You know how Hermione in the Harry Potter books always has her hand up in class? I used to be a little like that when I was younger. I’m pretty sure my high school English teacher found me very irritating because I ALWAYS had something to say. It took a lot of growing up before I realized that I didn’t need to share everything I thought all the time.
Now I’m much more likely to keep my opinions to myself. Too many people are quick to be hurt and I’m not interested in saying my peace at the expense of someone else (at least mostly). I still have lots of opinions – I just keep most of them inside. Before Tom died it wasn’t such a big deal. I didn’t have to really keep them inside. I could share them with him because that was as good as keeping them inside. I could tell him anything and he still loved me, even if he thought my ideas were weird or wrong. And he kept my confidences completely. I still really admire that about him – he was completely loyal to me, even resisting the many opportunities to get a laugh at my expense.
Now, though, I don’t always know what to do with all these thoughts banging around in my head. I find myself sorting through my friends – could I share this with her? What would he think of this? It’s a lot of energy to self censor in this way. It’s probably a good thing, though. The world would be a kinder place if we thought more about what we said before we said it. And we wouldn’t have those awful moments when we realized that what we just said came out ALL WRONG!
I’ve become a stereotype – the single mother of a troubled kid. It’s an uncomfortable role. Every time I’m in a situation where strangers are interacting with me in this capacity I want to say, “wait! You don’t understand… This kid was troubled back when I was married, not widowed, and there were two functioning parents and positive role models.” I feel the need to bring along family members or friends to things like meetings with school officials – just to show that I’m not in this completely alone. The funny thing is, I really haven’t had anyone try to blame my child’s actions on me being single. Everyone has been so willing to see beyond the surface, to take seriously my experiences over his lifetime as his mom. So my uncomfortable feelings are really mostly in my own head.
The older I get the more I realize that we take the easy way out when we look at the surface of things and figure we know the whole story. We love to look at someone’s difficulties and tell ourselves that would never happen to us because we would make better choices. Maybe it makes us feel safer if we think that misfortune only happens to the foolish. But the truth is, there are a lot of people out there like me – what you see on the surface is only a small part of the story. And how much better it is when we look at each other with compassion and a willingness to listen rather than condemn. Every time someone offers me understanding it brings me to tears – in a good way. Not like when that guy was berating my sister for her three year old who was walking over his landscaped rocks while she corralled a five year old and had a baby in a carrier on her arm. That was bad tears and a perfect example of how destructive our surface judgements can be towards the strangers we meet every day.
This past week I took my son to a residential treatment center and left him for what will probably be a least a year away from home. It was a difficult decision to make on so many levels. For eleven years we have worked diligently to get him the professional help that he has needed and to encourage him in all the ways we have known and been taught to become a responsible and happy child and teen. I have learned first hand the power of prayer to help me be patient, to feel love, and to be forgiving. I have had moments of real inspiration on this journey, as well as countless periods of sorrow and despair. Above all, I have learned first hand the truth about personal agency. Despite our best efforts as parents and professionals, the agency of our children is always the deciding factor in whether our children choose to learn the lessons we seek to teach.
In the end, the safety of my family became the deciding factor, along with the realization that I could no longer supervise Andrew adequately nor keep him from involvement with the law. Maybe it is because I have walked this road with Andrew for such a long time, but now that he has been safely delivered, I’m having no regrets or second thoughts. I’m struggling with having hope that he will change, but I’m also feeling relief that I don’t have to watch him every moment he is awake. I’m praying that the people who will be working with him will be able to show Andrew, in a way I never seemed to be able to, that the benefits of joining society are worth the changes and the consequences of refusing are really not what he wants. But whether he accepts it or not, for now, I’m feeling the blessed freedom from the weight of all those worries about who he would hurt next.
Has it been too long since Tom died for me to write a post about how I’m missing him? After all it’s been over a year and I should be moving on, right? It’s not that I cry myself to sleep (because I don’t) or that I don’t find my life (overall) pretty happy (because I do). It’s just there are so many things that I miss about the life we shared.
