Wally: Part 2 (and More Life Stuff)

Wally turned out to be everything his foster Karen said he was and more: an incredibly sweet little guy who loves all people and dogs; calm most of the time, yet super bouncy and energetic when he’s ready to play; remarkably quiet, unless he feels like he’s not getting enough attention; and so loving and loyal to us, his new family.

Karen did a great job potty training Wally, so aside from a handful of accidents in the first few weeks, we successfully skipped that hurdle of new dog ownership. Our only challenge was that Karen had allowed him to sleep in her bed, so he repeatedly tried to join Aaron and me in ours the first few nights, but eventually got the memo and learned to settle into his dog bed in our room.

I figured January would be a slow month after the holidays when I could really focus on getting to know Wally and establishing a new routine with him. I was wrong.

My mom contracted Covid at her memory care facility, and my stepdad and I heard the news from her on the phone before we ever heard anything from the facility. She isn’t the most reliable source, so we were left wondering if she really had it or not until we could get ahold of the head nurse. It turned out she had indeed tested positive during regular testing of the entire facility—and was luckily asymptomatic—but for some reason it took them nearly 24 hours to contact us, her family, and let us know.

That was the cherry on top of a huge pile of grievances we had with that facility, and we decided then and there she needed to move ASAP.

Moving is stressful for anyone, but especially for someone with dementia who needs to be in familiar surroundings to feel secure and grounded. The first time we moved her into memory care, in January 2021, it took her about three months to settle in. That period was extremely stressful for her and for us, with many phone calls and visits that ended in tears on both ends. I was not looking forward to going through that again, but we knew it was for the best.

I chose that initial facility under impossible circumstances, in a pre-vaccine world when we weren’t allowed to go inside most facilities to tour them in person, when I was desperate to give my stepdad some relief from being a 24/7 caregiver, and desperate to help my mom—who had lost an alarming amount of weight and struggled with paranoid delusions at home—in any way I could.

I don’t blame myself for choosing the wrong place, but I did see this new move as a way to right that wrong.

I started from scratch all over again, calling every memory care facility I could find on the Eastside and gathering all the information about availability, pricing, activities and more. I narrowed the options down to six—a mix of assisted living/memory care, dedicated memory care and adult family homes—and scheduled three intensive days of in-person tours and assessments.

The thing about memory care (and I supposed regular assisted living) is that you can’t get the full picture of how much it will cost each month unless you do an assessment with the facility’s nurse, where they ask all sorts of questions to determine the level of care a person will need. The higher the level of care, the higher the cost, on top of the monthly rent for the room itself.

For example, a room in memory care might run $4,000 per month in rent, but care might start at $3,000 per month for a low-needs person and go up from there if they need more assistance dressing, bathing, eating, etc. There’s also a one-time “community fee” due upon move-in that can be $1,500 to $5,500 or more, which really makes it painful to move.

(Is this the first time you’re realizing how much memory care costs? Did you know most families have to pay out-of-pocket? In the Seattle area, $7,000-$10,000+ per month is the norm. Here’s your nudge to make sure your parents have long-term care insurance!)

Because cost was a decision-making factor for us, I scheduled the tours and assessments together so we could walk away from each facility knowing exactly how much it would cost—which was super efficient, but made for three very long and exhausting days. We’d do one tour and assessment in the morning, eat lunch, then do another in the afternoon. Talking with strangers about the specifics of your mom’s terminal illness for an hour twice a day is draining. Touring sad little hallways filled with people who aren’t sure where or who they are is heartbreaking. Trying to decide where your mom is going to live—and quite possibly die—is… I can’t think of the right word, but it fucking sucks.

After the last appointment of each day, I had about a 45-minute drive home by myself when I’d blast loud, happy music and drink in all the lovely sights of the world—puffy clouds, streaks of sunset—and transport myself from the land of the dying back to the land of the living.

And when I got home, there was Wally.

Not to say that I didn’t find comfort in Aaron and Evie, but dogs bring a different sort of joy. They’re invariably, unabashedly, ridiculously thrilled to see you each time you walk in the door. They give amazing, furry snuggles. They don’t ask questions, however well-intended, that might make you cry.

Sweet Wally came right when I needed him most.

The great thing about this journey to find a new place for my mom was that she came with us on all these tours. Last time, my stepdad and I peeked into memory care windows and talked to facility directors without her, worried that she would get confused or freaked out by the process.

This time, she was ready to get the hell out of her old place and was thrilled to see all these new places. She had definite opinions on which places she did and didn’t like, and best of all: the winning place was a clear, unanimous, enthusiastic yes from all three of us.

We chose a dedicated memory care facility, which has three floors that my mom can move about freely, including a secure outdoor garden area she can access at any time. It’s clean and bright and cheerful, with friendly and helpful staff that seem happy to be there. It was the only place that brought me to tears as we toured it; the only place where it felt like she could really live, not just exist, before she dies.

It was such a relief to choose this wonderful new place in early February and give notice to her old facility, making plans to move her in March. And then! Evie got Covid.

It was inevitable, since Covid seemed to rip through her elementary school after the holidays. Luckily, she was fully vaccinated and only had a day or two of mild cold symptoms, and Aaron and I somehow never had symptoms or tested positive. Still, it was another challenge to have her be home and contagious while Aaron and I tried to keep her busy and keep up with our work, plus quarantine ourselves. Walking Wally (while wearing a mask) was my only escape.

