Birthday Survivor

What a contrast this day is to the same day 20 years ago! Simon’s day of birth couldn’t have been more perfectly planned or organized. His two sisters took us by surprise by arriving a few weeks early, but Simon seemed pretty happy hanging out in the womb until the last minute. So we were scheduled to have labor induced. I had time to leisurely pack my bag, shower, and even put on makeup. The girls made adorable artwork to hang on the walls by the hospital bed so they could cheer me up during the birth. I still have the crayoned happy-faced sun drawing from Emily, with “HAPPY LABER!” (sic) scrawled across the top. Markus and I checked into the maternity ward of the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP) – no waiting required. It felt like checking into a hotel. I even posed for a pre-birth photo, looking happy and relaxed, knowing my baby boy was only hours away from joining us. The nurses were calm and soothing, gave me delicious drugs to ease the pain, and when the time came for my epidural, the anesthesiologist was right there to administer it. Markus didn’t faint this time around, because he was a pro labor coach by then, and Simon came into this world like a sunrise on a beautiful morning.

We had a few hiccups in the beginning, because Simon was unexpectedly born with syndactyly and ectrodactyly in his left hand. His index finger and thumb were fused, his middle and ring fingers were missing, and his pinky was missing its middle joint. Twenty years ago, there was scant information about the condition, so the first doctor to pop into our hospital room was a slick car salesman-like plastic surgeon from Carmel. “Nah, that’s not a problem, folks! I can just snip off a few toes and transplant them on his hands! Piece of cake!” *record scratch* Markus and I looked at each other with horror and politely declined his assistance. After our initial shock of learning about Simon’s condition, the doctor who delivered Simon referred us to the Medical Genetics department at the University of California San Francisco. Because Simon’s condition was unilateral, there was a lower risk of systemic abnormalities compared to bilateral conditions, but they wanted to check him from head to toe and inside and out. I think by then, he was about two months old – a roly-poly bundle of giggles and smiles. It’s funny – Markus and I had lost our initial alarm about Simon’s hand by then, and although we were concerned about his medical condition, all we could worry about that day was the fact that he hadn’t pooped in a couple of days. Sure enough, after charming every medical professional on the genetics team at UCSF, Simon had a diaper explosion. It was one of those overflowing diapers, so Markus and I were horrified, but the giant grin on Simon’s face made everyone around him laugh while we scurried to clean up the mess. At the end of a long day, the team pronounced him perfectly healthy and we drove back to Monterey with a big sigh of relief. 

When Simon was three months old, we were referred to the top hand surgeon in San Francisco, with the hope that he could advise us with how to best proceed with helping Simon have more functionality in his hand in the future. Would he be able to tie his shoes? Was there a miracle surgery out there to reconstruct his left hand to look like his right hand?  After examining the happy little baby, the doctor sat us down and said the most important thing to us that anyone has ever said to us before or since. He told us that even though Simon’s hand is different than other people’s hands, he will grow up knowing only his hand as it exists and will learn to do things his own special way. Therefore, he wasn’t the one that would need to adjust his attitude toward his special hand; we had to adjust our attitudes. The doctor told us that when Simon grew to be an adult, if he wanted to seek out new technology or innovative surgeries to change his hand, he could make his own decision. He told us to wait and see how Simon developed – he said we would be surprised by how innovative a person with a physical disability can be to adapt to adversity. The wise doctor was not wrong. Simon has led a blessed life, finding ways to overcome obstacles and thrive.

I’ve read about blind people whose sense of smell, hearing, and touch appears to be amplified in the face of their disability. In a similar way, Simon possesses an amplified level of compassion, optimism, and good humor. However, in this, his 20th year, he has been tested in awful ways. He was rolling along in his Freshman year at a school he picked specifically because they offered him a scholarship to throw javelin for their Track team. Because of the Pandemic, the season was canceled, with no great hope for a season in his Sophomore year. Classes were moved online, the border to Canada, where his girlfriend lived, was closed, and he ended up having to move home to self-isolate with us. Then his best furry friend since Kindergarten, Hercules, died suddenly. His girlfriend had no choice but to return to her home in Sweden after her Canadian visa expired. And just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, in June, my nephew died from a drug overdose. Death, grief, heartbreak. We almost didn’t think Simon would be able to regain any sense of well-being, but he slowly pulled himself up. 