I grilled steak tonight – Tom had very carefully wrapped up these beautiful fillets and I have been terrified to do anything with them. But they have been in the freezer for over a year and really, any longer and they would be ruined without me doing anything. So I dared to do it. And they turned out beautifully (thank you internet). And they made me miss Tom all the more because he loved to grill and I learned to like steak because he bought it for me and cooked it for me.
I’ve been listening to “Roll the Bones” by Rush the last week or so. There’s a music group I had neither heard of nor would probably ever have listened to on my own before I met Tom. But he was a super fan and one of the first things he did after we started dating was lend me a couple of albums he thought I might like. Who knew that I would enjoy hard rock? Well, to be honest I don’t know if I really like the genre, but I really do like Rush. There’s nothing better than turning an album up loud and attacking housecleaning – and their music has provided the soundtrack to lots of road adventures over the years of our marriage. Pretty much all the bands I listen to are suggestions that Tom made – and while I don’t like everything he liked, I always enjoyed the fun of joining in when he tried something new.
I didn’t know I would like musical theater until I met Tom and realized how much of a passion he had for it. This is a man that traveled to New York City at least twice after his mission to take in Broadway musicals. Our first real date was to see “Big River” at Sundance theater. I read Les Miserables because it was one of his favorite shows and he was so excited about taking me to see it the first year we were married. I loved seeing his enthusiasm when we introduced our kids to the musical a few years ago.
Tom even influenced my reading (which is pretty difficult to do, given the breadth and depth of my reading). Dick Francis and Patrick O’Brian were both authors that he heard about and decided to read and then insisted I had to try. I didn’t often get to share my reading with Tom, because who can keep up with me? and most of what I read held no interest for him. But it was so fun to share our thoughts about Jack and Stephen and where we thought the story would go next and what we liked best.
Tom took me 4 wheel drive exploring – we rode and camped the White Rim Road at Canyonlands when I was four months pregnant. I would never have imagined that kind of adventure before we met. But we traveled all over the state of Utah during our first four years of marriage, exploring dirt roads and driving over summits of mountains and finding ghost towns and seeing the marvels of the state. After we had kids, and moved to Kansas, our exploring days dropped off – our kids really dislike road trips and we got out of the habit in a state where there wasn’t as much to see. Tom had promised that we would take up the hobby again in our “empty nester” years. I feel robbed!
I don’t know if he would say the same about me … did I change his life like he changed mine? But for sure my life has been richer for all the things Tom brought to our relationship. I miss that. I miss him. I miss us together. And I feel lucky, too, that I have such memories and such a husband to miss.
Last weekend I drove out to Utah for the wedding of my niece. It doesn’t really matter that I’ve made this trip so many times in the past, or that even in the past year I’ve made it a half a dozen times. I get in the car and there is all that uninterrupted time to think… and what I end up thinking about is Tom’s death. I planned for this – we listened to music – new and loud – for about five hours straight. But then cell service finally went away and I had to pull out the personal music – and then the memories started flooding in. Every song reminded me of a time with Tom, and underneath that the thought of that day when I was doing the very same thing, not realizing that my life as I knew it was coming to an end and there was nothing I could do to stop that. And above that the thought that I was heading back into the past – to the years when we lived in Utah, when we were students and newly married and new parents – and all the memories we had made there. Does it go without saying that I did some crying??
Haley and I stayed with my sister and her family. They recently moved to a new home in Provo and it was fun to see their new place – and of course, it was a lot of fun to play with her kids. Their oldest gave up her room for us, and their youngest (about six months now) smiled on demand whenever we looked at him. And the two middle kids kept us entertained with their antics. We got to spend some time with Spencer and Kayla, which was so nice. I’m glad that Spencer is an independent, functioning adult, but that also means that I have to do without him. It’s the bittersweet part of being a mom – if you do your job reasonably well, your kids move on just when they are the most enjoyable!!