In March, my mom’s move went as well as it could go. It took us from very early morning to late evening, but we got her completely moved in and set up in her new space. Unlike last time, when we had to direct people through the window on where to place her furniture, my stepdad, brother and I were able to set up everything just how she liked it. I carefully made her bed and folded her clothes. My brother organized her bookshelves and placed her framed photos just so. It felt amazingly redemptive to do it right this time.

And then I figured life would be good for awhile, having accomplished this herculean task that consumed the first few months of the year.

But remember the three-month settling period I mentioned last time we moved my mom? It was hard this time, too.

Despite the fact that we knew this place was such an improvement from the last one—better food, nicer people, brighter and more beautiful surroundings—my mom still had her complaints. It was after a few of these unhappy phone calls that I realized no place would satisfy because the real problem wasn’t the place; it was the dementia. And there was no place I could move her and nothing I could do to fix that.

I realized this in the midst of a session with my therapist. “All solutions with dementia are imperfect,” she said. I wrote that down because I have to accept that as badly as I want to make things right for my mom, there’s only so much I can do.

As much as I hoped this move would improve things, the satisfaction I got from it was short-lived. I got so caught up in the doing, and didn’t anticipate the rush of sadness that would fill me once the doing was done.

I desperately looked forward to the first day of spring, craving literal sunshine to brighten up life. And wouldn’t you know, we had the gloomiest, rainiest Seattle spring in a decade.

But Wally got me outside three times a day regardless. We walked and walked, rain or (rare and blessed) shine. We went to the off-leash dog park any time it wasn’t too rainy or muddy, and I loved watching him goad bigger dogs into chasing him around in big circles. He kept me moving in a season when I wanted to get back into a regular running routine, but just couldn’t bring myself to endure the rain when I wasn’t training for anything.

It also made such a difference to wake up each morning to his little face peeking up at me from my bedside; to have his constant companionship throughout mundane days working at home; and to have his quiet, loving presence in the room during my biweekly therapy sessions. He’s not an emotional support animal, but he manages to be more than just a dog, too.

Maybe part of it is that Wally has given me the opportunity to save him in ways I can’t save my mom. She had to leave her home; I took Wally into mine. I can derive daily satisfaction from meeting Wally’s needs by feeding, walking and playing with him; but even when I try my best to give my mom a better life—by spending quality time with her, taking her shopping, moving her to a new place—I still feel like I’ve failed her because the inherent cause of her pain remains. All solutions are imperfect.

And Aaron? Despite not wanting to get a dog in the slightest, even he had to admit early on that Wally is a pretty great dog. Over the past six months, I’ve watched Aaron go from cautiously tolerating him to actually liking him to downright loving him. He’ll swear otherwise if you ask, but he has indeed said the L-word, and you can see it plainly in the way he always sprinkles a little rice on the floor for Wally as he cooks, and chases him around the living room, and clearly enjoys it when Wally chooses to snuggle with him instead of me.

Wally brings joy to my stepdad and mom, too. He comes with me and Evie on our visits every weekend, and we take him on walks around the neighborhood and to the park. We toss his squeaky toys down the hall and laugh as he chases and pounces on them. He and Evie bring energy and levity to these visits. Together, they bring my mom firmly back to the land of the living, if only for a little while.

Now it’s summer. The days are brighter, literally and figuratively. It’s hard to remember a time before Wally was part of our family. And I hate to think of a time far in the future when he won’t be, because there will surely be a huge, Wally-shaped hole left behind.

I’ve always been a dog person and now, I think, I’ll always need a dog. I have the love to give, and I need the love they give.

I sure am grateful for his.

Wally: Part 1

Aaron and I had a deal: when Evie turned 18, he could get a motorcycle and I could get a dog.

I’ve been firmly anti-motorcycle since 2010, when I met him in the midst of his recovery from a horrific accident. He was extremely lucky to survive, and still experiences pain and discomfort from the injuries he sustained.

I wasn’t about to lose him to another motorcycle accident—especially once we had Evie. Over the years, he asked dozens of times if he could get a motorcycle, and I always answered that he could once Evie was fully grown.

As for the dog, I figured I’d need to get one when Evie (presumably) moves out so I’d still have someone to take care of. I’ve always been a dog-lover. Aaron… has not.

He had a bad dog experience as a kid and at his former office, which allowed dogs that would apparently whine and bark and annoy him while he was trying to work. He also hates slobbering, shedding, wet-dog smell, etc.

So it seemed like a fair compromise for Aaron to get the thing I hate and for me to get the thing he hates in the distant, hazy future, circa 2034. Yay, marriage!

Then my mom got sick, and I began to rethink everything about how life should and would unfold.

My mom should be planning to retire soon so she can spend time enjoying her hobbies: quilting, gardening and more. It breaks my heart that she’ll never be able to do those things again.

I realized 2034 isn’t guaranteed, and I didn’t want to be the one who held Aaron back from one of his life’s greatest passions because I was afraid.

In October 2020, he bought a motorcycle—a project to take apart and rebuild more than to ride.

In August 2021, he ask if he could get another motorcycle—and I thought, what’s one more?

In December 2021, he asked if he could get a third—and I threatened to get a dog if he went through with it. It was a bluff that I felt sure he wasn’t willing to risk calling.

Well, meet Wally.

I began searching Petfinder for rescue dogs before Christmas. We went to the Humane Society to see some dogs in person (in dog?), and even met up with a 40-pound dog who needed to be re-homed due to the family’s baby developing a dog allergy.