We thought the unplanned chaos would come to an end this Fall, as he went in with five guys from school to rent a house close to the university. The plan was for them to all work out together and Simon to train for the hoped-for Track season in the Spring, while attending online classes. That plan was enough to ease some of the pain of his parents picking up and moving down to California. He was so excited to start the school year and to have companionship at his house. It all came to a screeching halt in the first week of living there. Simon didn’t know his housemates very well and started worrying when the consecutive days of all-night parties at the house revealed more than just beer. His housemates were into drugs. When he found that out, he tried keeping to himself in his room. One night a drug dealer came over with a gun. There was a confrontation, the dealer left and returned with friends, and they ended up fighting with Simon’s housemates in the street outside of the house. Understandably freaked out, Simon left the house to wait at a safe distance and saw a cop car approach the large group of young white men. Then, he watched white privilege in action, as the cops did not even get out of their car, and eventually drove away.  Later, he heard one of his housemates say he was going to go out to buy a gun and go after the guys they had been fighting. Knowing that there was nowhere for that situation to go but downhill, and fearing for his life, Simon hopped into his car and drove all the way to Seattle to stay with Hanna, our second daughter. Exhausted, but finally feeling safe after several sleepless nights, he fell into a deep sleep for hours. When he woke up, he told Hanna everything. Not wanting to worry us, they called our oldest daughter, Emily, who lives in Canada now. Together, the three of them talked it out until Simon could figure out what to do next. Feeling stronger, Simon finally called us and told us what had happened. All of this took place just last week.

Chaos. How do you wrangle it and make it your bitch? You call on the Assassin. Hanna, who earned that nickname as a young girl for a variety of reasons, rose to the occasion like the kickass woman I knew she would grow up to be. She welcomed Simon into her tiny studio apartment, and they have been the best roommates to each other for a week, now. This is Simon’s first birthday away from home, so she secretly told all of us to join a family Facetime early this morning, so we could sing our usually wake-up birthday song to him. She stayed up late last night to artfully wrap the presents we sent in several of her long-sleeved tee shirts. This morning, we all sang to him and watched him unwrap his presents. Then she took him out to breakfast and birthday gift shopping for some shoes. When they returned home, balloons and presents from Emily were waiting for him.

I have never, in my life, been prouder of my children. I don’t know about you, but I always used to worry about what would happen if my husband and I died at the same time. You know, flying in an airplane, or *cough cough* driving on a two-day car trip from Seattle to San Francisco, through wildfire-devasted countryside… Who would hold them up and support them during their grief? How would they respond to the traumatic event? Last week, I witnessed what would happen. My children would gather in close and support each other. They would openly love each other and hold each other up. I’ve had a glimpse of the future and I feel so relieved.

So this has been a horrible, chaotic year, all the way through. But that ends today. Today, my beautifully strong young son turned 20 years old. And the Treppenhauers are taking back control of the year. We are all going to return it to the beautiful, soothing, joyful day that Simon entered the world. It started with Hanna and Emily holding him close immediately following the craziness of last week. It continued with our lovely virtual family gathering this morning. It will be finalized by Markus flying out to help him move out of his room at the house, followed by a long drive to San Francisco, where he will finish the school quarter in a home void of drugs and guns. He has a new plan to start next quarter by renting a house with an actual friend – one he knows and trusts. His positive attitude is back in force. The wise doctor was spot on in predicting Simon’s future adaptability. Simon was so smart to steer clear of the dangerous situation he was living in. Sometimes the bravest thing a person can do is to walk away from danger, risking the loss of friendships in favor of Life. He spent so much of the year persevering in the face of adversity but saw the wisdom in accepting help when the burden became too heavy. And that is where our family shines – sharing the burden. We are stronger together and are always there for each other. Happy Birthday, Simon the Survivor. We love you and can’t wait to see you again and welcome you Home. 

Not a Fairy Tale

Marriage is not a fairy tale. You start out full of hope – he makes you laugh. You think your love will conquer all, that love is all you need, and you’ll live happily ever after. You are wrong.

Within your first year he still makes you laugh, but you realize those little things you found annoying but bearable, like dirty underwear on the floor or the toilet seat up when you sit down to pee, are not so bearable while your bum is falling into the ice-cold toilet bowl in the middle of the night. By the seventh year, your young children are pulling you both in all directions and demanding your time; and while you have joy and laughter, you’re both sleep-deprived and short-tempered at times. By the 10th year, most of the time you two spend in bed involves less sex, less laughter, and more arguing and snoring. One of you might begin thinking it would be much easier to start a new life, away from the sight of dirty dishes and piles of laundry, the sound of nagging, and the feeling that the love has weakened and perhaps this is how it will be for the rest of your life…maybe you should leave. If you’re lucky, you’ll hesitate for a day. If you’re luckier, you’ll remember the laughter and hold off for a few weeks. If you’re luckiest, you’ll decide to work through the hard times and seek out professional help to repair and rebuild. There will be tears. There will be arguments. The children will hear you raise your voices and will see you cry. You might wonder if things will ever go back to the way they were. They won’t.

