Tough Love–My Messy Beautiful

In the dark, a child’s cry stirs the most primal of instincts, even reaching into the deepest sleep.  It pulls me from vivid dreams of suturing bloodless wounds long ago in PA school.  Half-asleep, my hands still fluttering through the muscle-memory of years gone by, I hurry down the moonlit hallway to the sounds of my littlest one crying.  His big brown eyes are wide, staring sightless at invisible monsters.  I gather him to me, his limbs shaking with fright, kiss his tousled head, and murmur wordless, susurrant sounds of comfort.  Lately, these episodes occur more frequently, and some nights I startle awake from the feeling of someone standing close to the bed.  In the soft light, his tear-streaked face is all I need to see before I open the covers, and enfold him into safe harbor.

My husband and I have very different approaches to these nights.  Having experienced these night terrors as a child, he knew instantly what to do when our son started screaming in the night.   He strode into the room where I was holding him trembling at the tender age of 2, flipped on the light, and spoke loudly to him in a firm, though kind voice.  “Wake up, buddy. It’s just a dream.” Roughly stroking his arms and legs, his goal was to awaken him, telling me that once he was awake, he would not slip back into the grip of whatever made him shake and cry in the middle of the night.  Strangely, it worked every time, and he would sleep soundly the rest of the night.  If my little ones do creep into our bed at night though, Daddy is sure to make sure they go back to their own bed in short order.

In a family where children went from sleeping with their parents, to sleeping with grandma, and then to sleeping in a room with other siblings, this approach is antithetical to what I feel no matter how much better we all sleep in our own beds.  Because of my husband’s schedule, on the nights it is just me, I never end up sending my little guy back to his own bed, partly because neither he nor I end up waking up again until the alarm clock drags us both from the depths of sleep, and partly because I know he is my last child.  For those women who have not yet made this decision, I envy you the possibilities of dreaming of what your next child might look like.  Though I know that having another child would likely be impossible given my health and situation, it was not a door I closed lightly.

My little guy is an only son.  I wanted him to have a brother.  His sisters have one another to commiserate with someday, as my sister and I do.  My husband and his brother are very close, and I imagined the two little boys getting into mischief together, having adventures and coming home covered in dirt. He is all boy, and does all of these things on his own and with his sisters, but he is also quick to ask me if I’m all right when he sees my furrowed brow or hears tears in my voice.  Like me, he cries when he is angry. He is still in the cuddly stage, asking me still to carry him up to bed.  Last night, because he is on spring break I let him stay up after prayers to read.  Then I heard, “Mama! Mama, come here, please!”  Leaving my book, I hurried down the hall, then stepped gingerly through the minefield of Lego blocks littering his floor.  “Come here.  No, closer,” he said.  As I neared his bed, he reached out and hugged me.  “I just needed some more love that’s all.  You can go now,” he sighed as he snuggled into his pillow.  I laughed, and headed back to my bed, and marveled at the openness of his heart.

I pray for him, and my daughters as they make their way in this world of men.  I know that this sensitivity that is in all of my children makes them more of a target in a country where strength and power are valued.  My husband who moves easily in and through the world of men doesn’t tell them not to cry or to toughen up, but doesn’t seem to worry for them as I do.  He has the confidence in their ability to navigate in this world, and to adjust to what may come that I have never learned to acquire.  Though we are both confronted with acts of senseless cruelty and heartlessness in our work, he has somehow managed to overcome the fears that haunt my sleep.  Though our daughters have never been conformists to the norm (whatever that may be), he seems to challenge the world to accept them on their own terms so long as they can do what he taught them to do.  He taught our oldest daughter how to change her own tires and maintain her car, and expects her to try to solve problems before coming to him, though he is always available to give advice.  Living on her own now, she fixed her clothes dryer by looking it up on YouTube, mentioning it in passing to me, the mechanically inept one in the family, as if it were no big deal.  “That’s my girl,” he crowed when I told him.