We realized that we couldn’t handle a big dog, but didn’t want a super tiny dog either, so I narrowed our search to dogs between 18-30 pounds. I chatted on the phone with a few rescues and discovered a terrier mix or poodle mix would be ideal to keep shedding to a minimum. I also wanted a young or adult dog, not a puppy; I’ve been catching up on my sleep ever since Evie was born and didn’t love the idea of more sleepless nights. I saved searches on Petfinder for all my criteria and checked for new arrivals several times a day.

After losing out on a few dogs and submitting other applications that went unanswered, on December 29 I searched “terrier mix” in our area and clicked through pages of dogs until I found one named Rocko who’d been on Petfinder for 19 days. He only had a single photo: a closeup of his face with one ear flopped back.

His description said:

Rocko is 1.5 years old and 20lbs. Up to date on vaccines, microchipped and neutered. Good with other dogs, kids and cats. Rescued in Tijuana. Arrives 12/17.

It was very little info and I had no clue what his body looked like, but his coat looked wiry so I figured he wouldn’t shed a ton. Why not submit an application and find out more?

This was my first time applying for a dog through Casa Dog rescue, and I was shocked when they reached out to the friends and family I’d listed as references within hours of submitting my application. I heard from a volunteer later that same day, who answered a few questions and put me in touch with Rocko’s foster, Karen, a kindly woman in her 60s who lived alone. She spoke glowingly of Rocko, telling me how loving and calm and quiet he was. He was potty trained and had been sweet with her five-year-old grandson on Christmas. He sounded perfect.

We had a huge snowstorm right after Christmas, and Karen lived an hour away, but we made plans to meet Rocko once the roads weren’t so icy. It took a week and a half, and I used the time to buy dog supplies and make sure our house was ready in case we took Rocko home with us. I was terrified someone else would swoop in and take him, but Karen and I kept in touch and exchanged photos and videos, and she felt certain we were the right family for him.

“I’m so glad he’s going to have a whole family to love,” she said.

I was so nervous on January 8, the day we met him—nervous he wouldn’t be anything like I thought he was and we’d walk away disappointed, and also nervous that we’d take him home and discover we were in over our heads. Most of all, I was nervous Aaron would hate him.

I can’t say it was love at first sight once Karen opened her front door. He was shaggy and unkempt looking, with wild hair sticking straight out from both sides of his neck like a lion’s mane. But as we petted him and took him on a walk around the neighborhood, I saw he walked so well on a leash and was the perfect size for then five-year-old Evie to handle. He had a long neck and body, a curled tail and short legs that made for the cutest little trot. It was a no-brainer that we’d take him home for a two-week trial adoption.

Karen was the sweetest and packed up a few of his favorite toys and treats to take with us. She was sad to see him go and offered to watch him for us if we ever had the need. She asked if we had a new name in mind for him and was delighted with the answer: Wally.

The ride home was when I fell in love. With Wally awkwardly curled up in my lap, shaking, I knew as I snuggled and comforted him that he wouldn’t be going anywhere.

To be continued!

Autonomous Bombs

“The problem with Alzheimer’s is the problem of losing our autonomy—losing the ability, early on, to self-determine our lives.”

Dr. Jason Karlawish in conversation with Brené Brown

My mom is like Beyoncé: she keeps shit to herself until she’s good and ready to let you know.

It’ll be crickets for a year, and then one day—boom—Queen Bey drops a visual album packed with generation-defining music, choreography and cultural commentary. She just blew up your life, and you’re welcome.

My mom’s bombs are a little different. She doesn’t aim for shock and awe; rather, she tries to figure out all the messy details behind the scenes and minimize the damage before making her big reveal. But there’s fallout nonetheless.

I woke up early on the first Saturday of summer vacation in 2003. I had just finished my sophomore year of high school and felt excited, free, like anything was possible. I was cutting strawberries for breakfast when my mom came into the kitchen and asked me to follow her outside.

Uh-oh—what did I do wrong? She instructed me to get in our car.

In the two minutes it took us to drive from the newer end of our apartment complex to the older one, my mom explained very simply and with little emotion: “I am asking your father for a divorce. I am moving out today. I have my own apartment with a bedroom that’s yours if you want it.”

Boom.

We parked and walked up to a second-floor apartment. She pulled out a key and opened the door. I walked into a fully furnished home. There was a couch, a coffee table, a dining table and chairs. Throw pillows. A painting on the wall. This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision; she’d been building a new life for months.

I don’t know how long we were there before she said this next, but I feel like it wasn’t long: “I have a TV being delivered and I need you to stay here and sign for it while I go tell your father.”

BOOM.

Alone, in an apartment I’d never seen before filled with furniture my mom chose, I understood life would never be the same again. I wandered into the kitchen and opened a cupboard. It was full of canned soup. And it was only then that I started to cry. 

The rest is a blur, but my mom did move out that day, and so did I. I didn’t choose my mom over my dad; I simply wanted my brother to have a bedroom. Money was tight, and my brother had slept on a mattress on the living room floor of our two-bedroom apartment for months. If I left with my mom, he could have my room. So I did, and he did.

It’s not for me to detail what went wrong in my parents’ marriage, but I will say that my dad was (and is) a very sweet guy, and we didn’t flee from abuse or violence or anything like that. My mom didn’t want to split our family up any more than she had to. She stayed in the same apartment complex so I could walk just a short distance to see my dad, and my brother could pop over to our place whenever he wanted.

I think it’s fair to say my mom believed the marriage had run its course. I also think she knew my dad would try to talk her out of leaving—and he did still try. But by Monday, we were gone, and she had officially filed for divorce.