But accepting that things will never be the same may become the beginning of something new. One night, out on a date assigned by the marriage counselor, instead of realizing that you’re looking across the table at a stranger and getting a sinking feeling in your heart, you might realize you’re sitting across the table from a stranger and feel a quickening in your heart – who is this person and what are they thinking? What are their interests and what do they dream about? Do your interests and dreams align? You’ll find new things to make you smile and eventually laugh. Since this person is new to you, you’ll search for novel ways to entertain him. He will do the same. Because you’re both strangers, you’ll be polite. You’ll speak carefully and try to be considerate of his feelings. Sometimes you’ll remember sad times or past anger and it will boil over into confrontation, but you’ll both want to hold on to the new pleasure in your new lives, so you will start over. A year will pass and the new you will feel more secure. Your children will see you holding hands and having conversations. They will see you supporting each other and working to keep the family healthy.

By the 15th year, just when things are going great, your marital issues might take a back burner to the emerging teenager issues in your children. After butting heads with teenaged fury, you might turn to each other and find strength and solidarity. More importantly, he still finds ways to make you laugh and you hope that this stage will eventually pass. You both realize that you must take great care to nurture your relationship so you can both see this through and come out on the other side still holding hands.

Three months before your 18th wedding anniversary, you might find a lump in your breast. Suddenly you’re faced with losing everything. You look back and recognize that every moment you spent with him, even the painful ones, were precious. You feel desperate to live so you can have more of those moments. So, you fight. You fight crippling fear. And he is there next to you, holding your hand, making you laugh, helping you fight through the pain. He is with you as you both fight for your life. And when you have no more strength or hope, he gives you his. Each surgery becomes less fearful. Each time you wake up in a hospital, he is there with a cool cloth for your forehead and kisses for the rest of you. He reassures you that you’re beautiful inside and out, no matter what happens to your body. And he can’t help himself – he makes you laugh. You laugh until your stitches hurt, you laugh through your tears, and you laugh until you are healed.

In the second decade of your marriage, you could find yourself embarking on a new journey. You’ve given half of your life to your children and it’s time to take care of yourself. Your dream is big, and you know there will be sacrifices. You go back to school. You begin to feel a sense of déjà vu as dinners fall by the wayside and laundry starts piling up. The arguing begins and you wonder if maybe this time around things may not end well. You remember his unhappiness earlier in the marriage, when times were tough and he wanted to escape, and you’re filled with dread. What you don’t remember is that he’s not the same man you married. Time has changed him into a man who wants what’s best for you and the decades have forged in him a strength of character that would make sure your dreams come true. To your delight, he rolls up his sleeves and folds the laundry. Every time you turn around there are fresh flowers in a vase on your desk and handwritten loving post-its stuck on your computer. To your amazement, he’s a fantastic chef and he brings you your dinner while you are studying at your desk, many times accompanied by glasses of champagne. And to your astonishment, he considers it reasonable to contemplate a time in the near future when you will attend graduate school in a different town when you might have to drive several hours just to steal a weekend with each other. His exciting plans to sneak away from the house and race through the night have you giggling like you’ve just started dating.

Marriage is not a fairy tale. You start out full of hope – he makes you laugh. You think your love will conquer all, that love is all you need, and you’ll live happily ever after. You’re wrong. The prince doesn’t wake the princess with a simple kiss, he shakes her awake and she’s grumpy and she might have bad breath and she doesn’t know his name and they have to take time to get to know each other and maybe just maybe they have a chance to truly fall into genuine love. Even then, they don’t immediately go riding off into the sunset without a care in the world. First, they must fight through a wall of thorns, side-by-side, bleeding and crying. Love doesn’t fight thorns. Willpower, grit, and patience get you through that. There might be dragons to slay and fire to fight. Love doesn’t help you fight dragons, courage does. What love does is fuel all of that willpower, grit, patience, and courage. Love is not the How, it’s the Why. Only after all of that, scarred and older, do the prince and princess have a chance for a ride into the sunset and a happy ending. Marriage isn’t a simple fairy tale, it’s an epic legend.

