My dad

phd planIn looking at this cartoon about Ph.D. plan vs. Ph.D. reality, I can probably label each one of those bumps along the road. One might be when I started my new job. One might be my divorce. Another one might be for the medical challenges I faced. But that last one, that big one toward the end, I know exactly what that one is. That one is from last fall, when my dad got sick.

Just before school started I took the day off to go with my parents to see my dad’s orthopedic surgeon. He was supposed to have shoulder replacement surgery, but when they did the MRI, they found something suspicious. The appointment was to determine if he could have surgery or if he had cancer.

He had cancer.

The roller coaster began. It was doctors’ appointments, biopsies, and tests, tests and more tests. I sat with my dad as he staunchly told the nurse he had a DNR. I waited for him as he struggled to breath walking down the hallway, but too proud and stubborn to accept a ride in a wheelchair. I smiled and joked with him trying to help him keep his dignity as I undressed him because he couldn’t do it himself. I listened to what the doctor said. I asked questions. I tried to help my parents understand. i tried to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Then one Friday morning when I was at work, my mom called. Dad had fallen down in the bathroom and they were rushing him to the hospital. I left work. Raced home. Packed a bag. And went to him. I stayed with him in the hospital. They were trying to determine the primary source of the cancer. They were trying to determine how to treat it. They were trying to determine if they could treat it.

They couldn’t.

The next month was crazy. He went from the hospital to a nursing home where we struggled as a family to decide the best course of action, or inaction.

All the while, I brought my laptop and worked on my dissertation. I spent hours at night at the hospital or the nursing home sitting with my dad and typing away. He knew that I was close to finishing my dissertation and he was so proud of me. He had done all of his course work for his Ph.D. but never did the dissertation. I was the first in my family to finish.

At first I worked hard because I thought I could finish it while he was still alive and he could see me graduate. But then I knew he wasn’t going to make it until the spring and I was doubly determined to finish it for him.

Writing was kind of a companion for me late at night. I like to think that while the beeping of the machines he was on kept me company, the clicking of the keys while I typed kept him company. He knew I was there.

At the end of October, just about two months after we found out he had cancer, we brought him home to say good-bye. As he was so fond of saying in the last weeks of his life, he wanted to die surrounded by his loving family, and he did.

I was there with him. We had all been there with him at the end. His loving wife. All six of his children and their spouses. All thirteen of his grandchildren and their significant others, and both of his great grandsons.

But his reach went far beyond his family.

He was a coach. He coached baseball and basketball right up until the month before he got sick. He coached hundreds of kids over the 40+ years he coached. But he didn’t just influence the kids he coached; he changed everyone he came in contact with. Opposing coaches and opposing teams came to his wake to tell us how he impacted their lives through the strength of his character. His entire baseball team, in their uniforms came to the funeral to stand proud for him.

Everyone was special and important to him. He always took the time to talk to anyone he met. As a kid, it drove me crazy that he talked to anyone and everyone, but now it makes me proud to realize the impact he had on people’s lives because he took the time to talk to them. I try to be more like him each day.

I miss him everyday. We all do. I will miss him even more tomorrow, when I walk across the stage and get hooded as the first doctor in my family and he isn’t there to hold me in his arms and tell me he’s proud of me. But he will be there with me in spirit. He will be there in the tears I cry, the shouts of joy, and the sense of pride and accomplishment.

I love you dad. This moment is dedicated to you.

Gratitude

I can’t believe it. I feel so grateful for everything that is in my life. It is only recently that I can even realize the many blessings in my life compared to where I was. I currently have the most amazing supports in my life. I have some amazing local supports of friends who will hold me and love me through everything. I also have friends from throughout different stages of my life who love and support me from a distance.

For much of my life I didn’t feel like I deserved friends like the ones I have now. I didn’t think I should have people who loved me. It’s hard to imagine but I feel like for the first time in my life I am letting myself bloom, letting myself be happy.