With hindsight, I realized she must have been stockpiling money from her job for quite a while to afford a whole separate apartment. And that new hobby she’d taken up over the past year—running—served as her alibi while she shopped for her secret TV, arranged her secret furniture and stacked her secret soup.

These are the things I think I know. I can’t even imagine the things I don’t. I try to put myself in her shoes for just one second, executing this escape plan completely alone, and I find myself breathless from the weight of it. Also, simultaneously impressed and heartbroken by the ingenuity of it.

She’d waged a secret battle for her autonomy, revealing its very existence to her opponent only after she’d already won.

My parents’ divorce was finalized in the spring of 2004, and one month later, my mom closed on a modest home of her own. The furniture she chose moved into the house she chose. So did the man she chose as her partner. 

Together, they built the garden she’d always dreamt of: raised beds for vegetables, lavender for the bees, sunflowers for my mom since they’re her favorite. I lived there, too, as I finished high school, and intermittently during and after college as I found my footing. I helped water the garden whenever I lived there.

When my mom married her partner in 2015, she reclaimed her German maiden name, Behrens—derived from Bernhard, a compound of the elements “ber(n),” meaning bear, and “hard,” meaning brave, hardy, strong—and hyphenated it with her husband’s Sicilian surname, Macaluso—meaning freed, liberated.

Janet, brave and freed.

In December 2020, my brother, stepdad and I gathered around the dining table with my mom, masks on. The three of us had privately agreed it was time to look into memory care. As the death toll of the pandemic peaked, her cognition and ability to live independently plummeted. She was no longer safe in the home she chose.

This was not like one of her bombs. We explained to her the benefits of moving to a place where there were other people like her who had trouble with their memory, and how she’d be well taken care of by professionals. We showed her pictures of private rooms and read aloud from activity calendars. She cried with joy at the thought of being able to socialize with other people and participate in activities tailored for her abilities. She gave us the green light to begin the process of choosing a new home for her.

My stepdad and I researched places together, but he left the final decision to me.

I tracked down nice second-hand furniture for my mom’s room, and Aaron and I drove all around the Eastside in a borrowed truck, picking up the pieces of her new life.

We sorted through her belongings—clothes, books, quilts, photos—to decide what would stay and what would go. Everything we packed got a permanent label. I wrote her name hundreds of times.

And on January 29, we loaded the last of her things into our cars and held our breath when it was time for my mom to say goodbye to her home.

I gasped for air beneath my mask as I held back tears. My brother’s brow crumpled. But my mom was placid and detached, not quite sure what all the fuss was about. This house she’d chosen, the garden she’d planted, the autonomy she’d fought so hard to seize meant little to her disease-altered brain.

I’d pictured so many scenarios playing out in this moment, but never this one. Compared to all the scenarios I’d imagined, I found this one to be the saddest.

Due to COVID restrictions, we were not allowed to help set up my mom’s room. We simply dropped everything outside the building and relayed basic directions through the window regarding furniture placement. Her clothes, books, quilts and photos were tucked away and arranged by strangers. We said our goodbyes in the lobby, our masks absorbing our tears as she was led away to her new home.

I imagine her standing there alone, in a room she’d never seen before filled with furniture her daughter chose, with the vague feeling life would never be the same again.

Boom.

I hope she forgives me for blowing up her life. I’ve long forgiven her for blowing up mine.

I understand now we were both just doing the best we could for each other.

Today, my mom lives a life she didn’t choose. Alzheimer’s continues to steal her autonomy each day. She can’t decide what she’ll eat or when to take a shower. She can’t pick out her clothes or put them on without assistance.

But inside every shirt, every pair of pants, every sock and every shoe, I have written her name.

Inside, she is still Janet, brave and freed.

All Your Joys & Sorrows

“Pa threw mattresses into the wagon. Ma carefully spread their patchwork quilts over them. ‘We can’t leave these behind,’ she said. ‘All our joys and sorrows are sewn up into the patches.'”

Eleanor Coerr // The Josefina Story Quilt

The quilt my mother made for my daughter tells a story she didn’t intend.

The front, meticulously pieced together in 2015 when she found out I was pregnant with a girl, features strips of brightly colored fabric cut on the bias, perfectly straight, edges crisp—the work of a lifelong quilter.

The colors were chosen with intention: pink, of course, but well balanced with sunny yellow, sprightly green and a rich purplish-blue. You’d find these colors just before dawn on a spring morning, when the dusky sky gives way to the sun’s rays spilling onto new shoots of grass. 

Evie was born on such a morning in late April 2016, just before dawn. By the time the light and those colors crept in through our window, we barely noticed; she had already illuminated everything.

The back of the quilt bears Evie’s full name, birth date and statistics, machine-embroidered by another woman onto a patch that my mom then sewed on by hand. The stitches are clumsy, like the ones I made when my mom taught me how to make my own little quilts when I was eight years old. I can’t remember exactly when she sewed this patch—2018, 2019 maybe—but I remember it took a long time for her to do it and to return the quilt to me.

Somewhere in those years, between the front and the back, when I was busy feeding, wiping, shushing, bouncing, not sleeping and falling deeply in love—learning to be a mom—my own mom began to slip away.

There’s a feeling that accompanies the deepest hurts, in the very back of the throat: an involuntary clenching that can’t be relieved by methodic breathing or swallowing hard. When I get that feeling, I know the best course is to surrender to the tears, let myself make the ugly, contorted faces, scream if I need to. 