Happy 23rd Anniversary, Markus. I love you!

How Blessed to Have an Uneventful Day Together

Don’t give me fancy flowers. If I never have another rose, I won’t be sad. Don’t give me chocolates or romantic dinners in gourmet restaurants. For the rest of my life, if I never eat another chocolate or attend a gala dinner, I could still be happy. All I want is his warm hand holding mine as we walk down our path together. All I want is for him to take my face into his hands and pour all his love from his eyes into mine. I like to think that he was molded up in Heaven while I was a lonely little girl, staring up at the stars at night, wishing to find a family that would love me the way I love them. But he was already running around in his lederhosen by then, growing up all the way across the world, in the mountains.

I used to take our time for granted. Weekends sometimes felt a little boring, sleeping in, reading quietly, making dinner together, working in the garden. I used to think maybe my life was too quiet, too uneventful. Then we got a little shake up with that cancer thing last year, and we found ourselves wishing for boring, wishing for a worry-free life. Last year’s wedding anniversary was a “I’m alive! We made it! Yay!” anniversary, where we just clung to each other, grateful for the chance. Today, we have had a whole year of enjoying every day, a whole year of savouring just sitting on the back porch together, in the sunshine, listening to the quiet breezes drift through the forest. We learned how to fish, we went camping, we took long wandering walks in the woods. This has been a year of deep content. I am truly thankful.

But I want more. With your favourite food, you crave it until you overindulge and then can’t even stand the smell of it. With your favourite music, you play it until you get sick of it. Everything in my life to this moment has been that way. Except this love. This love has made us work hard for 19 years, but the joy and passion we create is ambrosia. Through tears, through frustrations, through misunderstandings, we learned how to be good people, to be kind to each other. And as each year passed, our roots went deeper, intertwining. Our union has produced 3 of the most beautiful precious beings we could ever give to the world. And our struggles, from petty things like snoring, to having serious talks about how one parent might have to go on without the other…raising children alone…those struggles have shown our children that love is everything. Love isn’t just flowers or romantic dinners once a year. Love is every day. Love is putting in earplugs if the snoring is too bad. Love is taking out the garbage. Love is taking turns being the soft parent when the other has to be the hard parent. Love is admitting when we are wrong and apologizing. Love is in the cold washcloth gently wiping away the sweat and tears of pain. Love is never forgetting to tell each other how we are treasured…every day.

So I have it, this love. I am fully aware of how rare it is, how most people may never find just the right person, or just the right way to dance with that person. I know we earned this happiness; it didn’t just fall into our laps. We earn it every day. And just like from a well-tended garden, our love is wonderful produce. There is no more taking for granted. Each minute slows so we can savour it. I take photographs so I can look back and remember that sunny day better, the smiles in the photo bringing me to to that very moment. Having this love comes with insecurity, worry over the future. I see the silver coming into his hair, I hold my breath before my 6month wellness checkups; I have daily reminders that it won’t last forever. Then, my blood tests come back clean and we celebrate. Or he earns a promotion and we celebrate. Or it’s just Friday and we celebrate.

Today is a special day. 19 years ago, on a pristine beach in Carmel, flanked by baby Emily on one side, and the most handsome groom I could ever imagine on my other side, I didn’t think I could ever have a happier moment for the rest of my life. Never have I ever been so glad to be wrong. Time has softened us, has greyed and wrinkled us. But that man I married has transformed into a man that glows from within. He is so beautiful my heart hurts. Sometimes I feel his eyes on me, and I look up to find the love shining from him, so palpable I feel I could reach out and hold it in my hands.

On Sunday, Markus flies away to Seattle to begin his new job. The kids and I are staying behind while they finish school. I struggle with the pride I feel for the rewards he has earned from his hard work, while I am already missing him so much my heart hurts. We are each other’s touchstone. When the outside world is too harsh, we turn to each other and there is comfort. When there are times to celebrate, we turn to each other for the big hugs and the jumping up and down. No matter what the situation, we turn to each other. For 22 days, we are going to have to settle for some virtual hugs and love through Facetime and emails. Between now and Sunday, I will be giving him kisses for him to keep in storage. Today won’t have fireworks or chocolates or flowers, it will be even better than that. Today will be pure love; just cherishing the quiet reading, holding hands, walking the dog, and whatever else a perfectly uneventful day will bring. Happy Anniversary to my Love. May we always be hungry for more.10849840_10152580707443131_566979218348613696_n

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