The gift that keeps giving

I survived a year that should have broken me.

I am forever shaped by the tragedies of 2020. I am changed by the staggering amount of pain and anguish that I was forced to confront head-on.

I have been transformed by not having to face any of it alone. The force of love behind my family this year is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It is so, so beautiful.

I have been given such a gift of relationships. Relationships with unlikely friends who have stepped into the void to hold me up or let me crumble or let me just be ME. Relationships with family took that word and put it into action. Relationships with Abigael’s inner circle, who let me continue to know her. Relationships with a community that I feel so embraced by. My loves—my husband and my children—my vision of their intrinsic value will never be blurred again by the chaos of the mundane.

And now I am beginning a year that Abigael is not in this world. I will not make any memories with my daughter this year.


That realization sucks. It hurts. And it’s not happy or good or merry or bright.

But I know I will survive it. There is no easy way through this season of firsts. But I know I will not be forced to bear it alone.

I continue to learn and grow from being Abby’s mom. Now I know that life is hard and screwed up and terrifying and painful. But now I know I am loved so much that others are willing to try, in any way possible, to bear some of my burden for me. I know that love is the only force stronger than death. I will never stop loving and missing and lamenting Abigael’s physical presence.

But, I feel like she gave me this gift. This gift of a quilt of love that is continually wrapped tight around me, made of the fabric of those in my life that she led to me in my darkest hour. And when it starts to slip down, and I sit shivering, somehow that quilt gets settled around me again.

I will not squander this gift from her. It’s all I have left. The love. The light.

And maybe, that’s all we really have. We have no control over our circumstances. Really, all we have are the people, the relationships that we cling to. We all embark on strange, new, often frightening journeys. Maybe what is defining about those journeys are who we took them with.

Abundance in a season of loss

Abigael called me as she walking down the street of downtown Eugene and as soon as I picked up, I could her the delight in her voice. I don’t remember where she was walking to, but she had forgotten the food she prepared at home, and was hungry. All of a sudden, on that city street, a ripe, beautiful apple was right in front of her on a tree. She plucked it, polished it up and then ate what she described to me as “the best apple she had ever eaten”. It was crispy but so juicy that she was sticky from eating it.

She was trying to find her passion in life, and had saved up what seemed me such a small amount of money to move completely across the country. She worked here and there, but didn’t have a steady stream of income and I worried about her lack of resources. It drove me CRAZY, and I would call to suggest career paths (nanny, au pair, electrician school, why not finish your degree, dog walker, GO BACK TO SCHOOL) to turn on a stream of income that would make ME feel more comfortable about her living so far away, where I could not nourish her with a meal or wash and fold her clothes and make sure she had underwear and socks that weren’t falling apart.

That mothering instinct in me to ensure that she had enough money and stuff to keep her “okay” drove her crazy, and it was a source of tension between us. I wanted her life to look and feel stable to ME while she was redefining and discovering exactly what she needed, what was extra, and what brought her joy.

When she called to tell me about that perfect apple, she squealed with glee and explained that living with a mindset of abundance had changed her and her perspective. Instead of stewing and grumbling and allowing her thoughts to remind her of the carefully prepared veggie wrap sitting on a counter a mile away, she was able to tip her face to the sun, let the breeze blow her hair around, and not be so distracted by what she was missing out on that she was unable to see the gift right in front of her—that apple. She believed that she would receive all the she needed and desired from this world, because it was boundless.

It was purposeful, this trust that her needs would be met, that beauty would present itself, that there was enough of everything important to go around and that it was only a matter of being open to seeing those gifts to receive them. She would often encourage me to practice an “abundance mindset” in our conversations. When Covid-19 first reared its ugly head, she and I were catching up on the phone and I was explaining the unrecognizable conditions in which we were now living because she lived on a farm in rural New Mexico propagating plants, and had heard next to nothing.

I lamented everything that her sisters were missing out on, and how abruptly my life had changed. The list of “no mores” was long, and instead of the empathy I expected, she reacted with such excitement! No extracurricular activities? What an opportunity to try something new! What a great way to be creative, just for expression and not for consumption by others. What an awesome chance to really immerse into this world, to get out of buildings and into nature. What a great time to unplug and turn inward and stop being so damn busy.

