Gardening as a Spiritual Practice

This last week our family celebrated two big milestones. July 10th was the four year anniversary of us living in our Lincoln house. And two days later, July 12th, we celebrated the closing papers on the sale of that house.

This was the house we bought when Reece was on his way. Our two-story five bedroom house where we erected a fence for our family dog and hosted Reece’s gender reveal party is now owned by a new family. Four years of memories in that house came with us to this new place. Our family dog and our rainbow flock did not. The person whose arrival prompted the purchase of that house also isn’t here. Not a day goes by that his name isn’t on my heart: my little Reecey Piecey. When he died, I went to work outside.

I worked tirelessly in the garden beds at that house. Weeding, moving rocks, ripping out landscape cloth, digging holes. Reigning in the overgrowth, the damaging ivy, and hacking away at the rotting stump was a crucial part of my healing. I molded that space for the better. The physical pain and exhaustion of gardening work gave my body a location for my emotional pain. I was a nurturer, but my infant was dead.

I turned weeds over to native flowers, invited the bugs and then the nesting birds into my space. I found friends who generously gave me plants I used to color my world. My circle of gardening friends continues to expand as we learn from each other and I work to color the new house. I was saved by the dirt at that Lincoln house. The trees and the skyline, the sunsets, all opportunities to rest under Heaven. Or scream into my hands. Or look up at the sky crying silently, and hope he was watching me, my littlest boy.

My time spent outside in the dirt is nothing short of a spiritual discipline. Patience, dedication, and hope are fundamental principles for gardening. I talked to my rainbow flock and now with them rehomed, I talk to my yard birds and the one pesky rabbit. Heaven brings me animals to remind me I am a mere speck on the planet teeming with life. I may even be so bold as to say my baby sends them to tell me I am not alone. I miss my baby every day. You can be in nature by yourself and still not alone. Just ask that pesky rabbit who has no fear of me.

This new house is a desert landscape of grass. Not a single garden bed. This forces me to plan ahead and be very intentional. Focused and intentional are my power right now. Having undergone so many changes in a short time, staying focused is fundamental to my sanity. In the very first flower bed, the boys and I sprinkled the cremains of our dog into the soil and said one last, “Good boy, Tucker.”

Slowly, I know I will transform this space we now call home into a nature-focused spiritual space. And I get to pick out every last little bit of color here.

Celebrating Reece

“Hi, sweet baby,” I said gently to him as I pulled him up to my chest. He was tiny. Motionless. Silent. He was beautiful, dark red lips and all. He had Grant’s round chin and Dane’s thin little face. The tiniest curl of ears, a button nose, and the famous strawberry blonde hair. He had giant baby feet and was built trim, just under 5 pounds for 34 weeks. At term he could have easily been a seven pounder. He was most definitely a Carlson boy in our family.

Three years ago. Reece was born three years ago today. It seems so far away and just freshly yesterday in the same heartbeat. I think this is just what happens when you aren’t given the privilege to watch your baby grow. He is held somewhere between memories of a fresh newborn and the ghost of all the milestones he did not reach. Tonight if you find yourself awake at 11:36pm, please send up some love for my boy.

Part of the hard is the milestone of a three year old. I’ve done it twice before. I know the third year is the most challenging. I know a chubbycheeked toddler becomes a thinner-faced preschooler. I know that the baby days melt behind them all of a sudden when they blow out their own candles.

Three year-olds are potty training. Their little personalities are established. They have genuine interests and they talk up a storm. This year, I‘m not missing my newborn baby—I missing my preschooler. The other part of the hard is knowing I will never know that three year old. Would he love the moon and rocket ships? Would he be into animals? Or trucks? Or sports? What ridiculous things would his brothers convince him to say?

I wish he was here to demand we eat Kraft Mac and cheese for his special birthday dinner. I wish he was here to shriek as his brothers swipe a finger into the frosting of his cake or try to blow out his candles.

I will never know why he isn’t here to grow with us. There is one thing I know.

