"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau



Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Kids Are Alright

Today would be your 44th birthday Jules. Another year without you. I wonder, what would 44-year old you look like? My mind struggles to picture you a decade older than the last time I saw you.
Aunt Julie with her nieces and nephews
Your birthday always makes me reflect on the passage of time and the changes in our family since you left us. I keep thinking about the kids, your nieces and nephews. The loves of your life you said in your last message to us. The one I never read, but others told me what you wrote. The kids are alright Jules. You would love the people they've become. 

Aunt Julie, Gillian, Regan, Mason
They miss you. We all do. 
I think of you whenever one of them has a birthday or a big life milestone. I remember what a special aunt you were to each of them. You loved them so deeply. You were so much more than an aunt. You were a confidante and friend to them, loving each of them as the unique individuals they are. 

I've tried to fill the hole you left in their lives by being a better aunt to each of them. It's a big hole and I'm not you. I'll never be able to take your place. I'm trying to give them enough love for both of us.
Aunt Keicha and Leon
We have a new nephew that you've never met, little Leon. He's the sweetest little person. You would have adored him. It makes me sad that he'll never know his Aunt Julie except through pictures and stories. He's close to the age his big brother was when we spent a week together with him in Boston. I loved that trip and that time with you! 
Julie, Atticus, Keicha at Cheers in Boston

Julie, when you left I worried so much about the kids. How would your death affect the trajectory of their lives? They were all so young and impressionable, just a few years away from their turbulent, often confusing teenage years. 
Nieces and nephews in Colorado the week of Aunt Julie's funeral - 2010
They're grown up now. They're resilient, smart, talented and making their way in the world. They're survivors. We all are. 

You're in all of our hearts Julie, forever. Today you'll be on all of our minds as we celebrate and remember your life. 

Happy birthday sis. I miss you.
Gillian and Aunt Julie
Julie and Gillian at the zoo.
Aunt Julie with nieces at Grandma French's 90th birthday





Bridger, Atticus, Mason, Hannah, Gillian - 2016
Parker, Regan, Gillian and Bridger
Hannah and Mason with Aunt Keicha








Friday, April 3, 2020

10 Years

So much changes in a decade. Ten years ago today I woke up in my mom's house in Pueblo, Colorado. My daughter and I were spending Easter weekend there. 

It was a perfect, warm, sunny April day on that morning ten years ago and we were having a party! Before the party prep started, we enjoyed a lazy morning together around the kitchen table. Oh how I loved mornings at mom's table with my sisters.This photo shows Aunt Julie with her nieces and nephews. They were never far from her side. Her evil eye was probably directed at me for taking her photo when she wasn't ready for the day.
While the party prep happened, Aunt Julie gave some driving lessons to Mason. I don't remember why anyone thought it was a good idea to let an 11-year old behind the wheel! I think he was backing the car out of the driveway for Julie. Of course we all assumed this would be the first of many driving lessons she would give him. We didn't know it would be the first and the last.
There was lots to do to get ready. Soon there would be 12 grandkids swarming the house hungry for food, Easter treats and fun. Grandpa Jim had made sure there would be plenty of eggs full of candy for everyone. We hid 116 eggs in the backyard for our Easter egg hunt! 

The kids went off for a walk with Grandpa and Julie while the rest of the adults hid eggs. This will forever be one of my favorite photos from that day.
Happily, we were able to get all of the kids and the two dogs together for a photo before they headed off for their walk. 
 The kids made quick work of finding all the eggs we'd hidden for them.
Here they are showing off their bounty. This photo is a reminder of how quickly time flies. It's shocking to realize the young adults I know now are the same children in this photo. Today, several of them are either in college or already college graduates, and more than a few are married.
Grandpa Jim made sure everyone had enough sugar that day! After we all ate grilled hamburgers and hot dogs he passed out dessert.
  Then it was off to the trampoline to burn off some of the sugar energy. 
These three cousins, Hannah, Mason, and Gillian, took a break from the action to sample their Easter egg hunt bounty.
We also had a red velvet cake that day to celebrate our April birthday babies. Here are the birthday honorees together so the family could sing Happy Birthday to them.
The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying the sunshine. Julie didn't like to have her picture taken, but she did let me snap a few photos of her that day. She's wearing my orange shirt. For some reason, whenever we were together she like to borrow my clothes. 