For every first world, middle class problem I rattled off to her, she responded with an opportunity. It was all about maintaining an abundance mindset, she assured me. So many gifts always right in front of us that we are too distracted to see. I would chuckle a little at the confidence of youth, maybe roll my eyes a little at her emphatic lessons she was sharing, in the way that people do when they think they have a lot of things about life “figured out”.

And then, five months ago, she died. Tragically, unexpectedly. And it turned out that no stream of income, no career path, no house or car or brand new underwear or socks could have stopped that from happening. No amount of stuff would have prevented her from seizing the opportunity to swim in a beautiful river on a lovely summer evening.

And oddly, when we lost her, I saw incredible beauty that I hadn’t known existed; I saw capacity for love and selflessness in people that I had never witnessed before. The abundance of love that rained over me and my family truly shocked and overwhelmed me. Because I didn’t know. I couldn’t see it. I hadn’t needed to. I thought of our family as cogs in the wheel of life. I couldn’t comprehend the ways that each of us had made impacts in our individual and collective circles, the ways those impacts rippled out and the way we had been sowing seeds that would bear abundant fruit exactly at the time we needed it.

Now we are smack dab in the midst of the holiday season and its garish display of abundance can feel like an affront to me. I have to carefully discern and measure out exactly how much holiday cheer I can emotionally handle as I navigate the pain of this first Christmas, of all the rest of my Christmases, without her.

The last matching pajama photo we have of our three girls.

I know I am not alone in feeling a sense of loss this season. No restaurants for annual friend get togethers, no ugly sweater parties, no office dinners, no white elephants with cousins from two states over, no parties at school, no last day at the office before the break. I see the lamenting on social media and I hear my friends frustration with life being unrecognizable.

And I can’t help but wonder how Abigael would respond to every one of these changes.

  • No big shopping day or less money to spend this year? What a great opportunity to pare down and make the holidays less commercial.
  • No parties to go to? What a chance to spend time with your core group, deepening relationships and meaningful connections.
  • No restaurants? Cool! You can spend time learning or perfecting soups and stews to drop on the porches of neighbors, acquaintances, friends.
  • No big gatherings? This might be the only year for one to simply sit, be, and reflect exactly what this time of year is really about for them. This is maybe the one chance to get off the hamster wheel of stress, busyness, planning, going, going, going. This could be the time to really hone in on what matters at this time of year when it is typically sensory overload. Where do choose for your holiday focus to be?

I am missing Abigael with every cell in my being. So, I am choosing to relentlessly pursue the abundance mindset. It would be easy to let the missing completely overtake me, I could sink into only feeling the acute pain of what (who) I am without.

I didn’t have the best relationship with Christmas before Abigael’s death. The holidays, in the before time, were a time when I would be typically running from brunch to an ugly sweater party, with shopping in the middle of that, while also making homemade granolas and cookies and extravagant spreads. Oh and squeeze in forced smile family photos to mail out to 100 people.

I was exhausted. I was frazzled. I was irritable. I was stressed out. There was very little time for quiet and reflection.

Now, in this strangest and saddest of times, I see so clearly what was right in front of me all those frazzled years. I have my beloved, my husband and we cling to each other. I have amazing, beautiful, unique daughters who I cherish to cultivate deep and important connections with. I have friends that take me as the mess that I am. I have really beautiful relationships abundant with love and respect. And now, this year with its forced solitude, I have the time and the space to sit and reflect, to really think about Abigael and our relationship, all that she taught me, the way she impacted my life, and the gifts she brought to our family. I have the time to treasure 22 years of memories and to practice loving her in this new, uncharted way.

These relationships that are my lifeblood, are the ones that got pushed to the side to make room for everything else that took up space during the holidays. But THESE, these are my abundant harvest. These are the gifts that sustain me. And there are no limits or scarcity in the way that the abundance continues to grow in my life, the way that I choose to nurture it moving forward. I don’t pack it away on January 2.

This abundance is mine today, on Christmas Day, throughout the holidays, and for the rest of my days. Because I choose to see it. Because I choose to be grateful for the magic it brings to my life. Because I claim it and hold it close. Because I choose to let it be enough. I will be eternally grateful to Abigael and her 22 year old joyful, adventurous wisdom, for she opened my eyes to seeing it. Her death lifted a veil that shined light on this–this extravagant gift of abundance that I will never take for granted again.