Liz and Francisco got married in the Salt Lake Temple – the same place Tom and I were married. The circumstances couldn’t be more different, however. This weekend the weather was warm, even hot. There were so many newly married couples jostling for prime photo opportunities on the temple grounds. Tom and I got married on a very cold December afternoon. There was so little light when we came out, that we only have a handful of pictures and I can still remember how frigidly cold it was. I was very excited for Liz – she has waited a long time to be married. Being with all of Tom’s brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews was wonderful and familiar. And then I was walking up the stairs and into a room that could have been the same room I was married in and suddenly I was overcome.
I’m very grateful for my sister-in-law, Joanna, because she stayed right with me, handing me tissues, a comforting hand on my shoulder, waiting while I pulled myself together. I kept thinking how much I wanted Tom to be there with me – how much he hoped that Liz would find someone to marry and how happy he surely was. Traditionally the man who performs the ceremony speaks words of counsel or instruction before the ceremony itself. In his instruction, the sealer spoke of witnesses – both the people here on earth and the angels who witness the promises made between bride and groom to each other and God. He gave as his opinion that probably the angels are members of our family who are watching and rejoicing with us from heaven. While I haven’t felt Tom’s presence since his death, I did feel that these words were a tender mercy from my Heavenly Father, reminding me that though I might not feel him around me, Tom is close by, still watching out for us as the father of our family and my partner.
So what’s the take away from this weekend? Well, I don’t think I will ever completely get away from finding myself in situations where my emotions overcome me. I’m not sure I even want to get to that place. My life married to Tom is a huge part of who I am today. While there is pain in realizing that this part of my life is over, there is also a lot of joy in remembering just how much good there was in it and how much good there still is because we shared our life together. And there is the ear infection … because, yeah, I’ve got one of those too…
When I was younger and had what I considered to be a trial, I would often find myself thinking, “I guess the Lord is trying to teach me a lesson.” Then, when I had another challenge that seemed to be working on the same issue, I’d think, “I thought I learned how to do that – I guess not, since it looks like I’m still trying to learn it.” I have to admit that this made me feel discouraged – and influenced how I felt about my Heavenly Father. Somehow I felt like I was disappointing Him because I kept having to have the same lesson over and over.
Patience is one of those big “lesson” topics I felt like I kept having. This morning as I was reading the Ensign (the official magazine for adults published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), there was an article on patience. In the article there were a couple of quotes by Elder Neal A. Maxwell (late apostle of the Church) that caught my attention. The first is, “Patience is not indifference. Actually it means caring very much but being willing, nevertheless to submit to the Lord.” The second is, “Patience is a willingness, in a sense, to watch the unfolding purposes of God with a sense of wonder and awe, rather than pacing up and down within the cell of our circumstance” (love that image!)
In the last few years, I have stopped feeling like the Lord is sending me lessons because I’m not “getting it”. When Tom was out of work the first time, it seemed to go on forever and I got pretty good at not stressing about it. Then, when we adopted Andrew and Haley and began the challenge of parenting a child who had significant needs, I looked back on our months of economic difficulty as perfect training for our current experiences. I was grateful for the patterns of behavior Tom and I had established of being supportive and trusting in the face of major stressors. We needed that strength ten times over. God wasn’t teaching me lessons for the sake of it – He had been preparing me to be more successful in the thing that I wanted – to add to our family through adoption.
As a girl, I had this idea of what my life would be like – and that dream, if you will, grew more detailed and specific as I became older and was more aware of my hopes and desires. Those plans are important, I think. They give us hope and help us to understand ourselves and our motivations. But I have learned that what I can plan and hope for myself is often short sighted and doesn’t always get me closer to my ultimate goal of becoming like my Father in Heaven. I want to be happy right now. I want everything to work out the way I want it to. I want only the challenges that I think I can handle, not the ones I know I can’t – that force me to rely on God.
