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.

April 14, 2019

It is strange to be a visitor in your child's life. You spend 17 or 18 years raising them under your roof, and then they go and start a new life, sometimes in a new city, without you.

We have returned from our Philly spring break... and it was fabulous. The weather was nice and we stayed right in center city and walked miles and miles every day, exploring the neighborhoods. Our rental apartment was in the Rittenhouse Square area of Philadelphia. Ironically, Dan and I stayed at the Rittenhouse hotel on the first couple of night of our honeymoon. That was 25 years ago, this September! That's some kismet, I guess.

We shopped and ate and spent time seeing Erin in her school environment. We visited campus and hung out in between her classes. We did the obligatory Target run - what college kid doesn't need their mom and dad to pick up a few things at Target?

And, we got to celebrate Erin turning 18. She's finally an adult :) We took Erin and her 4 best Philly friends out for pasta and laughs. There was plenty of both. They seem like a great group of girls and Erin feels like she's found her tribe. Dan told them all how grateful we are that Erin has people who care for her so close by when we are so far away.

It is strange to not know Erin's friends like I always have. I found myself wanting to soak up as much information as I could from each of them. It's such a momma instinct.

I guess it's just another little step in the process of letting go. I don't get to know everything anymore. I know, I know... I probably didn't know everything in high school, either. But, I could at least fool myself into believing I did!

When Erin was leaving our apartment one night to head back to her dorm, I instinctively said "text me when you're home safe". I mean, when I'm not in Philly, I don't expect her to keep me posted on her comings and goings. But, because I was there, I had to do my mom thing... at least she appeased me with only a small amount of eye rolling.

Truth is, she doesn't need to check in with me. She's her own person with her own life in her own city. And she's happy. School is challenging, but she loves what she's studying. She feels she's in the right place for her. What more could a momma want?

Erin will be home in two months. Because of Drexel's quarter system, she don't finish until mid-June. Then, we'll get her back under our roof for three months. After that, who knows...

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. I find myself wondering what life will be like in the future. For her. For me and Dan. I need to just remember to enjoy the times I get with Erin. Don't rush it or wish it away.

Tomorrow is diagnosis day. Eight years have now passed since the day the music changed for our family. I guess there's no better reminder that nothing is guaranteed, so enjoy what's here and now. Erin, Dan and I are happy and healthy. Life does go on. And life is good.

But, maybe I hold on to Erin just a little too tight because she's going where Shannon never got to go. Every year that goes by, makes that gap between Erin and Shannon grow.

I regret that I didn't get more practice being a mom of adult children. I only get this one shot, so I hope I don't screw it up. Erin, and Shannon, deserve my best.

St. Patrick's Day 2019

Happy St. Patrick's Day from the O'Haras! It's not such a big deal around here anymore, for a couple of reasons. 1 - I don't have any cute kids around anymore that want to dress up in green celebrate being Irish. And, 2 - It's a drinking holiday and I'm the only one around here who drinks.

Shannon did love a good reason to wear something goofy and she was proud of her very Irish name. She was always all in for St. Patrick's Day.

Erin was so little when Shannon got sick. Now that Erin is growing up, I sometimes forget that. I think of Erin as she is now and forget how little she was then. We still deal with the loss of Shannon every day, so it's easy to only think present tense.

When I meet a 10-year-old and see how young they are, it reminds me that Erin had to comprehend so much when she was so little. I wonder all the ways that affected her... I wonder how it will continue to affect her for the rest of her life.

Something reminded us of Shannon the other day, and Dan texted Erin about it. Erin texted back "I've been thinking about Shaner a lot lately". 

Erin is making new friends and developing close relationships quickly, the way you do in college when you live and play in close quarters. She is in charge of her life narrative now, in a way that she couldn't be when she lived here with us in a town where it seemed everyone knew about her dead sister. So, she chooses where and when to share that piece of her, that part of her story. 

And she does choose to share it. Erin asked me to bring a copy of Determined to Matter when we come to visit as she wants to give it to one of her friends. 

We've had a couple of chances to share the book recently. I gave it to a new acquaintance who was interested. Dan gave it to a friend facing a difficult diagnosis. Both responded with heartfelt thanks for sharing our story. 