He calls it tough love, and for those of you with children, you know there is no other kind.  Why is it so difficult for me then, this tough love?  I want to shield my children from all that is horrible and unkind in this messy, beautiful world.  Perhaps it is because when I look at them, instead of seeing them as they are, I remember the sweet smell of their baby heads as I held them in the night.

Wise baby

I want them never to be hurt, despite knowing that learning how to walk tall also means learning how to fall and stand back up.  I hope they know that their daddy and I will always be a safe harbor for them. I want them to live with open hands and hearts to all that is good, knowing full well that living like this is tantamount to a body walking around without skin, defenseless and exposed, and no amount of suturing will banish the scars that will remain. And yet, I know the rewards to being open to joy are immense. And so, I raise my sensitive little boy and tough little girls to be lovers and leaders, and their daddy teaches them how to fix things, and we hope this tough love will be enough.

Today I am thankful for my three messy, beautiful children; I’m grateful for a partner who helps me to balance my fear and over-protectiveness with laughter and practicality, and I’m thankful to be part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project.


This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn more about the book about this project, CLICK HERE!

Don’t Dig up the . . .Lilacs

I tell everyone that once I got married, I realized how different men and women truly are, but I didn’t realize until I had a son, that men are born different.    Many years ago,  a good friend shared with me a book about how a couple’s love language can affect their marriage.  I, mistakenly, apparently, thought that my husband and I shared the same love language.  I mean, I speak English and he speaks English, and we love each other, which is a whole lot easier than couples like my parents whose shared language is not their native tongue.  Or so I thought.  In fact, perhaps because we assume we know what the other is talking about because there are no obvious language barriers, it sets us up for miscommunication.

So we sat down and took this quiz about love languages that my girlfriend had shared with me, and I fully expected us to be at least somewhat compatible.  Not true at all it turns out. My primary love language is gift-giving.  It gives me great joy to give gifts to others.  My happiness and anticipation in giving a gift is almost as good for me as I hope it is for the recipient of my carefully selected gifts.  My husband’s primary love language on the other hand is service.  He likes to do things for other people, and shows his love for others by doing.  Now this quiz not only identified primary love languages, but also laid out in descending order of importance the other love languages.  At the bottom of mine was service.  At the bottom of his was gift-giving.  So we were, in fact, complete opposites.

All of this is leading up to a conversation we had recently about the Valentine’s Day present he had bought for me.   As always, I am inherently practical, and so even though I love receiving flowers, in the back of my mind, a little part of me thinks about how they will be dead in a few days.  So this Valentine’s Day, my husband really nailed it.  He not only bought me my favorite flowers, he went one better and bought me 2 lilac bushes, live ones that needed to be planted in the ground. I was pretty impressed considering our past history of gift exchanges (remember, his lowest rated love language is gift-giving).

And so, I set them down by the back door.  And there they sat.  So last week, we had the same conversation we had been having for a month.  “So what about those lilac bushes?  Where do you want to put them?” my husband asked.  “Right across from the patio doors so we can see them when we are sitting at the dinner table,” I replied again.  But here the conversation took a little turn.  “So when are you going to plant them? They’re going to die if you don’t get them into the ground,” he said.  I turned to look at him quizzically.  “When am I going to plant them?”

“Yes, when are you going to plant them?”

“I thought you were asking me where I wanted you to put them, ” I said.

“Me?  They’re yours.  I gave them to you, and they’ve just been sitting there.” he said.

“Yes, you gave them to me and then kept asking me where I wanted them, and then you never planted them.  I thought it was because you’ve been so busy.” I said.

You see, in my family, when you give someone something that needs to be planted, you plant it for them.  That is part of the gift.  That is not, however, how it works in his mind.

“No, I’ve been asking you for weeks where you are going to put them,” he said, shaking his head.