I look at what I have in my life now and I know that I couldn’t have had this just a few short years ago. My ex-husband held me back. He didn’t want me to have friends. He was controlling. He was overshadowing. And I let it happen. I thought that was love. I thought that was what I deserved.

When he got mad, I also thought I deserved that.

When he lost his temper, I thought it was my fault.

When he blamed me, I blamed me too.

But there was an angel in my life who helped me to see a light. A brighter future. And a promise of something better. And for that I will be forever grateful.

Since then, I have realized that there is an amazing world out there that I am part of. That I deserve to be part of. That I make better by being part of it.

I always thought I was pretty accelerated at things. I was a good student. I excelled in my studies and I have always been pretty forward moving and goal orientated in my career. But when it comes to life, I guess I am a late bloomer.

I feel like a butterfly who has finally gotten out of my cocoon and out of the dark shadows of my past. I feel like I can finally spread my wings and fly. I feel like I deserve this happiness that I am now feeling.

gratitude

I am so grateful for the blessings in my life.

Each morning I wake up with a smile on my face for the amazing gifts I have in my life. That you to all those people who saw I was worthy before I did and who have helped me to embrace my new found sense of self.

The other side…

On what should have been the first day of summer vacation I attended the funeral for a 13-year-old little girl. It was for a young girl in a neighboring community.

It wasn’t a student I knew personally, but through her I could see and feel the sorrow of hundreds of middle school children who suffer and are sad. They just can’t see beyond the hurt of today.

I wish she could have seen the church today. Full, no overflowing, with people there to love and remember her. I wish she could have felt the love for her in that church.

It breaks my heart to see so many students and teachers on what should have been the first day of summer, saying good-bye to a classmate.

But the saddest part of today is that she couldn’t see beyond her current pain to get help, reach out, or to understand that it will get better.

Every day I work with children and families to try to help them through the middle school years. I don’t have any secrets or magic answers, but I always try to give the kids some perspective and tell them that it does get better.

Adolescence is hard. It was hard when we were kids, but the challenges and pressures that these kids face are so much harder. The media certainly doesn’t help. Nor does the constant access to peers, friends, and total strangers who are all trying to convince them of something different.

teen species

It takes a very strong teenager to stand up to the hype, and not many of them can do that on their own. Then with 2 parents working, or only 1 parent at home and working, the challenges are compounded. The support system is flawed at best and non-existent at worst.

Life is hard. But to all those adolescents out there, it does get better. You will have to work at it to make it better. Surround yourself with people who build you up and care about you. Find activities that make you feel good about yourself. Stand up for yourself and for what you believe in. Be gentle with yourself, mistakes happen, learn from them. And when it feels like you can’t go on, find someone to talk to. When it feels like you are all alone, don’t be. Reach out to someone. There are people out there who care about you. There are people who understand what you are going through, and have made it to the other side.

Blessed

IMG_3580 This is a picture that I took of the sunset last night. Yes. I am lucky enough to be so close to the water and a place where sunsets like this are fairly common occurrence. As I watched the sunset last night with some friends, I realized how truly blessed I am.

The past few years have been kind of rough. Going through a divorce is never easy. Having been through it twice it can break you, if you let it. But sometimes getting through the hard times is what allows you the distance to reflect on where you are in your life and appreciate the amazing people who are a part of your life.

I definitely have some amazing people in my life.

I have friends who have known me forever. Friends who are Facebook friends with my dad (yes – he’s on FB and I’m not). And friends who are just getting to know me (and trying to get me on FB).

I have friends who have known me before I ever got married, those who have known me and supported me in varying stages of marriage and divorce, and friends who have never known any of my ex’s and just know the me I have become.

I have friends who held my babies when they were born, built snowmen with my sons when they were just kids, and friends who have become family supports to my boys as they have become amazing young men.

I have friends who stalk my blog, friends who comment and discuss my blog, and friends who are common inspirations for my blog.