You just don’t know.

We have all experienced loss this year. Loss of a loved one, a friendship, a normal routine, a business, the traditions and rituals that connect us, the list could go on and on. With loss comes grief.

Though we are all experiencing varying degrees of grief, it is collective and it is real.

In the 142 days I have been grieving Abigael, I have gleaned lessons that I simply had no access to prior to losing her. I had never experienced a loss that left me reeling and unsure of how to make sense of the world. A world that is no longer predictable or normal.

I anticipated that “special” days like holidays, the 22nd of each month, my birthday would be especially hard. So I steeled myself for them. I would mentally prepare myself with how I would get through those days. I would grit my teeth, let the adrenaline flow and get through them, with no more tears than a typical Tuesday (I cry every single day). I would climb into bed feeling relieved that a hurdle had been cleared.

Our Thanksgiving Day consisted of this, so far from normal that it was almost unrecognizable.

BUT THEN, the next several days I experienced the worst completely unexpected emotional abyss. The desperation, pain, anxiety and despair set in with a ferocity that was almost insurmountable. An intense emotional hangover.

Those days, I still needed groceries or gas or to take my kids to appointments. Retiring to my bed is not an option for me. So I had to put myself out in the world. And the world would often respond in harsh ways. Emphatic middle fingers or horns as someone passed me because I hadn’t realized I was driving slow or was sitting at a red light, impatient shoppers muttering curses that I absolutely heard because I was bewildered trying to scan groceries.

Of course, these were tempered by the unbelievable love and kindness that rained on me. And these things sustained me, gave me the strength needed to wake up again to the enormous realization that my daughter was dead. Still. Again. Every morning. And I still had to walk through it.

And I am. So I share these feelings with the whole wide cyber world as a reminder. You never know what’s going on with other people. How many times have you laid on your horn and zoomed around someone driving 15 in a 45? Who knows what is happening with that driver? Did he just leave his Covid positive wife in the hospital? Close the doors to a business he spent his life building? Lose a child?

We are, as a community and a society, experiencing so much collective loss. Let’s try to soften the blows for each other. Let’s practice a little more grace, let’s practice a little more compassion, let’s listen more, let’s insult less, be patient, let’s be more kind. We can’t do much about the prickly, heated, uncertain, downright scary sometimes world we live in. We can choose how to BE in it.

Be kind. You just don’t know.

“Mom Guilt, reframed”

It was 3:36 AM when we were awakened to the state police banging on our door to inform us that our daughter had been declared missing by the Lane County Sheriff Department, over 2000 miles across the country. The hours that followed were a jumble of chaos, confusion and terror. All four of us were on our phones, trying to text and call everyone–Abigael, the Sheriff Department, friends of hers–trying to make sense of this inconceivable THING. The lights were blindingly bright, my knees buckled as I tried to comprehend what the deputy was saying to me, everyone was pacing and I understood the expression “terror-stricken” in a newly intimate way as I watched my family absorb the gravity of the situation.

In the wee hours of that rainy morning, the house eventually quieted, and I went to lay in Abigael’s bed. It was then, staring at the same ceiling she had stared at just a few months prior, that I felt the cold, hard grip of guilt. Of course this was all my fault. My biggest fear had been actualized. I was completely inadequate as a mother, and as a result something catastrophic had happened to this beautiful, vibrant being that I was supposed to take care of.

I went to get blood drawn when I was pregnant with Abigael and as the woman who drew my blood walked away she muttered to another staff person “babies having babies”. I chalked it up to someone having a bad day, and shrugged it off, outwardly. But it fed the raging insecurity I was inwardly battling. Raising a child is monumental. I recognized that it would likely be the most significant thing I would do in my lifetime. And I was terrified that the tech was right, I was not prepared for the enormity of the task, and I would fail. Failing not just me, but a real, live human being. I had not even kept a plant alive before.

