Life with My Two Girls, but without My Dad

I miss him so very much. Simply, truly, utterly miss him.  22084_10207138223763852_6344124416553023342_nThe depth of this pain and hurt reaches well below a shallow facade; these emotions reside deep inside, resting in an unsecured space where they are easily retrieved and returned to the surface without invitation. These feelings and this hurt – they are quietly stronger than anything I’ve felt before; at their core, they remain unexplored, yet deeply personal and infinitely vast. This hurt, as if lonely in its own right, often shares its space with other new occupants, emptiness and sadness. These thoughts, these words… this isn’t some surprising revelation that is suddenly emerging, begging to be shared publicly at this very moment in time. These are deeply rooted emotions that have remained true in my heart, planted months before my daddy passed away in June, nurtured by the impact of seeing first-hand the progressive and horrific effects of ALS on someone you love beyond words.  But now, they are more than just emotions; they exist as part of my new life, the one without my dad. The one I didn’t prepare to live at this point in our life. What I also didn’t prepare for was how life without my dad would change life with my two girls.

There is one very important understanding of my girls that I have come to know and accept. Life without my dad is a very different journey for me than it is for them. That journey, still in its infancy, has not been free from certain thoughts and feelings that were not revealed, until now.  Deep within me, during my saddest and loneliest days, lived a bit of suppressed and deliberately unspoken disappointment, a longing for them to feel exactly what I was feeling, and for it to unveil the same way, in sadness and tears, however unhealthy those thoughts were. I didn’t understand why it wouldn’t look the same on them. Feel the same. Impact the same. What I couldn’t see then, through the foggy landscape of pain, sadness and uncertainty, is that even if they were feeling the exact same sadness that I was, we are each unique human beings and what’s inside of us won’t necessarily manifest in the same or similar ways. What I also came to realize is that while I lost my dad, a quiet but incredible force in my life, the man responsible for so much of who I am, of what I expect of myself, and what I expect of others, the man who had been there for me at every turn for the entirety of my fifty years… they lost someone else. They lost their grandfather, and however deeply they loved and cherished him, it’s not the same relationship.

Once I let go of the completely unrealistic expectations I had for their feelings, I began to see the very 10854888_10204572412703568_5734814614171829922_ospecial ways in which they were touched by my dad, in his life and death. It’s the little things you hear, the unexpected comments they make that lay open a world of feelings that might otherwise remain unknown. One of the greatest revelations came from an outsider, someone able to share with me how much my child was deeply affected by the year-long experience of watching her grandmother and mother care for her grandfather, seeing their pain and sadness through her own eyes, but sharing the depth of that impact on her with no one, until an exploration invited it to the surface.

In that very moment of truth revealed, I came to understand that our journey was actually not ours at all. It was theirs and mine individually, and it wasn’t necessarily destined for the same arrival time, nor the same ending location. What mattered was that because of the love they each hold in their hearts for him, there was undoubtedly a journey of healing upon which each had embarked, and their individual traveling preferences, routes and methods of transportation were clearly not for me to choose nor judge.

Perhaps, after much thought and deeper reflection, life with my two girls, but not my dad, is a misconception. In actuality, life with my two girls has continued to include my dad. Our life always was and always will be layered with his presence, his influence, his knowledge, his many talents, and most notably, his unwavering love for each of us.

Daddy, they love you beyond anTheir girlsy words I could possibly express. Without a single doubt, you live in their hearts. Every time one of them mentions one of the many things you knew or did so well, your light shines brightly in their faces. I see your legacy, your lasting impressions with every sentence they utter that begins with “PawPaw could have…” or “PawPaw would have”. Accompanied by a genuine smile, their words are a testament to how much they respected, needed, admired and will always love you…almost as infinitely much as I do.

In memory of my dad

Thomas Francis Sterken, Sr.

April 4, 1937 – June 14, 2015

Absent Without Guilt (AWoG)

Life With Their Girls

Life with my 2 girls sometimes means life with just a bit less of me. Inherent in the reality of the “sandwich generation” is an understanding that sometimes the top slice needs a little more attention than the bottom. This degree of wisdom is not easily nor unilaterally achieved. There’s a transition that occurs over time in support of this new reality whereby the bottom slice is finally able to handle multiple layers on its own – an open-face sandwich of sorts. My teenage girls have done that so beautifully and warmly these last few months.