She was quiet that weekend. Present, but not. She seemed distracted and far away at times. I wish I'd asked her more questions about where her head was. I wish I'd known what signs to look for.
Phoenix, her faithful Yellow Lab, was never far from her side. 
 
  
Mom took these photos of Julie and I, and the three of us sisters. I remember my happiness that day.The sun was shining. Spring had arrived after the long, dark cold days of winter. We were laughing and enjoying each other. Life was good.   
 
Julie playfully took my hat from me and put it on. Mom captured the moment right after. 
That night Hannah, Mason and Gillian colored eggs while the rest of us relaxed.
 
The next day was Easter. It was a leisurely morning. I was training for the Ogden Half Marathon later that spring and needed to get my Sunday long, easy run in. Julie joined me for my 6-miler. We ran through the streets of Pueblo, a place she'd moved to in high school, the new girl at a new school. She shared stories of her life from that time that I'd never heard before. I learned things about that period of her life I'd never known. The miles went quickly with her by my side. The memory of us stretching out together on the front lawn afterward is still so vivid for me. I miss her so much. I'd give anything to have her join me for a long Sunday run again. 

We all shared an early Easter dinner together before Amy, Julie, and the kids and I drove back to Erie, Colorado together. I loved my mom's cheery yellow kitchen in her house in Pueblo. It always felt like home to me, despite having never lived there. I never would have imagined it would be the last time we'd all share a meal together there.

Just six weeks later Julie was gone forever.  

Ten years. A decade without my sister. I don't know how many days add up to a decade. I do know I've missed Julie every day for the last 10 years. 

I'm still amazed sometimes that I've survived. Losing her shattered me. It took away my hope. Since then I've had to rebuild myself one tiny step at a time. Luckily, there were so many people who lifted me up and helped me find the way. They helped me see there is light at the end of the darkest days. They showed me there is always hope.

Easter will be full of memories and emotions for me this year, as it has been each Easter the last ten years. As the years go by, my memories of our last Easter together are beginning to fade. I'm thankful I can look back on photos of that day to help me remember. 


I miss you Jules. Thanks for the memories.















 

Monday, January 6, 2020

A New Normal


Hope*writers journey – Day 1 

Writing prompt: New


I’m trying to adjust to a new normal in my life.

Just over a month ago my daughter became unwell and was hospitalized. She was diagnosed with a serious, chronic mental illness. Suddenly, we were thrust into a new, unknown world. I was despondent after hearing her diagnosis and nearly paralyzed with fear and worry about her and her future.

How does a mother accept hearing such news about their child? How do I learn to live with this new normal?

More importantly, how can I best support her as she learns to accept and live with this new diagnosis? My instinct is to protect and to take charge. I’m the mom and I’ll make this better for her. But I can’t. This isn’t something I can control and take charge of. I don’t like feeling so powerless. I feel cheated, sad, angry, and guilty. So much guilt. It’s a disease with a genetic basis, after all.

I’m in mourning. For her. For me. For the life I hoped and imagined she might have. She’s on a new, more complicated path in life now, and not one she chose. As scared as I am, she must be even more so. My feelings of loss and fear are nothing compared to what hers must be. My overwhelming emotions are nothing compared to what she is going through. She is trying to learn how to live with a brain that isn’t always going to function in ways that will make life easy for her.

I do know this is her journey and her path to walk, not mine. My job is to be there to hold her hand when she needs support and guidance along the way. Supporting her will require a level of wisdom and patience I don’t yet have. Those are new skills I will need to acquire. I’ll also have to work on building my own strength and emotional resiliency.

We both have our work cut out for us. There will be some bumps and detours along the way, I’m sure. There already have been. There are many new things to learn and absorb. I know things will get better. It is a very treatable illness that can be managed quite successfully with medication and therapy. My daughter is strong, smart, creative and capable. I have confidence she will learn how to take this new, unasked for gift (the word she prefers to use rather than disease) and manage it in a way that allows her to continue on her path to a bright, fulfilling future.

New, unexpected things in life aren’t always asked for or well received. Surprises aren’t always pleasant. Time, experience and perspective can bring acceptance. Eventually, what was once new and unwelcome can become something familiar and appreciated, as well as a source of strength and happiness.   

