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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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Twin Mom

Being Authentic — in Life and in Writing (oh, and excising big, hairy, tooth-filled teratomas)

Was it the bible or the bard who said there’s nothing new under the sun? Either way, it’s gospel truth. Beautifully original is impossible. Especially living in today’s world. The world of social media, where I realize every day that even if I think I’ve gone and done something worthwhile — baked something bodacious and beautiful; written something poetically profound; experienced some sort of mommy enlightenment – I’m knocked back down to my rickety reality with a single swipe of my Instagram. I’m barely hanging on, and I definitely can’t compete.

Take, for example, Joanna Gaines’ perfectly appointed farm house sink, tiny bean sprouts perched prettily all in a row on the ledge behind it. Planted by her daughter. My girls, they planted seedlings once. They mildewed and drowned in their own Dixie cups. The seedlings. Not my daughters. I did manage to keep them alive. So there’s that. And they are currently beautiful and independent and flourishing, even if their little bean sprouts never made it. So, yeah — there’s that.

In another swipe, I spy with my little eye…Matthew Stafford’s lake house, complete with soaring eagle and cute little size zero cheerleader wife. A wife who is two months (nay not so much, not two) months postpartum with twins. Twins. Me, I have twins. And a lake in my backyard — a muddy, shitty one (they’re dredging our septic tank). And I am my coaching husband’s greatest cheerleader…  But as far as being a size zero… try multiplying that times … wait, it doesn’t work that way. Or… YES, yes it does. Do that! And then, lookie there: I AM a size zero cheerleader wife who’s three years (yea, quite so much, quite three) YEARS postpartum with twins. And with a (muddy, shitty) backyard lake. No eagle, though. Although we do have crows nesting in our gas-powered grill. So there’s that.

And then I swipe again, straight into an Anne Lamott essay or a Mary Oliver poem. And holy shit. They are profound and powerful and absolutely perfect. And I am far from that. And so are my words. Some days I think I am profound and powerful and perfect. I think I’ve written something I can feel good about. But then I see Anne Lamott on my newsfeed, her careening pinball prose depicting the messiness of life and the tender mercies we can find within all that mess…

It reminds me, believe it or not, of the teratoma my eldest daughter removed a few weeks back – a tumor full of tissue and organ components, and even teeth and hair. The excision of something profoundly messy and twisted and ugly – and the healing that came after. That’s how Annie Lamott writes. I want to write like that. I want to excise teratomas. I want to tackle the hairy and the messy, the stuff with the teeth and the brains. But I don’t know that I’m skilled enough to do that.

So I scroll some more. And there I see Mary Oliver’s handiwork. And I realize her poems are the exact opposite of Annie Lamott’s prose –they are quiet and they are calculated. They are hushed. But then again, they are exactly the same, too. Because beneath her pen, nature’s truths are untangled, separated — carefully and deftly — into thin slices of ink and placed under a microscope. Where she leaves them for me to analyze, to interpret, to explore. Her teratomas are cut down to size. But they’re still full of the messy stuff. And the hairy stuff with teeth. They bubble and swim beneath the scrutiny.

She has a poem called “Sometimes.” It is beautiful. And still. And liquid. And hairy and wet and tangled. And one of the stanzas gives me hope. Helps cure my cancerous self-doubt.

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it.

No, it’s NOT possible to be original. Not in anything. Not in motherhood, not in life, not in writing… not even in teratoma surgery. Those suckers may be weird, but they aren’t that uncommon.

No you can’t be original. But you can be authentic. You can be true to yourself. It’s true, I’m no Fixer Upper goddess, or a size zero NFL wife with twin daughters. Nor am I a progressive and unorthodox, recovering addict writer with self-deprecating humor and dreadlocks. Or a hushed and reverent nature poet with a Pulitzer Prize in my back pocket.

But I am me. I am Heather Candela — décor-loving, size 8 writer and teacher and coach’s wife with twin sons and adult daughters. And I WILL untangle the complexities of life in my writing. I will tackle the beautiful and the shiny and silver, but I will also tackle the hairy, the stuff with teeth and brains. I will excise teratomas. At least the metaphorical ones. I’ll leave the real ones to my daughter.

I will pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it.

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My D-line Coaching Husband and his Boys

My husband is a big, burly, former D-line player and a big, burly, current D-line coach.

We have twin boys. Twin boys my husband waited thirty-six years to have. Twin boys whose genetics could prove the perfect combo to make him daddy to a couple of D-line players’ one day, too.

And I know my D-line coaching husband would love for his boys to follow in his shoulder pads and put their hand on the ground — along with a quarterback or two-hundred.

And it might happen. But then again, it might not. And we’re both okay with that. We encourage our boys to explore what they love and to follow their bliss.

And one of our son’s bliss involves football and trucks. He says he wants to drive a truck like daddy’s when he grows up and be “a coach” like daddy because he “loves to tackle.”  (He might be a wee bit confused.)