It all feels so long ago sometimes. Shannon's friends are turning 21 and finishing their junior year of college. We will be watching them graduate, get married, have children, etc. for many years to come.

Erin is in the grind of winter quarter finals this week. Next week she and her new pals are headed for some fun in the sun, staying with Aunt Mary in Florida. A cheap spring break option for the college kids, thanks to having relatives in warm climates. Once she's back at school, then it's our turn to see her.

I'm really looking forward to our trip to see Erin. This has been a long stretch for this mama.  We'll get to celebrate her birthday and treat her and her new found friends to a birthday dinner. Erin will be 18... she's finally going to be an adult!

I wish Shannon was around to see Erin grow up. I know she'd be so proud of her little sister. And I'm sure the reverse would be true, too.

February 17, 2019

We've had a stretch of weather here in Minnesota that makes us wonder why we choose to live here. Mother Nature has alternated between snow events and below freezing temperatures. I know we've got great health care and good schools, but man, couldn't we find that in a more temperate climate? I guess I hold on to the immortal words of Kelly Clarkson, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger...

February does mean longer days and when the sun chooses to come out, it's got some heat to it. February also bring to a close another year of Shannon O'Hara Foundation events. We enjoyed a successful Shannon Cup weekend with the youth hockey teams and then awarded this year's Shannon Memorial scholarships as well. We've now given $45,000 to 22 kids to use for higher education. I have to remind myself that that's why we do what we do. I can get a little grumpy when we're hauling boxes of t-shirts into Graham Arena in sub zero temps, but it's a means to and end. And the end is rewarding. Our supporters have helped us raise a quarter of a million dollars since 2012.

The years can blur together sometimes, and I need to remember to stop and appreciate how long we've been at it and how far we've come.

On the home front, we've adjusted to life without Sunny. Gus is growing up... but the puppy in him needs to come out sometimes and he just can't help it. Don't leave your shoes... or your underwear... unattended.

Erin is now halfway through her freshman year of college, having reached the second half of winter quarter. Drexel's 10 week quarters seem to fly by, packed with exams and papers and a week of finals.   She makes time for some club volleyball, socializing and seems to be managing to do her laundry without my help.

Erin is exploring her new city when she gets a chance. Drexel is just across the Schuykill River from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Erin sent us a text on Friday that she was off for a run. She arrived at the museum and sent Dan and I a picture, saying she was going to run the museum stairs for exercise, doing her best Rocky impersonation ..."Cue the music" she said...

I love that she's happy and that makes our empty nest less sad. She's doing exactly what she's supposed to be doing at this point in life. We raise them to fly...

Erin and her friends have made plans for spring break, which means she won't return to Rochester until June. She really doesn't live here anymore, I guess... I haven't fully admitted that to myself until now. We will get her home this summer, but after that, there are no guarantees.

Since I certainly can't go from January until June without seeing her, Dan and I have made plans to visit Philly together in April. We will spend a few days in the city and be there to celebrate Erin's 18th birthday. Yes, she will finally be an adult!

This momma already feels better now that I have a visit scheduled. 49 days and counting...

Sunny the Wonderdog

Today, we lost a faithful companion. We had to put Sunny down, just short of her 14th birthday. The last 48 hours were a quick decline and loss of function, so it was time.

We FaceTimed Erin so she could say goodbye. Today is one of those days when it's really tough on Erin to be far away. She's got good friends in Philly who are keeping her company tonight.

Sunny joined our family when she was 6 weeks old. We loaded Shannon and Erin in the minivan and went to look at puppies on a farm in Preston, MN. The girls picked her out of the litter and she hid under Shannon's seat in the minivan on the ride home. We told Shannon and Erin they could name the dog, and they decided on Sunshine.

Sunshine helped us raise those girls. The shepherd in her always protecting them and the collie loving snuggles and play. These past few years she's slowed way down, but she was still a sweet dog. When new neighbors moved in several years ago, Sunny made friends with them. She would visit for morning coffee on the deck and the kids would let her in their house for a treat. One day I got a text from the mom... a picture of Sunny lying on their couch watching cartoons with the kids!