Monday, November 4, 2019

Bridges

My family gathered this past Saturday in Glenwood Springs, Colorado to celebrate and remember the life of my Aunt Suzanne Shumate, or as she'll always be to me, Aunt Suzy. The location, a train depot high in the mountains of Colorado - in a town visited by many for healing - was perfect. We heard from one of her "girly girl" friends, a group of six women whose friendship began 50 years ago at age 12, when they attended junior high together. Suzanne's grandchildren, Jayden, Nora, and Grace honored her, Jayden with his heartfelt words, and Nora and Grace with their beautiful voices, joined by Suzanne's daughter Sarah. Their three voices blended together perfectly as they sang "It Is Well With My Soul", the words and their voices soothing our minds and hearts. 

Tributes were also shared by my cousins Tony, Michelle, and Adam (Suzanne's son), my mom, and Suzanne's husband John. Even the trains paid tribute, with one arriving at the station during her service, its mournful whistle carrying across the valley and into the hearts of our gathered family, the descendants of generations of railroaders. 

Suzanne was the caboose in her family, born when her siblings were already pre-teens and teens. She was a bridge between the generations, closer in age to some of her nieces and nephews than to her older siblings. The five oldest grandchildren (Tony, Ryan, Michelle, Michael and I) born when Suzanne was still a child living at home, each shared an especially unique bond with our Aunt Suzy. 
As children, we all admired and tried to emulate her in a kind of hero worship way. She was cool and fun! She was stylish and beautiful with thick, waist-length brown hair, and a popular class officer and cheerleader. For me, she was exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. To us cousins, she wasn't quite a peer, but also wasn't a "grown up" and authority figure in our lives like our parents. Our bonds with her were formed when we were babies and lasted throughout our lives. She made sure to stay connected to each of us as we grew up. We each have stories of her making time and space for us in her life and home at critical points in our pre-teen and teenage years during turbulent times in our lives.
Suzanne and my cousin Tony.
Suzanne and my cousin Michelle.
Grandpa, my brother Ryan, grandma, and Suzanne on a visit to see newborn me.
As a pre-teen, I would spend weeks during the summers at her home in Colorado. There, for the first time in my life, I had my own room, a quiet space where I could read and just be alone. During the days, I would "nanny" for her while she worked, taking care of my niece and nephew and keeping things clean around the house. As she did with so many young women both in her family and her corporate career, she was quietly teaching me my worth in the world. She paid me a fair wage for my work, giving me my first taste of the freedom and independence earning my own money could bring. She gave me a great deal of responsibility, but also let me know she believed I could capably handle what she asked of me. She also gave me something I didn't realize then that I needed, which was time, space, and freedom from the responsibilities I had at home. I hope she knew what a gift those times were for me. 

Death, and the rituals of mourning, offer an opportunity to reflect on life. As we have so many times before, my family gathered under one roof and shared food, laughter and our hearts with one another. All of the cousins we there except one, together for one night. We looked at old family photos spread out on the table and hung on makeshift displays around the vacation rental home, reminiscing about the past. We marveled at the family resemblances passed down from one generation to the next, laughed at old hairstyles and clothes, and told stories. Mostly we talked, catching up on the happenings in each other's lives. 
Decorating Easter eggs in grandma's kitchen.

One thing I really love about my French cousins (the family surname, not because they're from France) is that we are unabashed about telling each other that we love and treasure our relationships with one another. We make sure to verbalize what we all feel. "I love you." "I'm here for you." "Thank you for coming to share this time together." We were together to mourn the loss of our Aunt Suzy, yet it was also a celebration of sorts. A celebration of family ties, love, and life. We realize that our time together is precious and rare, and none of us take it for granted. 
French Cousins - November 2, 2019

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Happy 21st Birthday To My Green-eyed Girl

It was 21 years ago today that Gillian Marie Chapman made her entry into the world. My memories of that moment are faint. It had been a long journey to that point, costly both financially and emotionally. It took three years of surgeries, treatments, and IVF attempts, then a 21-hour labor to finally bring Gillian into the world. I do remember her first intense gaze  into my eyes and the instant recognition I felt. There she was, the daughter from my dreams.

