When Death Becomes a Mystery

We know that we are going to die. We read about death in the newspapers. People we know and do not know. Obituaries are posted on social media.

The further away a death is from me the less I question it. It’s just a fact. People die.

But then Sam Spratt died. He was 25 years old. On Wednesday, May 19, 2021, he was in a car accident and died at the scene. He was our neighbor and Juan and Crystel’s caregiver for over four years. Death suddenly became a mystery to me. Why did Sam die? Was he done living his life? Did he accomplish all that he wanted? My world instantly felt less safe. I was nervous getting in my car. Now I knew I could die. If Sam could die, I could die.

There is no more do-over for Sam. What he did in this life is done. Or is it?

Sam’s funeral was overflowing with young, middle-aged, and old people. Friends, neighbors, relatives, high school classmates. Attendees spoke about how kind Sam was. How understanding. The deep conversations they had.

Juan and Crystel experienced the same with Sam. Sam was 12 years old and the kids were 5 when he started nannying for us. Monday to Friday he came to our house while Jody and I were at work. He even spent an occasional overnight when Jody and I were out of town.

Sam and our children became a familiar sight throughout the Richfield community and parts of Edina. For years they pedaled their bikes to dentist and orthodontist appointments, Tae Kwon Do, swim lessons, movies, library, restaurants, bowling, swimming pool and the neighborhood parks. Sam took on the additional responsibility of Juan and Crystel’s friends for play dates in our backyard swimming pool.

I was compelled to write a blog post about our experience with Sam when I read a parenting book that warned against having a teenage boy babysit – the children would be at risk.

With intention, Jody and I welcomed Sam into our home and into our lives. We were blessed to have this teenage boy responsible for our children’s safety.

On Easter five weeks before he died, Sam walked down the street to our house to visit with Juan and Crystel. He was planning to come to their graduation party in June. “He wouldn’t miss it!” he said. The three of them chatted as they would do, cajoling and teasing each other. Juan and Crystel were ‘his kids.’ He had taught them how to read, made sure they brushed their teeth, and that they weeded the garden.

Now he’s teaching Juan and Crystel about death, grief, and loss. How to navigate when a loved one is no longer with us.

His death continues to be a mystery to me. I’m still asking questions. Still pausing my mind when I pass the area where he died.

Sam was right, though. He did show up for Juan and Crystel’s graduation. I finally looked at Juan and Crystel’s picture boards at the end of their graduation party. Juan had many photos of himself, Crystel, Jody and me on his board. Prominently displayed in the center was a photo of Juan, Sam and Crystel.

I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I nurtured two souls, Sam can say. I gave them my heart and they gave me theirs. To that end, I taught them love for another.

Sam Spratt October 17, 1995 – May 19, 2021.  Never forgotten.

Mermaid Slippers and Princesses

What kind of jokes do six-year-olds tell? Do they wake up at five thirty and tumble down the stairs with the cat to ask if grandma is ready to watch morning cartoons? And what cartoons would they watch?

Our annual summer vacation with our granddaughter just finished. The lilac mermaid slippers left behind by a five-year-old didn’t fit the tall seven-and-a half-year-old girl who searched for a heavy, snuggly blanket while ignoring her old favorite princess cover. Her Frozen cup looked small in the hands that now write stories, multiply numbers, turn pages in a chapter book. She reads to us, no longer sounding out as many words, instead adding emotional emphasis to characters. 

In a mostly rainy week, there was one beach day when we watched her patiently teach two very young children how to use a squirt gun and return a dead minnow to the water. She learned with great enthusiasm how to play old video games. She and her mom made craft projects. And we watched a different set of morning programs cast with early teens as well as an Australian cartoon about a family of dogs. She made the dinner salad one meal. What mattered was that we were together around the clock as a family. Creative as we tried to be last year, this experience had been lost.

Far greater losses were experienced during the pandemic lockdown. Far greater losses are being experienced now as the pandemic continues. It is not over. People are falling ill. Fewer people are dying, a small comfort to those who do lose a loved one. With an unvaccinated child in the mix, we returned to considering when to mask, where to eat out, avoiding crowds. She is the last in our family to walk unprotected in open communities. It is scary to know our kids are still at risk. It is hard to not be disappointed in the adults who contribute to Covid’s continued spread in our country.

I’m not sure how I could convince an unvaccinated person to take the jab. For me it was a mix of trusting science, hope that the virus would be slowed, and feeling responsible for contributing to the safety of our country. But I didn’t have to balance concerns of caring for a family if I got ill from the vaccine or missing work. Maybe neighbors are part of the next push to increase the vaccinated numbers. The wearers of mermaid slippers are our future. Let’s keep them healthy and safe.

Family vacation puppet show 2021

Confessions of a Pandemic Parent

Now that this COVID pandemic is largely over—or at least we hope—this may be a safe time to make a few confessions, one parent to another. 

When the lockdown began last spring, we adjusted to working and schooling at home for what we thought would be a few weeks, at max. I thought, “Great! What an opportunity to spend more time with my kid!” I imagined a sweet vision of idyllic harmony as my tween daughter and I bonded even more as we read books, painted watercolors, went for walks in the neighborhood. I could even get more involved in her education. Ahhhh. It was going to be bliss!

It didn’t exactly turn out that way. Here’s what really happened:

I was often afraid my daughter would develop scurvy from her largely unregulated diet of carbs, salty snacks, way too much sugar, and way too few fresh fruits and vegetables. My frequent reminders to eat more fruit are met with “I’m full.”

I was frequently tempted to Google “feral children” after seeing my daughter’s hair in a mat of frizz after no one had bothered to brush it for days. We learned that grooming is overrated.

