Monday, May 20, 2013

Little Miss Muffet no more

I have always lived in fear of spiders. Actually, terror. Visceral, gut-wrenching terror. It probably stems from the time my brother killed a spider at my behest, then laid the corpse on my pillow. Or the time a mother spider laid her babies in my light fixture, and all those babies drifted down oh so gently upon my bed as I lay in quiet repose. This fear followed me into my adulthood; I once called my husband home from work to save me from what appeared to be a giant arachnid intent on terrorizing me and my defenseless children. Only, as it turned out, the spider in question was already dead. I can still picture the look on hubby's face as he turned to face me, stifling a laugh (unsuccessfully, I might add), reporting the demise of the poor creature. When I looked closer, I could tell that it was already in an advanced state of decay. Fear had prevented me from noticing this before calling for my knight in shining armor.

My fear didn't feel to me like something I could control. I once had a therapist tell me that he could cure me, if I wanted him to. No, thanks, I said. I'd prefer to keep a healthy distance. Spiders are creepy, and crawly, and nightmarish. Shudder-inducing. I spent 18 months in Venezuela, the country of origin of the spiders featured in the hit film, Arachnophobia. I have never seen that movie; it was the one time my husband put his foot down and went all patriarchal on me. He said he valued his job, and couldn't waste any more time rescuing me from deceased insects. Just as well. I experienced those spiders first hand; seeing them in a starring role of a movie just might have driven me over the edge.

But, I fear spiders no more. At all. Just the other day, my youngest daughter screamed in terror and climbed onto the kitchen counter, attempting to escape a creepy crawler speeding across the floor. Of course, I rushed to see what was causing all the commotion, then grabbed a glass, trapped the spider beneath it, put a piece of paper underneath the glass, and took the spider outside, releasing it into the wild of the backyard. Leaving my daughter standing on the counter open-mouthed with astonishment. "Mom!", she said. "Why didn't you just step on it? Now it's going to come back in and get me!" Nah, I replied. It's safely outside, away from the possibility of being crushed underfoot. "You rescued the spider? I thought you were rescuing me!!" Nope, my darling girl. You had no need of rescue. You were never actually in danger. It was just a harmless critter, doing what critters do, looking for a place to hide from your screaming. I just helped him out, literally.

What caused this fundamental change? Interesting story, as it turns out. It has been an interesting journey, and I never foresaw this conclusion. Me, unafraid of spiders? Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think that was possible. Nor did I care. I could have spent the rest of my life stomping on them, gleefully sending them on to their next carnation, without a second thought. Except for how to get their squished remains off my shoe. And yet, here I am, defender of the creepy crawlers.

My transformation began over six years ago, when my beloved mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. I loved my MIL, and her diagnosis was devastating to me. She was the best person I've ever known. We didn't always see eye-to-eye, but it didn't matter. Her kind, compassionate soul was capable of overlooking any and all imperfections in her loved ones, me included. Because she had so lovingly raised the man who would grow up to protect me from dead arachnids, I saw an opportunity in her illness to return the love, and I promised her that I would do everything I could to get her through the experience.

For over three years, I took Norma to every doctor's appointment, and every chemotherapy appointment, except for maybe a handful. We became very close throughout the ordeal, sitting for hours together, sometimes talking, sometimes enjoying the respite from our crazy families. I began to see her as more than my husband's mother; she became my friend. My very dear friend. I didn't mind accompanying her, sitting with her, being her nurse when called for, interpreting the doctor's instructions for her, cleaning her up when necessary. I sat up with her all night in the hospital, incidentally the night before Mother's Day. I felt it was my duty to care for her, but it wasn't like most duties I performed, usually with resentment. I look back on those days with some fondness, in spite of the horror of the disease process, and the effects of the chemotherapy. Through serving her, I learned to truly love her. I would never wish such an experience on anybody else, but I can say that I am glad to have been through that with her. It changed my life in ways I'm still discovering, all these years later.

