Crying with the jellies and celebrating 11 years. For six months my middle son has been begging to go to the aquarium for his birthday. At just five, this was the perfect birthday adventure. So we planned, invited my husband's parents, and decided on a date.

Yesterday we piled in the car and drove the two hours south to Monterrey. Birthday boy was excited, I mean, really excited. I was too, until, we got there.

Like a heavy, humid, thick wall it hit me. The last time we were here was with my own parents. My subconscious new we had come before with them, two years prior, but I didn't expect it to be so tangible. It began as a ridiculous argument with my husband that escalated into a full blown grief attack.

We ascended the stairs to floor two, the family ahead of me, entering the jelly fish exhibit, when I really felt it.

It poured through my veins, slow at first, then pushing as though it were suffocating and grasping for air. Blooming softly under my skin, then with rage.

Grief. Aching. Sadness.

The darkness of the jelly cave was my saving grace, that and my husband and in-laws who were with the kids. I stood there, lifeless, surrounded by the black of the exhibit, and by beautiful orange jellies puffing their way up and around. It was intoxicating in the worst way. Slow and graceful they were, slow and painful were my tears.

I moved out of my trance, bit my tongue with the hopes that I could stop crying, and walked in circles for a moment. Soon, realizing I could no longer control it, I sat. Against a dark stone wall, hidden beneath the Moon Jellies.

I cried, gut-wrenching sobs. Shoulders heaving, blowing my nose into a disposable diaper, for it's all I had at hand.

"WHY NOW!" I found myself panting. "WHY today?!"

But grief isn't polite. It doesn't ask 'hey is now a good time?' or 'do you have an hour or day or week to spare?'. No, it just, happens. It knocks down the door of peace and acceptance and barges in. Messing up your clean floors and insisting it stay for dinner.

Anger began to fill me. I dabbed at my eyes, sure I was a mess by this point, but realizing I should likely find my family. The dim light in the cave led me around the corner where I saw them. Standing just at the glass of the giant aquarium wall. They were laughing and yelling for me to come look. They were so, happy. And I was so, angry.

How dare grief come today. How dare my mom's memory fill me. How dare it do this to me, right now.

The tears came again and I walked out of the darkness into the open. I stood at the balcony for some time looking out over the ocean, unable to control my crying, realizing people were staring and holding my breath as decided I simply didn't care.

I knew I could turn the day around and be present, that's what my mom would have told me to do. But the kids would see my swollen eyes and they would ask. So, I stepped out of myself and in a robotic way, went about the day. I was there but I wasn't. I smiled at them and talked about the sea turtles but I was done. I was ready to go. The walls of Monterrey Bay Aquarium were closing in on me. Every corner, every exhibit, even the bathroom, held visions of her, of my mom.

I saw her lifting Luke up to see the penguins. I saw her taking Danny back to the Touch Pools for the fourth time so I could rest my very pregnant self on a bench. I closed my eyes and heard her say "Let's go to Bubba Gumps!" for lunch, even though eating out was something she never wanted to spend money on.

So as I watched my family, my amazing in-laws, go about the day, making new (and necessary) memories - I just, couldn't. I wanted to allow them to, yes, but I couldn't for myself.

This bled into the rest of the day. It was our 11th anniversary yesterday, Justin and I. His parents took the kids overnight and we had plans to go to dinner. We weren't really speaking however. Me lost in my mom's memory, poor him, lost in not knowing what on earth was going on with me.

It took everything in me to get up and dressed. I felt as though I wore weighted clothes, absolutely pinned down by this heavy, awful feeling. But, I did. I got dressed and we left.

Driving down the freeway my heart raced, knowing I must say something. I pressed the power button on the radio and spoke.

"I'm sorry for today, but I don't want to talk about it.", hoping by not talking about it I could avoid crying again. Mistake. Speaking the words sent the signal through my veins again and I was back at square one. Instead of trying to speak I exploded. Hands safely on the wheel, pressed hard on the wheel, I screamed out.


He simply, softly, said "I know."

photo 5

You see, eleven years ago when we exchanged those vows, in front of everyone we held dear, we didn't know it would come to this. To a drive down highway 4, seated in my mom's car, trying our best to come out of the hardest year of our marriage. We said "I do" with excitement and giggles, and youth and time on our side.

And there we were, driving to dinner, seated beside each other, realizing grief and pain and tragedy,  it all doesn't just go away - and the only way to do this, to have another eleven years and more, is to do it together.

By the time we got to dinner I finally began to feel it lift. Slow and steady, the opposite of how it came on, I was once again free to be. The chains released from my arms and my heart and I smiled, and laughed. Eyes still swollen, face feeling sticky and lacking the makeup I had just put back on, but smiling none the less.

You see, grief does it's thing, and if you're lucky it comes and goes in a few hours or a day. It isn't always this way, and you just have to be in it. Step into it. Hate it and be angry at it and wish it away, but step in. There's just no other way.