Sunny made a couple dozen trips to the cabin with us. While she didn't love to swim, she did it out of duty, circling around the girls in the lake to make sure they were OK. She wouldn't jump of the dock, but she would run to the end, watch the girls jump in, and then run to shore and swim out to check on them.

One time, at my parent's cabin in Wisconsin, Sunny was very nervous about Shannon and Erin and their cousins, Laurynn and Jack, continually jumping off the dock and screaming. Sunny was going to "save" Erin, so attempted to catch her which resulted in a nice dog bite on Erin's side. That's the only time Sunny ever bit anyone... until she met Gus!

We were a two dog family for the last 9 months in the hopes that the puppy could learn from the elder. Gus is now 11 months and hopefully, Sunny trained him in well enough before she left us. Let's just say, I still have my doubts.

In her younger days, Sunny would chase the ball for hours and developed the incredible skill of fitting three tennis balls in her mouth.

Sunny was so present on our journey with Shannon. We walked most days around the reservoir, using the time in nature to process what was going on in our lives.

Sunny traveled wherever we went during Shannon's illness. She came with us to a vacation on the shores of Lake Michigan, riding across the lake on a ferry.

And of course, Sunny road tripped with Grandma and Papa Harkins from MN to Memphis to join us at St. Jude. Shannon didn't want to be without her dog, so my parents drove her and our minivan to us in Memphis. By the time Sunny got there, Shannon was in a wheelchair. I'll never forget Sunny trying to pull Shannon out of the chair to play. Shannon thought it was funny, Sunny pulling on Shannon's shoe and making the wheelchair roll.

In Shannon's last days, Sunny would lay on her hospital bed at Shannon's feet. Shannon could no longer communicate much or move much, but I think Sunny knew what Shannon needed.

And so, the end has come. We've suffered worse losses, of course. But this one hurts a lot right now.

I'm a skeptic, but if there is a heaven, Shannon and Sunny are playing fetch tonight.

7 Years

Today is one of those days we mark on the calendar and know that it will be a struggle. It has been 7 years since Shannon passed away. We were reminiscing about the warm January weather we had 7 years ago, much like we just experienced this weekend here in Rochester. The sky is pink this morning, just like it was on that day in 2012.

Today's anniversary also coincides with sending Erin back to Philadelphia last night. Not great timing for her or for us, but classes start Monday morning, so it was time to get back and get organized for the next quarter.

We had a fabulous three weeks with Erin at home. She spent a bunch of time with me and Dan, saw lots of family and friends and even worked a few shifts to make some money. And, she might have caught up on sleep that she was lacking after finals week! Just what everyone wanted and needed.

Now, she is back in Philly and we are here and life goes on. We don't know when she will be home next, which is crazy. Next summer for sure.

So, we are back to our empty nest and the 6th of January all at once. Damn.

On this day, I don't like the passing of time. Erin is a whole different person now than the one that Shannon knew. Maybe I am, too.

I've been reading a little bit about grief again lately. Just processing, I guess. Still trying to reconcile how life can be good and I can be happy? Because that is how I feel. I like my life and I am happy. Will I always feel just a little bit guilty about that?

I read recently how loss and grief, in the early days, it consumes all of you. But in time, it changes. It's not that the grief goes away or lessens, but if you are fortunate, your world gets bigger around it. So when your world gets bigger, the grief feels smaller. I don't know if that makes sense, but that is how I feel. I know my life wouldn't be this full and meaningful if we hadn't lost Shannon. My relationships are deeper and my purpose is greater as I try to carry on in her memory.

Erin feels it, too. She knows she probably wouldn't be at Drexel studying health sciences if it weren't for losing Shannon. It's hard to have something good that's a result of something so bad. I don't know how else to describe it.

The month of January also brings all of our Shannon O'Hara Foundation events. We've got a couple of girl's hockey nights, the Shannon Cup, and will be going through the process of choosing this year's scholarship winners.

The foundation just had an amazing holiday season fundraiser, with donations totaling more than $20,000. People continue to help us make a difference in Shannon's memory. Every check or online donation warms my heart.

Shannon's words ring in my ear. She wanted to be a positive light. She wanted her life to matter.

If you want to hear Shannon again... or for the first time... here she is: