Sunday Nov. 24, 2019

Team O'Hara is in vacation mode! Dan and I are in Rochester, Erin is in Philly, but tomorrow morning we will meet at O'Hare and catch a flight together to Palm Desert, CA for the Thanksgiving holiday.

This was our tradition during Erin's high school years, but we took a one year hiatus last year since it was Erin's freshman year, her first time living away, and we wanted to spend the time together at home. But, we're glad to be heading west again this year.

This trip is possible because of all the nights Dan spends in places like Flint, MI and Fargo, ND. All those Marriott rewards points add up... and we're going to spend them!

It has been 9 weeks since we took Erin to school. This is the longest we've gone without seeing each other in person. I am grateful for texting, face time and social media to stay connected, but nothing can replace getting to hug her in person. Tomorrow. We'll get a week with her now, send her back to school for 10 days to finish up fall quarter, and then get her home in Rochester for a 3 week winter break. This momma is ready for some Erin time. (Dad is too...)

I have kept myself busy this fall with the first two courses of grad school, working towards a master's degree. After some initial angst about WTF I was doing, I can say that it's been a good challenge. I am using my brain and critical thinking skills in ways that I haven't in a while. The coursework has been relevant to my job and I've been able to use real world examples in my writing. I feel like it's a worthwhile endeavor. I may be one of the oldest people in my program, but I ain't dead yet...

The holidays are here again. It happens every year. The good of family, friends, and celebration, and the pain of memories and loss. My Facebook flashback got me again this week:

This was such a great day. Shannon's Rebel hockey team won the title at the Hopkins hockey tournament. This group of girls had never won a tournament, but on that day, they did. Shannon played her heart out and was beaming from ear to ear, holding that trophy. 

We celebrated all the way home, including a stop at Dairy Queen where Shannon brought the trophy into the restaurant! We were all glowing. Shannon's teammates let her bring the giant trophy home. They all knew she was battling her brain tumor at that time, and symptoms had started to occur again. When we tucked Shannon in that night, we were reveling in the win. Shannon looked at Dan and I and said "It's too bad my first championship came near the end of my life". Gut punch. Two weeks later we went to St. Jude for a clinical trial. Seven weeks later, she was gone. 

So, these are the reminders that this time of year brings. I'm glad for the memories, even the painful ones. I need them so Shannon doesn't fade away. In some ways, I miss her more now, or miss the loss of who she would have been. Erin is an adult, doing adult things like living in an apartment, cooking for herself, and working towards a career. That makes me long to know where Shannon would have gone with her life. 

But, we have survived. We're carrying on, just as Shannon asked us to. Because of her, we all try to make a difference in this sometimes painful world. We're happy, even with the hole in our hearts that will never fully heal. We are who we are now because of who she was then.

"The holiest of holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; the secret anniversaries of the heart." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Sunday October 20, 2019

The days, weeks, months continue to fly by. I guess that's a good thing. It must mean we are busy and engaged in what we are doing. Life is good.

Dan is very busy with work and a couple of other projects, Erin is having a great fall quarter, and I am working my way through my first two classes of my master's degree. We're all doing exactly what we should be doing, I believe.

Erin is loving apartment life. Her roommates are great and the location of her apartment is even more convenient that her dorm was last year. With no cafeteria food plan this year, she is in charge of her own meals and she's been sending me and Dan photos of her creations. The other night it was a chicken breast, green beans and over roasted potatoes. I have to say, when it comes to working in the kitchen, she's way ahead of me. And I don't mean me at age 18, I mean me now at age 50!

I'm sure that she will tire of making her own meals as the year progresses, but for now, she's empowered by her "adulting" as she calls it. Her classes are going well and she even got to touch her first dead body in anatomy lab the other day. Exciting times!

School for me is going well, too, although it's taken some work to get up to speed. I had a bit of a meltdown the first few weeks as I tried to get back to being a student. Doing research and writing papers with APA in text citations and an annotated bibliography?!?! WTF? It has been 30 years since I wrote an academic-type paper and I was a bit out of practice. Dan and Erin supported me... and laughed at me... which was supportive in its own way :)  I will say I've enjoyed thinking and stretching my brain in different ways as I work on the various assignments. It's good to get out of my comfort zone.