And the other one of our son’s bliss involves feathers and unicorns and everything Disney. He says he wants to be “Elsa” when he grows up because he “loves princesses.” (And some would say he is a wee bit confused.)

But I would never say that. And neither would his daddy.

So when Daddy takes our boys to Target after a particularly hectic week of football to spend their allowance and some time with them, one usually comes back with trucks and one usually comes back with princesses.

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And I love my big, burly D-line husband so incredibly much for this — for his ability to foster the joy and individuality of our two totally opposite twin boys.

And when Daddy takes the boys with him to Home Depot to pick up supplies for little projects around the house,  one is usually wearing his favorite blue boa and both are always wearing great, big smiles.

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And I love my big, burly, D-line coaching husband so incredibly much for this — for his ability to walk proudly and without hesitation through the world’s most testosterone-laden chain store with our two totally opposite twin boys.

And when the boys pick out their Halloween costumes and one wants to be a police officer like his grandpa was in the military, and the other wants to be a unicorn like his imagination was in his wildest dreams, their daddy encourages them both with compliments and high fives.

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And I love my big, burly D-line coaching husband so incredibly much for this — for his unconditional love and affection for our two totally opposite twin boys.

Our boys are undeniably loved and undeniably fortunate. Both their parents encourage and support them and their choices, encourage and support them and their passions, encourage and support them and their personalities. Both of their parents encourage and support THEM — whether they fit our expectations — or society’s — or not.

Our hopes and dreams and prayers for our boys are that they be happy, secure, productive members of society, doing whatever it is they want to do and being whomever it is they want to be.

And my hopes and dreams and prayers for every child in every house in every neighborhood in every land is that they have a family — with or without a big, burly D-line coach  — who wishes the same for them.

That’s all.

Amen.

Fashion Blogger meet Frazzled Mama

Perusing my newest Southern Living, I am reminded of the fact that I am truly no fashion icon. Not saying that SL is a homebody’s version of Vogue – but it’s kinda my homebody’s version of Vogue.

I don’t subscribe to fashion magazines. I don’t follow fashion blogs or Insta-celebrities. Occasionally I overhear fashion advice from my students.

Yesterday, they were talking about slouchy separates. I was all in. Slouchy is my second language – spoken every single weekend till Monday at sunrise.

At least, I was all in until I heard someone say — “Just pair ‘em with a scarf and block heels” – and then I was all out.

My version of slouchy separates includes an old pair of sweats and an oversized tee. Block heels? More like bare feet. And the only scarf I’ll do is of the verb-variety — over a huge plate of pancakes and bacon. My twins are my only accessories and I wear them everywhere. That’s why weekends are my days to decompress – not impress.

I come from a long line of well-dressed women. They are immaculate. All day. Every day. My baby sis does black tie as a career choice; my second-born sister wears heels for a quick trip to the refrigerator; and my mom only recently purchased her first pair of sneakers. Kid you not.

I love them. I admire them. I could never be them.

They are fashion goddesses. Me? If I were a goddess, I would be Antipodes. As in, the exact opposite of them.

Now, I do know how to put myself together when occasion calls for it. I’ve rented the runway once or twice. And I’m all about the messy bun. And I even do my brows and toes, although not at a salon. I do them the old-fashioned way – which I guess is far from fashion-forward. But it’s frugal.

And living on two teachers’ salaries, I need to be frugal, not on fleek. All my extra cash goes toward clothing our 4-yr-old twin boys. They need new digs every coupla months — and even with Kohl’s cash, that’s a whole lotta pennies. So waxing and pedis are pretty much outa my fashion budget.

But what started me on this whole rant is my Southern Living magazine. It arrived in the mail yesterday. SL has been modernizing itself as of late and now includes a page or two on fashion bloggers from the South and their glamour go-to’s. The one this time around is a petite little blonde with dangly blue earrings from Georgia. She’s a teacher and blogger, so naturally I took notice.

But those dangly-blue earrings make me immediately suspect she’s nothing like me. There’s no way in dangly-blue-earring hell she’s a mother. If she is, she’s into body mutilation because those earrings are an invitation to pull. I would end up with ear lobes like serpents’ tongues.

And then there’s the white eyelet dress and wedged platform espadrilles she’s sporting. What mom in her right mind wears white eyelet and platform wedges? That’s just disaster at the design stage. There’s nothing but grape juice stains and high ankle sprains in her future. And she has compiled this ensemble for rambling ‘round the big city of Atlanta.

Me? I do weekend rambles around my ranch house looking for lost laundry, not little holes-in-the-wall (although we have those too). Or, if I’m really feeling frisky, we head out to the local Target. That’s our family’s version of a big city jaunt. Nope. No way she’s a mother.

But the finishing-touch is the crossbody fringed yellow bag worn like a Miss Universe pageant sash. The actual bag is barely the size of her left ass cheek. And I’m not talking a three-pregnancy-with-one-being-twins sized ass cheek — the kind that can clutch that lemon yellow crossbody bag in its Dunlap and hide it like a marshmallow Easter egg — I’m talking an unnaturally small, could-probably-still-buy-her-panties-in-a-Carter’s-toddler-girl-3-pack sized ass cheek.