That is not at all what I heard when he asked me the question.  And my response told him I knew where I wanted them, so he could not understand why I didn’t get on with it and put them in the ground already.  Is it any wonder that we can’t get the world to agree on anything when we can have such clear miscommunication within our own households?

And so we had an impassioned discussion, involving much hand-gesticulating, exasperated chuckles, and poll-taking of others in which we discovered this key difference between us which we had never known.

So, what ended up happening?  My loving, service-oriented husband accepted his wife’s viewpoint as strange, but agreed to plant them with me, and has probably vowed never to buy me anything that needs planting again.  🙂

Today I am thankful for a marriage that can still surprise me even after all these years.  I’m grateful that I have a partner who is willing to sit down and hash out in a non-judgmental way all the issues that can come up between two very different people, and I’m thankful to have my very own lilac bushes in this high desert place that we now call home.

Here is a link to the quiz for the 5 love languages established by Dr. Gary Chapman:







I must, I must. . .

Yesterday, one of my patients tried to look down my shirt as I was examining him. As he was in his 80s and pretty harmless, I didn’t make a big deal out of it, vacillating in my head between being disgusted, flattered, and amused all at the same time. Obviously, I try to dress in a way that would not make it easy for any of my patients to do, but as a woman, it’s an occupational hazard having breasts, no matter what size they are apparently or what kind of work you do.

I think all women have complicated, convoluted relationships with their breasts. Now most men might agree that all relationships with women are complicated and convoluted, and in this particular case, I think I’d have to agree with them. This is a relationship which predates most marriages (and for some outlasts their marriages), so it is one with a long history. As our feelings for our partner may change over time, I think it is true for women and their breasts as well. From wanting so badly to get your first bra and doing exercises to help them get here faster, to being unable to wait until you even get upstairs before taking your bra off when you get home from work, the gamut of emotions associated with developing breasts, having them, possibly breast-feeding, and for some women, losing them, is wide-ranging.

In my family, it is even more complicated than most. With a family history of breast cancer, I started having to get mammograms earlier than most women (yep, just as not-fun as you would think). As a physician assistant, I have access to all the studies and breast cancer data I care to read about, and have seen a mastectomy and biopsy from the operating room perspective. Though I am a person who would prefer to have the data versus not having it, some images stick in your mind,  and though I am a better PA for having seen it, I don’t know that I am a better patient.

When my mother asked my sister and me if we would mind if she underwent genetic testing regarding BRCA1 and BRCA2, my immediate response was “Of course not!” (more data for this brain=yes). I know for others this discussion might have gone a lot differently. I had the same conversation with my oldest daughter, who at the time was the only one old enough to understand the ramifications of getting these results, and luckily she was in agreement. Because of the odd way my brain is wired, images of Amazonian warriors who removed one breast in order to be better fighters flitted through my mind the night before we received the results. I imagined what I would do.  Could I be one of those Amazonian warriors? We were relieved to find out that my mother does not carry the BRCA1 or BRCA 2 genes.

Like in one of those late night commercials (But wait, there’s more!), what I hadn’t anticipated when we all sat down with the results was that the genetic counselor had calculated my risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, I know, that in medicine, there are no absolutes, and everything is based on percentages and previous studies, etc., etc., but when someone gives you a number in black and white, it rattles your cage a bit.

About 1 in 8 (12%) women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society’s website. When I first heard that number, it seemed ridiculously high. The number the genetic counselor gave me was about 3x that number. Though I am usually pretty good with numbers (I still remember my first college apartment phone number), my brain somehow refuses to let me remember this number. I have to look it up every time, as if my brain looks at it and just says, “Nope, won’t accept that.” I know that she went through a whole explanation of how she arrived at that number given our family history, but in that moment, I was not a physician assistant. I was just like any other woman, hearing something that I did not want to hear, and her voice started sounding like the teacher from Charlie Brown’s voice.