Man, how I have tortured myself over the past 22 years, laying awake at night, thinking of the all the “should have” moments, all those moments of regret. But knowing that I would get up the next morning, smile and kiss my little girl or try to make my sullen teenager crack a smile, or send my adult daughter a care package to brighten her day. Because I WANTED to keep being a better mother; because I love these people that call me “Mom”. When I was pregnant and reading every book I could, I was motivated to be a GOOD MOM because of my own fears of inadequacy. Over the years, my motivation changed. It was no longer about me. I wanted to keep growing and trying and striving to be a better parent because of how much I love these three girls.

Mom guilt is a common topic and catchphrase, and almost every mom I know would say that she has experienced it. When I knew my daughter was dead, I had to reframe the regrets I had about our time together. I regret many moments. I regret the time she left to fly back across the country without me hugging her, because of a huge blow-up fight before she left. I regret not letting her cook more for me. I regret tuning her out, making grocery lists in my own head instead of listening to her tell me about her newest thing (Mayan Galactic New Year…huh?????) that was hard for me to wrap my brain around. But, I don’t feel guilty about it. I can not.

Guilt is different than regret. Guilt is something that you feel in the midst of your actions, knowing that it is the wrong thing to do. I feel guilty about shoplifting the Zinc Pink lipstick…three times. I feel guilty about fibbing to my husband about what exactly happened to my bumper. Because I knew as I did those things that I shouldn’t; they were wrong. But regret, regret is a healthy emotion. Regret is looking back, reflecting on everything and then taking away a lesson. Regret hurts, but regret allows you to change and grow. Regret is productive, while guilt just eats away at you, often spiraling into shame. Guilt is something you internalize, but don’t have the power to vocalize.

Regret has caused me to invest more fully in my relationships with my daughters. Regret has caused me to do wild and crazy things like spontaneous trips to the beach, outside of normal vacation times. Regret has allowed messy, late night kitchen action to happen. Regret has brought my family closer together, because I have relinquished guilts’ control over me. Regret has ensured that I don’t make the same mistakes–plenty of new mistakes waiting to happen.

That guilt I felt, when all of my inadequacies screamed as I recognized she was gone, meant that I had failed her. But, a couple of days later, as I stood on the riverbank where her life ended and looked at the scene in front of me I thought “It is so beautiful here. Abigael would love this”. And she did; she did love it there. I wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t failed her by empowering her to choose her life, to choose where she lived, and where she wanted to dip her toes and where she wanted to swim. I danced with her in our living room and whispered in her tiny ear that she could do and be anything she wanted. I encouraged her to explore it all. She had not run from me into that river; she had grown from me, like a tiny little spider plant growing from their mama plant, who eventually gets plucked and re-rooted.

My mistakes as a mother are not a result of my innate inadequacies; they are an opportunity for me to learn. They enable me to be a better mother, a better person, each day. Abigael, in her life, allowed me to learn from every single experience that we grew from–together. Abigael, in her passing, has pushed me to learn from every single experience which has occurred as a result of her death. And nothing I did or could have done would have stopped my girl from doing exactly what she wanted to do in going swimming that early evening.

We are programmed by society to feel guilt, for simply not being enough. Society preys on our internalized feelings of inadequacies. Choosing to find the regret instead is the courageous path, the path toward a fresh tomorrow, with a kiss and a smile and doing the absolute best for the people you love…every single day, over and over. Choosing to regret without guilt is what frees us up to love more.

And you should see all the plants in my house, thriving. I am running out of space to put them.

I’m speaking.

“I don’t know how you are doing this.” It’s a phrase I have heard variations of from so many people. The “this” has changed since this all started, of course, from interviews pleading for help locating our daughter to getting up every morning not knowing, and then to knowing, and still getting up every morning. And then, planning a memorial service and sifting through her belongings, the tiniest shards of her being. Starting a scholarship fund in her memory, and trying to raise funds for it. Writing through my feelings, exposing my heart, on social media and eventually this blog.

I think it might be a common response to grief to turn inwards, to retreat from the world and to protect yourself from the things that might intensify or add to the pain thats already gnawing at you. I have this newfound penchant for incredibly soft socks. I need this extra level of physical comfort surrounding me. I can at least control how my nerve endings feel, not my feelings, but certainly the nerve endings. It’s this innate need to protect and shelter myself, because really, how much pain can one person take? But, I haven’t retreated from the world. I have even been criticized for that, for oversharing. I have continued to speak, even though it feels like I am speaking a whole new language.