I like, love and appreciate my two girls for so many reasons, with unconditional understanding of my evolving priorities and direction placing extremely high on that list these days. There’s a selflessness they show in ways that others would not necessarily note. Without surprise to me, it’s not so much what they say or do that has highlighted their enormous capacity for understanding and compassion; it’s what they don’t say, imply or suggest that makes the balancing act an artful challenge rather than an exhausting struggle or losing battle.

The beauty of maturing love is seen and heard so differently and with such greater clarity through the actions and voices of my daughters. Simply overhearing my baby return from school and confirm with our visitor, the man I have adored since I was a little girl, the one who has consistently taken care of any needs or requests, that she’ll be in her room and to get her if he needs anything elicits a feeling of joy that can’t be adequately described. Watching my oldest walk through the door and head directly to him with a smile, greeting and hug that overflows with genuine warmth and concern, I’m nearly moved to tears. Having dinner in a crowded restaurant, the outsider at a table of three, I observe the hilarious interaction between the silly young one to whom I gave birth and the silly older one from whom birth was given, recognizing how much that laughter is needed by her this day, nearly as much as the food and water. There is no option but to join in the infectious and comedic insanity of the conversation.

With pride I can firmly establish that through these months, there have been no complaints when the environment is changed or altered, no arguments, denials or attempts to bargain, no sad faces in response to a request or decision…and the pinnacle of all potential reactions…no lavishly poured out guilt about any real or perceived impact. No guilt at all in fact. It is such an overwhelming experience to watch your children ascend to a position of greater maturity, recognizing that the needs of others, especially elders, will often supersede their own.

There have been and will continue to be moments that necessitate my absence. Without fail, my beautiful teenage daughters will confirm that His love, mercy and compassion reside in their hearts…but not guilt. To God be the glory.





The Love Connection

It’s the seemingly insignificant moments that often have great meaning in our lives when we allow ourselves to see them in that way. Our hearts and minds are so easily lured to instances of grandeur that we sometimes miss the simple, yet breathtaking beauty of a single act of love shared right before our eyes. A spontaneous hug. An unanticipated answer of yes. A small sacrifice. A willingness to help because there’s a need.

As a mom, the breadth and depth of true love has become so clear. I had read about it, heard about it and sometimes thought that I saw it in others, but never with full understanding. My mom, my friends, even colleagues would describe how there is no greater love than that of a parent for a child. In fact, as a Christian, I knew that the greatest expression of love and sacrifice was that of God the Father for His Son….and for each of us as His children. What I didn’t know was that perhaps one of the most beautiful expressions of earthly love is a single act of kindness offered by the children you adore more than life itself to the parents who continue to love you more than life itself. Therein lies the love connection.


Family Work Crew

There’s no remarkable story to tell here that defines that connection, just the beauty of the word “yes”. Yes, I’ll come with you as responded by Emma who rarely turns down an opportunity to enjoy her grandmother’s comfort cooking. (She’s made it very clear that no matter how hard I try, I can’t cook like her MeMaw.) It was followed by a yes from Olivia when I explained the trip was a mission of help and love which meant the possibility of work, even though I established no expectations of that, sharing that she could probably go in the lake while I worked. There was even a yes from my husband, followed by questions about what tools he should bring and a borrowing of our neighbor’s weed trimmer. Yes can truly be a beautiful thing.

Upon arrival, the girls could see how hard their grandparents had been working around the gardens, harder than they should have, with leaves in small piles, in need of two healthy young girls to finish bagging them. And they did, followed by assisting their dad in another area while I planted a few shrubs around the fountain. Their assistance wasn’t without sisterly arguments, fights, and scream-filled chases all across the lawn and around the house with Sprite coming out of one and on to the other. (Can there ever really be an “Olivia and Emma” story that begins and ends without the requisite drama that defines who they are?)


New Life around the Fountain

While their contribution in the grand scope of lawn maintenance was small – raking and bagging what was left of the leaves – their willingness to do so yesterday was one of the greatest and yet most simple acts of connected love. They knew my parents could use the assistance. I think they also knew how much it meant to me. As we were leaving, I observed Olivia watching my mom, protectively trying to intervene and assist her in holding the leash of their very strong 2 year old Basset Hound “Sophie” as the three of them came outside to say goodbye to the four of us. While she may have exacerbated the excitement more than actually helping to control Sophie, her expression of love and concern for the two people I love so very much was the perfect manifestation of the love connection.

I Am Her; They Are Me

You’re driving along in the car with her, heading to school or coming back from an activity. Perhaps she sends you a message or text. (Don’t worry Emma, the one you sent the other night remains our secret.) Maybe you simply walk in during one of her conversations with someone else.  You’re not mistaken. You did hear it. Well, not “it” as much as you…or me.  Me, myself and I…and her. Something said with seriousness or completely for comedic purposes validates in that very moment that she lives in you, you live in them and sometimes they seem just a tad bit more advanced than you ever were. Of course, in all fairness, we didn’t have the Internet.