That bag – and her behind – are way too little to be worried about fitting a travel bag of wet wipes and supplies of goldfish and gummy fruit chews and drink boxes and bribe-toys for her kids, plus a mama-size bottle a Motrin for herself in that bag. No way, no how.

That bag is my undoing. And not simply for its size, which is infinitesimal, but for the cost, which is astronomical. At least on my teacher’s salary.

$98??? For a handbag?

And I know that’s nothing in the grand scheme of handbag economics. Turn a couple of Southern Living pages and there’s a slew of Dooney & Bourke satchels for nigh-on $400. What the rucksack? I have NEVER understood paying a massive chunk of your hard-earned living wage on a pocketbook.

But this teacher and blogger, she’s game. But then, she obviously doesn’t have to spend her salary on a new set of toddler trappings (times two) every change of seasons. Or maybe she does… Maybe she is a mama. And maybe that mama manages to pay for her kids’ seasonal closet overhaul with something other than teacher pay.

Maybe her blog helps her live and dress this way. Maybe her blog is her cash cow. Maybe she’s making so much moolah off sponsors she can afford to replace eyelet dresses and ankle bones after a single showing. Or maybe she’s even got a nanny. So high ankle sprains and grape stains aren’t even on her radar because her kids aren’t either.

Maybe I’m doing it all wrong.

Maybe I should start a fashion blog. I’m sure there’s a market out there for moms who love slouchy separates and handbags from Goodwill.  Surely people out there want to know how to pair leggings with a messy bun and vintage bathrobe. (And by vintage, I mean threadbare from the era of twin toddlers — still underway — where distressed and aged is all the rage.)

So if you’re into utilitarian style… and “chunky” describes your midrift, not your cableknit… and you have toddlers instead of handbags hanging crosswise off your chest… and your earrings have been retired to the dark recesses of your closet and memory, I’m your gal.

Follow me.

Sponsor me.

Help me.

Now pardon me…  while I take a weekend ramble ‘round the Target toy aisle in my twin accessories.

Ghostly Awakenings, Weekly Shaves, and Asparagus Pee: Simple Truths

We’ve named our ghost Argus. Actually, my AP kids did. Sort of. As I was telling them about his latest antics this week…

“Our ghost woke me up again at 2 this morning,” I began.

“Who?”

“Our ghost.”

“Argus? Who’s Argus?”

And from that point forward, his name has been Argus. And Argus has been at it again.

This week he toppled Tate’s plastic tea set to the floor. At 2 AM. On a Thursday. It’s his main M.O. (Well, the days of the week change, but honestly, if it clangs and clatters and it’s between 2 and 3 at night, it’s Argus.)

So lately, when I’m jolted awake by a loud crash, I don’t even wake Mike anymore. Instead, I lie still for maybe ten minutes, making certain we’re not being robbed blind or murdered in our sleep, and then I go back to sleep.

Or try. Because after Argus does his ghost-version of Ding Dong Ditch, it takes a bit for the fight-or-flight instinct to decelerate. So I lie there and think about stuff. All sorts of stuff. My mind runs the gamut of unhinged musings. For instance…

… how the deodorant in my vanity drawer should’ve run out weeks ago. but instead, keeps regenerating there in the darkness like the liver of Prometheus or a Hanukah menorah. It’s a miracle. Maybe not a miracle of Titan or Festival of Lights proportions, but a miracle nonetheless. And I know I really should go to CVS and get another before the miracles cease and my lavender scented underarms give way to stench, but I kinda want to see how long it’ll keep it up.

… or how thinking about smells gets me thinking of asparagus pee and how you would never want to eat it before going to the gynecologist, where you must wee in a cup. Unless of course, you bear a grudge against a lab tech there and are into passive aggressive behavior. Then it’s genius. (Not that I would do such a thing. And not because I’m not passive-aggressive, but because I don’t know any lab techs there.)

And speaking of genius – and gynecologists – I once heard of someone tidying up her nether regions prior to a visit to the lady doctor and accidentally slicing some tender bits. So if you’re keeping a running list of what NOT TO DO prior to going to the gynecologist: that’s a NO to asparagus and a NO to trimming the hedges.

But DO shave your legs before going. That’s just common decency.

These days I shave my legs once a week — which is hardly common decency for Mike, but I really did used to shave them every day, until… well, Twins. (And Mike would claim “Well, marriage” — but I call shenanigans on that excuse…) So now, when I finally do break out the Venus Comfort Glide, it’s like hewing down the Hundred Acre Wood with a hacksaw. But this past Thursday at 2 AM, my legs were recently cleared of their tree line and as close to smooth and supple as a fancy, refillable razor can get them when you forget to refill for nigh-on a year. (Again, Twins.)

Each week after I shave I mark it off my TO-DO List. It qualifies as a major chore (you gotta look for silver linings), and I feel majorly accomplished.