Norma had good days, and bad days, but the last six months of her life were mostly the latter. She deteriorated rapidly, and by the end of the summer of 2009, she was unable to participate in any meaningful way with her family. She had a daughter with severe disabilities, brought on by a brain tumor at the age of nine, and Norma had been her primary caretaker for 50 years. Her husband, my father-in-law, was also dependent upon Norma's ministrations. Their marriage was very traditional: husband worked to support the family, wife did everything else. Everything. She was the cook and housekeeper in every sense of the word. The daily grind laid upon her shoulders was heavy, but she bore it well, in the manner of women from her generation, without complaint. It was her lot in life, as she saw it, and she cheerfully went about the business of making life happen for those in her care. Until cancer stepped in, and put a stop to it. Then she had to lay the burden down, to the dismay of those who had so depended on her. They were unable to face her impending death, and were unable to allow her to accept that it was inevitable. Her husband told her once that choosing hospice was suicide. Ouch.

So, because they were unable to accept what was happening, she chose to keep fighting. Keep going for chemotherapy. Keep allowing the doctor to pump poison into her veins. Keep watching her life seep out through her pores. Keep smiling in spite of the loss of dignity, and the complete inability to care for herself, let alone others. I saw it as part of my job to make sure that she understood the options available to her, but I didn't think it was my place to make her choices for her. She had to be the one to call the game, end the torture. And, finally, she did. She had had a particularly rough day, and her husband had asked me, in despair, "How do you do what you do?" I just shrugged, and proceeded to bath her emaciated body as tenderly as I could. I could do it because I loved her. But, I told my husband that night (in a private conversation) that I could no longer sanction the continuation of chemotherapy by taking her to her appointments. If he, his siblings, and their father wanted it to continue, they were going to have to step up and take some responsibility for it. I could no longer take her into the doctor's office so they could inject her with the poison that was taking her life, and leaving an empty shell. However, the next day, before anybody else had a chance to make a decision, Norma spoke up, and she chose to be done. She looked me in the eyes, and said, "It's time. Call hospice." Hearing those words, I took control of the situation, and I made the necessary calls. With her permission, I stood between her and those who couldn't let her go, and I grabbed for her what dignity remained within reach. I didn't take my job lightly, but she had made her choice, and I was going to see to it that it was honored.

Once hospice stepped in, it took five long, agonizing weeks before she finally died. I was there at the end, standing at her bedside, watching as she drew her last breath, and the hospice nurse declared that her heart was no longer beating. I waited expectantly for some sign, some communication from Norma that she had made it safely to the other side. Some feeling, as I'd heard others express in similar situations, that the death had been attended to by otherworldly beings. Nothing. I felt nothing. She was just gone. What remained was an empty shell, just the flesh and blood remains of what had once been my mother-in-law. She was no more. I was sad, of course, but I also felt some small measure of satisfaction that I had done what needed to be done to release her from the agony that had become her life. I had stood up to those who lovingly insisted that she stay with them, without regards for her health, or her wishes. I loved her too, and would have liked nothing more than to have her stay here with us forever, but, as that wasn't possible, I take pride in the fact that I made sure she got what she really needed in the end.

Norma died in December of 2009. Just over a year later, our beloved yellow lab, almost 13-years-old, became feeble, and too weak to climb the deck stairs. It happened seemingly overnight, so we took her to the vet for a check-up. She had been limping, and favoring her left shoulder, so it was x-rayed to determine the problem. What the x-ray revealed was extensive cancer that had invaded her lungs, and it was so invasive that there was no way to determine the original site. There wasn't any other choice but to put her out of her misery. Libby was just a dog, just a pet, but she had been with us for so long that she was every bit as much a member of the family as I was. And the kids liked her more. It was a very painful decision, but, as I said to the kids when they questioned me, "How are you going to explain to a dog the side effects of chemotherapy? That the chemo will possibly, maybe, but probably not, save her life, but will more likely just prolong it, and make it miserable in the process?" They pointed out that Grandma's life had been prolonged by another 3 years after the diagnosis; why couldn't we do that for Libby? I reminded them of the hell that had become their beloved Grandma's life; was that what they wished for Libby? Of course not, they said. It was just heart-wrenching to have to say goodbye to their dog, their playmate.