Today was the anniversary of the hardest day of my life. We knew he would be born dead. We knew driving to the hospital for his birth, we didn’t need any baby clothes or the car seat. Ryan and I didn’t know how, but we believed we would get through the hardest challenge life has to offer. Every day, we are getting through the hard together.

On the anniversary of this hardest day, I wanted to celebrate the memory of my youngest son, my number three. And I wanted to celebrate and honor who he has caused me to become. Ryan and I spent an hour rock climbing today.

I’ve never been before. It was really hard. I was shaking and had gone into muscle fatigue halfway through my third climb. Some of the grips had me saying, “Oh, shit. I can’t. I can’t do this.” And then I heard my other voice saying, “You have done harder things. Keep pushing. This is nothing. Go, girl.”

It was so great to share that adventure with the man who has been my rock. Hearing him cheer me on when I wanted to give up was such a powerful thing.

I will not squander the strength I have earned just because the acquisition of that strength has been painful. And also, now I have earned my slice of birthday cake!

The Moose on the Mantle

In the baseball season of 2015, the Kansas City Royals were on fire. As summer turned to fall, the team headed to the World Series. Ryan has always been a huge fan, even in less than great years. There were years where the team’s efforts and talents were less than stellar, sometimes embarrassingly bad.

But that year was their year: 2015. I knew Ryan’s chance to see his team play in the Series was rare, so we bought him a ticket. It was October 2015 and I was eight months pregnant with Reece. I figured the man could have his fun because soon enough the fourth trimester, what we called “baby jail,” would require him to be home. A lot.

The Royals tore it up. One favorite player was Mike Moustakas, whom fans affectionately called “Moose.” For a baby born in the year Ryan’s team won the World Series, a moose was the perfect animal. We found one online and had it sent to the house.

Just weeks later, our World Series baby would be pronounced dead. I would birth him and rock him, and together we would tearfully choke out his first and last lullaby: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” This was a song we had sung to our older boys so they knew the words at their first baseball game. The day for Reece’s first baseball game would never, ever come.

Ryan was crushed by the fact he’d never be able to tell Reece that he was born the year the Royals won. In Reece’s memory, he got a tattoo of his name in Royals script.

As time has passed, I worry that Reece’s memory will fade. But many thoughtful people still send gifts. Nothing soothes my heart more than a friend sending a moose trinket with a note: “This made me think of Reece.”

A Christmas ornament from Grandpa Bill is one in a million.

A few weeks ago, I delivered a speech about the three parts to Mothering an Angel baby. My payment was a sweet little moose for the mantle.

Our family recently attended our first Royals game since Reece’s death. It was a joyful day. The 7th inning stretch brought us “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and some tears. We knew our little moose was with us, just as Mike Moustakas was on the field below us.

Many people know a moose holds special meaning for us, but they don’t know why. It all comes back to baseball, the Royals, that special year that was 2015.

A Tale of Two Women

My good friend is moving away. As I come to terms with this idea, I reflect on all of it.

The only way to start is at the beginning. I was pregnant with my second child and I saw a post on social media asking other mothers for information on circumcision. This mother knew she was having a boy and she wanted the facts, nothing more. I had an inkling that my little butterball was also a boy but we didn’t know for sure. Out of the blue, I contacted her to see what she was learning.

From a need for information grew a friendship. She suggested we meet for a play date after we discovered that our firstborns were mere weeks apart in age and our baking babies would also be just weeks apart. Going to a complete stranger’s house after only talking online for a few weeks?!? Thanks for not being an ax murderer, Britani.

As my oldest boy dove head first into the land of Barbies, we got to know one another. As months passed and our baby boys were born (I knew it!), we connected over La Leche League meetings and late night woes. I bought a YMCA membership to join her in yoga class. We worked our post partum bodies back to strength, often groaning into downward dog as Wes the instructor let loose a devious chuckle.

That Halloween, we gathered our families over pizza and planned a route through the neighorhood for trick or treating. Britani pushed an umbrella stroller, but it wasn’t for any one of the dozen kids that circled us. It was for the homebrew pony keg. Guys, this was love. I knew then that we would be friends for life.