And yes, I’m a List Girl. Eliminating items helps me feel less claustrophobic. Less buried alive under the rubble of twin tornados roaring through their toddler years. They spin wildly on their own – on the verge of category 4 storms — or join together in one massive category 5.

Our living room most times is scattered, smothered, and covered in wooden blocks and puzzle pieces and stacks of laundry that regenerate faster than my deodorant stick and the Hundred Acre Wood on my legs. (And then Argus keeps adding to the clutter with tea sets and DVD stacks and any other readily tippable targets at 2 AM.)

And let’s not even discuss my van, which looks like disaster coverage in a trailer park — flotsam scattered stem to stern.

So in the midst of this insanity, freshly-shaved legs are a huge check off on my To Do List. Please don’t begrudge me my minor victories.

Another big check off on my list is my weekly blog — which also qualifies as a major accomplishment, and also (I have to admit) a big reason I don’t shave more than once a week and why my house looks like a natural disaster sight. It steals time — robs me blind, actually, because I am not a fast writer.

But my blog gives me so much more than semi-smooth calves in return. I feel like I’ve reconnected with some inner light and voice — one that was growing ever dimmer and quieter. But now, it’s perked back up. Kind of like Argus.

For obvious reasons, Argus’ voice was buried. For less obvious ones, mine was. But he’s chosen to reappear and make a racket and be heard — and so have I. He’s stumbling around in the dark, looking to reveal his own sort of truths.  And so am I. And sometimes those truths are profoundly important and philosophical — like female empowerment —  and sometimes they’re small and still important — like asparagus pee-cup prevention.

Regardless, I still feel the need to share. Just like Argus.

So all these (and more!) thoughts tumbled around in my brain last Thursday night. And  as I finally found myself ready to drift back to sleep – nearly an hour later — I heard another noise, accompanied by the rankest breath this side of the underworld. And no, it wasn’t Argus this time. (I’ve never smelled him, thank the Heavens. That might just be my limit to ghost tolerance.) Nope, it was my dachshund, hacking and wheezing like a Sleestak –those weird, prehistoric, wet-suit wearing monsters of my Saturday morning childhood. I love Neci dearly, but her breath is vile.

So I rolled over to avoid her exhaust and immediately felt the bed tilt and swirl, an abrupt reminder of yet another escaped otolith rambling around inside my inner ear and wreaking havoc. It’s been a month of vertigo, off and on and it’s getting old.

But then I realized…

My mind was reeling while my mind was reeling.

I’d become a literal metaphor.

With freshly-shaved legs.

I feel so accomplished.

 

Christmas with Twin Toddlers: Building Memories, not Designer Trees

Our Christmas tree – the boys’ Christmas tree – hardly looks like an HGTV tree. Chip and Joanna would not approve. And I have to admit, I don’t rightly know that I do either. But I am letting it stand — As Is – a bead-dripping, ball-clumping conglomeration of toddler artistic interpretation and strategic disarray. I mean, it is an absolute cluster.

In the beginning, I tried to go behind and guide my boys toward proper ornament placement — to demonstrate scale and visual hierarchy, leading lines and symmetry — to advocate for the balance and brilliance of a beautifully appointed Christmas tree (or at least to show them empty branches begging for attention), but they would have none of it. They knew exactly where they wanted those twelve tangled strings of beads and precisely where to place that Santa head with the snowy, tousled beard — it catches on every pine needle and if you’re not careful he can wind up looking more like Marley’s Ghost than Jolly Old Saint Nick. (Ahem, they weren’t careful.)

Now if you know me and my love of Christmas Villages and my passion for perfectly placed blown glass ornaments collected over a lifetime, you know this has not been easy for me.  My fingers are just itching to get in there and tidy things up.

But I was cautioned by their dad that it doesn’t really matter if I like it or not: it’s their tree. And what matters is that they’re proud of it. Which they are. They have touched up and tweaked their masterpiece all day long.

Now our boys have distinct personalities – and they trimmed the tree with tactical procedures and divergent techniques entirely reflective of those distinct personalities.

Parker is our motion machine. He loves trucks and running – and he used both in his approach. He ran. Fast. From packing box to pre-lit bough. Laughing all the way. And the trucks, you ask? Well, when he wasn’t hauling ass, he was hauling ornaments in his green metal dump truck. At first, he hauled them the old-fashioned way – piled in its bed in a giant, glittering heap. But then he got a bit creative and hung them off the rear end like metallic ball fringe, Beep-Beep-Beeping as he backed it into place. He front-loaded the tree with about a dozen balls this way – some frosted, some glittered, some gleaming — all on the same two branches, reinforced with the cording from the lights.

Tate, our theatrical boy, well, his presentation was all splash and pizzazz (jazz hands may have been involved.) He danced to Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic as he worked, twisting and jiving all the while.  He flung crimson beads with gleeful abandon into the tree, preferring a vertical configuration to the more traditional horizontal swag. There they remain, dripping and pooling to the floor like a flapper’s beaded skirt tossed carelessly to the side after a long night at a speakeasy.

