The Rockwood Files: Dear Greg

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Dear Greg,

April sucks. It really does. Each year as the calendar creeps closer to April 20th, the knot in my throat gets a little bigger each day until I’m nearly choking on the reality that I’ve missed you for another whole year.

It’s been 14 years now since I got that phone call that changed everything for me and for Mom and Dad. If I let myself, I can almost replay the conversation line by line. I can hear exactly how the police officer sounded when he told me you’d died.

“That can’t be right,” I said. “Are you sure? Are you sure?”

“We’re sure, ma’am. I’m sorry, but we’re sure.”

The days and months after that phone call are still a grey blur in my memory. When you’re 28 years old, you’re not supposed to write your brother’s obituary, so you try to block out as much of the shock and pain as your mind will allow.

The only things I remember clearly are a handful of moments that felt like some kind of text message straight from Heaven – a little sign here and there that made me feel like maybe you were still around, even though I couldn’t see you.

People who haven’t experienced a major loss might think those “signs” are just wishful thinking, and there’d be no point in trying to convince them otherwise. You believe it when it happens to you and not a moment sooner.

gregpic3Losing you has taught me so much about life and loss and grief and joy. I’ve learned that “getting through” a loss is the thing we have to hope for because the loss doesn’t really have a finish line, which makes “getting over” it impossible. When my kids do something funny that reminds me of us when we were growing up, I want to tell you about it so badly.

I want to sit around the table again with you and Mom and Dad and watch you eat more lasagna than any human should ever consume at one sitting and be partly grossed out and partly impressed at the same time. I want to hear the jokes you’d make about all the crazy things that have happened in the world since you left it. Nobody made me laugh the way you did.

Every time something happy or sad or funny or unbelievable happens and you’re not around, I feel the loss again – like a thousand little cuts that pierce deep enough to remind me about the grief that lives just under the surface.

But here’s the thing that makes it better. Now and then when I see something ridiculous on the news, the joke you probably would have made pops right into my head. So I just say it for you and take the credit. And my oldest son – the one who just turned 13 – he rolls his eyes almost exactly the way you did. Our middle kid, Jack, has hair that looks like yours did, and his little sister, Kate, hums while we’re in the car and it annoys her brothers the same way it annoyed you when I used to do it.

Gosh, I wish you were here to see it. But I also have a deep sense that you’re not really missing a thing – that you have a ringside seat to everything that happens and that you nudge a guardian angel in our direction any time we need it. Thanks for that. You always were a protective big brother. I’m lucky that way.

Love,

Gwen

gwen-headshot-2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

The Rockwood Files: Resting My Eyes

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

I opened my eyes and fought my way up toward the surface of consciousness after a deep, blissful sleep. The first thing I saw was 10-year-old Jack’s face, and I instantly recognized his expression of mildly frustrated disappointment.

I recognized it because, when I was his age, I felt and probably looked exactly the same way when my parents spent part of a weekend afternoon doing what I’d just done – sleep. I remember stomping around our house hoping the louder-than-usual footsteps would get my parents up from their comfortable positions on the sofa or in the recliner. Weren’t they bored by all this time doing nothing? Didn’t they know there were about a million more interesting things to do besides fall asleep with the Sunday newspaper folded across your chest?

I couldn’t understand how they could be so tired. I never felt tired. I was 10 years old and energy was as plentiful as air. Why were they so sleepy?

Thirty years later, I now know the answer to that question. And I understand exactly why sitting still for more than five minutes on anything remotely comfortable makes a parent’s eyes want to close. I even use the same line my mother used on me when one of my kids stands over me and asks a ridiculous question like this: “Mom! Mom! Are you sleeping?”

sleeping emoticon“Nope. Just resting my eyes. Now go play.”

When I was a kid, I thought my parents had the most tired eyes in the whole world. Maybe I inherited their eye fatigue because now that I’m a parent, my eyes often need rest on a Sunday afternoon, too.

Of course, I had pretty good excuses for last weekend’s slumber. It was probably because we got up super early and went to the Easter sunrise service at church. Or maybe it was the Easter egg hunting or the big lunch we had afterward. There’s also a chance I was suffering from a sugar crash because I may or may not have helped my son eat the ears off a chocolate bunny. (You could ask the bunny about it, but I doubt he’d hear you.)

When I settled down on the sofa during that lazy afternoon, I knew there were at least 50 other things that needed doing. On any given day, I’m at least two loads of laundry behind and, at the rate I’m going, I might not get around to spring cleaning until fall.