The responsibility of that decision seemed to rest squarely on my shoulders. Everybody, hubby included, looked to me for confirmation that we were making the right choice. I questioned myself a few times, but the memory of what my mother-in-law had endured was fresh, and I couldn't see any other option than to put the poor dog out of her misery. We chose the following Saturday morning, the day before Easter, to have the vet come to the house and perform the procedure. It was a somber occasion, and we all walked around in a tearful daze. We went out and sat on the back lawn, waiting for the vet, and watched the dog limp around, wandering from house to canal, sniffing her old haunts. Crying, each of us of taking turns sobbing uncontrollably, petting the dog obsessively whenever she was within reach. I can remember clearly the details of that spring morning, the bright blue sky overhead, and the songbirds in the nearby trees. I can even still feel the damp grass underneath my knees as I knelt beside the dog.

The vet finally arrived, and proceeded to place an intravenous catheter in Libby's paw. Once that was done, she paused, and told us it was time to say goodbye. We were sitting in a circle, with Libby in the center, petting her fur and telling her through tears how much we loved her, and how much we would miss her. I remember noticing that the birds had stopped singing; I think our grief was so loud, we scared them. As the vet injected the heart-stopping drug, Libby turned her head to look at me. I had been feeling the tremendous weight of this decision all week, and it had intensified in that moment. Libby looked right into my eyes, and held my gaze until the light went out. Those beautiful brown eyes closed for the last time, and she dropped her head into Alix's lap. I know, in my rational mind, that she was just a dog, just a dumb animal, but I felt, in that last moment, that she was forgiving me for the events I had set in motion, and thanking me for insisting that we let her go. It was one of the most meaningful moments of my entire life, and, even now, I am moved to tears at the memory.

A few weeks after Libby died, I was sitting in an Adirondack chair on the front porch, visiting with a friend, enjoying a lovely summer evening. I happened to glance over at the table that sat between the chairs, and noticed a medium-sized, black spider slowly crawling along the edge. Hubby was standing nearby, and I said, with some alarm, "Honey! Kill that spider! It's creepy!" He ambled over, peered down at the spider, and said, "Spider! You, having been deemed creepy by my wife, have hereby been sentenced to die!" And he smashed it. Smashed that sucker flat. And I had a very unexpected reaction: I burst into tears. I had been the one to sentence the spider to death, and for what? Being a spider? A creepy one, sure, but still. I had held in my hand this creature's life, for a brief moment, and I had cavalierly decided its fate. It died, because I felt threatened by its creepy existence. I had taken upon myself the responsibility to determine another living being's fate, and I had taken it lightly. And it was too much. It was just too much.

It had been me who had taken steps to honor Norma's wishes, and it had been me who had decided to end Libby's life. And it was me who decided that a measly spider was too creepy to live. Life, in all its carnations, is sacred, and should be cherished. I know, I know! It was just a spider! And they're still creepy, and crawly, and, to be honest, if I were facing down a spider with an ominous red hourglass marking on its belly, I just might have to rethink my position regarding the sanctity of life. However, until then, I'm done playing God. I have no way of knowing where all these deceased loved ones, and creepy things, have gone, no way of knowing if they have gone anywhere at all; therefore, I'm through playing judge and jury. Creepy things, crawly things, rabid squirrels, all are safe within my presence. Except maybe for the squirrels. I'm not stupid, after all.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

It is always now

Last week, I poured all of my sorrow into a blog post, my longing for the life I didn't get to have. It was good to get it out, as it was festering, and threatening to overwhelm me with regret. However, it's time to move on. It's time to get back to the business of living the life I did get. And it's a pretty good one.

I had a couple of a-ha moments this week, both inspired by friends who, without knowing it, gave me exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it. Life works that way sometimes.

An old friend called me several days ago, and in the course of our conversation, I was reminded of a story she told me a few years ago, a story that helped her cope with a life-changing diagnosis given to her young son. Imagine that you have planned a trip to Italy, a dream vacation that has been months, maybe years in the making. You have the perfect itinerary mapped out, with visits to Sicily, Naples, Venice, the coliseum. Hiking in the Alps. Playing on the beach. Wine-tasting in Tuscany. Strolling through the courtyards and cobblestone streets of Rome. Seeing the Vatican up close and personal. Truly a dream vacation. (Stop stressing about the cost! You won the lottery, okay?!) This is the trip of a lifetime, and you are excitedly anticipating your grand adventure.