While their styles may be polar-opposite, both boys had one thing in common: they were all about that base, ‘bout that base, no treetop… So I had to take it upon myself to bedazzle our evergreen’s upper registers.  Her higher frequencies are arranged in a modest, classical tempo, her rhythm and chords carefully constructed to provide an aesthetically pleasing harmony. But she never takes herself too seriously —  I mean how, could she, when she resembles a Gatsby party-goer the morning after – un-gartered and unraveled and entirely unashamed.

Yes, our tree is a sight. She’s definitely not winning any Southern Living photo shoots, that’s for sure. But she IS winning big time in our boys’ hearts.

After all, we’re building memories here, not designer trees.

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Seize the Sunsets: A Candy Corn Devotional

I have an extreme addiction to a colorful seasonal confection that is notoriously divisive amongst households and classrooms and office buildings the world over. And its name is candy corn.

As far as I’m concerned, it is manna from heaven. It is the food of the gods. It is a candy and a vegetable – and that makes it the perfect food!

And while I know it’s not technically produce, I do know that it has honey in it. And honey comes from plants – excreted through the saliva of bees I guess, but still. If it comes from a plant, it’s a vegetable.

Plus honey is referenced in the bible  — 26 times to be exact – and in a good way (not like salt, which is a punishment for people who look backwards when they aren’t supposed to), but in a nourishment for the Israelites who kept looking forward in faith and physicality for forty years in the wilderness kind of way.

Plus, it’s TRI-colored for heaven’s sake — it is a THREE COLORS IN ONE confection (a holy trinity, folks).

And if you’re still not convinced… candy corn is fat free! What could possibly be more divine?

So yes, by golly, candy corn is godly. I am a true believer. And I faithfully try to convert others every year.  But some of you doubters still remain, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I think it’s the way you were raised…

Now me, I grew up an absolute devotee. My mom exposed me early and annually to its righteousness. She would place giant kaleidoscopic bowls of candy corn around the house every autumn, which I would kneel before the minute I walked in the door from school. I couldn’t get enough. My soul hungered for it. It was like eating fistfuls of sunsets. Sweet, sugary sunsets. I recall many an October afternoon basking in the warm glow of a candy corn devotional.

Being exposed so thoroughly and at such an early age has served me well. But it also made me a bit naive. Little did I know not everyone shares my passion. Not everyone worships on the shrine of those trinitarian sunsets.

Candy corn definitely has its detractors — and super vocal ones, at that.

I learned this the hard way my second year of teaching. I thought I’d proselytize to the masses during a review game. The reward would be righteous, I promised. So my students put everything they had into the review. They jostled for the lead with gusto, hungry for a taste of the grail. But when I pulled out the first single-serving cellophane bag for the winner and tossed it his way, all hell broke loose.

You would’ve thought I’d just thrown him a bagful of boogers. Or ear wax — which is what he said it tasted like as he slung it back at me in disgust.

Ungrateful infidel.

Apparently, he’s not the only one. I polled this year’s students and they were drastically divided. Half would kill for it, the other would rather die than eat it.

And I’m always amazed by the look — the look from nonbelievers when I offer up these kernels of truth and light. The wrinkled noses, the abject disgust, the ready dismissal.

They are blasphemers, the whole lot. Because even if you don’t believe candy corn is divine, it is pure sacrilege to turn down a communion so sacred and scarce and being offered up so selflessly. Because candy corn is hardly something I readily part withal.  It is a true personal sacrifice.

So don’t turn it down. That’s just rude.

My girls know better. They were raised right. And this fall season, my boys are being initiated into the faith. The ritual of edification is short, yet satisfying. Simply nibble one honeyed hue at a time: first the tip – just to see what it tastes like – then proceed to the sleek middle orange, and finally the wide yellow base. Repeat until satisfied.

And listen, I tell them. Listen real close and you can hear each kernel of truth whispering its legacy in a low incantation: “Carpe… Carpe Diem, boys. Seize the sunsets.” Because you never know when you won’t get another.

Well, you do. After Thanksgiving, they’re gone.

So carpe’ diem, boys. Carpe’ dem sunsets!

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What the Ronald McDonald House Means to our Family

I’ve tried on at least three different occasions to write about the Ronald McDonald House and what it means to our family– specifically the one in Chattanooga across from Erlanger Hospital – and each time, words  have failed me. I’m trying one more time…

The birth of our twins was a chaotic, emotionally-fueled time in our lives. Our boys were in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and we found our heads full to overflowing with medical details and our hearts bruised to bursting with love and fear for our boys. We spent the vast majority of our waking hours swimming in an exhausted state through the dim and beeping expanse of the NICU. There were scrubbing stations and hand sanitizers and security procedures and crib after crib of sick babies to navigate just to reach our own babes. And then once there, there were machines and syringes and tubes and wires to navigate before we could ever hold them. And holding them was our life raft. Holding them calmed the seas of frustration and fear and soothed us all.