Little Grant was dressed as a bat and worn in a carrier. Little Judah was a dragon and worn the same. Seasoned Mamas knew how to pack it.

Our kids were growing up together, not unlike wolves. We met at the zoo, at each other’s houses, and learned from one another as our milk-fat babies popped teeth, and learned to crawl, then walk. They began to resemble toddlers instead of babies. The light was near!

One fateful day, I received a message that Britani was unexpectedly pregnant. She was angry, upset, overwhelmed. This wasn’t the plan. I felt for her with a tinge of jealousy, as we had just finished the three month wait on post-vasectomy clearance and knew our family was done growing. Parenting Grant was really challenging, parenting him AND Dane was a fence-builder.

It was merely days after our message exchange that we discovered Ryan’s vasectomy was unsuccessful. It was Britani who offered me her unused pregnancy strips. We quietly freaked out together while we waited. Pink lines. She was the first person who knew Reece was growing. She told her husband about their coming fourth baby and then I tearfully told mine.

Here we were together, in the camp of “WTF, Universe?!?” Yoga was necessary. I remember nothing of the conversation except an image of us standing in the parking lot near our cars, knowing they would morph to minivans. We had our mats rolled and slung over our shoulders. It was April.

The coming months as we planned to add a third child to our family, our family decided to move away from Omaha. Britani and I compared mental notes as we adjusted our lives to expand. I remember at one point asking her without fear of offending her “If you knew what a handful your second born was, how did you find the will to have another?” Both our second-borns were a special kind of something in their toddler years. So. much. screaming.

I watched her parent three, and I knew it would be okay for me, too. Our surprise babies would again be just weeks apart. Something was in the water. Maybe it was Yoga?

Our family moved. Their family moved. We bought a minivan, they bought a minivan. Here we were.

Halloween came and went. This year we wanted to get familiar with our new neighborhood so we stayed in town, pony keg aside.

Weeks later, our baby would die. In the turmoil of his birth, my dear friend knew to leave the love offerings with the nursing station, not bringing her pregnant self in to my sad room. We messaged often, approaching the tender topic of how I wanted to be told her baby was born. About a month later when her little one was born, I got a gentle message before a social media blast. A little boy. Just like ours.

In the moment of seeing his photo (which I requested), I heard the unmistakable thunderclap of our lives diverging into a forked road. I knew then in that moment: I was walking a road covered in brush and brambles. And I was barefoot. And I was alone in this new motherhood.

Our roads and our lives were forever different from this moment on. I had to walk this way, she that.

I began down the road, the thorns snagging my face, tangling my hair. There was something behind me, a creature of dark. I was unable to speed my pace. I was unarmed and I was bleeding. The thicket closed in, and I knew I would need to rest. I wailed into the branches overhead, feeling myself give up, my heart undeniably broken. I was alone. I sat down, my weary legs folding under me. The creature approached. From between the branches I saw a face. I heard a baby gurgle. My friend.

“What are you doing here? It’s dangerous.”

“I’m following you. Our roads have diverged, so I picked this one. I won’t forget Reece. I will always say his name. Also, I brought this stick because there is scary shit in this wood.”

My friend. My champion. Part-time protector, full-time friend. Sometimes walking ahead with the stick, beating away the branches, calming my social anxiety with the assurance that I can ask for what I need. My friend, who incorporated my healing tools into my everyday life and made it less weird.

I wasn’t judged.

I wasn’t questioned.

She walked with me, her new baby on her back, through the brambles and thorns.

Baby wearing mamas just know how to pack it.

Pebble of Sadness

1440166440415For a long while, I harbored bitterness towards pregnant women. I needed the anger to hold my experience in place. My world had been changed by unexpected unfair death. Not being angry about it meant I didn’t hold that experience most true. It was proof my life had undergone a massive disruption. With anger at the forefront, it was always obvious that Reece had a daily impact on my life.