Then the plane lands, and you are not in Italy. You have arrived in Holland. The land of rain, and wind. No Rome, or Tuscany, or coliseum. No sunny beaches. No tour of wine country. What a let-down this is. Holland?! Holland! This is a miserable turn of events. (A friend pointed out to me, upon hearing this story, that somebody needs to fire the pilot!) This is not where you wanted to go, where you had planned to go, the trip of a lifetime. All that anticipation, and no satisfaction. I wanted to go to Italy! I planned to go to Italy! I don't want to vacation in Holland! Sigh.

So, now you have a choice. Mourn your lost trip to Italy, or explore Holland and find out what it has to offer? Many people actually plan trips to Holland, intentionally! Maybe there is something to see and enjoy here after all? As it turns out, Holland has many treasures awaiting you, even a world-famous, beautiful beach. All is not lost! You can still have the vacation of a lifetime; it just won't be the one you planned.

I'm reminded of a line from a favorite movie, Dan in Real Life. "Instead of telling our young people to plan ahead, we should tell them to plan to be surprised." Planning ahead isn't the problem; it's good to have goals, ideas about what we want from life, and how we're going to get there. But, life is full of surprises, confusing twists and turns, unexpected forks in the road. That is one of the constants of life, it's unpredictability. Just when you think you've got it all figured out, someone or something comes along and bam! Everything changes. Sometimes in an instant. So where does one go from there? Sit and stew and mourn? Or move ahead, exploring Holland's beaches, and cobblestone streets, and historical monuments? And their wine country. Yes, Holland has world-famous wines! All is not lost. It just requires a change of heart, an acceptance that the dream of exploring Italy did not come true, but a new dream is possible. And a willingness to explore your new reality, being open to all that it has to offer. Welcome to Holland.

My other a-ha moment came while watching an excerpt from a Sam Harris lecture, posted by a friend on facebook. "It is always now". You need to go watch it. Now. Really. It won't take long, and it might give you something to think about. I experienced an epiphany while listening to this short narrative. A realization that I'm wasting the 'now' by mourning the 'what-could-have-been'. This is the reality I have been given by fate, the universe, life. I didn't plan to be here; in fact, I didn't really plan much of anything. I didn't 'plan' a trip to Italy, but I certainly didn't expect to end up in Holland. However, my life could be worse. I could have landed in Algeria. (hugs to my friend; you know who you are!) I'm here, with a loving, kind, adoring husband. Four great kids. A job I like, one that provides security and benefits to my family, which is no small thing in today's world. Friends. Extended family. Shelter. More food than I need. I have a lot, and I'm mourning what I don't have? The Eagles said it best, in Desperado: "Now it seems to me, some fine things have been laid upon your table, but you only want the ones that you can't get." I have some fine things upon my table. I don't want to miss what is here, right now, because I can't get over the ones that I can't get.

"The past is a memory, a thought arising in the present. The future is merely anticipated; it is another thought, arising now. What we truly have is this moment." Wise words from Sam Harris. I have now, right now, this very moment, and it is always now.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Regrets. . .

A facebook friend posed a question this week that has worked its way under my skin, and won't let go until I address it. She was asking for advice from those of us who left the church after age 40: what would we do differently if we had it to do over again (paraphrased)? I responded that it was too painful to explore the past, and I can only move one direction: forward. Without regrets.

But I do feel regret. And sorrow. And loss. And the 'what if' is killing me. Because I think the church did steal something from me; they took the future I could have had, the future I should have had, the life I've imagined and dreamed about in those moments when I wasn't aware I was dreaming of anything at all.