But if holding the boys was our life raft, the Ronald McDonald House was our rescue ship. Because on the fourth day, I was discharged from the hospital – and the boys were not. And we were going to be separated – and I really didn’t think I could weather that emotional storm.

But then the house named after the clown that sponsors the largest fast food chain in the entirety of the universe opened its doors to us. Seems crazy when you think about it that way. But I’m telling you right now, it is far from a joke. It is the real deal. It is the best of what humanity can do for its own.

The Ronald McDonald House is the place where parents of children hospitalized and far from home are given shelter and support and a place to eat and sleep and cry and pray and struggle through the days and weeks and sometimes months of helpless and hopeless feelings without having to feel homeless too.

It is a sanctuary. There are warm beds and warm dinners and warm showers. And there is privacy. Privacy to pray or cry or both – in a small chapel or a serenity garden or on a soft, comfortable mattress in the quiet, comfortable guest rooms.

And there are supplies — toiletries and snacks and various and sundry necessities that help families get through the toughest of times when they don’t have the time to think about such things, much less shop for them. It is all available and there for the parents.

And all for the whopping cost of $10 a day — if your family can afford it. But absolutely no family is ever turned away. Ever. The RMH philosophy is that sick children need their parents and no parent should worry about daily needs if a child’s health is at stake. They also know and understand that young patients have far better medical outcomes if their parents are near. I, for one, agree for a couple of reasons.

Beyond the obvious — that we wanted desperately to be close to our babies — we also needed to be close. Because a mega-majorly important part of our boys’ treatment plan was breast milk — that thick, nutrient-and-calorie-and-immunity-rich mama medicine was just what the doctor ordered. And being just down the hill from the hospital (we’ll talk about that hill in a minute), made it so much easier to keep my milk supply in fresh and steady supply —  as opposed to being shuttled over an hour away in an ice-packed cooler from back home in Georgia. So in the cozy comfort of our private guest room — complete with an extra queen bed for my mom and Mike’s parents (who provided endless hours of assistance and support), I pumped and Mike delivered (up that aforementioned hill) – like clockwork every three-and-a-half hours every night for almost a full week. Until Parker was discharged at nine days old.

But back to that infamous hill; that doozy of a mother of a hill; that steeply slanted, sidewalk-striped gauntlet-of- medieval-proportions hill. It was torturous to say the least. But Mike navigated it like a knight in shining Under Armor — or a milk man — a gallant, modern-day milk man. He toted bag after bag of freshly-pumped breast milk up that hill. He even pushed the milk maker up the hill in a wheelchair on more than one occasion (since I’d had a c-section and wasn’t supposed to climb anything). Good thing he pushed linemen around in college because I was definitely a heavy load – a heavy, post-partum-post-twins kind of load.

And speaking of heavy loads, everything about that time in our lives was heavy. Our hearts, our hurdles, our hospital bills… but the Ronald McDonald House lightened our burdens on so many levels, and we can never repay the kindnesses heaped upon us while there.

But we try. It has become our charity of choice. We’ve written checks, we’ve sprinkled change in drive thru boxes, and we’ve ordered the annual Ronald McDonald House Christmas ornament with our boys’ names inscribed. Every single year. I want to give more. To do more. I wish there were one closer to us.

Mostly, I would love to help cook warm meals for families  — because that was perhaps the most comforting of all the blessings RMH bestowed upon us: those hearty, healthy meals. I recall tuna noodle casseroles and giant pots of southern green beans, big, baked lasagnas and fresh garden salads. Meals were prepared nightly by sorority houses and church groups, fraternity brothers and book clubs. Those meals were nourishment not only to our bodies, but our boys’ bodies, as well. Generous, kindhearted strangers cooked up the very best suppers that helped me cook up the very best sustenance for my newborn twins. I can never thank any of them enough.

The Ronald McDonald charities really do provide boundless blessings for families of sick children all over the world. They certainly kept us afloat during that most precious and precarious time in our lives. I cannot say enough positive things about them. Please consider throwing a little change their way in the drive thru of your local McDonald’s. Or volunteering at one of their local chapters. Or ordering one of their lovely ornaments. Or writing a big check. Please.

Families of sick children everywhere thank you.

Our Hard, Hellish Journey through the Place Where Miracles Mature, the NICU

We got pregnant four years ago via IVF. We used donor eggs, fresh and locally sourced. I guess our pregnancy mirrored the current foodie trend, although it wasn’t quite farm to table. More like follicle to petri dish to uterus, with a five-day incubation in between.

You see, I was too old to supply eggs of my own. I was two months shy of forty-seven when we began the process, and I was forty-eight when I had the boys. Everything in between went smoothly enough (relatively speaking), from embryo transfer to the thirty-fourth week. But that’s when things took a rapid tumble downhill. That’s when my “Advanced Maternal” body declared mutiny on the whole pregnancy thing by throwing some protein in my urine and slinging my blood pressure into the stratosphere.