Letting go of the easy-to-access anger and bitterness that was linked to his death was scary as hell. Those two emotions have very physical reactions. In a world where I have no physical connection to Reece, I wanted to feel the anger as a physical connection to him. In pushing through with therapy instead of quitting, in letting go of the anger, I worried I would lose my connection to him. He seemed more real if I linked him to the anger that was just “right there.” But Reece isn’t the anger. Reece isn’t the anxiety, the panic attacks, or the bitterness.

The pain is not Reece. The pain is not my son.

The key concept was understanding that Reece and I are forever connected, even without the anger. I didn’t believe it was true, but I was just so tired of being in pain about him. The exhaustion weighed more than the fear of losing a bit of him. Once I reprocessed the anger, I feel that connection to him more than before.  He is mine. I am his. He is with me wherever I go. With intentional focus, I can feel him. His life growing inside me caused our DNA to be forever linked in a permanent physical way. Study my blood and you will find three marked distinctions from three individual boys. But if I’m still, I can feel the emotional connection to him also. It’s softer but always there.

BD4AF5A1-59C0-477E-911F-1062C8339920My son is the sweet memories. The giant bowls of popcorn. The goofy maternity shirts. My proud Halloween pumpkin costume. Every time we see a moose or hear “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” he is with us. The tenderness, my global sense of compassion, my ability to see big pictures, the knowledge that people are dealt things outside of their control. There is a small stone of sadness inside the well of richness and depth he brought to my life. But it is no longer a boulder. I am no longer Atlas, bearing the weight of the world. My connection to him persists on a deeper level and it’s stronger now with anger out of the way.

He is the thread that runs through me.

Everything I do is stitched in his color.

Reece’s Birthday

We made it through Reece’s second birthday. This year was really hard. Other loss mamas had warned me that it could be harder than the first birthday. They were right.

Last year, we indulged in a big party. Family, friends, and fellow loss families gathered to surround us on the weekend before his birthday. One of my dear sisters made the trip from out of state to be with us. We made Reece bear a special hat, a special pumpkin, and all his party guests a giant crock pot of chili soup. Everyone in attendance decorated cookies shaped like a moose or a pumpkin. We crowded outside on the deck with a single blue balloon and sang Happy Birthday. My sister made a video I will cherish forever.

At the conclusion of the song, we released the balloon into the sky. We watched it drift away for a long long time. On his party day, I didn’t feel sad. There was only joy and love. The people that surrounded us confirmed that Reece had meant something to them. That is all a loss family wants. To feel that their child held meaning for other people.

I did not go to work on his birthday that first year. I didn’t work on his birthday this year. I might never work on his birthday. I like the idea of having the day to clear my heart and have some space to feel his presence. True to birthday traditions for other other boys, that first birthday is a big deal. The parties after vary in size and activity. We are rolling much more low key. No big party, just a smaller cake for our little family.

This year in lieu of releasing long-decomposing latex balloons, I discovered something called flying wish paper. It’s like a tissue paper roll that you light on fire and it goes into the air for a second. The boys each got to write something on their paper and roll it up. There is no way I could light a birthday candle, sing the song, and then blow out his birthday candle for him. The flying wish paper was really fun! Fire is always fun with birthdays. With just the four of us, we crowded around the cake and wrote little wishes on flying wish paper. One by one we lit them. The last one with his name on it cued us for Happy Birthday.

In the last seconds, the paper floats up all the way to the ceiling as ashes and comes softly to rest. My husband got really good at catching it with the “launch” paper to minimize the mess.

My husband is a doer. He grieves by taking action. This year my husband was in charge of ordering Reece’s birthday cake. Aside from our oldest son’s request for a marble cake, my husband was free to think of Reece and choose a design. He chose two Hot Wheel cars to share with his brothers. It was most definitely the manliest cake I’ve ever seen!

I still wanted to invite others to celebrate his short life. This year I wanted to spread color and share my love of gardening. Over the course of the last two years, I have struggled to find “my people” in our new city. After Reece’s death, I knew my people would not be typical moms complaining about sleepless nights and sore nipples. I needed people who could help me outside the lines of motherhood. I needed a little piece of myself to flower during the darkest days of grief.