As I look back on my journey of life I think about the random happenings, the twists and turns, the agonizing decisions and the split second decisions that led me to where I am now. And I wouldn’t change a second of it. Because each of those moments have made me who I am and connected me with the people who love and cherish me.

So as you read this blog take a moment to enjoy a sunset.IMG_3583

Count all of the blessings you have in your life.

Don’t forget to count the people who have touched your life.

Those who have been with you through it all and those who have just begun walking with you.

To all my friends, both new and old, I love you and thank you for sharing a sunset with me.

Strength

Strength comes in many shapes and sizes,

many forms and functions,

many ways and words.

Strength comes when a mom holds her baby for the first time and knows in that moment that she will do anything to protect her baby. It also comes when her grown baby is in tears because their heart has been broken, or someone has treated them poorly, or they had to learn for themselves that life isn’t fair, and knowing she can’t fix it.

Strength can be found in a grown adult sitting by their parent’s bedside while they are recovering from surgery, still waiting to find out what the next steps are. It can be found in the waiting room of a hospital in the family members hoping, praying, and just being there, being together.

Strength comes when a smart, beautiful, young lady spent her junior year of high school battling cancer instead of her grades. When she shaved her own hair before the chemo could take it away from her.

Strength can be found in the eyes of a 12-year-old girl who finally got up the courage to tell her father that she was raped by her boyfriend. And in her steely response when her father asked if she did anything to encourage the boy.

Strength comes when a woman stands up to the man she loves, the man who promised to love and protect her, but instead filled her with fear and terror. When she finally finds a way to protect herself and her family from the man who threatened to ruin it all.

Strength can be found in weakness, in tears, in fear. Because in those moments, when we are often at our weakest, it is then that we feel the strength to push on, the strength to move forward, the strength to ask for help.

Strength comes from knowing when to walk away, and when to walk towards.

Strength can be found in the arms of a friend, who doesn’t have to say a word.

Strength comes in the familiar “ding” of a text message or email alert from someone who cares enough.

Strength can be found in the amazing people who are in our lives.

To walk with us,

to cry with us,

to celebrate with us,

and to just be with us.

I am blessed for all of the different ways I have experienced strength.

I try every day to accept the strength others give to me, and to be strong for them in return.

I’m not a very big person. I doubt anyone would describe me as physically very tough or strong.

But I have seen strength, I have felt strength, and through my experiences, I have known strength.

gentle strength

Experiences

A recent blog post suggestion asked what would your present self tell your 10 years ago self. 10 years is an interesting timeframe for me as I am 1 year out of a 10-year long marriage. As I look back on the past 10 years, actually on the past 20 years, I would have liked to have been able to spare myself some of the heart ache and pain. I would have liked to tell myself to be smarter and not get involved with this man, or that man. But in the end, who I am today has been shaped by each choice and each decision that I have made. Who I am and where I am is because of the events that have happened in my life. Hopefully some of the wisdom I have gained from those experiences will help me to help others.

Over the past few weeks I have talking to 13-year-old girl about a horrible event that happened to her. She had a bad start to the school year and was acting in a way that I thought was out of character for her. She was being down right mean. I had a few occasions to talk to her, and one of those times she told me in detail about the horrible thing that happened to her last year. And while I thought that no 13-year-old should ever have to go through what she endured, it started to make sense to me as to why she was so angry and mean.

A few of the things we talked about really resonated with me and made me appreciate what I have been through, if only to help this girl.

One of the things we talked about was the meanness of people. She was talking about how mad she would get when people made jokes or comments about her. Many of the kids knew generic, and often incorrect, information about what happened to her, so when they made comments or did things, she overreacted to them because it was so raw and painful. She said to me, “Ms. S. you can’t tell me that when someone is talking about you, you are just going to sit there and take it. You get mad and want to get back at them.”

I told her that people could be mean at any age.

