2019 Hale Family Brutally Honest Christmas Letter

Just last week, my friend, Jacquelyn, sent me a link to a blog post in which a mom shared a refreshing idea that got a lot of attention: instead of writing a Christmas letter gushing about her perfect family, she would be a truth teller via a “brutally honest holiday card.” It contained some cute anecdotes about her young family’s misadventures.

Ha ha, we laughed, Brutality, my ass. Tantrums in Target and adult acne are for amateurs.

This exchange is what finally gave me the inspiration to write this letter, something I’ve had a dull dread about since the Christmas season started. It’s been a rough year but, dammit, we are going to find humor in it.

Santa-exhausted

So, gather round your computer screen (they’ll be no cards this year) and settle in for the annual Hale Family Brutally Honest Christmas New Year’s Letter. I had to look at photos on my phone to remind myself of what happened in 2018. Holy balls. I need a drink after that scroll. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.

Sometime in the spring, Sean’s right leg decided to break from the rest of his body and go on a solo tour. It began with tremors and then morphed into something much worse. When he walked, he looked like a marionette being controlled by a sadistic puppeteer. The jarring reaction from his physical therapist when she witnessed this new development landed us in the hospital for a deja vu experience straight out of the seventh layer of hell.

What began as an ER visit quickly snowballed into a 70+ day inpatient stay that included four consecutive days in ER purgatory, where Sean became so agitated that he had to have an actual policeman stationed in his room at all times, followed by two abrupt stays at two different inpatient rehab facilities (he got kicked out of both), and a lengthy stay on the neuro floors of both Memorial Chattanooga and Vanderbilt, in Nashville. It concluded with a three-week stint at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. During these last three weeks, Sean’s beloved mother, Mary, died after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s. I had to deliver this news to him in a windowless room at the Psych hospital, flanked by a nurse and his psychiatrist. Have I reached the level of brutal honesty yet?

To add insult to injury, Sean was in no condition to travel and he was unable to attend his mother’s funeral in Illinois. Thanks to the exceptional efforts of the staff at Vanderbilt (I cannot say enough good things about that hospital), Sean was able to Skype into the ceremony and watch his loved ones pay tribute to Mary. Her life may have been cut short by a devastating disease, but she accomplished something that few people do: she managed to raise three boys to be wonderful fathers and husbands. We will miss her always.

Sean and his Forrest-Gump-running-cross-country beard finally got the greenlight to come home in June and, while we were happy to have him back, the kids and I had settled into a peaceful existence in his lengthy absence. Adjusting to the return of an unpredictable, sometimes-hostile father/husband was not easy. With the help of Sean’s exceptional neuro and psych team at Vanderbilt, his condition has improved substantially. We struggle daily to balance his need to control everything around him and my determination that the kids lead a happy, balanced life. It’s not easy but there is progress.

Have we talked about Sean enough yet? Good. Let’s move on.

I transitioned from online-only teaching at Tennessee Wesleyan to actual classroom lectures in January. Born AFTER I graduated from college, my post-millennial students intimidated the heck out of me in the beginning but I quickly found my footing. Interacting with these students and preparing for class each week gave me a sense of purpose that, in a very real way, saved my life during this past year. I taught two more in-person classes this fall and will begin three more this month. I feel certain that my Dead Poet Society moment is just around the corner. Carpe diem!

Truman went to his first Model UN conference in D.C. in March. He’ll return this year and spend a week of geeky bliss in our nation’s capital with his fellow teenage diplomacy junkies. I cannot get enough of him in his bowtie and suit! In the absence of Sean’s considerable handyman skills, Truman, with help from my Dad, has learned to fix all manner of household issues. He’s my handyman, my errand boy (him passing the driver’s test was the highlight of my year) and my finder of lost things. I’ve got just a little over two years left with him under my roof and I plan to savor every moment.

Tatum is in her final year of middle school and her third-year cheering for the CMS Raiders basketball teams. She threw her name into the hat for cheer captain this year and made it. How on earth yours truly produced someone capable of becoming a cheer captain—let alone a cheerleader—is beyond me. She’s level-headed, uber-organized, makes good decisions and serves as the official manager of my crazy. I’d be lost without her.

Harper has joined every possible club that fourth grade has to offer. She’s on the show choir, the yearbook club and the leadership team. If we get a flyer for an activity, come hell or high water, she’s participating. She whines too much and leaves a pile of glittery debris everywhere she goes, but she loves with reckless abandon. Her overt affection is the antidote for all that ails me.

I started to list all of the incredible acts of generosity and kindness that our family has received this year, but it was too long. There are too many blessings, too many people to thank. Thinking about it overwhelms me. If you are one of the many people who called me to chat, took the kids off my hands for a few days, took me to NYC to see Hamilton, donated to Truman’s UN trip, met me for lunch, drove with me to Vanderbilt, took Sean out for a burger, sent us a card, gave Truman a car (yes, this actually happened), gave us a new couch and loveseat, brought us a meal, gave my kids a ride, or invited us over to hang out and pretend to be normal for a few hours, we thank you. Tragedy sheds light on who your people are.