Pajamas often doubled as day wear (and vice versa), especially when we never left the house. And socks were wholly unnecessary, even on those rare occasions when we did need to go somewhere and there was snow on the ground. We learned to get by with a minimum of fuss.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I thought it just might be fun to homeschool. I must have been nuts. After months of distance learning mainly via Zoom, the best I could do was ask, “Aren’t you supposed to be in class now?”

More often than not, 4:00 p.m. rolled around and I found myself asking my daughter, “Did you eat lunch today?” I feared the answer would be “no” because I know I certainly didn’t make her anything. If I was lucky, she may have concocted a smoothie at some point during the day.

It’s okay for a developing child to go to bed at 11:00 p.m., right? After all, there was not much taxing her brain and body during the day. Every night as I watched the time tick closer and closer to my own bedtime, I cried out, “Why are you still up!?!”

I found myself suddenly more amenable to things that would have been hard and fast “no’s” just six months earlier. Case in point: getting a cat, to which I am allergic, and yet it was sold as a method of providing “emotional support” during these trying times. And where does said cat sleep? On my bed, since the cat has started waking up her “true owner” at 5:00 a.m. by biting toes.

After years of putting off entry into more social media, I acquiesced to creating an Instagram account, which has been appropriated by the tween and is mainly a vehicle for posting pictures of the cat and recipes for smoothies.

We quickly careened down the slippery slope of unlimited screen time. I don’t know how we got here. It seems so far from the reasonable and even idealistic standards I used to have—actual daily screen time limits of an hour or so. But this pandemic parent lost her will to enforce more limits.

While my daughter has never been a good napper and has always seem to not need that much sleep, I on the other hand, found myself growing more and more tired. I perfected the afterwork nap. Pandemic life is exhausting!

I found new delight in doing errands. All. By. Myself. Drives to the bank and post office have never been more satisfying. And even the excuse of going into my empty workplace was a welcome change.

Someone should really start a Parents Union with universally agreed upon work expectations, hours, duties, etc. The words “I am done for the day!” have slipped out of my mouth more than once—mostly at the end of what has seemed like an endless day. (See late bedtimes, above.)

I even tried going old school in the fall after we had been indoors way too much. Me: “You know, some parents just send their kid outside and say, ‘Don’t come in for an hour’.” Daughter: “Mom, you are NOT that parent.” Touché, kid.

So faced with my shortcomings, I swallowed my pride and admitted that the year knocked me for a loop. Then I mustered up some gumption to do it one more day. And then another.

Slowly, we have started leaving the house for school, for work, even to socialize with other people—in real life. As life begins to look a little more normal, we may even begin to miss each other a little (in the case of the tween) or a lot (in the case of the weepy mother). And then I will wish for all that time at home, when we rarely said “goodbye.”

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

Normally I look forward, eagerly anticipating what’s next: a walk with a friend, spending time with my sisters, a trip to someplace new, even the writing-related work I do for clients.

But during this past year, spent mostly at home and unplugged, even from family and friends, I’ve found myself looking back at my life, often with regret for missteps and mistakes that include not wearing sunscreen, tolerating an abusive high school boyfriend before I knew any better, hosting a 40th birthday dinner for a friend instead of going to the hospital to visit my dying dad, accidentally sharing information about a cousin’s health when I’d been asked not to, not standing up for myself when I sold my business and not getting married and moving to DC when I had the chance.

My regrets also include missed opportunities: dropping out of high school track despite being told I had potential, giving up on watercolor painting before I’d gotten the hang of it and not saying yes the first three times a friend offered me her Paris apartment for as long as I wanted to stay.

At first I thought I’d have a long list. But I don’t. At least not yet. I also thought that reviewing my regrets would make me sad. It has…but it’s also empowered me to make amends and to think more seriously about what I want from my life moving forward.

And while I haven’t yet finished reading The Midnight Library, I am journaling about what my life would be like if I, like the book’s protagonist, had made different choices. Sure, some things would be better, but I’d still have plenty of wouldas, couldas and shouldas to contend with. That’s life!

But I also know that, moving forward, I will do better…at trusting my gut, taking risks, leaping at opportunities and, most importantly, being true to myself.

Quilting My Way Out of COVID

In February, I started planning a queen-size bed quilt. I waited until after the holidays so I’d have a big time-consuming project to help me get through the long uncertain months while COVID still raged. Who knew when I’d be vaccinated or when we’d be safe? 

I’d grown accustomed to the restrictions. Aside from grocery store clerks, the only people we saw were our sons and only for a few minutes. When they visited, they hovered near the front door never taking off their winter jackets—all of us masked. With everyone else, it was phone calls or Zoom visits.

Time was heavy on my hands. Cutting and arranging little strips of color one square at a time was how I’d keep sane until spring when we could see friends and family outside. 

At one level, I was immersing myself in a creative process involving color and texture—a visual challenge that has always attracted me. But part of the appeal this time was creating order, making sense of something when so many things outside my four walls didn’t make sense. Day by day I completed squares and made visible progress when the sense of progress out in the big world was tenuous. 

As March gave way to April, more people became vaccinated, including me. Winter eased up and I could be outside with friends again. In May and June, I began cautiously approaching a more normal life: seeing vaccinated friends, gardening, walking, and socializing.

I had less need of my quilting project, but it wasn’t finished. Like COVID, the project had lasted too long. I was so ready to be done. 

During the past week as I quilted the pieced top, batting, and back, I became intimately familiar with every inch and all the places where a seam wandered or a square didn’t align. But as my dad used to say when my husband fretted about a home repair’s small imperfection, “A guy riding by on a motorcycle probably wouldn’t even notice that.” 

If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have said the best thing about this quilt is that it’s DONE. 

Today, I’m again pleased with the cheerful colors. 

The quilt project served its purpose and its history will fade with time. A year from now, I hope only pleasure in the quilt’s color and pattern remains vivid.