The Dirty Dancing Main Stone Lodge

I’m reminded of a brief mother-daughter exchange from a scene in the movie “Dirty Dancing” that has remained with me over the years for some reason. It’s the summer of 1963 and the Housemans have just finished dinner that evening after arriving at Kellerman’s Resort, the fictional getaway in the Catskill Mountains reserved for affluent families.  Recognizing the amount of food left on the table Mrs. Houseman says “Look at all this leftover food. Are there still starving children in Europe?” Baby replies with a tone of correction “Try Southeast Asia mom.” So why am I reminded? Well, it’s typically not for reasons of social justice. And not even because it’s one of my all time favorite movies. No, I’m reminded simply because my daughters, like Baby Houseman, can respond so quickly to the errors made by their mother, as I’m sure I often did to my mother. But, I’m also reminded that my influence, while failing to meet its objective at times, is definitely making the journey to within, just as hers made to me.

So how does that play out in 2014 as opposed to the fictional 1963? Well, it’s been an unusually cold winter, as we’re all aware. As such, this perpetually cold mom prefers to have her driver’s seat warmed before braving the cold to bring Emma for the 3 – 5 minute round trip to and from school. During those frigid mornings (yes, it’s New Orleans, I know, get over it), I had taken to asking my sweet angel to run out into the cold, start my car, turn on the defroster if necessary, and of course, engage the heat and heated seats to full power! Emma prefers to get to school early so I used the warmth as my bargaining chip. You see, it’s REALLY hard to get me out of bed into a cold house, much less a cold car. Well, a couple of weeks ago I walked outside and noticed the car wasn’t running. I thought perhaps she had warmed it and then turned it off. I got in, noticed my seat was cold and stated with somewhat believable indignation “My seat’s not even warm!”. The social justice was then unleashed. In response, with utter disbelief in Anarctica Mapexpression and tone, my baby girl retorted “Some kids in Antarctica don’t even have warm. Don’t be rude and greedy Mother!” She didn’t even crack a smile. We continued our journey to school…in the cold.

While the comment was rooted in sarcasm…I was there. I was definitely there.  How else would she have known to compare my situation to that of the imaginary freezing children of Antarctica? Where else would she have heard countless considerations of other children over the course of her short life span? They are me. And I am her.

As my 12 year old baby girl and I often say…Indeed!

Life Before My Two Girls…Way Before!

Life with My 2 Girls does not exist in a vacuum. It’s not the story of my life with them, or theirs with me. It’s intended to offer a glimpse of who we are together as a family, and that story begins with who I was as part of my family. Life with My 2 Girls is an inclusive family forum, weaving in bits and pieces of those who have most influenced who I am. The “those” to which I refer are my mom and my dad.  Any articulation of who I am as a person, as a parent, or even who I still strive to be, will always be reflective of who they are as parents to me. Through these pages I introduce the two people who have most influenced and inspired everything I have as a maternal offering to life with my 2 girls.

...and then there was 4

…and then there were 4

My childhood was as eventful or uneventful as I chose it to be. You see, my parents already had their girl and their boy. They were happy, settled and balanced when 3+ years later came *accident #3, and another 3 years later, *accident #4 – that’s me.  My sister and I were given much more latitude and freedom than my oldest sister and only brother. I guess by the time we were in the teen years, my parents were parenting professionals and figured we didn’t need as much micro-managing as the others. Or perhaps the late 70s/80s were less worrisome than the early 70s. Not sure. I do know that this freedom we enjoyed was a coveted benefit, and one that had to be exercised with much responsibility…which it was for the most part. I can’t remember either of us, well, none of us actually, getting into trouble or hanging with the wrong crowd. It was all good.

What my parents did for me is allow me to be who I was supposed to be. They didn’t force me to be this, or do that, or get this grade or be in this club. (Besides, if I wanted a certain grade on something, I just asked dad for help and he usually took over the project and I went about my business doing the fun stuff a child does while he finished it.) I had to make decisions on my own about who and what I would be, and then be accountable to those decisions. Okay, so maybe allowing me to decide not to stay for the remainder of the 2 weeks at Camp Fire Girls’ Camp Wi-Ta-Wentin 3 hours away, requiring them to leave the rest of the family behind on July 4th to come get me because I was “homesick” was a bit much in the “freedom of choice” category, but you can have hamburgers any day of the week and I couldn’t handle 1 more day with the swimming/camp dictator making me do laps (otherwise presented as “homesickness” with sobbing for extra drama). That’s just responsible parenting!