At the end of last year I told my teachers that I would be going back to using my maiden name. I wanted to be sure they knew so that they were not surprised when emails started coming from me with my new last name. Most of the teachers don’t know the details of my divorce, nor do they need to. But I happened to overhear two of them talking about me, snidely commenting on me being divorced, again. It hurt. I didn’t like what they were saying. I didn’t like the judgment they were passing on me because it was such a raw and painful experience for me.

When I told her this story she said, “You could fire them.” I laughed, not for that. But I did still have to work with these teachers professionally. So we talked about taking the high road and knowing that my real friends understood and were there to support me. I also admitted to her that it did hurt. I didn’t like people talking about me. I didn’t like people judging me. But what was more important than what they said and that they were talking about me, was my reaction to them. I couldn’t control them. I could only control me and my reaction to them.

After one of our conversations she told her mom that she told me the whole story. She told her mom that after we talked she felt “lighter.” One of the things I tried to stress to her was that she was not alone. While most other 13-year-olds would not understand or be able to relate to what she had been through, I tried to assure her that she isn’t alone.

She told me later that when I shared with her some of my experiences she felt better. She said it helped to know that someone else understood what she was feeling and that she isn’t alone. I have noticed that she does look lighter. I’ve seen her smile more. I’ve seen her be a little kid again talking about silly junior high stuff. And I’ve seen her smile at me with a warmth that comes from knowing that someone else gets it.

She has talked about moving to a different school next year and I cautioned her that running away isn’t the answer. It might seem easier at times, but this isn’t something to outrun, but rather something to outlive. I encouraged her to think about what would be best for her. And in the end, she has to make decisions for her future, not simply to escape her past.

It’s easy to run. It’s easy to get mad. It’s easy to act like you don’t care. But in the end, what happens to us shapes who we are and who we become.

I was married, and divorced, twice. I have been in abusive and controlling relationships. I have been victimized, but I am not a victim. I am a survivor.

So if everything that I have been through over the past 20 years has helped this little girl know she isn’t alone, then it is all worth it.

If I could, I would tell my younger self that you are stronger than you think and you will have to deal with a lot, but in the end you will help others.

Practice what we preach

I work with middle school students all day long. I spend a lot of time trying to help them to deal with and navigate social situations, especially bullying and cyber bullying. You would like to think I don’t have to deal with adult bullying in my life, and sometimes it is harder to recognize, but that is exactly what my ex-husband is – a bully.

Don’t react – or at least don’t let them see you react

I tell my students that the bully likes the reaction. They thrive on upsetting their victim and seeing the reaction. In junior high one of the hardest things is that the friendships twist and turn so much that the “best of friends” one week are the one who are tormenting each other the next week.

The bigger problem with that is they know each other’s secrets and they know how to hurt each other. It makes the betrayal sting all the more. Someone who you once trusted is now the one using those secrets against you. Which makes it even harder not to react. I often tell my students that the hurt is there and very real, but if you don’t show them that it hurt you, then you take away the power they have over you.

Unfortunately, that is the tactic my ex-husband uses. He is so used to having control over me and being able to manipulate me that he pushes those buttons, hoping they will still work. It does still upset me, but instead of showing him my reaction, I have a few friends I will often text with a random “He’s such an ass” text. They have learned that this is my release for when my ex does something that is upsetting me. I have tried my best to take away the power that he has over me, step by step. First is by not letting him see me react. Soon (I hope), he will stop being able to upset me by the things he says. I’m still working on that.

What about the bully?

But the other part of my job is that I am often in my office with that kid who is being the bully or (more recently) the “mean girl”. And when confronted, they are just scared little kids who are pushing first because they are afraid of being hurt. They will often break down in my office and tell me the terrible things happening in their lives. Sometimes they are facing inexplicable horrors in their own lives. Sometimes an adult is taking advantage of them at home. Sometimes there is no adult who seems to be paying them any attention at home, so they are taking care of younger kids. And sometimes, they just don’t know how to interact with people in a nice way, so they do so in a mean way.