I don’t remember a whole lot between then and the two days it took to bring the boys into the world because magnesium was introduced to my blood stream (Which is the Devil. Magnesium is the Devil). I recall a little ambulance ride up over the state line where our maternal/fetal specialist practiced. I recall fainting while lying flat on my back. I recall oxygen masks and my 300-pound husband tightly poured into the wrong size scrubs. I recall (fuzzily) my twenty-four-year-old baby girl sleeping on an orange couch in the corner of my hospital room with the cushions piled over her head. I vaguely recall talking to my eldest baby girl via FaceTime and her double and triple checking what actions the doctors and nurses were taking. And I remember kissing the boys on their wet little heads before they were wheeled away into the NICU. That’s pretty much all I remember about those couple of days.

Now we were extremely lucky with our boys. Thirty-four weeks is a solid gestation time for preemies. Hearts and lungs are developed and strong. Immune systems are decent. The only real issues we had to face were body temperature maintenance and feeding challenges. Boys are notoriously lazy eaters (you would never know it now), and because of that, Tate and Parker spent six days and nine days in the NICU, respectively.

For those of you unaware, September is NICU awareness month. That’s why I am revisiting one of the most difficult times in our lives. NICUs are hard places, one of the hardest places on this earth. Babies should never have to suffer. Innocence should know no pain. Innocence should know no struggle.

I think that’s why NICU families will always have a tender place in my heart. I don’t know if there is any situation quite like a NICU stay. Think about it – here you are, in what is supposed to be one of the most magical and perfect times of your life – the birth of your child. It’s the moment you and your spouse have prepared for since you first peed on the stick and got the news. And then something goes wrong. Sometimes horribly wrong. There is nothing quite like that kind of an emotional hijack.

And Mike and I had it relatively easy, all things considered. (Although at the time, it felt anything but.) Nine days in the NICU would be a Godsend for some preemie parents.  We were surrounded by cribs housing babies who had been there for months and months, parents loyally by their side. Babies who had undergone surgery after surgery. Babies whose cribs were peppered with personal items from home. Or worse. Babies who had been there for months and months with no personal items and no family members to be found. Crack babies. Unwanted babies. The world can be a cruel place for some of the most amazingly beautiful miracles ever made.

I can’t even imagine seeing the suffering day after day. I have no idea how the staff holds it together amongst that kind of injustice. My faith would waiver, I tell you. It would waiver big time. As it was, our babies were loved and they were relatively healthy and they were incredibly strong. All of those little warrior babies in the NICU are strong. Much stronger than the parents. Me, I was an absolute disaster.

Those nine NICU days, I felt like a giant, injured cuticle, stripped and torn, tender and exposed. I cried at the slightest provocation. When the elevator was too slow, I cried. When the hallway was too crowded, I cried. When I held the boys for the first time… I didn’t cry. I vomited — the anesthesia from the C-section. But that second time –oh, I cried.

I cried when I pumped for what felt like hours the very first time – my nipples stretched thin and angry and complaining like hell. I cried. And when all I got for my hard-fought labor was the tiniest, most miniscule amount of colostrum you ever did see, I cried. And when the nurse divided up that tiny little miniscule amount of colostrum and put it on two separate Q-tips and swished it around in the boys’ mouths, I cried.

When we bathed the boys for the first time, their wrinkly little alien bodies so slippery and small I feared they would slide right through my fingers, I cried. And when my milk came in and my chest rippled and ridged and cordoned itself off like a honeycomb, chamber after chamber flooded with liquid gold, I cried.

The worst, though, was if somebody was nice to me. If somebody smiled kindly at me, it was over. Or if I saw something beautiful. Like my boys. They did me in every time. But so did the long, sunny mural on the way to the NICU — a green and golden ant village, with ants sailing on leaf rafts, or ants raking their gardens, or ants swinging on tire swings or flying on butterflies. It was beautiful and whimsical and comforting. And it sent me into a bleary, teary, snot-filled mess every time Mike wheeled me down the hall.

And it wasn’t just me. This NICU time was also the first time I ever saw Mike cry. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s a meathead. And he’s a fixer. But this was something beyond his fixing abilities. This was all up to his boys — his tiny, fragile, five-pound boys. They had to decide when they would eat what they needed to eat – and on a consistent basis – to be allowed to go home.

I saw him break down for the very first time one morning at the breakfast table. His shoulders shuddered, his face folded under and crumpled, and there, above his cereal bowl at the Ronald McDonald House (I can’t EVEN tell you how much we owe to the Ronald McDonald House, but that’s another blog), he wept. And I cried. (Apparently there was another instance where he sneaked into the chapel across from our room and cried and cried and cried. I wasn’t there for that one. But I’m telling you, the NICU is hard on the strongest among us.)