As much as I crave that feeling we get when we’re super productive, I knew what I needed was nothing more than some time to do nothing. Even Jesus – the most productive person who ever lived – knew when it was time to rest. Sometimes he’d get in a boat and cross a lake just to get a little time away from the throngs of followers so desperate for more time, attention and miracles.

So to my sweet boy Jack, believe me when I tell you I really do understand how frustrating it is when your parents are “resting their eyes” on the sofa during what you hoped would be an exciting afternoon. I get it. I know it’s boring. But I also know that one day you, too, might be blessed with kids of your own and, if you are, you’ll suddenly understand exactly why those “parental pauses” are so necessary.

When it happens to you, you can drop off your little bundles of energy at my house and then go home and rest your eyes, too. I won’t judge. Because everybody should experience the miracle of a soul-renewing nap.

pause sign

gwen headshot 2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Life with Ladybug: Not digging Graves’ Disease

By Shannon Magsam

I have a friend who may have thyroid cancer and I’m more than freaked out about it, but praying that she gets the help she needs, has surgery and gets the all-clear SOON.

Lots of women wonder if they have thyroid issues (and many of them actually do) because they think it might explain their weight gain or inability to lose weight. When I developed thyroid disease, it never entered my mind.

Of course, I was a 20-something, working 60-hour weeks at my first newspaper job.

And I was losing weight.

tiggerI resembled Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, bouncing around the Thousand Acre Wood in a state of never rest. Except I was bouncing off the four walls of a tiny newspaper office.

I didn’t realize it, but my body was burning up from the inside. My organs were working overtime and when I drank more caffeine to stay awake and make newspaper deadlines (or put the paper to bed every week) I was adding fuel to an already crackling fire.

I had the opposite of the thyroid condition can make people gain weight.

I was the proud owner of a HYPER-thyroid. My thyroid (a gland which is described as butterfly-shaped, how pretty) became so large I could finally see it in the mirror. It looked like I had swallowed a small egg and it was sitting right below my Adam’s apple. (I’m so glad I dodged one of the other common symptoms: bulging eyes.)

I found out the big knot had an ugly name: goiter. And the name of my disease was also ugly: Graves’ Disease.

Grave, dead, coffin, buried. I immediately thought of those words. My specialty doctor laughed at my concerns. He had seen this many times and wasn’t impressed.

He recommended that I take radioactive iodine to obliterate my overactive thyroid, so overnight I became someone who was HYPO-thyroid.

And I started taking little pills to compensate for my lack of a thyroid. (The Good Doctor really laughed when I said, in all seriousness: “What would happen to me if there was an apocalyptic event and I ran out of Synthroid?” I have since learned that my body starts to slowwww down if I miss a few pills. I don’t want to think about dying a slow, organs-shutting-down-slowly death. I try hard to keep a 90-day supply of Synthroid on hand.)

Many years after my thyroid was done in, I read a book by Christiane Northrup called Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. I was in bed with my husband, propped up on two fluffy pillows, happily reading this book, when I got to The Part. The Part where she specifically mentioned Graves disease, which I somehow hadn’t realized was an autoimmune disease.

Don’t quote me (it was years ago) but Dr. Northrup wrote that sometimes our bodies manifest physical symptoms that correspond with problems we might be having in our lives. For example, if you don’t SAY what you need to say to the people around you, if you keep quiet when you should speak up, maybe you’ll get a cough. Or maybe you’ll get a big knot on your throat.

I thought back to that time of my Graves’ affliction: I was young, trying to prove myself as a new reporter, my personal life was a shambles and I shut up and put up. A people pleaser since birth (one can only assume), I avoided conflict and often failed to say what I really needed to say.

When I recalled that time in my life, I started to boohoo in bed, startling my husband. It made me emotional, I suppose, to remember the stress and the shambles. But I also felt empowered.

maxed out bookI realized I had changed for the better. I was better at speaking up and not taking on so much that my body might literally start to raise a ruckus by becoming sick. You know, just to get my attention.

I was reminded of that night in bed this week while reading a book by Katrina Alcorn called Maxed Out.

It struck me that I still haven’t completely given up the habit of not taking care of myself as much as I should (by exercising, sleeping and saying no enough). It reminded me that I vowed not to shut up and put up. I can still be kind, but I’m nobody’s doormat.