As a kid in elementary school, I knew I was smart. I was always at the top of my class in every subject, and I was very confident in my intellectual abilities. I don't remember my school performance being mentioned at home; I think it was just assumed that we would all do well academically. We were raised by parents who believed in education; we weren't allowed to miss school for anything but a bonafide illness (though that might have been because school was an acceptable babysitter!), and it was always assumed that each of us would do at least some college. My parents weren't college graduates themselves, and they wanted us to have the opportunities they had missed due to circumstances beyond their control. But I don't remember ever being praised at home for being smart. I also do not remember my future ever being addressed, beyond that of being a wife and mother. I may have been smart, but I was a Mormon girl, and there were (and are) certain expectations of Mormon girls that precluded career dreams. Even for a pre-pubescent elementary school student.

Once I hit junior high school, I discovered my true voice: sarcasm. I'm a genuine smart-ass at heart, much to the dismay of my parents and teachers. I ended up in the principal's office more than once, more than twice even, and was reprimanded by English teachers, math teachers, science teachers, seminary teachers. One thing I did not excel in was self-control. But I digress. The point is that I lost confidence in my intelligence. Maybe because it wasn't acknowledged by parents or teachers, maybe because I drowned it out with my antics. I managed to do well enough to stay off my parent's radar, keeping my grades in the adequate range, but I did not display any sign of ambition or even concern for my future. When I think back on my high school days, I don't remember any encouragement to consider what I wanted to do with myself in the future. It was assumed that I would marry, have children, and stay home and raise them. Maybe it had a lot to do with the fact that I never expressed an interest in a particular career; maybe nobody expected more from me because I didn't expect anything from myself. All I know is that I floated through to graduation, with no concrete ideas for my future beyond the next year. I did plan to pursue a degree in elementary education, but only because I'd been told that teaching would fit in well with motherhood; I'd be able to be home with my kids during their breaks from school, if I had to work, and I'd have skills that would make me a better parent. But I had no real interest in teaching. It was a fall-back plan, the only one I had, besides find a suitable Mormon guy, marry him, and start on our eternal family unit.

My first year of college, I discovered the LDS Institute of Religion on campus. Thus began my years of greatest religiosity. I became immersed in LDSSA (Latter Day Saint Student Association), even serving on the board, participating in every activity religiously. Pun intended. I wasn't very focused on my secular education, having discovered that elementary education was not the career for me. But I didn't have a plan to replace that one, and I was thoroughly enjoying college life. Institute life, anyway. And it was because of my activity there that I decided to serve a mission. That had not been part of my master plan, but it felt like the right thing at the time, and I do not regret that decision.

After my mission, I had some serious decisions to make. I realized that my life to that point had lacked direction and focus, and that I couldn't count on Prince Charming showing up, sweeping me off my feet, and carrying me off into eternal bliss. That was my goal, as I'd been taught, but it wasn't a goal I could make happen. I could not make a checklist that would result in marriage the same way I could plan for a career. And it appeared that I would need to do something while I waited for the man of my dreams. Ugh. Just thinking about that gives me hives. But, that is the reality of a Mormon girl. Maybe not all Mormon girls, but it was true for this one.

Before my mission, I had considered nursing school, and had applied a couple of times. The first time, I was not accepted; the second time, I was accepted, but I declined as I was too involved with LDSSA. I didn't want to interrupt my fun with the serious pursuit of a career. About a week after I returned from my mission, I received an acceptance letter from the nursing program at Weber State. I hadn't re-applied, as I was out of the country when applications were due, and to this day, it is a mystery how my application ended up being processed. I figured it was heavenly intervention, that it was 'meant to be', and I accepted gratefully. I needed to do something, and nursing seemed like a good fit. Turned out, it was a great fit. I loved it from the moment I started. Nursing school was intense, but fun at the same time. I felt like I had found my niche.

After graduation, I accepted a job at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. And I couldn't believe I was getting paid to do what I was doing! It was a great time in my life; I had a job I liked, I was living away from home in the big city, and I was meeting all kinds of interesting people. People who had not grown up with all the Mormon expectations. It was heady, and I was getting a glimpse of a world I had not even dreamed existed. After working for a couple of years in Salt Lake, I went to work as a traveling nurse. Let me 'splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Hawaii and Boston. Good times. Fabulous experiences. My only regret from that period of my life is that I didn't go to more places. But, home and family were calling, so I returned to Utah, and got a job at Primary Children's Hospital. And it was through that job that I met my husband. More specifically, through the mother of a patient.