I was listening to a favorite artist of ours, Eric Hutchinson, on my walk the other day. Dan and I got to see E Hutch perform in Minneapolis back in August and he's been back in my music rota of late. I had just completed a big assignment and my work was done for the week. I was watching Gus run in his happy puppy way (He's 18 months but still a puppy, trust me) and the song "Best Days" came on in my ear buds:

Give and take, we catch our breaks
We all learn to survive
Oh, but don't look now
I said don't look now
Cause here we are
Living the best days of our lives

It stopped me in my tracks to realize that I was thinking about whether or not I could call these our best days. Do I ever have the right to have a "best day" again? Can I ever say life is as good as its ever been, or was that door closed when Shannon left us?

It is a strange thing to wonder. We all want to say we're working towards our best lives and our best selves. Dan, Erin and I are doing the work to make life as good as it can be. But do we have to accept that it's never "the best" it could be? Can we accept that it's the best it can be considering what we've lost? I think so. I hope so.

And we're not alone. Loss is a part of the human condition and, as time passes, Erin, Dan and I meet more and more people who have their own struggles and their own grief from whatever loss they've experienced. I don't know if it makes grief any less lonely, but it makes me feel more connected to the world. I have my thing, but others have theirs, and we're all doing our best in our own ways. And right now, our best is pretty good.

So, these are the "best days", with a caveat. We're allowed to be happy. Even without Shannon.

Sept. 10, 2019 - 25th Anniversary

Twenty-five years ago, Dan and I said "I do". I was 25, he was 31 and we had no idea what lay ahead. But marriage makes you take it one day at a time, and if you're lucky, you grow together and make a life. We count ourselves as some of the lucky ones.

Twenty-five years covers two houses, three dogs, one cat and three different minivans. The minivans were necessary for carting around the little girls we created. Oh, our girls. Our best accomplishment and our biggest sorrow.

Of course our marriage has been tested. Aren't they all? Dan's battle with alcoholism and his work to get sober made us both better. Shannon's illness and death gave us a choice - throw in the towel or get stronger together. We're still here...

And now, we enter a new phase. Erin heads back to school in 10 days and, at this point, she has no plans to live under our roof again. The empty nest feels like it's truly beginning. Willow Lane will be quieter without Erin, but it is as it should be.

Today we will enjoy the day at Lake Hubert. A place we've visited during each of our 25 years of marriage. A place where we get to remember the good times. A place where Erin said she feels the closest to Shannon.

It's been a big summer for me - turning 50 and now our silver anniversary. I hope there's a lot of life left to live. While we mark these milestones, hopefully, they are just a stepping stones to what's next. We've got places to go, people to see, and things we want to do.

So, Danny, here's to 25 and to 25 more... if I had it to do over, I'd do it all again...

Sunday Aug. 25, 2019

It's been a lovely stretch of weather here in Rochester. A reminder of why we live here... check in with me again in January. Bright, sunny days but cool, crisp mornings and evenings are a reminder that fall is fast approaching.

It's been a quick summer. Erin came home, went right to work and now is one week away from finishing her summer internship at Mayo Clinic as a nursing assistant. It's been a great first job in the healthcare realm. But, she's ready to be done. 11 weeks of full time work have been great for the bank account, but it hasn't left her much downtime.

We did get to take a break from our jobs to attend a family wedding in Lake Tahoe. Nephew Charlie got married at 8,000 feet. I loved everything about the weekend, except the chair ride up to the wedding. I have a teeny tiny fear of heights and I'm also not much of a thrill seeker, so that just about did me in. I enjoyed the gondola ride down much better! But, no complaints about the rest of the weekend.

None of us had been to this part of  the country. What a venue. We are used to lakes here in MN, but a lake surrounded by mountains is an amazing aesthetic. We enjoyed a day on a boat touring the lake, a pig roast and luau at the beach, and of course, the wedding ceremony which was so perfectly suited to Charlie and the newest family member, Ashley. Dan and all 8 his siblings were there along with 17 of the 18 O'Hara cousins. Erin was so happy to be with all the cousins and when she's happy, well, I'm happy.