Damn, we’re a lucky bunch.

Love to all,

The Hales

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greeting Card Breakdown

John Cougar Mellencamp released the song, “I Saw You First” in 1996. It’s relatively forgettable but it had a lyric in the second stanza that stuck with me: She whispered in his ear, “boy, you are my star.”

you are my star

This was exactly how I felt about Sean in 1996. As such, I have written “Boy, you are my star” in every card I have ever given him since. I usually throw a little drawing of a star in the card for good measure. It’s my thing. And I’ve been doing it for 22 years.

Last night, we celebrated Sean’s 45thbirthday. I went to Walgreens to pick up a card for him and, after reading every card designated “husband,” I felt deflated. None of them spoke to me. None of them rang true. It

If you’ve ever met me before, you know that I have trouble with insincerity. Buying a card that expresses an untruth is something that is harder for me than the average bear. I started crying a little bit because picking out a card for Sean has always been a breeze. Any husband card, no matter how sappy, fit the bill. He has always been everything a husband should be—a great father, a good listener, my shelter from every storm. He was very easy to love.

But our relationship has taken a dramatic shift and Hallmark doesn’t make a card for this new dynamic. Greeting card companies don’t print floral card stock that says,

You were an amazing husband and father for 20 years                                                                       

but I’ve all but forgotten that person.

I still love you but it’s hard.

The loving doesn’t come easy these days.

This, friends, is the stark truth of my relationship now. I eased up on my ridiculous standards and purchased one with a simple, loving sentiment. There was no, “Boy, you are my star” on the card I gave him last night, but don’t worry, he didn’t notice.

Come with Me and You’ll Be…

Check out this photo, taken from my kid’s bathroom counter just minutes ago.

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Notice anything strange about it? It’s clearly a tube of toothpaste. The lid though. There is something off about that lid.

Did Arm and Hammer come up with some sort of bizarre spray toothpaste mechanism?

Nope, that’s not it.

I know because I recognize the lid. It came from a Mennen deodorant spray I bought several months ago on the Publix clearance shelf and never used (turns out I’m not a fan of the spray antiperspirant).

How? you ask. How did it get on the toothpaste?

Only one person can tell you that. And she’s asleep in her bed, shirtless with sequined cat ears on her head. Stay tuned.

Clarity is a Bitch

The ego is a funny thing and mine has created tunnel vision around Sean’s illness. I focus on the impact it has on me. I lost my partner. I lost my co-parent. I lost my income. I lost my idyllic family. I lost my future, my camper, my vacation plans, my freedom, my carefree existence. I’ve even lost a few friends who just don’t know what the hell to do with our new dynamic so they have chosen, instead, to shrink into the background. I get it. Prior to this mess, I might have done the same.

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What I often fail to recognize is the impact it has on Sean. He has, quite literally, lost his mind. Without the benefit of a functioning limbic system, he’s lost the ability to control his emotions, to remember things that happened five minutes ago, to process complicated things happening around him, to see clearly, to think critically. He’s lost his identity as the provider, the fixer of all that is broken, the finder of all that is lost. And, in a sadistic twist of fate, his mind doesn’t allow him the luxury of not being aware of these deficits. He has moments of total clarity when he not only recognizes his impairments but also feels the weight of them in his life to come.

Can you imagine?

He gets one life and, barring a miracle, he will spend the second half of it confused and unable to function at a level even close to normal.

Today I watched one of these revelatory episodes in the car on the way home from a physical therapy session that ended badly. Sean was in such a hurry to get out of the clinic that I was unable to speak to the therapist to find out what the heck happened. He was crying and angry. By the time he buckled his seat belt, he couldn’t remember what had set him off. When I pushed him on the issue, he clutched the sides of his head with both hands, rocked back and forth and began to sob. He banged his hands on the dash and said, “I can’t remember. Damnit, damnit! I know something happened but my brain is broken and I cannot remember what. Why me? Why is this happening to me?”

If I had a nickel for every time I asked myself and God that question…

This scene brought me back from my own pity party and into a place of true empathy, something my survival instinct has allowed me to avoid much of the time. I looked at him and saw the man that I love and have shared my life with for the past 21 years, struggling to make sense of a devastating brain injury that makes no damn sense. It broke me.

How will we create some sort of quality of life for the next 40 years? How will he ever accept his condition and stop torturing himself by asking why? How will I? Will he ever experience joy again? Is it even possible?

These are the questions running through my head on this fine Monday morning. I think a hilarious cat video is in order. Got any good ones?

Books for the Broken, Part 1

When my charmed life came to an abrupt end last August, I attempted to cope in many ways. The first was to stop eating. I was so consumed with anxiety and fear that I failed to pay attention to the needs of my body and only ate when it screamed loud enough for me to hear. This resulted in a quick 30-pound weight loss. Fitting into clothes I never dreamed I’d wear again was one of the few things that brought me pleasure during that time but it was short lived. When the constant panic abated, I resumed an activity that has been a lifelong companion: eating my feelings. Pudgy Julianne is back but that’s ok. We still love her.