Meeting Daron deserves a post all it's own. Someday, maybe. The important point for this post is that, shortly before meeting him, I'd started the paperwork necessary to return to school for a bachelor's degree in nursing. I had become a bit restless, and was feeling ready for a return to the world of academia. However, by the time the paperwork had all been processed, and I was accepted into the program, I had become engaged. I was embarking on the adventure I'd long awaited, that of wife and mother, and I didn't see how furthering my education would be of any benefit. And I would have had to travel an hour each way to attend, as this was in the days before the internet made education more accessible. So, once again, I turned down an opportunity to pursue higher education. A decision I would later regret. But, at the time, I was focused on fulfilling my potential in God's kingdom. At last, I would become a wife, and I assumed motherhood was not far off. Correctly, I might add.

Marriage and motherhood fulfilled all of my wildest dreams. Okay, that's a lie. But, it was fulfilling, and I liked my life with Daron. We had 2 little girls pretty quickly, and they were fun, funny, and delightful kids. I was still working once or twice a week as a nurse, which was rather difficult as Daron was also doing shift work as a Sheriff's Deputy. Matching our schedules was a constant battle. It seemed that one or the other of us was always working, so we never had any family time. When the girls were 2 and 4 years old, we decided that the best decision for our family was for me to become a stay at home mom. A full time mom. I had had a job since I was fifteen years old, except for the 18 months I was a missionary, and I approached the idea with some trepidation. But, our stake president was a pretty traditional sort, and he had said, in a meeting once, that the Lord's way was for mothers to stay home with the children, and for fathers to provide for their needs financially. This was before the 'proclamation on the family' came out, which spelled out pretty clearly the same message. Mothers are, by divine design, meant to nurture and guide the daily lives of the little ones entrusted to their care. And at the time, I was very invested in following God's plan for me. Thus followed some of the darkest days of my life.

I was initially excited to get to be home all the time, and be my own boss. I wouldn't have to set my schedule by anybody else's needs, except my family's, of course. But I would be the boss, the big cajuna, the reigning authority. Oh, the naivete!

The excitement wore off within just a few months, and depression set in. Deep, dark, gray, heavy, bottomless depression. Depression that I could taste, and smell. Depression that sucked all the color out of the world. The summer of 1995, in my memory, had no sun, no warmth. No cold either. Just a whole lot of nothing. I had never before felt so hopeless, and so helpless. I never felt the urge to take my own life, but I started reading the obituaries with a longing that scared me. I wanted to be done. Even the sight of my daughter's beautiful faces wasn't enough to jolt me out of my despair. In fact, looking at my daughters deepened my depression. They were girls, females, lesser beings in God's kingdom. And I couldn't see a better future for them than I could envision for myself. I'd given birth to girls, who would grow up, get married, and give birth to girls, who would grow up, get married, and give birth to girls, who would grow up, get married, and give birth to girls. Into infinity. And for what? To what end? To always be at someone else's service? When would it get to be our turn?

Up to this point in my life, I hadn't spent much time considering my lot in life. I had just accepted that, as a female, my greatest joy and fulfillment would come through marriage and motherhood. That's what my mom did, and most of the other mothers I knew. They were moms, and their lives and needs and desires took a back seat to their family's lives and needs and desires. I had not wanted anything more for myself, because nobody had ever suggested that more was available. Sounds rather naive now, but growing up in the sixties and seventies, in Utah, there was one path open to me. Motherhood. And the implied promise was that it would be enough. I would raise up a righteous generation, and my reward would be in seeing them succeed. And yet, it wasn't enough. I was not fulfilled, I was not satisfied, I was not happy. Being a stay at home mom was killing me slowly.

Daron could see what was happening, and when he suggested therapy, I was grateful to him for pointing me in that direction. I began to see a therapist, and I started a journey that would forever change my life.

What I learned in therapy can be summed up in relatively few words. Don't believe everything you tell yourself. And don't believe everything anybody else tells you, either. I learned to challenge my own thinking, and to face reality as it is rather than how I wish it would be. It is what it is. I might just tattoo that on my forehead.