I have tried to remember this when dealing with my ex. He has spent most of his life manipulating and controlling people that he really doesn’t know how to interact in a non-confrontational way. While I can’t be the person to help him learn this skill in his life as I might try to do with my students, I can at least try to understand why he does what he does. He has lost power and control over me and so he lashes out. It doesn’t make it easier when he pushes my buttons, but it does help me later on when I stop and think about what he has in his life and what I have.

Taking back the power

One of the things I struggle with my students with is encouraging them to take back the power from the bully. There were several students being picked on by the same student. I tried to encourage them to realize that they are more powerful as a whole than the kid picking on them. It’s a tough lesson to learn and hard for middle school kids to stand up to someone they perceive as having more power then them. In working with my support staff and teachers, we are trying to show these kids they are the ones who have the power.

And that is what I did a year and a half ago, the first time I told my ex-husband “no” and stuck to it. I took back the power he had over me for years. I’m still fighting to maintain that power and control. I don’t always feel like I have any power, but I know I do. I have broken from his control and I do have the power over him that I once didn’t. I won’t let him know how much he hurts me, but I know that at the end of the day I have power over me and that’s more than he has.

Redefining alone 

Every other weekend I have to see my ex husband. He brings his new girlfriend with him every time he sees me. It’s his way of proving to me that he’s moved on. It’s his way of rubbing it in my face that I’m alone and he isn’t.

But maybe alone isn’t what I think it is. A good friend of mine told me that maybe what I need to do is redefine what it means to be alone.

Dictionary.com defines alone as:

  1. Separate, apart, or isolated from others: I want to be alone. 
  2. To the exclusion of all others or all else: One cannot live by bread alone. 
  3. Unique; unequaled; unexcelled: He is alone among his peers in devotion to duty. 

In looking at definition 1, I’m certainly not alone. I’m not isolated from others. But in many ways my ex is alone. He has separated himself from his family and his friends. He keeps himself isolated and alone. I don’t. I have amazing friends and family who care for me and check in with me on a regular basis. I have people in my life that I can turn to to make me laugh, that I can depend on when I need a shoulder to cry on. I have people in my life that let me vent and that build me up when I’m down. I have good people in my life who remind me to be gentle and patient with myself.

According to the second definition I’m also not alone. My ex tried to keep me alone when we were together. He tried to control me and keep me away from others both physically and emotionally. Whenever I made a connection with someone, he would try to turn it around and keep me away from them. He made me doubt their intentions. It was actually one of the turning points in our marriage. He tried to ban me from seeing a friend I had made at work and tried to force me to choose between him and my friend. I don’t know why I refused to give up this friend but I just wouldn’t do it. It was the first time I had really said no to him about his controlling behaviors and he spiraled out of control.

As for being unique, I’m not alone in that way either. That is one of the great things I’ve learned through blogging and through connecting with people. I am divorced. I was lied to, manipulated and threatened by the man who promised to keep me safe and love me forever. But I’m not the only one. I have a strong group of women I connect with who are going through similar situations. We talk, we share, we connect and we commiserate. While unfortunate, I’m not unique in what I’m going through.

So I guess it’s not so much about redefining being alone, but defining it correctly and realizing that I am not alone. I do not currently have a significant other in my life. But my life is filled with many significant others who love me and care about me. I am not alone.

Loss

Divorce is more than just the loss of a spouse.