CS Lewis said it better than I can when he wrote a parable he got from George MacDonald. “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” “Counting the Cost,” Mere Christianity.
A “lesson” on patience is really only one facet of the thing that every Christian is attempting to learn – the ability to submit ourselves fully to the will of God. And it really isn’t a lesson in the sense that we learn the material and then we take the test and then we are done. In fact, what we are practicing, over and over, is who we are trying to be. Not a part-time follower, who does what God wants in some places and times and then gets to spend the rest of his time pursuing his own agendas, but rather a whole new man, born again into a new life, willing to put that life into God’s hands. In Elder Maxwell’s words, “to watch the unfolding purposes of God with a sense of wonder and awe.”
The challenges we face in life change over time – we are tested again and again. We get to see just who we are and how well we live what we profess to be – and that is a blessing, because we get to see times when we are triumphant (and isn’t that a great feeling) and we get to see times when we fail and recognize that there is work to be done on our character. When I was the parent of one child, who was securely attached to Tom and me, I thought I was a pretty good parent. It was only when I was challenged to parent a child who mistrusted in a fundamental way, that I began to really develop qualities of unconditional love and forgiveness and humility. It’s not an easy path – there are lots of tears along the way – but I like the idea of becoming a “palace” where “He intends to come and live…Himself.”
To wear a ring or not … I never supposed it would be such a topic of discussion and thought. Before Tom died I was firmly on the side of remarriage. I think life can be long and lonely and if you have the chance to remarry, that’s a good thing. But I didn’t count on the feelings that come with losing a companion of so many years. I belong to a Widow/Widower group on Facebook, which sometimes offers comfort in the fact that I’m understood in a way that few can, but more often makes me feel like I’m in a foreign land and I really don’t want to stay! I guess the topic of when to take off a wedding ring is a popular one. I’ve hardly worn my engagement ring through most of my marriage, but always either my wedding band or another similar band on my left hand. For six months after Tom died I wore his ring on my index finger. Then one day I took it off and I didn’t feel the need to put it back on. But it’s proving harder to let go of that band on my ring finger. Somehow I just don’t want to give up my status as Tom’s wife … and yet, at the same time, I don’t necessarily want to spend the rest of my life alone. They are contradictory things in my mind right now and I’m not feeling very patient about waiting for them to naturally reconcile.
A few years ago Tom made me a “mix tape” compilation of songs for Valentines’ day and included personalized liner notes. I listened to the first disc and read the notes pretty soon after he died, but have never listened to the other disc and finished reading the notes – not really sure why… maybe saving them up? Anyway, I read through them today. I didn’t listen to the music because I’m pretty sure that would have brought on the tears, but some of the things he said feel so applicable to me today. Under Dido’s “Thank You” he writes “being with you is the best day of my life” – swoon! Bernstein & Sondheim’s “One Hand, One Heart” got this commentary, “how grateful I am that our lives became one in this life and into the beyond”, and Billy Joel’s “You’re My Home” got a “Amen, brother Joel”! I’ve wondered and wondered what exactly he is up to in the heavens while I’m moving forward down here. I wonder if he still misses me like I miss him. But reading those words I was reassured that as much as he loved and cared for me throughout our marriage, he hasn’t changed. He’s doing the same for us now, even if I can’t feel it. I needed that today.
Maybe it’s because I know what a good marriage can be that I want to do it again. I want someone to care for and to be cared for by. I want someone I can share those bits of news that no one else really cares about. I want someone to share my bed and my kitchen and all my home improvement plans. I’ll be disappointed if this was my one go-around and now it’s done. But at the same time, if I could, I’d have Tom back in a heartbeat … and while I have no idea what our reunion in the heavens will be like, it’s the secret dream of my heart.