I’m sure I still keep too much bottled up, but I don’t feel like I might blow anymore. I pray, talk to friends and take care that I’m not holding onto resentments.

Please know that I’m not saying if you have cancer or some other illness, it’s your fault. But I do know there can be a correlation between physical ailments and inner turmoil.

And as GI Joe says: Knowing is half the battle.

Shannon headshot, peach USE THISShannon Magsam is co-founder of nwaMotherlode.com, nwaMomProm.com, and the proud mama of a 13-year-old lady(bug). She’s married to John, a fellow writer and entrepreneur.

The Rockwood Files: How Spring Break nearly broke me

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

The world that exists inside your own head is a much kinder, gentler world than the one outside. I know this because, inside my head, I’m younger, I’m better looking and I’m physically and mentally tough. Outside my head? Not so much. What happened this week has made that much painfully clear.

Yesterday was the first day of our kids’ week-long Spring break from school. The sun was shining, the temperatures were rising and I was determined to get us all out of the house to embrace the day.

pink-pantherSo we laced up our tennis shoes, strapped on our bike helmets and headed toward the closest bike trail. The first few minutes of the bike ride were lovely. The sun and breeze on my face made me feel like it was only yesterday that I was an 8-year-old girl racing up and down the street on my Pink Panther bicycle. It had hot pink streamers on the handles and a picture of the panther himself on the seat, and I was convinced it was the coolest, fastest bike in the world.

The bike I have now is not nearly as cool as that one. In fact, I’m pretty sure my bike has some kind of defect because – when it was time to pedal up the first big hill on our street – my bike wanted to give up, go home and watch reruns of Shark Tank. (If you have any doubts about whether or not you’re in good physical shape, try to ride a bike up a hill. Once you’re about 30% of the way up the hill, the verdict will be clear.)

I’ll admit I had to walk the bike up the steepest part of the hill, but I told the kids that it was only because I’d failed to build up enough speed before I attempted it. Next time, I’ll make it to the top with no problem, I said. But they didn’t hear me because they’d already zoomed ahead of me on their much faster bikes powered by their much younger legs.

Lucky for me, Tom was bringing up the rear of our five-person bicycle gang and he sympathized with my struggle. He told me that, once we reached the bike bike route signtrail, the hills wouldn’t be so bad. And he was right. The slopes were gentle and the whole experience was perfect right up until I started to notice that the seat on my bicycle might just be the worst thing ever manufactured. I’m convinced it could be used as some sort of torture device to get criminals to confess. Sitting on a bear trap would have been more comfortable.

You know that common phrase “a pain in the butt”? The first person who ever uttered those five words was undoubtedly sitting on my bike when she said it.

I tried shifting into a different position and even pedaling while standing up, but nothing seemed to help. By the end of our 6-mile ride, I was sure I might never sit again. Even as I type these words, I’m standing at the kitchen counter with my laptop because I can’t sit down again until the ibuprofen kicks in.

So for today’s Spring Break adventure, we’re going to go play miniature golf because, inside my head, I’m a very good golfer who’s also young, good-looking and can ride a bike up a steep hill at breakneck speed. (And as an added bonus, mini-golf requires no sitting whatsoever.)

Here’s hoping these first few days of warmer weather have been kind to you. Because over at my house, Spring Break is reminding me that I’m no spring chicken.

gwen headshot 2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Empty Nexter: How to plan your funeral in three easy steps

carrie and dad

Carrie and her brother, Kevin, with their dad, Wayne Simpson, on a family vacation in Maine, 2009.

By Carrie Perrien Smith

I got the call from Mom at 4:10 on the afternoon of Saturday, February 21. It was punctuated with “I don’t know what I will do without your father.”

At age 72, Dad was gone.

I put three changes of clothes, my toiletries, and a few essentials into my duffel bag and headed to Sapulpa, OK, where I grew up. The two-hour drive felt like an eternity. But it gave me time to think through all the details I would need to help Mom with over the coming days and weeks.

When I pulled into the driveway of the home I grew up in — just like I’d done thousands of times — suddenly I found myself in unfamiliar territory. My parents raised us to be teachable and independent so we were prepared for a world that would make us street-smart and strong.

A friend told me that we are never really an adult until our father passes away. As I stood on the threshold of my 50th birthday, this was a rite of passage.

But Dad had one more lesson for me. Over the next few days, I learned his three steps for how to plan your funeral.

Step 1: Drop some breadcrumbs.