Part of this group’s mission is to spread the use of U.S. native plants. Everything was freely given and guidance was happily shared. I started working in the garden beds of our house, turning bald spots into thriving patches of yellow and purple. I learned how to grow native plants and save their seeds for sharing.

For Reece’s birthday this year, my husband and I were honestly…kinda tired. Our family dog of 10 years passed away about a month ago and the grief bubbles up again in weird ways. I invited a handful of faithful dirt enthusiasts in a small Facebook event as Reece’s planting party. I added my husband as a co-host. He doubled the invitees without hesitation. We shared the work of pulling seeds off the dried heads, mixing them, stamping packets with Reece’s life-sized handprint, and addressing envelopes.

We drank tea and talked about Reece and told stories. It was so special to me to spend time and energy on my littlest boy, just the way I craft birthday decor for Dane or blow up a thousand balloons for Grant.

The day itself was hard. After I dropped the boys off at school and preschool, I had a meltdown in the van. I wanted to sit under warm blankets and stare out the window all day. The tears came in heavy waves. At midday, Ryan needed to get up and DO something. We ended up across town checking out the new Costco. As we walked in, Christmas decor twinkled in our eyes. I walked straight to a box and patted it.

“Ha! It’s a Christmas Moose!” I felt the flood of tears coming on and I had to walk away. I did the best I could to gather myself near the granola bars. As I turned, I see Ryan pushing the cart with the moose in it.

“Today of all days, we can make irrational decisions.”

Grief comes in waves and sometimes a person has to do whatever they can to keep swimming. I see the traditions forming around Reece’s birthday and although the day knocked me over this year, I won’t stop honoring him as I do my other sons on their birthdays. I will always be his mother and he will always be my son.

Running in the Sun

Just last night we said goodbye to our faithful companion of ten years. As I process this loss, I find myself capturing  moments in my mind. Colors and shapes that come out as poems as we grieve the loss of the first creature that made us a family. 

“Hi Pup,” he said, lowering himself to the floor next to his head. I moved myself there, squeezing beside my husband to gaze onto our dog’s face. His eyes were already looking beyond the room. 

The strain of breathing squeezed his body, the churn of a train. 

I stroked his grey muzzle, his faded puppyhood left behind him while running around us and chasing rabbits from the garden. 

A blue towel propped his head, prepared to catch his mess made in death. 

We stroked him

I rubbed his flaps of brown velvet as I had done for ten years. 

“It’s ok, pup. We are here. You can go. It’s ok. Good boy, Tucker. Good boy.” 

I felt his body shudder, his eyes squinting. 

His breathing stopped. 

He relaxed. 

His eyes widened, his jowls folded into his teeth. 

His body curled three times, his legs stretching out. 

His soul untying from his Earthly body. 

I saw him free, young, 

running into the sun.

A Meeting on Rainbow Bridge

The mist of Rainbow Bridge kissed against the emeralds of eternal summer. 
Sun gleamed off the muscles of a young dog, his muzzle ebony.

He came full speed, bounding into the grass. 

A mop of blonde hair waited, mesmerized. 

“Doggie!” He squealed excitedly, clapping his dimpled hands together, his little feet stomping. 

Tucker paused, nudged him, sucking his smell from the armpit, huffing after inhaling.

Family. Heaven boys smell like family. 

Tucker splayed his front legs, bowing to play, inviting a chase. 

Grass and dirt tornado as he spins, Game On.

Peels of laughter erupt as our Angel boy 

finally meets our family dog. 

The Show

The building was humming with excitement. My clammy hand clutched a ticket as I milled through the mass of women, they chatted around me, smiles wide. I glanced down at my ticket. December 22nd, 2015. As I looked up, I saw a woman step out of line, her face ashen. The line moved up, so did I. The excitement increased as we got closer to the curtain. Some had never seen this show and they babbled excitedly. 