And on that note, romance has landed smack dab in the middle of my family. Spencer, number one son, has found the girl of his dreams in one Miss Kayla Bixler. They’ve made it official and got engaged last week. I’m so happy for them both – glad that they have found each other and excited to see them as they begin to build a family of their own. And I’m secretly glad that Tom got to know Kayla a little – and that she got to know Tom a little before he died. It makes me feel like she is somehow more part of the family because she knows first hand about his BBQ expertise and his humor and because she shared our sorrow last fall.
It goes without saying that Haley is having kittens about a new sister!!
We also had a new baby born into the extended Cottle clan. Introducing Emilia Catalina Cottle…
darling daughter of Alex & Cynthia Cottle and little sister of Alex & Benny…
Life is good …
I’m not generally big on commemorating events. We celebrate major holidays and birthdays and our wedding day, but everything else … I guess I just haven’t ever been really big on that. I haven’t counted the days since Tom died. I don’t find myself thinking ” it’s been six months”. But today I can’t help remembering that a year ago I was sitting in a hospital waiting room waiting to hear if my husband’s bypass surgery was successful. I was alone and I wouldn’t let myself consider any outcome other than a good one because I couldn’t imagine getting the news that he had died without anyone there to support me.
Last summer was the kind of summer that made me think that I’d have to pick a new favorite season. Andrew was in major trouble for theft and was grounded, which meant that I got no breaks at all from him. And then Tom had surgery and spent the rest of the summer recovering from that. We missed the family reunion and the trip we had planned with Tom’s brother and family. We just sat in our bedroom and watched “Veronica Mars” and started to make a few feeble plans as Tom began to feel better.
This summer there have been no hospitals. This whole year there have been no medical supplies of any kind in our home. It’s weird. This summer my parents invited Andrew to stay with them, so I have had a good long stretch where I could relax that part of me that is constantly aware of what he is doing. This summer I have enjoyed the warm days and the rain and getting together with my brothers and their families. I have done a few projects around the house and spent a lot of time reading and writing and doing family history research (which is surprisingly addictive). It’s been a good summer by any standard and certainly by comparison to last summer.
I’m approaching the milestone year since Tom died. I’m not sure what to expect but I don’t imagine I will be able to treat it as any other day. It’s been a hard, lonely year. But it has also been a year of grace and love and faith and growth. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about summer this year but surprisingly it has been a season of peace. So I hope that as I look forward to another year without Tom, I will be surprised by good.
I was recently invited to be a seminary teacher this coming school year (seminary is a 5 day a week, early morning class for the youth of my church where they study a book of scripture over the course of the year.) I like to imagine that conversation…
“Who do we know who can do this job? Let’s see – there’s Johanna Wood – she’s a recent widow, mother of three – including one special needs child – perfect! Let’s call her!”
Seriously though, it reminds me of the scripture “the Lord looketh upon the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). I certainly don’t make a lot of sense on paper, but I’m pretty sure Heavenly Father knows what He is doing, at least in terms of helping me. Already, as I have begun preparing for this admittedly huge responsibility, I have found my sense of direction returning. I look back over the last couple of months and it seems like I was floundering – not really sure what to do with myself or where to put my energy. This feels like a life preserver tossed out to pull me to safety.
As a missionary, I discovered I really like teaching others about the gospel of Jesus Christ – I like the process of discovering together, of sharing experiences of living gospel principles, of feeling the Holy Spirit witness of the truths we are learning. So, I’m looking forward to this assignment, though teaching teenagers is intimidating! Another challenge is the fact that we are studying the Old Testament this coming year. I’ve been to a couple of teacher training meetings so far and we’ve learned some great approaches to learning and applying gospel truths. I’m excited to put them into practice and see how it goes.
As I left this morning and thought about how my emotional health is doing, I was overcome with gratitude for a loving Father who could see what I needed right now and who inspired those leaders to consider me for this opportunity. I hope that I will be able to help my students catch a vision of all that the scriptures have to offer in their journey towards conversion, but I already know that my conversion has been strengthened by seeing the hand of the Lord in my life.