At our final court date my ex husband brought his new girlfriend, his sister and his niece. I have known his niece her whole life. I actually talked to her when her mom was pregnant. I held her as a baby. I’ve watched her grow. And for whatever it’s worth it broke my heart to see her stand before me in the courthouse and not run over and hug her. She was more mature than her 9 years of age and she stayed by her mom and her uncle knowing that it wasn’t ok to reach out to me anymore. But she also showed her age when smiled at me and waved when no one else was looking. That’s when my heart broke.
When my husband and I met we worked together. Many of his friends from work I already knew and many of my friends he already knew. When we divorced those were some of the hardest people for me to tell. They knew us when we started dating and then got married. They knew us when things seemed to be at their best. We moved to another state a few years after we married and so we didn’t see our friends from our old job all that often. So for me it was tough to tell them how bad things had gotten and that we were getting a divorce. I felt like a failure. I didn’t want them to be disappointed in me. My ex actually reached out to one of my good friends from when we worked together to ask her to help us reconcile. She didn’t want to get in the middle of it but by knowing both of us they were all in the middle. It was difficult and awkward for me. I think now I’ve gotten to a place with the people we knew together where I can just be me and not put them in the middle. I know which friends are his who I no longer contact. And I know which friends are mine and I know they love me for who I am.

His other friends that knew him first and only knew me through him have gone back to being his friends. I don’t know what he’s told them and can only imagine it isn’t good based in the looks they give me when they see me. But I have to remember that my friends are not calling him up and hanging out with him either. There is a separation of friendships.

As hard as it is to split friends, family is harder. Not in the sense of who supports whom but in the sense of loss. There are nieces and nephews each of us won’t see grow up. There are brother- and sister- in- laws neither of us can connect with any more. There are parent in-laws each of us has to pretend we don’t care about. For me, there is a whole network of people who used to be interwoven in my life who have been removed and now leave holes.

They always say that when you marry someone you marry their whole family. What they forget to mention is when you divorce someone you lose that family too.

Effort not an excuse

photoA friend of mine recently shared with me her new favorite quote “When someone truly cares about you they make an effort, not an excuse.”

This is something that I have learned a lot about over the past year. When you are going through hard times in your personal life you learn who your friends are. But I think it goes beyond just friendships. I think that this quote is also about the way in each people approach life.

I work with people all day long. I’m a principal of a middle school. I’ve been in education for a long time. I have dealt with students, parents, teachers, administrators, support staff and community members. When things get tough people tend to do one of two things: they either make an excuse or they make an effort.

Those who make an excuse, tend to blame others for things that have gone wrong. They find an excuse for why it isn’t their fault. They try to place the blame on someone else, anyone else.  Quite often they try to place that blame on me for being the one who called them out on their behavior.

On the other hand, those who make an effort accept responsibility for their actions and try to figure out how to make a change. Some people, when being called out for doing something they shouldn’t, will apologize and try to learn from their actions. They make an effort to improve or change their behaviors.

I can usually tell the way in which a student will react by how their parents react when I call them. If I call a parent and they try to deflect the blame, the student will usually also try to deflect the blame and make an excuse for why their behavior is wrong. But when the parent accepts responsibility for their child and makes an effort to improve or at least address that behavior, the child will also usually make an effort to learn from it as well.

Teachers react much the same way by either making an excuse or an effort. When confronted about a situation that happened either in their classroom or with a student some teachers will make an excuse: the kids behaved differently in their class because I was in there, the students aren’t capable of doing what the we expect them to do, the parents aren’t supportive enough, I wasn’t supportive enough, and the excuses go on and on.

But other teachers reflect and think about what they can do to make things go better the next time. They make the effort. They take responsibility and want to make it better next time. I find that those teachers who take responsibility doesn’t even need me there to call them on something, they make the effort right away reflecting on what is happening in their classroom.
Clearly working with people who make an effort is easier than working with those who make excuses. In my role as an administrator I am continually put in a position where I work with people to get beyond the excuses and put forth the effort. I listen to the excuses, and then I try to help the individual get beyond those excuses and help them to see the part they played in the situation and focus on the effort they can put in to improve the situation. It is definitely a lot of work, but when you can get someone to see beyond the excuses and begin to make an effort, it is definitely worthwhile.