I have led hundreds, maybe thousands of yoga classes over the years. It is familiar enough to me at this point that I joke that I could do it in my sleep. After losing Abby, I couldn’t even bring myself to practice. I would break down. Practicing yoga was something she and I shared; it was the language we spoke when nothing else seemed to be getting through to each other. I wasn’t sure if I would ever get on the mat again. But, I was given this really wonderful opportunity to lead a yoga class at an event to raise funds for the scholarship fund. And without knowing if I actually had the grit in me to fight through the sobs and the heartbreak, I said yes to that opportunity.

And this was an EVENT. This venue is top notch, there was an outpouring of donations from community businesses for raffles and silent auctions. It sold out and the reality struck that this community was coming together to hear ME lead them through a practice, a practice of healing. ME, the most broken person I know. I often find myself questioning “damn it, Tressa, what did you get yourself into THIS TIME?!” This was one of those moments. I even gave myself a backup plan and had another yoga teacher at the ready if I simply could not get through it. But, what an opportunity, which is why I always find myself in those situations to begin with. I always tell people in yoga that growth happens when we are “comfortably uncomfortable”. It’s like I have been preparing myself for this time, when I am uncomfortable always; and regularly desperately seeking out my comfy socks.

So, I opened myself up to sharing that practice, again. I was completely honest, again. I was vulnerable, again. I shared my baby steps back to the mat, and with that shared my baby steps toward finding out how to speak this new language that has been thrust upon me. I was comfortably uncomfortable. Uncomfortable baring my grief, but comfortable speaking to others, sharing my story, finding the right words. It feels important to give voice to these huge shifts inside of me, to honor them with words that sometimes cause discomfort.

Grief, sorrow, trauma and pain are key players in so many people’s stories. Since I have lost my daughter, and I guess as a result of that loss, I can not count the number of times people have shared their own pain or loss with me, and it has stunned me that I NEVER knew how many people were experiencing traumas on so many levels. People walking around in pain, but smiling and offering encouragement! All around me, every day. But, I didn’t know. Maybe it was blissful ignorance. Maybe I just wasn’t a very good listener. Maybe we don’t become acutely aware of the need for empathy until it is our very own need. Maybe we have stopped allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, and sharing the messy, uncomfortable things with each other because we are so busy sharing the highlight reels of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to celebrate. I mean, we even celebrated leap year when it happened (frog themed, don’t ask), and yes, I totally plaster it all over social media. But when there is the hard stuff, the messy, unpleasant, scary, the stuff one prays to never have to deal with, things like tragic death, they so often gets relegated to hushed conversations in corners. These are the stories I want to know, the difficult ones, the ones that people often want to look away from. These are the things that shape and change and transform people. These vulnerabilities, these stories of resiliency and strength and overcoming are the stories that remind us the life is HARD but life is beautiful. These are the stories that liberate us from shame at our own pain and pain response. These are the stories that bind us together as a bunch of broken people, filling in each other’s fractures. The stories survivors tell, as we are all clinging to the same life raft. These are the stories that give people the strength to live out their purpose.

I don’t know if it is the right or wrong way to grieve and to feel, the way I am doing it–by laying my heart open, and exposing all of the feelings, by “oversharing”. But it’s the only way I know, because every time I think “damn it Tressa, what have you gotten yourself into THIS TIME?!”; those are the times that I grow the most. I get myself all comfortably uncomfortable and something changes inside of me. I break apart a little and something new sprouts in the fault line left behind. Maybe someone will be helped from hearing my story. Maybe someone will share their own experience without fear of judgement. Maybe we, as a society can become more empathetic because we become a little more comfortable being uncomfortable. I don’t know, but I know I am not done oversharing. My voice and my story have a purpose. I’m speaking.

Fantastic photography by Pretty Faces by Sasha and Vince Ha Photography. Hosted by Grant Street Loft.

Elect yourself

It is the night before Election Day 2020. The tension in the air is palpable and the collective anxiety feels like a dark cloud overhead. No matter what the outcome of this election is, many people I know are going to be crushed. There has been so much passion, on both sides, throughout this election season. With that kind of emotional investment, comes the price of potential devastation.