Dad didn’t leave us many specifics. I had asked several times during our kitchen table conversations about his final wishes. He’d give me a vague answer and change the subject. He told Mom there was a document on his computer that provided some information. My brother and I reviewed it but it provided few details.

He had considered cremation and burial but left it up to us to choose. He did ask that if we cremated him, that we don’t just set them in an urn on a shelf. He wanted his ashes scattered.

He requested a non-religious funeral. When my parents married and left their families’ Nazarene church for an Old Testament faith, it sparked a firestorm of controversy that divided the family for decades. A non-religious memorial gathering would provide neutral ground.

When we looked for a location to host Dad’s memorial, I remembered the new conference center in town. He showed it to me in December. Turns out he showed it to Mom and my brother too.

We realized Dad had again dropped some breadcrumbs. We rented a meeting room there that overlooked the fountain.

It was perfect for a gathering of 25 people. It also gave a view of the snow that fell throughout his memorial.

The second step to planning your funeral? Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Dad had a quirky sense of humor. Frankly, I didn’t always get it. But I laughed because he laughed. He left us with a lot of material. We were a technology family so we had lots of fun photos for the memorial PowerPoint.

There were usually smartphones on our dinner table in later years. I pressed record on mine to record what turned out to be Dad’s last Thanksgiving blessing on the food. We played that at the memorial too.

Dad was in a writer’s club at the library. They had several writing activities but he enjoyed writing haikus the most. You know those three-line Japanese poems? He wrote hundreds of them, most laced with his quirky humor and often scribed on small scraps of paper.

We read some of his haikus at the memorial:

The world’s full of pests,
So please neuter your pets, and
Weird relatives, too.

Cop’s toilet stolen.
They’re working hard on it, but
They have nothing to go on.

And sometimes he was just the voice of reason:

If you leave the house
After dark, aren’t you really,
Leaving after light?

Last summer, Dad performed his rendition of the 1950s hit Splish Splash at the library’s talent review. I videotaped it and put it on YouTube.

It too was injected with a funny moment where he joked about forgetting the words. It made people laugh, but I don’ think he really forgot them. It made people giggle at the memorial too. Watch it here:

Dad was a musician. I remembered him singing a song called Joy to the World by the 1970s rock band, Three Dog Night. I downloaded the karaoke version and passed out lyric sheets at the memorial and we had a sing-along to close it out. It was epic — Joy to the world, all the boys and girls now. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me. (Click here to see the Three Dog Night version)

Dad didn’t take himself too seriously. He would have loved that he made us laugh.

The last step in planning your funeral is to live your passion.

Dad was passionate about the people of Israel. He was a noted author and speaker on Old Testament history. He never earned a college degree but he learned Hebrew, Latin, and German so that he could translate ancient texts and turn them into research tools for the next generation.

I will probably remember most Dad’s passion for music. He had a dance band when I was very young. They wore gold lamé jackets and played big band music — songs like Take the A Train, Sentimental Journey, and Pardon me, boy. Is that the Chattanooga choo choo? They practiced at our house on Monday nights. My closed bedroom door bumped to the beat against the door jam long after my bedtime.

Later, our family moved to a two-story home. Dad’s music room was on the second floor over my bedroom. His dance band days were over but he still wandered upstairs after the demands of the day were behind him and played music late into the night. He always played a haunting melody that Julie Andrews sang in the movie Darling Lilly. … So walk me back home, my darling, tell me dreams really come true. Whistling, whistling, here in the dark with you. (Click here to listen to Julie Andrew’s version)

It’s been over three decades since I left home and it still echoes in the dark chambers of my memory, reminding me to live my passion.

Thanks, Dad, for 50 years of lessons.

My friend left a week later for Israel with a packet of Dad’s ashes to scatter while he’s there. Dad’s last lesson on how to plan your funeral for me is still fresh in my mind, but it will stay with me for the rest of my life:

Drop some bread crumbs.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
And live your passion.

Carrie Perrien Smith-51-Twitter-SquareCarrie Perrien Smith is mama to Darcie and a pack of black dogs (Jazmin, Midgieboy, and Chloe — in pack order), grandma to Robert, wife to world-traveler and Walmart-blue-bleeding Tom, daughter to Wayne and Phyllis, speaker bureau and publishing company owner, Business: Engaged! small business radio show host, community activist, singer in a party band called Paper Jam, and home improvement enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @soarwitheagles or contact her at carrie@soarhigher.com.