So, one family vacation is behind us, and one more is ahead. We'll get a few days at Lake Hubert after Labor Day once Erin's summer job is done. All of her friends will be back at school, and she'll be willing to spend some time with us before we take her back to school mid-September.

The reality that Erin is moving back to Philadelphia soon is setting in. The reality that she won't be living at home again, maybe ever, is something I don't like to think about. I know it's the goal - raise your kids to fly. But, it's come to this so quickly, I feel. Erin and I talked about it the other day - it seems like she was just a kid and now she's going to be going to school, paying rent, and looking for a part time job to support her lifestyle with plans to live on her own from here on out.  Some serious adulting is ahead.

But, Erin is excited to get back to school, back with her friends and back to learning more about her chosen field. Anatomy and Microbiology are on the docket this fall, along with stats and a careers in health sciences class. She will take more classes specific to her major this year, which is exciting.

But, she's got a few weeks of summer left, so we won't wish that away. 

Speaking of school... I start my grad school courses tomorrow. Holy shit, what was I thinking? I haven't been a student since May 1991 when I graduated from St. Thomas. But, here I am, 28 years later, ready to give it go. I've got two classes to take this semester to get things started. It's all online, at my own pace, with assignments due each week. If all goes according to plan, I'll have a master's degree in strategic communication by the end of 2021. 

I'm excited, and, a little nervous. Let's hope you can teach an old dog new tricks...

Shannon's 21st Birthday

Shannon would be 21 years old today. She only saw 13. As I get older, 13 seems younger. As I see Erin at 18, I can't help but think about how much older and wiser she now is than Shannon ever got to be. At the time she got sick, Shannon seemed grown up and mature and able to guide us on her cancer journey. She taught us a lot about spirit and grace in her 13 years. But I know now that she only seemed old, because she was my oldest. She was still just a kid.

2019 is a year of milestones: Erin turned 18, I turned 50, Shannon would be 21 and Dan and I are will soon celebrate 25 years of marriage. We have made many memories in the past 8 years that don't include Shannon. Things we have done and seen and experienced in our after... Someday, those memories will outnumber the thirteen years we had with her. You have to keep on living, but I still long to hold tight to the memories of our before and not allow them to fade as time goes on.

I feel for Erin on this journey. What 18 year old wants to go back and remember when they were 10? And yet, year after year, we look back at the photos and talk about the journey. Erin's happy childhood memories will always be mixed up with the emotions of finding out your sister is sick, and taking a back seat while we navigated what Shannon wanted and needed.

As a mother, all you want to do is protect your kids and celebrate them as they grow. I lost one and the other got cheated out of some of her childhood. But, I know I did the best I could at the time. I am so grateful for the relationship I have with Erin. She has navigated her journey from childhood to adulthood with grace and spirit, too. She was just 10 when all hell broke loose. She will deal with those consequences forever. I couldn't protect her from that, and I can't help her decide how it becomes a part of her. But Erin is open and honest with me and Dan and we talk about Shannon when we want to or need to. There's no right way, so we're making it up as we go along...

And so, life goes on. More memories to make, while keeping tight hold on the memories we have. It's important to remember not just that Shannon died, but that she lived. All too brief, but she was here. She is a part of us, a part of our shared memory for me, Dan and Erin. Happy birthday, Shanner...

"Grief I've learned is just love. It's all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go." ~Anonymous

June 29, 2019

Today I turn 50. It's such a milestone birthday, one where women are often fighting our own bodies in so many ways. Menopause is a bitch... just sayin...

So much has happened in my life since I turned 40. The great big, unthinkable sorrow of losing Shannon. The constant worry in the aftermath about whether we'd ever be happy again. (We are.) Finding the equilibrium of a new normal. My own teeny tiny cancer trip with DCIS breast cancer, lumpectomy and radiation.