So, it’s complicated, like the Facebook status. I love being a woman. I love everything that having breasts has given me. From a purely biological and anatomical perspective, they have been pretty darn useful, having allowed me to nurse 3 babies (though don’t ever let anyone tell you that breastfeeding is easy for everyone). Would I cut them off to save my life so I can live to be 100 and torment my great-great grandchildren? Absolutely. Do I want to have to be faced with that choice? Definitely not. There are harder things in life, and many, many people have been faced with much worse choices, but this is what the reality of modern technology has made possible for all of us. This ambiguity of risk calculators is almost worse.  We can know and agonize ahead of time about what may come to pass, or we can do what everyone before us has done without that knowledge, and just carry on. Sufficient unto the day, as the Bible says. Data, or no data, I am just trying to live my life one day at a time, and enjoy the fact that even at 80, someone is still trying to look down my shirt.

Today I am thankful to be a woman, grateful for all the good work genetic counselors do, and am especially thankful for all the breast cancer survivors, especially those warriors in my life fighting the good fight with grace and dignity.

Here is the link for breast cancer statistics. Please check with your primary care provider (and if she’s a PA, give her a hug!) to see when you should be getting your mammograms, and do your monthly self-breast exams! I know there are contradictory statistics regarding both, but I’ve also known women who saved their own lives by doing this, so get educated so you can make an informed decision, please!

And another picture, just to make you laugh (I have no ties to whomever designed this, just think it is pretty funny and hope you will too):

National Poetry Month

I know they say the first day of spring is in March, but really, if you’re from Michigan, you know that spring doesn’t really begin until April, and so for me, I think of the first day of April as the herald that spring is around the corner. Lilac bushes are bursting into bloom all over the place, and I hope you are somewhere you can enjoy their fragrance. I have another story to tell you about lilac bushes, but that will be for another blog post.

April is National Poetry Month or NaPoMo as some people call it, which sounds like a word from another language to me, so very appropriate. I promise only to inflict one of my old poems on you today, in tribute to National Poetry Month, but I would encourage you to read some poetry this month. A poem is often just a snippet of loveliness and beauty that makes you see the world a little differently for a little while. Since my blog is named after a line from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, I’m sure it is no surprise to you that I love poetry. Haiku is one of my favorite forms of poetry, as it embodies a lot of what I love about it: structure (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables), a theme from nature or the natural world, and because of its structure, an emphasis on making every word count. If you are a poet, try a new form, such as an elegy or a sestina. It will stretch your writing muscles to try something different. Even if you’re not a poet, it’s fun to wrestle words into these shapes, and see if they will do your bidding.

My kids love poetry. I started them with the inimitable Shel Silverstein, and they quote funny lines from his books all the time. I wonder when we lose our love of funny-sounding words or lines, and begin to think of poetry as something for aesthetes or someone else. For those of us that love music, I think that love of poetry has just become subversive, hidden in the lines of song lyrics. Poetry itself does not and should not take itself too seriously. How could it, with wonderful words like abecedarian?

I found my favorite new word for today on this great site with definitions and examples of poetic forms: abecedarian, or a form of poem in which the first line or stanza begins with A, the second B, etc.:

And here is the only poem of mine that I have memorized and readily available for human consumption. I hope you like it.


Tiny, perfect stars
Drift over a void of black
A wish falls to earth

And just in case you start to take poetry a little too seriously, here are the poems my little ones were inspired to write with much silliness and giggling, when I told them it was National Poetry Month. Enjoy!

From my little guy (please keep in mind he is only 8, and scatalogical humor still reigns supreme in his mind):

Violets are red,
Roses are blue,
My dog and me ate my sister’s homework,

And from my animal-loving 10 yr old about our sister-dog: “It’s a cinquain! Well, my version of one.” Yep, schooled by an 11-year old.
lazy, silly
dozing, stretching, snoring
laying, sniffing

Today I am thankful for poetry, for Shel Silverstein, and for the start of spring.