While my desire for food all but evaporated, another craving appeared: an appetite for books about suffering. I’m a person who likes to prepare myself for things. When I started to take writing seriously, I read every book I could find about making money as a writer. When I decided to plant an herb garden, I picked out as many books on growing herbs as I could get my hands on at the library. That’s how I roll. I don’t like attempting new projects unprepared. Suffering didn’t afford me any preparation time. She came over me like a tidal wave, swallowing me whole, leaving devastation and carnage in her wake.

So, I did what any good preparation junkie does. I developed a voracious appetite for books about suffering. I scoured the internet for recommendations, seeking advice from both secular and Christian perspectives. I wanted to know all I needed to know about suffering—how to survive it, how to thrive, how to raise children, how to be a caretaker, how to accept a life that is nothing like I planned, how to walk with my kids through their grief for someone who still joins us at the dinner table every night.

For those of us now suffering and those who will (don’t kid yourself—that’s all of us), I am developing a list of books that have helped me during this time. Books that have given me inspiration, direction or made me feel less alone. I’m encouraged to report that there are many books for people like me—those of us who are facing the unimaginable.

I’m going to kick off this series with a book I just finished: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler. Written by a professor at Duke Divinity School who has spent the bulk of her academic career studying the prosperity gospel, this story chronicles her struggle to face a stage IV colon cancer diagnosis as a young mother, wife and professional.

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The prosperity gospel, with its if-you’re-good-enough-and-pray-hard-enough mentality, is devastating for anyone facing a crisis or suffering because it suggests that whatever tragedy a person or family is facing is somehow caused by their lack of faith. Bowler manages to approach the well-meaning sentiments of her friends and colleagues with compassion and humor and teaches all of her readers a valuable lesson in what to say (and what NOT to say) to someone in a crisis. My favorite part of the book was a list she provided in Appendix I entitled, “Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List,” a must read for every human being on earth.

Read this book. It will make you a better friend.

Thanks Kate.

De-Compartmentalizing

It has been five days since Sean’s discharge from the psychiatric hospital. He is not the father and husband that left us 2.5 months ago and we have to work this new version of him into our lives.

After 75+ days in a hospital bed, this adjustment has not been easy on him. He’s not used to the kids, the dog, our new housemate (we have a college student living with us), the noise, the chaos. His body is sluggish and atrophied.

We are not used to his impulsivity, his slurred speech (medication-induced), his unpredictability, his slow-response time and his spastic movements. In his absence, we built a safety bubble of distance around us, allowing ourselves to compartmentalize both Sean and his illness–not fair but absolutely true. It has been an incredibly difficult adjustment and has sent yours truly right back into crisis mode.

Right now, Sean is washing our dinner dishes at the sink. He’s working like a blind man, using his hands to guide him from dish to dish, the effort of pointing his eyes downward too difficult. His left leg is doing its own thing, moving independently as if being controlled by a sadistic puppeteer. He takes each dish and rubs it for at least 30 seconds with his hands under the water before placing it in the dishwasher.

Head in Hands

Me: Sean, you don’t need to scrub each dish with your fingers. We have a really good dishwasher. You don’t even need to rinse unless there are visible food chunks.

Him: continues to rub the dishes without even acknowledging my words.

I mention the wasted water, a strategy that would have been very effective a year ago. Still no response.

I  watch as he struggles through dish after dish, banging around like he’s in the galley of a ship during a storm. It’s painful. Every fiber in my being wants to micromanage his every move, to teach him how to be normal again.  I just want him to be normal again.

I want to bask in the glorious monotony of a conventional life.

But a conventional life is a privilege I no longer have, he no longer has, we no longer have. The task at hand is to walk away from the sink, let him do the damn dishes, find a way to accept Sean just as he is, and find meaning and fulfillment in the shit storm of our unconventional life.

Urine Not Gonna Believe This

Spending two weeks in the hospital means making certain concessions. For example, I typically don’t allow anyone other than a child who is either bleeding or cannot breathe into my room at 2 a.m. but, here at the hospital, there are CNAs coming in at all hours of the night to check Sean’s blood pressure, draw blood and take his temperature.

I get it. These disruptions come with the territory. Armed with an eye mask and sleeping pills, I can easily overcome these inconveniences.

One thing I cannot abide is Sean being asked the following questions:

Have you tinkled any since I last saw you? How many times have you tinkled?

Richard Simmons

No amount of sedatives can squelch the rage that builds up inside of me when she asks these questions repeatedly to a 44-year-old man.

I’ve spent the last two days trying to come up with a clever response but my creativity is on hiatus. If anyone’s got a witty, biting comeback to a non-pediatric nurse’s use of the word, “tinkle,” I’m all ears.