Eleven years ago Tom and I were anxiously waiting to hear about a brother and sister that needed a new home. We were hoping ours would be the best fit for them. In July we got the happy news that our family of three was about to become a family of five. We knew there would be challenges, but we were excited about having two more children to love and teach and enjoy. In August our kiddos, Andrew and Haley, came home for good.
The first year was a roller coaster. There were so many appointments – social worker visits, speech & occupational therapy appointments, play therapy appointments, evaluation appointments … the list seemed endless! And this was on top of adjusting to having two toddlers in the house. Every time I turned around it seemed there was another “crisis” – finding Andrew sitting on the washer pouring soap down between the washer and dryer, chasing the two of them down the street when they decided to “have an adventure”, discovering all the holes in Spencer’s p.j.s because Andrew was exploring the joys of scissors … It was what I imagined having twins might be like – what one didn’t think of the other one would.
I thought if I could just get through the first year, things would get better. The adoption would be final and there wouldn’t be any more social worker visits. Andrew would be in school and some of his therapy appointments would be ending. We could start to establish a more normal family life. It was a pipe dream, though I would take a couple more years to accept that.
You know that bumper sticker that reads, “Insanity is hereditary – you get it from your kids?” The reason it is funny is because there is a little bit of truth in it. In my case there was a lot of truth. We didn’t know it at the time (and wouldn’t for another four years or so) but Andrew was struggling with mental illness and development delays – and I was fighting serious depression as I kept running into dead ends in my attempts to manage the chaos in our home.
Eleven years later Andrew has had his fair share of evaluations, interventions, medications, and behavior modification plans. He wends his way through his life, merrily pursuing whatever comes into his head with little thought for the consequences of his actions to himself or others. He relies heavily on others around him to create and maintain boundaries that keep him and others safe. His ability to regulate his own impulses is limited. Think of a toddler – but put him in a teenage body. Exhausting!
After a very long school year on my own, I gratefully accepted my parents’ offer to have Andrew come spend the summer with them. He’s been with them about two weeks now. I’m not sure I can adequately express the relief that I have felt to have a break. I don’t have to be constantly aware of where Andrew is and what he is doing. I don’t have to lock all the doors to keep him from taking things. I don’t have to protect Haley constantly from his hassling. I feel like a normal mom for the first time in forever. I can go shopping with Haley and it is actually a pleasant experience. We have normal conversations where we just enjoy talking and no one is trying to convince me that black is white (metaphorically speaking – at least most of the time!) It is wonderfully freeing. I feel so very appreciative that I have parents who are willing and able to do this for me. It is an amazing gift.
But in the midst of this rest stop – this laying aside the burden for a moment – I have to acknowledge the positives of this journey. I have gained such a reserve of empathy for all those who are shouldering heavy loads. I hope that I’m slower to judge and quicker to assume there is more to the story than the mother who is just impatient with her tantruming child. I hope I’m a better listener instead of trying to “fix” other people’s problems. I also believe I am learning about unconditional love. It’s hard to love those who hurt us. I’ve had to learn to forgive my child over and over and over. I’m learning to find positives in the midst of all the negatives. I’ve also learned how important it is to love babies and care for them consistently so that they learn to trust. When children don’t learn this basic life skill, it impacts their whole life. Parents raising children who trust them have a completely different experience than parents struggling to help a child learn this skill later in life. I’ve done both and realize that most parenting advice assumes this basic ability by children. Without it, parenting is a whole different ballgame. Above all, I have come to realize how patient God is with us – and how demanding it is to be patient!! Like just about everything hard in my life, I wouldn’t have chosen to be the mom of a challenging child. But how lucky I am that I’m not in charge. Because I wouldn’t be the person I am without the life I have lived, and while I would be content to be a small cottage, I’m pretty sure the mansion God is building will be a beautiful thing (see CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity where he talks about a “living house”).