As someone who has lived through the unthinkable, I want to reassure you, if indeed, you fall on the spectrum of disappointed to devastated, you are going to be OK.

Losing my daughter meant losing my sense of security. The very thing I worked hardest at keeping safe and whole and secure was irrevocably broken. Losing my daughter meant the loss of hope; hope for the way her future would play out. Losing my daughter made the world an unrecognizable and scary place. In the days after her body was recovered, I remember waking and sitting up, turning to get out of bed and just staring at my feet. I thought ” I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to get up and drink coffee and brush my teeth and talk to people like there hasn’t been this seismic shift inside of me. Like I haven’t been completely rocked to my core.” I stared for a little longer, then got up and drank coffee and brushed my teeth and talked to people.

That may have been all I accomplished in that day. But, here I am over three months later and I am writing this blog, a thing I never thought would happen. My family is sitting down together for meals that I have prepared with love for us, something that was normal in the before times. I am back on my yoga mat–I started with a goal of practicing for 10 minutes and tonight practiced for nearly an hour. I am seeing friends and family, and finding moments of happiness with them.

I am pursuing resilience. My circumstances suck. My circumstances are also beyond my control. The world I spent so much time weaving together and perfectly crafting completely unraveled. But not into nothing. Its all still there, in pieces. Resilience is seeing that tangled mess and figuring out the new way to put it all together in a new way that makes sense.

You can do that. You can do that no matter who is elected by the rest of the country. Elect yourself. Take that passion you poured into this crazy political freak show of 2020 and pour it in to the only thing you have any control over.

You want to see a better world, don’t wait for some politician to make it so. Step off that bed and make it happen. People are created for resiliency, to adapt, to change and grow. And in the midst of a crushing blow, ordinary moments that require extraordinary strength are the beginning. They are the hope and hope is fuel for growth, for the future.

So, Wednesday morning, when the circumstance is beyond your control, use that passion, that hope as fuel. Be kind and gracious. Ask more questions. Learn a new hobby or rekindle an old, comforting habit or behavior. Volunteer somewhere. Start attending local political happenings. Unplug and pour your focus into your family. Pursue resilience. It might be the end of the presidential race, but with endings come beginnings and you’re in charge of yours. You are going to be OK.

This one? Or this one?

We have a saying in our family “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit”. I am sure I must have heard it somewhere else, but for our family it started at Eliza’s kindergarten holiday party. She was SO excited to choose a Barbie for her gift exchange, and was brimming with anticipation of the gift she would receive in exchange. But, once she opened a perfectly lovely assortment of bubble bath, she looked up, tears just at the edge of her eyes, and with a a mingling of confusion and anger she said loudly “but…but…I didn’t want THIS.”

I saw an Eliza sized meltdown coming and in order to avoid being mortified, I hastily whispered a placating bribe of post school ice cream or a Target toy aisle run . As soon as she was buckled in the car a short time later, I began an explanation why that wasn’t an acceptable reaction to the situation, and I ended with “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” It didn’t take her long to use that phrase to her sister, when Abigael threw a fit about not getting the last of the “good” cookies. Dessert is something that gets taken pretty seriously in our house, especially by Abigael. In her little kindergarten singsong voice, with chocolate still in the corners of her mouth Eliza parroted that phrase back to Abigael and it has remained in use since then. Even to me, when they had the opportunity, and I think they reveled in saying it to me, just a little.

If I had the choice, my daughter would still be alive, and I would not know this loss, this brokenness. I would still be looking at life through a lens of comfortable familiarity. With trauma and the devastating powerlessness that accompanies it, comes an entirely different perspective of the world. But, the reality is I get what I get. I can’t change this outcome.

You know how you go to the eye doctor and they put that Viewmaster machine in front of you and they make some adjustments, put a lens in front of you and say “This one? Or this one?” It always feel like a trick question to me. They are often so similar to each other, one just a tiny bit clearer than the one before! And the pressure of choosing the wrong one! Then what? I just keep seeing life out of focus? I always wonder if they secretly know the right lens and are just trying to guide me to the new, better way I will view things.