I hope to return to the aquarium again some day, to be able to walk into the Jelly Cave free from the lead blanket on my heart, but likely not any time soon. And that's okay. I'm simply thankful for a husband who stands by me and accepts this part of me now. It's just another chapter in our story, after all, and only we get to write the rest of it - just like the jellies, puffing our way upwards, towards the top. We'll be just fine, he and I.


Diagnosis. April 4, 2013

Hey mom.” I answered, hurried as the kids were underfoot. I was trying to get dinner on the table, help with homework, and feed the baby. The line was silent.

Mom? You there?” I asked, a bit irritated with the delay.

I... I have... cancer.” she said in between sobs. The world around me began to spin and I held on to the chair beneath me. As she started to relay the dreaded phone call I felt my gut clench at her words.

Tumor. Cervix. Rare. Treatment. Oncologist. Chemo. Radiation.

I was at a loss for words, I quickly grabbed a piece of chalk and scribbled the words 'Life is precious' on our table. And at that moment, all I wanted was my mom. I wanted her to wrap her arms around my thirty-year-old self and soothe me with her words. To tell me all would be okay, I needn't worry. Sadly, this would be the first of many times, at the end of her life, where she couldn’t do so.

It would be a few days later, that she'd ask me one of the most precious of things, something I think deep down inside she knew would mean more to me than to her. She asked me to photograph her fight.

You’ll document this, right?” she had asked.

My throat constricted. Of course, my passion being photography, specifically of the photo-journalistic nature, I had hoped to do so. It was a personal thing however, a cancer diagnosis, and I never wanted to assume or intrude on this dark and strange time for her.

Of course I will, mom.” I said lightly, not knowing just how hard the images would be to take, how difficult the journey that lay head, what the commitment entailed I was making.

As we were packing up to go that day in early April, my mom looked at Quinn, just 15 months old at the time. Her eyes were glossy and sad.

Quinny, Nana doesn’t know if she’ll get to watch you grow up…

I sprang into action, thinking it the most dramatic, ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. “Mom! Stop it.” and she shrugged, scooping her only granddaughter up in her arms.

Looking back on that day I often wonder if she knew. She said many things that lead me to think perhaps she did. Deep down in her heart, no matter how easy her diagnosis seemed in the beginning. I think she did know, and it broke her to pieces.

- an excerpt from my memior

Yesterday morning I was listening to Go Rest High on That Mountain as I got ready for the day. The words resonate so much with me, it's my mom's song if ever there were one. I felt the weight of this day approaching and emotions were high. Danny called from the other room, "Come look at this sunrise, mom! Come look quick!".

It was gorgeous. Dark pinks and oranges rising over the houses across the street. Instinctively I took a few photos with my phone. After putting one on Instagram I began to notice something in the sky. The shape startled me. It was very different than any of the clouds around it. I zoomed in closer (image on right) and as I did, sobs escaped my throat. Very clearly, just above my house, was the outline of an angel, dark hair and all.

My mom.

Normally I wouldn't believe this if you told me. I don't 'feel' her around and have a hard time grasping Heaven, though I believe 100% that's where she is. But this, this absolutely took my breath away. I cried most of the morning before work and kept going back to the image. It was just exactly what I needed so very much, in this very hard season of life.

One year later. An entire year, since that dreadful call. Stage 1. Easy treatment. Great life expectancy. Promising future. Nothing turned out the way we expected it to, and as I write this precious book of mine - pour endlessly my memories and thoughts and pieces of my mama, I find such comfort in the honor I have that I get to tell her story. I miss her. But I will continue on in the commitment I made.

Go rest high, mama. Love you more.

Abby & the Pow Wow. October 23.

The day before had been terrifying. Our mom underwent a dangerous procedure in hopes of breaking up the clots that filled her lungs, she made it through, but time would tell whether or not TPA was successful. They basically told us it would work, or she would bleed out and wouldn't make it.

More on that day, another time.

Wednesday afternoon the four of us kids crossed the busy street to get lunch. Our mom was heavily sedated to prevent bleeding, and we sort of wandered through the ICU helplessly, so we decided to get some fresh air. After lunch we ended up here, in this little corner near our Healing Tree.

Our hearts were so heavy.

I didn't think that in the end, my mom would be okay. And I felt so urgently that we should talk about it. I just needed to talk about it. Our conversation went places that will forever stay within the walls of our memories. Pieces of that afternoon still haunt me to this day, harsh realities, honest truths, and spoken words we'd never before dare speak aloud.

At one point my brother turned to Abby and then me saying, "If things don't get better..." he paused. "If things don't get better, what happens to Abby?". You see, she still lived at home. This was the first time I stepped out of my own misery to think about my youngest sister. Oh my word, she wouldn't have anywhere to go.

Circumstances with our dad wouldn't allow them to stay at the house, and he wouldn't be able to support her, so as all eyes turned to me I said the first thing that immediately came to mind.

"Well she will move in with us, of course."

We would later refer to that afternoon as our Pow Wow. Little did we know that in five short days we wouldn't have to wonder about what could maybe, possibly, perhaps, happen. Because it happened. Our mom died.