I have to admit, this wasn't my healthiest decade! This body has given up some breast tissue, three teeth, two ovaries and a uterus, but it still works. I can play tennis, golf and volleyball. I lift weights with other "powerful women". And I laugh. I laugh with each and every group of my friends. My tennis people, my mom squad, the volleyball ladies, my work friends. We all laugh. Sure, we cry when necessary. And we talk a lot. But mostly, we laugh.

I feel so lucky to be surround by women who hope for the best for each other. Life is hard enough. Let's not beat each other down, but lift each other up. That's what the women in my life do for each other, and for that, I am grateful.

My life is full of amazing people. Beautiful souls, powerhouses of determination, love and compassion who show me that 50 (and 60 and 70) can be fabulous. I hope that the 30 and 40 somethings in my life can look to me for that same kind of example.

And so, the big birthday is here. I will celebrate tonight with family and friends. Men and women from each part of my world. How lucky am I to have work friends and tennis friends and mom friends? Each year is a gift. Sure, I'm not as fast or fit as I once was. My skin shows the lines and marks of time. My bones ache more than they used to and hot flashes are no fun. But more good stuff is ahead. So let's get to it.

May 19, 2019

It's a rainy Sunday morning here in Rochester. This spring seems to be coming slowly... I feel like we've yet to have a real stretch of nice, spring weather. But, maybe it's always like this and I'm just getting cranky in my old age!

Last weekend was Mother's Day and I had the added bonus of Erin coming home for the weekend. While I'd like to believe it was all for me, it was actually necessary to get ready for her summer job. She will be working at a nursing assistant at Charter House, the assisted living center that's a part of Mayo Clinic. They have a summer internship that allows students who are studying a medical field to get full time employment - 10 weeks, 40 hours per week. Most physician assistant grad programs require 500 hours of patient contact as a part of their application process, so this is a great way to get close to that goal.

So, the trip home last weekend was to get all the paperwork done - W-4, direct deposit, background check, physical, drug test (she passed :), etc. And it just so happened to be Mother's Day. Perfect.

Erin fit a lot into her three days at home - friends, family, golf - and then we sent her back to finish her last month of school. Drexel is on the quarter system, meaning three quarters of school this year. Erin didn't start until late September, so she doesn't finish until June 14th.

I'll be heading out to Philly one more time this year to help with the move out process. I don't even want to think about what the refrigerator looks like after 6 girls living there for 9 months... We will store much of her stuff out in Philly - no need to bring home winter clothes and school supplies. 

At Drexel, sophomores go to school year round - 4 quarters - so I keep reminding myself I want to really enjoy this summer and having Erin live with us one more time. After this, who knows.

But that's the way it's supposed to be. Kids grow up. They move out and start making their own life somewhere. We can't know what the future holds, so I know I shouldn't waste my time worrying about what's ahead.

The other big news for me is that my job in Public Affairs at Mayo Clinic has become a permanent position. After working as a contractor, I was hired as a limited tenure employee on a three year project back in 2016. That project finished, successfully, and now my position has been operationalized  - corporate speak for a full time gig with no strings attached. 

This is great news, and a big relief as I love my job and I love working for Mayo. And, this permanent status has me considering a new goal - grad school. Maybe it's a mid-life crisis as I approach my 50th birthday next month, but I'm looking into doing an online master's program in communications over the next couple of years. I've always thought about getting an advanced degree, but I guess life got in the way.

I graduated from college a long time ago... 28 years to be exact! I went right to work as a teacher, fell in love, got married and became a mom. When my job teaching television production at the high school level didn’t pay enough to make child care work, Dan and I decided I'd stay home with Shannon and Erin.

All was going according to plan until Shannon was diagnosed. But, in some strange turn of the universe, Shannon has led us each to where we are today. I got my first gig at Mayo as a freelancer thanks to the writing I did here on this blog and in our book. I now get to tell stories of hope and healing and medical breakthroughs thanks to Shannon.

And Erin is off in Philly studying medicine because of Shannon, too. Erin learned to be brave when her life was turned upside down at age 10. She is dreaming a big dream because she knows that life is short and precious and needs to be lived right here, right now.

And Dan is rooting for us both every step of the way. 

So, on we go. Spring is here, summer is coming and the three of us will get to be together again, even if only for a few months. I'm going to enjoy every minute.