That feeling means something different to everyone. For me, it’s the feeling of missing my mom. Not the one who’s here now, but the one who was lost between the front and the back. The one whose wry observations and easy laughter grew quieter until they disappeared. The one who danced around the room when she found out she was going to be a grandma, then hesitated to play with her granddaughter for fear she would do or say the wrong thing. The one who booked flights and ordered catering for years as an executive assistant, then struggled to make sense of a digital clock.

Sixty-one is not an age at which one should be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, yet there she was. Sixty-two is not an age at which one should be moved into memory care, yet there she is.

There are so many losses to grieve. And the trouble is the losses continue to mount as my mom’s cognition declines. There are days I wonder if things will be better when she’s further along and not so acutely aware of what’s happening to her. I almost want for her to slip into some blissfully ignorant state, like floating on her back in calm, cool water on a stiflingly hot day. Then I panic that she’ll disappear beneath the surface for good, and I hold onto her tighter.

She recently said to me, “I’m afraid one day I won’t know who you are.” I’m afraid of that, too. I took a deep breath and said, “I know. That might happen. But that’s OK. I won’t hold it against you.” Another deep breath. “I think even if your mind doesn’t recognize me, your heart will still know who I am.”

I think of the hundreds of hours I’ve spent with my daughter pressed to my chest, my skin alive with the warmth and sweetness of hers. I think of the searching eyes that have stared into mine since the very first time they opened. Could I ever be in a room with her and not feel, somewhere in my bones, the pull of those invisible threads that bind us?

The mind may fail, but the heart still knows. 

I will meet you wherever you are today, and tomorrow I’ll meet you there, too. 

I will walk with you to the very end, holding your hand, holding nothing against you. 

And when I have to let you go, I’ll gather the quilts your hands made, sewn up with all your joys and sorrows, and crawl beneath them, awash in the warmth of your love.

Summer 2019 Road Trip: Bozeman, Yellowstone & Jackson Hole

Oh, man—the world is much different than it was the last time I posted! What a carefree summer I had last year, running a marathon with a bunch of other people and not worrying about them breathing all over me. Masks were for Halloween; Corona was still just a beer. It was a simpler time that I hope we can all enjoy again someday soon.

It’s now been five months since COVID-19 first sent Washington state into lockdown, and the isolation has had me dreaming about future and past travels. We did an awesome road trip last summer, so I thought it would be fun to relive and write about it here. It was also the next big life event right after the marathon, so I’ll pick up right where I left off. It was so nice to go straight into vacation mode and rest my legs, taking two weeks completely off from running and formal exercise.

Every other summer, Aaron’s dad’s side of the family does a big reunion, which is always so much fun and a great way to catch up with family members who are scattered all around the country. In years past, we’ve gone to Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Washington; Union Pier, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Michigan; and Monument, Colorado, just outside of Colorado Springs. Last year, our destination was Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Our first stop along the way was Kellogg, Idaho, where we stayed one night at an Airbnb near Silver Mountain Bike Park so Aaron could do some mountain biking. We had fun riding the 3.1-mile gondola to the top of the mountain—it’s the longest gondola in the U.S. and takes just over 30 minutes one way! Evie and I hung out at the top and played in a very convenient bounce house while Aaron did several runs down the mountain. If we’d had more time, we would have loved to go to the resort’s indoor water park (now a terrifying idea in the COVID era!).

Then we continued on to Bozeman, Montana, where we stayed three days with our friends the Pacinis, who moved there from Seattle a few years ago. We had a blast hiking, swimming at their country club, eating at some amazing restaurants (Jam! and Blackbird were faves) and visiting the Museum of the Rockies. The Pacinis have three kids—at the time, their son was eight and their twin girls were four—and three-year-old Evie had such a blast playing with them.

Palisade Falls in Bozeman.
Evie wished she could be triplets with Ava and Brooklyn!

Museum of the Rockies has the largest collection of dinosaur remains in the U.S.!

We loved Bozeman and could totally live there if it weren’t for the brutally snowy winters. We’ll definitely be back!

En route to our final destination for the family reunion, we swung through Yellowstone National Park and put in a solid half day seeing some amazing sights, including the artist paint pots, Grand Prismatic Spring and, of course, Old Faithful. Then it was time to head to Jackson Hole!

Grand Prismatic Spring.

Well, we actually stayed in Swan Valley, Idaho. Turns out that large rental houses are crazy expensive in Jackson Hole! So we stayed in essentially the middle of nowhere, but the house was incredible and the scenery was unbelievably beautiful. Despite how small the town was—not even a grocery store for miles and miles—it was the perfect place for lots of family fun.

The view from the front of the house—stunning!

We spent a day exploring Jackson Hole proper, enjoying lunch and beer at Snake River Brewing and then walking around the cute downtown.

Another day, Aaron and a group of guys went four-wheeling at some sand dunes, and I went with Kelsi on a horseback-riding adventure with Swan Valley Outfitters! (Evie stayed at the house for a fun day with her aunties and cousins.) A guide took just the two of us on the most beautiful three-hour trek through fields and woods to the Snake River, where we ate a picnic lunch before heading back. It was so lovely and peaceful.

Another little adventure that was super close to our house: a trip to Fall Creek Falls. Who knew Idaho had this incredible scenery?? You could even climb down into a cave and look out from behind one of the waterfalls.

Back at the house, we had a “field day” that Aaron’s sisters set up with all sorts of fun games to compete in—and like with any family, the teams got super competitive! The kids loved running through the sprinkler and jumping in the bounce house, too.

It all culminated in a big water balloon fight, then s’mores around the campfire. Ahhh, summer! Does it get any better?

So brave.