A few weeks later, some amazing friends of ours showed up at my mom's house. Without question, with amazing generosity in their hearts, they packed up that house to bring their belongings here - to my house. That's the day Abby moved in.

I can't begin to understand how that felt for her. She was 19 and planned to move out of course, but not so suddenly. There was no easy transition for her like there had been for the rest of us. Without a doubt, we wanted her to feel at home here and comfortable as she navigated her way into adulthood. But a house bustling with the noise of three young children and a puppy is quite an exchange for being the last kid at home with two parents who worked most of the time.

I can't speak for her, but the grief of a daughter who is 31 and married with a family, isn't the same grief as a daughter who has just begun to leave the teenage years with hopes of finding a deep connecting friendship with her mom. We both grieved of course, we both missed her tremendously, yes. But we entered into grief from two completely different worlds. And so, our journey through grief is going to be so different as well.

Many days we wouldn't see each other, only to connect randomly in the kitchen and sob over our mom's favorite frying pan. Other times we would take turns smelling the red comb she used, in hopes of getting a glimpse of the mom taken too soon from us. Most of the time we went about life, her working two jobs and me struggling through my own.

For five months I did my best to do and say the things I know mom would have done and said. But in the end I'm not our mom. I'm a vessel, and I can only hope it's helped her some. Next week she moves out on her own. I will miss her tremendously! Yet, I'm so incredibly proud of her. She has taken the worst possible hand life dealt her this year, and is stronger for it. I know, without a shadow of a doubt that our mom would be absolutely bursting with pride.

I am.

Looking back to that day, October 23, I think we all knew. We sat in those cold, hard chairs outside Kaiser and talked about the what-ifs. Discussed what would happen and how we would survive. It was an awful meeting of the sibling minds, but I'm so thankful we had it. So thankful for my brother and sisters. So thankful we had one another during those awful weeks.

I think Hope Edelman said it best, 

"A mother's death also means the loss of the consistent, supportive family system that once supplied her with a secure home base, she then has to develop her self-confidence and self-esteem through alternate means. Without a mother or mother-figure to guide her, a daughter also has to piece together a female self-image of her own.”


A Ford Fiesta Birthday.

Yesterday he turned fifty-four. His first birthday apart from my mom, I can't imagine it was easy. I tried hard to remember what she used to do for him on his birthday, likely she'd make a big, fancy steak (his fave), and buy him a new t-shirt.

Instead of re-creating the impossible, I decided to paint for him. Because soon he will have his own place, his first place as a single man, and without a doubt he'll need some art for his walls.

One of my favorite images of my parents is from their wedding day... so very young, so very much in love. Life ahead of them, poor as can be, but completely together, and that's all that mattered. They piled into the back of that minty green, 1979 Ford Fiesta and rode off into their wonderland.  Thirty two years they shared as husband and wife. Not all roses and unicorns. No, no. But they kept their commitment to one another and I admire that very much.

So in the darkest of my heartache, I find art to be the most healing of all. So I do it, and I do it often.

Here's the original image:


Dear last year.

It's safe to say you chewed me up and spit me out. You teased me with goodness and yanked the rug from beneath my feet. The innocence I entered into you with was fiercely taken from me by year's end.

A precious safety and security floated about and I with it. Our routine continued. And then it didn't.

You brought change: a move, our wonderful home, new opportunities. The gift of waking up to my children every 365 days. You brought with you blessings I can't quite seem to list, because in April you began to take my mother.

But, it was an amazing summer. A wonderful blur of gardening and picnics. Of ice cream parties and swimming.

And just as the leaves began to turn, she began to go.

My world was rocked. I lived in constant fear and anxiety. I was a caretaker of the one that cared for me.

When you took her, you took him too, in a different way. 2013, you thrust me into a world where I am parentless. And life will never look the same again.

So as you came to a close, I struggled. Did I want you to go? You most awful year. Or did I want you to stay, because the idea of moving past what you brought me is a very most confusing thought.

In the end, as the sun said goodbye, I decided I had to let you go. Not only did I have no choice but you needed to go. Time to put one foot in front of the other and navigate this new world.

And so, I will.

So long, last year. I'm glad to be done with you.


happy birthday, mama.

Some glad morning when this life is o'er,I'll fly away; To a home on God's celestial shore, I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory I'll fly away; When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away.

December 13 she would have been fifty. Oh my was she ever anxious about this big day, turning the big five-o. I remember many times we talked about how scary it was to hit that big number, and now as we hit it, without her, I can't help but feel so incredibly sad she didn't get to celebrate it here on earth.

The kids asked if we could write her notes and send them to heaven, so that's what we did. Teal balloons would travel from us to her, and I'm so grateful that we were able to make this happen for them, for her.

My amazingly talented friend Brooke came out and photographed the 'party' for us, what a treasure these are. Words can't express how thankful we are that she documented this for us.

Happy birthday, mama. Love you more.

Images by Brooke Beasley Photography.