As part of therapy, it was recommended that I exercise daily. I chose to walk, heading out every morning before Daron had to leave for work. Walking was as therapeutic as talking, allowing me time alone with my thoughts before dealing with the girls' needs. And, one day, I realized what was missing in my life. Me. I was missing. And I had been for a very long time. Who was I, and who did I want to be? What did I envision for my future? If motherhood wasn't enough, what else did I need? And I also realized that it was okay to think of my own needs as well as my family's. I mattered! And what I wanted mattered. If this was the only life I was going to get, what did I want it to look like? What did *I* want? What did I need? And it came to me in a flash: I wanted to go back to school. I wanted the bachelor's degree I'd denied myself for so long. And I felt excited about my life for the first time in a long time.

I started back to school in January of 1996, pursuing a bachelor's degree in Family and Human Development. The only word I can come up with to describe what I felt during that time is joy. Pure, unadulterated joy. It was the time of my life. I discovered a passion for learning that I had never before tapped in to. I was in my element. And I was having fun. Classes were fun, studying was fun, writing papers was fun. Everything about it was fun. I have to admit, I became a bit of a teacher's pet. My professors loved me! I was fortunate enough to be a research assistant for one of my favorite teachers, and fellow students looked to me for extra tutoring in statistics and research methods. Me! It was an amazing experience, and even now, I feel a bit of a thrill at the memory. I had found myself in a most unlikely place. And when I graduated, I was summa cum laude, a completely unexpected honor. But, wow, what a ride.

The last year of my program, I became pregnant with our son. We had always planned on having more children, and we had timed his birth to coincide with my graduation. So, when the dean of my college called and asked me to apply for a fellowship for graduate school, I very reluctantly told him no. I still believed that being my kids' mother, full time, was the right path. Getting my bachelor's degree was just a detour, and I was returning to my family to resume the role I thought God expected of me. And I don't regret being there for my kids. I had invited them into my life; I was happy to spend my days seeing to their needs. But. And this is a very big 'but'. Had I learned nothing? Did I really think I'd be satisfied making motherhood my career? It hadn't been enough before, why did I think anything had changed? Because it hadn't. Not really. I still yearned to be more than somebody's wife, somebody's mother. I wanted to be me, whatever that meant.

It has been almost 16 years since I graduated with my bachelor's degree, and in that time I have returned to work full time, out of necessity. Daron retired from the Sheriff's office, and we still had a growing family to support. I didn't mind stepping up to the plate; fortunately, I was able to go back to a job I enjoy. And my life is good, mostly. But, there is still that 'but'. That very big 'but'.

Who could I have been had I known that I had choices? That I could be anything, and anyone, that I wanted to be? That I could have had dreams beyond marriage and motherhood? That my life was mine to mold into whatever form fit me? How far could I have gone? This is the 'what if' that haunts my dreams, and exposes the hole in my center. I didn't fill that hole as a young adult because I wasn't aware of its existence. Some would say that I have no one to blame but myself, that I wasn't attentive and mindful of the options available. And they would be right. To a certain extent. But, the culture in which I was raised, with its Mormon ideals and notions of what it is to be female, this informed my life choices as well. I set my sights low because I'd been taught to set them low. I bought into the picture presented by those I looked to for guidance, assuming that what was fulfilling and satisfying for some would be right for me. It wasn't, and that is my biggest regret. I don't regret having a family, becoming a mother, and I don't regret spending time raising and nurturing my children. I regret that I neglected myself in the process. I neglected my gifts, and I neglected my soul. "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been."

Today, I watched my 22-year-old daughter receive her own bachelor's degree. I felt pride, and joy. And regret. I want a do-over. I want to go back to my young adulthood, and figure out who I am supposed to be without the constraints placed upon me by religious dogma. I want to own my choices, to know that the person I became was the person I was meant to become. But I can't. There are no do-overs. So, my advice, as one who discovered all of this a bit late? You only get one life, as far as I know, and it is up to you to ensure that it is the life you want. And that it looks like you. No regrets.