Once the kiddos went to bed each night, the adults got into some serious cards—euchre is this family’s game of choice, and it gets vicious! As fun as all the daytime activities are, my favorite memories from these reunions tend to involve the late-night tension and shit-talking from these games. All in good fun, of course. 🙂

Ahhh, what a nice trip down memory lane. Love these people!

Anyway, now I’m feeling slightly less resentful that we don’t have a big trip like that this year. I suppose lots of folks actually are on road trips right now, since there are ways to do it somewhat safely. The Swan Valley house looks like it’s still getting plenty of use, anyway! I look forward to when we feel comfortable traveling again, and I certainly hope it’ll be safe to do our next family reunion in summer 2021.

Next, I’m excited to write all about my attempt to train for the 2019 California International Marathon (key word: attempt), the beginning of my yoga practice and my experience at the Nourish + Escape Retreat in Bend, Oregon, this past October! It was a wonderfully relaxing weekend of cooking, yoga and hiking, and it came at just the right time in my life. Stay tuned.

Lessons

I am grateful for my injury.⁣⁣
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A year ago, I would have never imagined I’d say that. It’s certainly easier now, on the other side, to see beyond the struggle and heartache, to appreciate the lessons.⁣⁣
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When I surprised myself with a 9-minute half-marathon PR in the spring of 2018, I became intoxicated by the idea of getting faster. I believed I had all this speed I’d never tapped into before, and if I just worked at it, I could run a BQ. So I jumped right into an aggressive training plan filled with speed work, goal-pace runs and many more weekly miles than I’d ever run before. ⁣
I did get faster—but I was stacking block upon block to build a soaring tower with a nonexistent foundation. It’s no wonder it eventually came crashing down.⁣⁣
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It took me a while to recognize that my injury was of my own making. And then I realized I could do it all differently and create a better outcome.⁣⁣
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I’ve spent the last year slowly moving cinder blocks into place. There’s one for strength. There’s another for stability. Another for form. And, to fill in the gaps between those: plenty of patience. Determination. Persistence. Belief.⁣⁣
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I’ve built my foundation. Every step of this marathon, I’ll run on that foundation. I have every reason to believe it will get me to the finish line feeling healthy and happy.⁣⁣
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And then? I’ll look forward to my next goal and start stacking my blocks: a speed workout here, a few more miles there. But not too many. Not too fast. And I’ll continue to work on all the things that will keep my foundation strong.⁣⁣
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I wonder: How high can my tower go?⁣

(Photo taken after my successful 20-mile run. I was tired. 😄)⁣

What I Learned at My First Real Coaching Session

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I was so nervous leading up to this.

My first meeting with Coach Frank left me lacking confidence in my running ability, and a horrible cold left me flattened for a few weeks. I felt like I’d lost all my fitness. When I got dressed for the session, I realized it was the first time I’d put on workout clothes since our first meeting two weeks ago. And before that, it had been since mid-September. That’s a big leap from working out six days a week for months at a time!

But my nerves dissipated as I walked onto the track on a beautiful, sunny Saturday and saw my coach finishing up with another client. She was a woman in her late 40s or early 50s, running at a slowish but steady pace. As she ran laps, I asked Coach Frank how long she’d been working with him. He said a few months. First, they worked on form and gait; now, speed.

In our initial meeting, he had mentioned some of the incredibly fast high-school track kids he coaches, so I was happy to see at least one other person who started with him from square one.

I was relieved to find out I wouldn’t be doing much running that day. Instead, we focused on learning 10-12 warmup drills that I should do before every run. I know from my high-school track days, Runner’s World and every serious runner I follow on Instagram that I should warm up—yet I never do! Those days are over. It was so helpful to have Coach Frank walk me through each warmup drill so that I knew exactly what each one should look and feel like. We’ll continue to work on them in upcoming sessions until he’s confident I have them down.

Next, I ran one easy lap around the track—an effort of 4 on a scale of 1-10. I was happy to finish the lap feeling good and not sucking wind like I’d imagined. I could have done a few more! Also, nothing hurt—thank goodness.

Finally, we moved on to two form drills: one for my arms, and one focusing on legs.

Coach Frank told me that I waste energy holding my arms up higher than they need to be and swinging them across my body as I run. I learned to hold them just above my hips, keeping them bent at the elbow at a 90-degree angle as I swing them front to back (or “hip to pit,” as he says) from my shoulders. Keeping my arms at that 90-degree angle is tough, since I’m used to flailing all over the place. It’s a change that won’t happen overnight. I’ll have to practice, practice, practice until it eventually becomes second nature. I can’t wait to see how this alone will change my running!

The final drill involved practicing an exaggerated version of the proper leg motion I should be doing while running; it also involved the arms a bit. It was like a four-step process in slow motion, and there was a lot to think about. I did it several times on each side as Coach Frank gave me correctional cues. With this, as well as the arm-swing drill, the more I overthought it, the worse I did. Every time I was able to relax and let things flow, that’s when I did well. Isn’t that so true of running, too?

I walked away from the track that day with exactly what I wanted: renewed hope and confidence for my running future. And I really like working with Coach Frank so far. He gave clear directions and gentle corrections, plus praise when I did well. He cracked a few jokes. I had fun learning from him! I’ve paid for a package that includes three more sessions, and then I’ll figure out where to go from there.

I have so much work to do before I start training for another race. I’m signed up for the Orcas Island 25K (recap) again at the end of January, so I hope to be able to do that. And the Lake Sammamish Half (2018 recap) is in March, which I feel like is far enough away that I could be ready.