Her dad and I had chosen not to find out her gender before she was born. I didn't need to. Somehow I just knew I would be having a girl. My certainty about this amused some people. They encouraged me to be prepared for a boy or a girl. I politely ignored them. I was having a girl. I'd seen her in my dreams. 
Photo by Thomas Hardy
So there I was, at long last holding my living, breathing infant in my arms. My dreams finally a reality. Gillian Marie. My green-eyed girl. I wondered, what kind of person would she be? What kind of mom would I be? Although at 28, I wasn't exactly young when she was born, I look back and marvel at my naïveté. I had been so focused on becoming a mom, that I hadn't given all that much thought to how to be a parent. Like most parents, I suppose, I had confidence that I would figure it out as I went along and do just fine. Now, 21 years into my parenting journey, I'm far more humble about my abilities and much more willing to admit that I need all the help and guidance I can get!

Gillian's intelligence showed early. Her desire to express herself and be heard evident from a very young age. She talked early and would charm adults with her clearly spoken full sentences at 18 months. I was shocked that the "terrible two's" started when she was around 16 months, when our battle of wills started. She has always known her own mind and been determined to do things her own way. I quickly realized that raising her was going to challenge me in ways I'd never imagined. 

One thing I hadn't dreamt of when newborn Gillian was laid in my arms was raising her as a divorced, single mom. Sadly, this became my reality when she was just four years old. Of the many disappointments in my life, this is one of the greatest. My failure to provide her with a loving, stable, secure, two-parent home left me guilt-ridden for years afterwards. Instead, my girl was handed a life split down the middle. She spent her childhood living in two households, moving every other week between her dad's house and mine. The image of tiny Gillian dragging her little pink Hello Kitty suitcase and her ever-present Hello Kitty blanket back and forth to her two homes is one that I can still hardly bear to think about. Did it help make her resilient? And adaptable? And strong? My guilty mother's heart hopes so. 

Gillian's childhood years of pigtails, dolls and playing dress-ups were over before I knew it. She showed many of her unique personality traits at a young age. She's always been an old soul, a quiet observer who prefers to watch and listen at social events rather than being the center of attention. What might be mistaken as quiet aloofness in her isn't that at all. Not much gets by her. She has a quick, dry wit that's informed by her astute observations of what's going on around her. 


Although she no longer fits in my high heels, she hasn't outgrown her love of dressing up and wearing heels. She has a classy, elegant style. Her makeup skills have long been on point, something she definitely didn't get from me! I think it's because of her artistic talent and natural understanding of color and shading. 

Her teenage years were marked by some turbulent times. I was terrified by some of the choices she was making, and worried for her future. I relied heavily on others during that time, calling on my village of friends and others to advise and guide me. Thankfully, we both made it through those stormy years. 

I could write an entire book about the regrets I have as a parent. I know that Gillian suffered on many occasions because of my shortcomings. There are parts of her childhood that weren't at all what I hoped they would be, for either of us. 

The last few years of her youth passed in a flash. There's a saying about parenting that I love, "The days are long, but the years are short." That was definitely the case for me. Before I knew it, my little girl was driving, working, then graduated from high school and off to college. 
Her turning 21 is the perfect occasion to celebrate the adult she's become. I'm so proud of her work ethic, curious mind and passion for her chosen fields of study in Political Science and Environmental Studies. Earlier this year Gillian moved into an apartment along with her boyfriend, Francisco. It's not like most young adult's first apartments, sparsely furnished haphazardly with cast-off furniture. True to her nature, she planned, saved and prepared for nearly a year before moving out. She's created a comfortable, stylish home, decorated with the things she loves, including lots of plants, and unique artwork from up-and-coming artists she finds, follows and supports.   
My green-eyed girl, the daughter that I first knew in my dreams is an adult now. I'm in awe of the talented, creative, strong, independent woman she's become. She's making a good life for herself. She cares deeply about the environment, the future of our country, social justice issues and human rights. Her quick mind is being fed by her professors and classes. She is finding her place in the world. I'm confident that not very far off in the future she will use her knowledge and her voice to challenge the status quo and make a positive impact on the world. 

Happy 21st birthday Gillian! I love you. Make the most of your precious life and go out into the world and do great things. 
Gillian on top of the Acropolis of Athens - September 2019

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

I Just Miss You


I had 34 years of Julie in my life - not nearly enough. We spent more years living apart than we ever spent together. I was 13 and she was 7 when our family was split, with her and my two other younger siblings moving to Colorado to live with our mom. We saw each other during holidays and summer school breaks. When I was 19 and she was 13, I married. For much of her teenage and young adult years, I was caught up in building my own adult life. We still saw each other often, and kept in touch between visits with regular phone calls and irregular note cards and letters to each other. 