I am pretty new to grief, only 96 days into navigating this journey, but I recognize that this is something that I will be doing, in some capacity, for the rest of my life. I have no control over the heartbreak and the pain that landed me here. I get what I get. I only have control of choosing the lens I need to help me negotiate this walk. I can view the set of circumstances life has handed me and see only the nightmarish facts of this loss. Or I can switch the lens and see the way that an entire community has banded together; I see the courage and determination of her 22 year old friends, showing wisdom and compassion beyond their years; I can see the gift of unending grace and patience from my other children as they learn to accept a new Mom; I see kindnesses continuing to be heaped upon our little family; I can see that I have reserves of strength that I did not know existed. I can choose to let the lens of goodness blur out some of the sharp edges of hurt and longing. With an ending, there is a beginning. I don’t know what this is the beginning of, but it feels like my daughter is the one behind the machine switching the lens and saying “This one? Or this one?”.

When I saw this photo amongst the photographer’s shots, I passed right over it, thinking it was an accidental shot of grass. Only when switching my lens, and zooming in did I see the beauty in this shot.

A Box of Rocks

September 22, 2020, the Autumnal Equinox, a day that marks the changing of the seasons; the abundance of summer being ushered out to make room for the season about changing, letting go and ultimately of natural endings, was the day of my 22 year old daughter’s memorial service. It was the most perfectly beautiful, crystalline fall day. Once Abigael’s body was found, I had the crushing realization that planning a memorial service for her was IT for me. There would be no wedding, or surprise birthday parties, or any parties or baby showers to be a part of. And so, I obsessed over the details of the day–the flowers, the guest book, the Covid-friendly bites being offered, the collection of photographs and mementos of her too short life, the music, all of it. As I painstakingly chose each detail, I asked myself “would Abigael like this”?

Right before the service, Garth and I were talking to the pastor who was officiating. We were steadying ourselves for what we were about to experience. Call it a memorial service, call it a celebration of life, call it a funeral. Nonetheless, it was marking a painful ending for us. All of a sudden, the owner of the venue came into the room explaining that an anonymous person had just dropped off a large box of painted rocks, and she handed me a letter. The artist wrote:

After reading Abigael’s obituary, I was so moved, I felt compelled to make these memory rocks. I did not have the pleasure of meeting Abigael. But your words spoke to me. I’ve tried to paint reflections of her life for others to share. 

Thank you, a mom

In the days that followed the service, many friends sent me photos of the rock that they chose, and I was astonished! I was amazed at the sheer number of them; there had to have been hundreds, and at the detail and the beauty of these rocks. They were infused with memories from the social media posts I had shared about my daughter. This was an incredibly special gift, and a beautiful detail I had never considered could be such an impactful part of her service.

I wonder about the artist of these rocks. Has she done this sort of thing before? If the answer is yes, I would really like to meet and learn from this individual. How has she been so in tune with the heartbreak and suffering that happens around her? How has she been so dedicated to serving others (strangers, even!) by sharing her own unique gift? Have I been so wrapped up in being busy that I just haven’t seen? If the answer is no, I would really like to meet and learn from this individual. What sort of courage does it take to move beyond simply feeling sad for a tragic situation and making the conscious decision to use your unique gifts to serve someone in pain, in need? How much time and energy–our most valuable gifts–had she poured into this hurting family and community? 

When was the last time I felt so moved that I decided to ACT, to do something motivated purely by love? Don’t get me wrong, in the “before” time, I did good things. I volunteered, I donated, I signed up to bring people meals, I always told people to have a wonderful day, and I meant it. But, when was the last time that I truly let LOVE shine through me? That I used my own unique gift to make some tiny little corner of this world a better place? Not when it was convenient or easy or expected, but because love for humanity was just so compelling. 

Abigael would have loved that box of rocks. She would have loved the synchronicity and spontaneity of it appearing at the service. She would have loved her friends and family holding onto a beautiful piece of earth and thinking of her. She would have loved me grappling with the notion that maybe, just maybe, I have more to give. 

The symbolism of rocks causing ripples is not lost on me. These rocks, and the life of my daughter who inspired them, have the ability to cause ripples. What if they cause just one person, or maybe two people, or maybe even two hundred people to, at least once in their life, figuratively paint their own box of rocks?