For now, Coach Frank told me to run no more than a few miles a few times a week, and to really focus on warming up properly, cooling down/stretching afterward and practicing the form drills three times per week.

At this point, I’m running zero miles per week because I’m still trying to get over my cold. I’m through the worst of it, but my coughs are still “productive” (gross) and I still have pressure in my sinuses to the point where my teeth hurt. I was feeling a lot better, but then had a pretty active weekend (pumpkin patch, coaching session, family photo shoot on a 40-degree morning) and by Monday felt like I’d taken two steps backward.

I’m really bummed that I’m missing the best month of fall running. The leaves are ablaze and the weather is beautiful. I guess I could be walking, but I’ve been resting as much as possible in the hopes that it will help me get healthy faster.

Plus, I’m actually enjoying being lazy. Maybe I’ll just write off the rest of October and hop back on the workout/running train with—I hope—renewed energy in November.

Working With a Running Coach: Step One

I wrote this last week, before my first real workout with the coach. Post-workout post coming tomorrow!

Despite being cleared to run by my physical therapist, my attempts to return to running have been clumsy and painful. I know I need to change my form and gait to run more efficiently and help prevent injuries in the future, and I know I need someone to help me do it properly. I’ve read tons of articles, watched video tutorials, etc., but nothing compares to being on the track with a professional who can give me personalized feedback and cues.

I Googled my way into finding a local running coach who is certified by the Road Runners Club of America and USA Track & Field, and who was also a professional runner before going into coaching about 20 years ago. He is extremely popular, so I was nervous about getting time with him, but I was able to schedule an initial two-hour session fairly easily.

We spent the majority of that session talking about my history with running and injuries, his coaching method and philosophy, nutrition, hydration and more.

He’s a very matter-of-fact guy; there was definitely nothing like, “You can achieve any goal as long as you work hard enough!” in our conversation. I don’t think he was trying to discourage me, but was just making sure my expectations were in check. I’m not trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials or anything; I just want to run pain-free and eventually qualify for Boston, so I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

As we talked about my running history and I described the training plan I used for Jack & Jill, he wasn’t shocked that I got injured. Running six days a week with higher mileage than I’d ever run before for my first marathon training cycle after having a baby? Never warming up? Rarely cooling down/stretching after runs? Doing almost no cross training? Well, duh.

So I felt very humbled by our talk. Hindsight is 20/20 and he helped me see the reality of what happened. I wonder if a female coach would have been a little gentler with me and given me more encouragement about what I could achieve in the future, but I can appreciate that he’s just not that kind of coach, and I can handle some tough love.

We spent the last 15 minutes or so on the track. First, he watched me walk away from him and toward him several times. Then he inspected the wear pattern on my shoes; I wore the last pair I had trained in for Jack & Jill. Then he watched me run back and forth on the track with varying degrees of effort, and finally filmed me doing so.

He talked me through a laundry list of issues while showing me the video evidence, and it was all plain as day. I hold my arms too high and swing them across my body instead of forward/backward, which is extremely inefficient. He said that would be a relatively easy fix compared to what was happening with my gait.

My hips sit too far back, and I run from my knees down, meaning I don’t make use of my quads and hamstrings like I should. He said, “You’re a strong woman” (why thank you!) “but you’re not using your main sources of power.” Damn.

It’s encouraging that the coach could spot my issues and articulate them so easily. I should be excited to tackle them head-on; I can only improve, right? But I feel discouraged and embarrassed that I’ve been running so wrong for so long. I always thought running was such a natural human action; how could I possible screw it up? I also thought that about breastfeeding before I became a mother, though, and I quickly learned how wrong I was about that!

So my brain and emotions are at odds right now. Logically, I know I can improve if I put in the work. Emotionally, I feel intimidated and lacking in confidence. I’m three months out from my injury and have only run a few miles a handful of times since then. I feel out of shape because—between a week of travel and a horrible cold—I haven’t exercised at all in three weeks. My first workout with the coach is tomorrow. This… will be interesting.

I hope to walk away from the track tomorrow with renewed hope and confidence for my running future. If not, I’ll just need to put in more effort to get it. Despite having been a runner for eight years and having completed five marathons, I feel like a newbie all over again—nervous, insecure and full of self-doubt.

All I can do is move forward the same way I did back in 2010: one step at a time.

Puzzle Pieces

The first time I left my daughter was over Labor Day weekend in 2016, when she was four months old. I didn’t just skip town; I left the country.

One of my closest friends had her bachelorette party in Vancouver, B.C., and I was excited to spend three days celebrating with my girlfriends. Perhaps even more, I was excited to get a few uninterrupted nights of sleep for the first time in what felt like forever.

I was the only mother on the trip, and thus the only one pumping breastmilk in the car as we waited in the interminable line to cross the border into Canada. That kind of set the tone for the trip for me.

For some reason when I think of that trip, I don’t remember so much about the restaurants we visited or the bars we hit. The things that jump out at me are all the places I hid to pump while the other girls played party games and refilled their wine glasses; the careful management of my ice packs and the refrigerator/freezer situation between one hotel room and one Airbnb that were inexplicably located a car ride away from each other; the endless math of figuring out when I’d need to pump next and whether to save the milk or dump it (thanks to my own refilled wine glass).

I also remember the twice-daily FaceTime calls with my husband and Evie, and how my quiet, gentle missing of her suddenly became a gut punch the moment I saw her.

I particularly remember one video call I made to Aaron while pumping. I decided it would be funny to train the camera on my chest when he answered the call, and then I quickly realized my mother-in-law was right there looking over his shoulder. I think I moved the camera quickly enough, but oh man, I sure never did that again!