Christiansen kids in the early 90's.
Our abrupt, early family separation after our parent's divorce instilled in me a sense of importance about making time to see my family, especially my siblings, whenever the chance arose. Julie moved to Utah to attend college when she was 18 or 19. She lived in Salt Lake City, about 30 miles south of me. She changed apartments and roommates frequently during those years. I visited her in Salt Lake for lunches and dinners when I could, and she came up to Ogden frequently too. 

Those years are a blur in my memories. The dates, incidents and time lines are all jumbled in my mind. Julie had her first serious mental breakdown and suicide attempt during that time. She moved to Ogden to live with our brother for a while so she could be with family and have more stability and support. I marvel now at how little we understood about how serious her condition was. My heart breaks at our naiveté back then. We essentially thought our love could save her.

Julie eventually went back to Colorado. Life went on. We were in our twenties, each of us caught up in living our own lives. We always stayed connected, and I always adored her, but our day-to-day worlds were very different. 

By the time I was in my thirties, I'd come to appreciate and rely on both of my sisters much more. I was a mom, and a three-time divorceé. I had friends and a full life in Utah, but my sisters were my besties. Technology helped. Finally, the decades of physical distance between us mattered very little.  Staying connected became so easy. We had mobile phones, email, instant messaging and texting. Julie and our sister Amy were almost always together. They even worked at the same small company for a time. We were part of each other's everyday lives, just like so many sisters everywhere. If there was a life moment to share or commiserate about - funny, frustrating, sad, challenging - they looped me in. We had constant group instant message chats, 3-way phone calls and text messages.  

Those were such happy years. Somewhere in the mix of that time Julie had another suicide attempt. We were all alarmed and frightened. Mixed in with all the happy times was a growing awareness in the family that Julie was fighting some very dark demons. None of us took her struggles lightly. We knew she was sick. Each of us did whatever we could to help, love and support her. I realize now that much of what we did was well-intentioned, yet often woefully inadequate. 

Maybe it was this awareness of the fragility of her mental health that drove my willingness to spend tine with Julie and my family whenever possible. Until I was 32, I'd never driven alone from my home in Utah to Colorado to visit my family. That changed in 2002 when I drove to Colorado for the birth of my niece Hannah. From then on, my road trips and flights there became more frequent. I said yes to visits much more than I said no. I wanted my daughter Gillian to grow up knowing her cousins, aunts and uncles like I had mine. Julie adored her nieces and nephews, and made equal efforts to visit Utah to see them whenever possible. 

It wasn't always easy to travel so frequently to see Julie and other family members. I was a single mom without a lot of disposable income. Traveling required a fair amount of planning, sacrificing and saving. Much of my vacation time was spent visiting family - driving long hours across Wyoming, enduring summer hail and lightning storms, and often unexpected snow storms - rather than on warm, sunny beaches or in exotic locales. It was stressful to make long road trips with my young daughter. I did it anyway. Of course, I had no way of knowing then how fleeting those times were. I thought we had a lifetime of opportunities to be together

I'm so grateful for the time we had. If there's one thing I could tell anyone about what I've learned from her loss, it's to make time. Make the effort. Make the sacrifices. Spend time with the ones you love. You never know which time will be the last time you see them.

The feelings of loss and the void of no longer having Julie in my life will never go away. 34 years of her wasn't enough. I will always wish there had been more. 

Earlier this year I read a wonderful book, Tragedy Plus Time, a Tragi - Comic Memoir by another survivor of suicide loss, Adam Cayton-Holland. Very few books have been written about the experience of losing a sibling to suicide. He writes eloquently about his experiences in the first few years after his sister Lydia's suicide death. So much of what he wrote touched my heart. His closing words to his sister could have been from me to Julie. 

"I wish I could have had so many more years with you, but I'm grateful for every second that I had. So thank you. I love you. And I miss you so much. See you on the other side."  

I love you forever Jules. I'll miss you always. 
Aunt Julie jumping on the trampoline with her nieces and nephews.
Hannah reading to Aunt Julie. 
Gillian and her Aunt Julie on the 4th of July. 

Julie and her dog Phoenix at mom's house on Easter morning. 

Julie rocking a bikini. 


Julie, Atticus and Keicha in the Cheers bar in Boston.

Sisters together in Boston's North End.