I had seen this show before but I did not buy this ticket. It was given to me. I smiled politely, trying to engage in the excitement around me. We stepped closer to the long sweeping curtains. I was finally just steps away from entering the auditorium when a hand was placed on my shoulder.
“Excuse me, you are going to have to come with me.”

“No, I’ve waited a long time in this line and I’m finally near the front. I have a ticket for this show.”

“No ma’am. You need to step out of line.”

“No!” I felt my heart beginning to beat faster. “I waited here nicely. I have a ticket to this show and it’s about to start.” I thrust the ticket stub in his face. “Look, December 22nd, 2015. This is the right line and this is the right show.”

“I’m sorry, come with me.” His hand was on my elbow, trying to gently pull me from the line.

“No! I’m not moving. I did everything right! I followed all the rules for waiting in line. Take someone else. I’ve even been to this show twice before so I know all the rules for getting to see it.”

The grip on my elbow tightened and I was plucked from my spot.

“No, I was just talking to this lady, she is the same as me.” Panic was squeezing my chest, the volume of my voice rising. “And that’s my friend, see her, in line up there? She will tell you I’ve seen the show!” 

“Your ticket is not for this show.”

I looked down at my clammy hand and unfurled my fingers. My red ticket had faded to grey.

“How can that be? My ticket was just fine. It was red! IT WAS RED!”

“Your ticket is no good.”

“But my ticket is for a comedy! A redemption tale. A funny story about a couple who had plans and then had to adapt but everything turns out fine in the end. I’m in the right line!!”

“No.” He said simply. Now pulled out of line, the women moved forward without me, their eyes down, embarrassed for me and aware of the scene I was causing. I looked up over the sea of hair and saw my friend. We locked eyes. She pushed forward with the throng of women. She disappeared through the doorway and behind the curtain.

“Ma’am, this is your line.”

The line headed in the opposite direction away from the gold carpet, dipping down by ramp, under the excitement of the main show. The curtain was grey. The walls were grey. The carpet, grey. I got in line behind a woman who was sobbing.

“I don’t understand why I got picked out of line. I didn’t buy a ticket to this show.” A grim faced woman turned to me.

“Nobody here bought a ticket.”

“What is this show? I had a ticket to ‘Motherhood: Comedy and Redemption.’”

“This show is called “Stillbirth and Other Losses.”

The blood drained from my face. I looked down at my grey stub and felt the blood in my toes. Stamped across December 22nd was a new date: November 7th, 2015. 

My eyes came up slowly, the tears forming in my eyes. My voice quivered “Does it have a happy ending?”

She locked eyes with me, clutching her own grey ticket. She shook her head slowly, the weight of my question sinking in. 

“I….I don’t know.” 

Draining the Swamp

Over at Still Standing Magazine, I’ve begun a series of articles detailing the process of Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy so others can understand the steps and gain insight to what it can do to soothe symptoms of PTSD.

As I continue my grief journey (yes, it still hurts. No, I won’t get over it.), I’m meeting many lovely mothers who are struggling with life-altering anxiety. I struggled with anxiety, too. It was debilitating. Nightmares and panic attacks and strictly structuring the day just so I could function like a normal mom. Living that way was nothing short of Hell on Earth. 

Everyone’s grief is unique and there are many ways to heal. EMDR isn’t just for the grieving or the traumatized; it can also help those with generalized anxiety. One dear person in my life shared that EMDR helped soothe her overwhelming fear of flying. Another said it helped her friend adjust her feelings about her divorce. I’m sharing the link to my article here from Still Standing Magazine to enlighten partners and friends, and bring hope to all the mothers who are having less than a full life.

This One is for my Littlest

I have had the honor in joining a team of amazing humans to write and share my journey of grief and healing on Still Standing Magazine. 

Trauma comes in many forms and has lasting effects. It wasn’t Reece who caused the trauma but losing him. For such a tiny human, he has had such a powerful impact on my life. 

Today my post went live and I look forward to speaking loudly about our story so it may help other mothers and fathers. Anxiety is Hell on Earth. You don’t have to live here.