Dad who drove 3 hours to Camp Wi-Ta-Wentin

Dad and me

As I reflect back, the only conclusion to be made is that I truly had a fun and love-filled childhood. There was never a summer without a family vacation. There was never an event that one or both didn’t attend. If a team needed a coach, mom or dad helped out.  Our big Christmas Eve party was such an anticipated event for me and others each year as they hosted family, friends and neighbors. We never missed Mardi Gras parades or Mardi Gras day – Dad had an amazing collection of doubloons. They introduced me to country music concerts in the Superdome as I got older.  They have always been young at heart, enjoying many activities with us and continuing on into their empty-nest years, like riding their bikes to the French Quarter or City Park via the ferry boat across the Mississippi River. They represented the best of middle-class, family-fun entertainment and togetherness. I still love every moment of time I get to spend with them. In fact, our friends enjoyed our parents as well and still do. They did their absolute best as parents…and still do.

Were they perfect? Absolutely not, and neither would allow me to ever profess such a statement. That’s just not who they are , but writing about imperfections serves no purpose for any of us beyond taking up valuable space that can be better served by sharing how those same imperfections allow us opportunities to fail so we can learn and grow and become that much more awesome. There are many things I do differently than they did simply because those decisions are aligned with the person I’ve become, which ironically, is built upon their many influences. My parents were very unobtrusive – I’m all up in the girls’ business, but because it’s how I show my love for them and concern for their well-being, just as my parents did, with a different approach. They rarely offered unsolicited advice or opinions – I must have received their combined supplies of both, but I still call my mommy and daddy exclusively with certain questions. They didn’t scrutinize my performance or grades – Olivia and Emma, quite unfortunately, are not shielded from such scrutiny, but no one shows more pride and celebration of my achievements than mom and dad ever did and still do!

3 Generations

3 Generations

What I most want to share about my my mom and dad is how incredibly appreciative they are of everything or anything they receive or have, always placing little value on material things. What they have consistently valued above all other earthly things is their relationship with their children. There is no better or more vivid image of unconditional love than that which my parents have unselfishly lavished upon each of us over the years. Olivia and Emma, for that characteristic that was graciously passed on to me, you can each thank your grandparents.

Always there for the girls

Always there for the girls

(Note: The term “accident” was replaced by my husband several years ago with the term “surprise” after he noted with great compassion how offensive the former sounded as opposed to the delight incited by the latter. It’s also important to note that the compassion was not directed to me, but to our daughter Olivia. Before my conversion, I occasionally referred to my dear first born child as an “accident”, but with no ill intent, which of course never negates the resulting impact to the person. I may have even made her aware that the “accident”, now known as a “surprise”, resulted from a sticker mixup in the Catholic sticker book.)

Bells of Pride

Sitting in Mass early this morning, which is rare (the early part, not the Mass part), I listened with pride to the sound of the bells being rung at the far right edge of the sanctuary. They sounded so perfect to me. Why did the sound matter so much to me today? Every Sunday I hear that same sound at certain points within the Mass, a sound that can only be heard through the skilful wrist movements of a young man or young woman we know as Alter Servers.

This morning’s beautiful sound came courtesy of Olivia Frances, one of the very few remaining female Alter Servers in our parish.  As a sophomore in high school, she continues to serve in this ministry and I am most grateful. I am also most grateful that she has mastered the bells.

Catholic Mass bells

Catholic Mass bells

I can remember the first time I was there when she was assigned responsibility for the bells, years ago I guess. She had actually been avoiding them I do believe, which is why finally seeing her in the “bell position” brought a slight amount of panic to me. It wasn’t real or serious panic, it was that type of moment where you glance over to your husband and you both know what the other is thinking. Honestly, I don’t remember how the bells sounded that day. I’m sure they were exactly as expected for any alter server executing a responsibility for the first time, or with little experience.

But…I do know how they sounded this morning. They were, as I shared earlier, perfect to me. Of course, it’s not Olivia’s ability to ring the bells that incites such pride in me, but in the truth of my 15 year old daughter’s continued service to the Lord in this way. I’ve watched her grow not only in her skills as a server, but in her reverence, and in her leadership, teaching new young servers exactly what they need to know and do to become competent, reverent alter servers.

My dear Olivia, thank you for your many years of service to our parish community. The bells of pride were ringing loudly this morning and live on in my heart.