The other reason I remember that call is because Aaron and Evie were at my in-laws’ house, and Evie was dressed in a new outfit they had given her. Sweet, right? I’m incredibly grateful whenever anyone gives her a gift, but at the time, she suddenly looked like a completely different baby to me. She was wearing an unfamiliar headband, top and pants, and somehow that made her look so much more grown-up. Since I’m her mother and The Organizer of All the Baby Clothes, she had never been dressed in something I hadn’t at least seen ahead of time.

I’m not sure why this affected me so much. It wasn’t about the clothes themselves, but the visual reminder that she was experiencing new things—and thus growing—without me. It was only for a few days, but in the scope of her existence at that point, a few days was not nothing.

I’m pretty sure I confined my tears to wherever I was FaceTiming and didn’t make a big deal about things among the larger group of girls, but I still remember the exact feeling. I felt it again just a few days ago.

The weird thing was that I felt it when I returned home after five days away. It was the longest I had ever been away from Evie, and I worried beforehand that I would break down into FaceTime tears again and again throughout the trip.

Maybe it’s because we’re no longer tethered by postpartum hormones and milk, or because my trip was busy and her little life is busy—with school, with friends, with endless viewings of Monsters, Inc.—but I was happy to see her on FaceTime and then happy to continue about my day. I was so excited to cover her squishy cheeks with kisses when we were reunited at the airport, but I wasn’t counting down the minutes.

It was only when I saw her then that the tears came. She’s always been the most beautiful thing in the world to me, but somehow she looked even more angelic now: blue eyes, smooth skin, hair curling into perfect chaos.

I told her how happy I was to see her. She asked me for Goldfish.

My in-laws (not the ones I almost flashed) picked me up, so I sat in the backseat with Evie on the way home. I studied her and found so many changes more permanent than a new headband. Her hair was definitely longer. She’ll grow out of those shoes any day now. Her previously broken sentences were more complete; someone who remembers how to diagram all the parts would approve. All this in five days. Five days.

That evening, after dinner and before her bedtime, we had a family snuggle on the couch while watching—what else?—Monsters, Inc. Aaron sat on the far right of the sofa; I squished in as close as I could without being on top of him; and Evie’s body molded to my lap, her head resting on my chest. As nice as it was to get away, sleep a little bit more and have a little bit less responsibility, this… this was the very best.

I didn’t realize I was part of a puzzle until I found myself nestled in with the other pieces.

Telling My STORY

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Last week I attended a creative conference in Nashville called STORY. I’m lucky to work on a creative team that values travel and experiences, and thus sends members of the team on several “creative inspiration” trips each year. Groups have gone to SXSW in Austin; Art Basel in Miami; conferences in Venice, Berlin, Dublin and more. Nashville was my first opportunity to take one of these creative trips, and I was thrilled!

For one thing, STORY is extremely relevant to my work as a copywriter. The goal of the conference is to reawaken wonder, to unlock creativity and to encourage creatives to take the reins of writing the future of our culture.

For another, Nashville has an excellent food scene. Armed with my corporate credit card, I was ready to experience five days’ worth of the city’s best restaurants. Also, it was warm enough there to completely avoid wearing pants (70 to 100 degrees), which is perfect for fully experiencing the food scene. 😉

In addition to seeking inspiration and motivation for my professional creative work, I hoped to find the same for my personal writing. I have lots of ideas for this blog, but haven’t dedicated the time to realize them. I’m a perfectionist when I write and tend to edit myself as I go along, so a writing stint can easily grind to a halt if I find myself stuck on the perfect way to express a thought.

I also tend to write with the intention of publishing the end result on this blog, so any number of doubts can stop me from actually finishing a post: Is anyone even going to care if I write this? What if people do read it, but it’s too ______ (boring, negative, annoying, etc.)? And so something I began writing as a way to express myself becomes weighed down by my concerns about what others will think of it. I toss my ideas into a bag, add a few boulders of self-doubt, push it overboard and watch it sink into oblivion.

The good news is that I did get some inspiration and strategies for doing fearless creative work. And the even better news is that this blog is entirely mine—I’m not beholden to advertisers or sponsors who are concerned with what I should or shouldn’t say—and it really doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. That’s hard to remember in this day and age when trolls are everywhere, sharing their unsolicited thoughts on how everyone should live their lives and how they should or shouldn’t share them online, but I’ll try.

The main thing holding me back from writing right now is the fact that I’m not running. I’m frustrated. I’m sad. And I don’t want to be the injured runner who dwells on it and spreads negativity. I don’t want to be ungrateful about the fact that my injuries are not nearly as bad as any number of other people’s injuries.

But still, I can’t deny the way I feel. I know reading about the experiences of an injured runner isn’t nearly as exciting or inspirational as reading about successful training runs and getting faster, but the people who don’t want to read it can skip it. Now more than ever, I need to write.

It’s difficult to sum up everything I learned at STORY—although I’ll have to do just that for a presentation at work—but here are a few nuggets of wisdom that are inspiring me now:

“Don’t be so obsessed with perfecting your craft that you lose your creativity.“ —Brad Montague

"Your worth and value are present right now [as a caterpillar]; don’t wait for a beautiful butterfly transformation.” —CJ Casciotta

“Process > perfection; being real is important and valuable.” —CJ Casciotta

“Don’t talk about it, be about it. There are a lot of talkers and not a lot of doers. Which one are you?” —Kevin Carroll

Follow along in real time @dev.on.running.