is a tradition in their elementary school on the last day for the outgoing 5th graders to walk around the perimeter of the halls and for all of the teachers and current students to do a boisterous send-off with clapping and excitement and cheers and high-fives.  I love that (and honestly I burst into tears when my kids told me about it the first time).  As for me, my send-off will be far less boisterous, but equally heartfelt.  I'm stuck here in the middle with him.  I'll continue to be the mom that I am and love him and teach him right from wrong.  I'm not really ready right this second for middle school and all that comes with it, but ready or not here it comes.

Stuck in the middle with you,
Yes I'm stuck in the middle with you,
Stuck in the middle with you, here I am stuck in the middle with you. ~
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Take me home ... country roads

I have a pretty good memory for even the smallest details.  So my memories of my childhood and growing up are pretty vivid.  I remember at a very young age rifling through my parents' cassette tape collection and playing so many musical treasures on their then-state of the art tape deck, throwing on a sparkly tutu (or way too tight leotard) and ballet shoes and creating dances with my sister.  There were so many songs ... ABBA, Diana Ross, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Olivia Newton John, Kenny Rogers (I am really not doing any favors to my parents right now, but this music was/is amazing).  But the song that most quickly brings me back to my childhood and to a real, palpable feeling, is John Denver's "Country Roads."  I remember playing it, laying on the couch with my legs propped up on the couch back and staring at an old oil painting we had hanging over the couch.  This one:


I have no idea where or when my parents got that painting, but if there's one thing that reminds me of home, it's that.  I remember staring up at it, while listening to "Country Roads" and just daydreaming about the words and letting myself sink into that painting and the dirt roads and the house in the back and into the song itself and the country he was singing about (nevermind that I thought he said "mountain llama" instead of "mountain momma").  

But this one always got me, and to this day sticks with me:  

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong

I took those words to heart and very literally in 2012-2013 when I was newly on my own and felt like I had no real home.  So I went back home - to the place I was born and the place I belonged -- where my parents still lived and my grandmothers and most of my family.  There was no greater comfort than home.  My folks would watch my kids and I'd go for runs, endless runs for endless miles, on those country roads.  




Fields and flowers.  Pickup trucks and creeks.  Puffy clouds and old barely-standing barns.  Trees and windy roads and creaky bridges.  Every run I would head out on my way and feel so much more centered when I came back.  I can't imagine that any other place in the world would have given me that clarity and grounding than the place where I was from ... those country roads at home.  



By running at home -- the place where I belonged -- I felt more me and more able to handle whatever this new life of mine had in store.  It was terrifying.  But I was grounded and centered.  And even as I felt ever more confident and more settled in my new life, I would still return home as much as I could and run those familiar roads and see my family and those familiar places ... home was home was home and always would be and always will be.    

I have a new home now with a wonderful husband and my wonderful children and my wonderful step-children.  My heart (and my home) is full.  Life is good.  I found the love of my life and happiness greater than I dreamed possible.  As it turns out, those country roads did lead me right home ... to the place I belong.   

You took me home, country roads.  
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