Yes, the NICU is a hard, hard place, but the people there are far from hard. They are big-hearted and oh-so-capable. The nurses and doctors who work in a NICU are special people. They have to be, to work somewhere where innocent souls suffer so unjustly. To dedicate themselves to a life surrounded by the harsh realities of a cold universe…every single day… I don’t understand their endless capacity for TLC without frustration, but I am forever grateful for them.

Those nurses, especially, were our salvation. They instructed us, they comforted us, they listened to us. They rattled us sometimes. And sometimes they just made us mad.

I’ll never forget one NICU nurse in particular. I thought I hated her. I thought she was the worst one of the bunch. She was grouchy and my nerves were brittle, and I humbly admit I despised her. I thought she was so self-righteous. Turns out, she was just plain right.

That cranky, caustic nurse was actually an efficient, matter-of-fact caretaker who knew her stuff and took a no-nonsense approach to her little patients. She was the one who showed us the technique that finally got Parker to eat so we could take him home. She may have been cranky, but she was an absolute Christ figure. She sacrificed personality for patient progress, and she saved us from who knows how many more days in the NICU and how many more nights in the Ronald McDonald House. I will never forget her grumpy ass.

Yes, NICUs are hard places and special places. They are grueling. They grind parents down. But they lift babies up. They are a place of miracles, where miracles go after they are born, to heal up and head home – to their earthly home or their heavenly home.

NICUs may feel like they are Godforsaken places, where the innocent suffer without cause, but NICUs are far from Godforsaken. He puts His best angels there:  the gentlest, the ablest – and sometimes the crankiest angels there to do His work. They shelter those little miracles until they are ready for the world.

But sometimes the world is just not ready for some of them and they go back to Him. At least that’s what I have to tell myself. Otherwise I can’t. I just can’t.

Yes, NICUs are very hard places.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous… and Us: Celebrity Twin Parents vs Mike and Me

We’ve been trapped inside the house with cranky twin toddlers all day long, the rain pattering on our rooftop and the boys trampling on our nerves. Now honestly, it didn’t get truly unbearable until around six pm, when the name calling and sucker punching – and a whole lot of tattling – kicked into high gear.

I’m just thankful it’s so close to Christmas… relatively speaking. At least that’s what we’ve told the boys. Using the holly, jolly sleigh man as a serious threat is our only hope. Having access to the Big Man’s Nice and Naughty hotline is invaluable. I’m not ashamed. I’m desperate.

I wish I had a nanny. Instead of calling Santa, I would call her. Tag! You’re it!

And that got me thinking about the differences between Mike’s and my life as twin parents and let’s say… George and Amal Clooney’s, or Beyonce and Jay Z’s, or even Kelly and Mathew Stafford’s. And after a bit of research, I’ve learned that not all twin parents are created equal. Here are just a few of the ways our lifestyle doesn’t seem to measure up:

#1 On Instagram, I found a selfie video of Kelly Stafford and her QB husband Matthew driving down the freeway in their fully-loaded SUV after the press conference to announce his newly-signed $135 million contract. I’m sure those adorably precious identical twin girls, dressed in sparkly sequined tutus and Detroit blue bows were somewhere in the giant, leathered rear interior watching “Sofia the First” on a big screen TV.

Meanwhile my hubby and I are rattling around in our tomato red minivan with the scratched side panels and DVD player that snags and stalls on pop-tart encrusted videos so often that we have to listen to the Frozen soundtrack on our phones instead, while the boys argue endlessly over which Elsa song they want to hear next. No press conference. No $135 million contract.

#2 I also found quite a bit of evidence that celebrities have drivers — drivers who deal with the traffic and road rage so they don’t have to. So they don’t have to go nutso over the John Deere tractor bumping twenty-two miles an hour down Main Street, or the “Make America Great Again” bumper stickers slapped proudly on every Toyota and Honda and Mercedes they pass on the way to the grocery. (Wait. Do they even go to the grocery store?) Meanwhile, celebs chilling in the back behind darkly-tinted windows sipping champagne — their twin tots tottering around the playroom back home with the nanny. (Ahem, see #4)

Me, I sort of have a driver – if you can count my husband, who drives the two percent of time he’s actually with our family and not at football practice (high school coach, not NFL player — hence, no driver), and only then if we’re feeling brave enough to drive to the grocery store with category 5 twin tornadoes riding dirty in the back. (Again, no nanny.) We’re about as effective at dodging “Clean up in Aisle 3” as Jay Z and Queen Bey are at dodging photogs.

#3 And speaking of paparazzi, I found photographic evidence of celebrity twin moms and dads on dates. Like real ones – not just over lunch during pre- and post-planning weeks (teacher life), which are probably two of the seven dates Mike and I have had the entire time the boys have been in existence. Beyonce and Jay Z went out on their first date just weeks after their twins were born.

We’ve been to the movies once in three-and-a-half years. Meanwhile, celebs are out making them. Like George and Amal Clooney spotted last week sailing the canals of Venice in a water taxi, wind blowing through her long, dark locks and ruffling his steely gray bangs. Amal, that seriously tall, thin glass of water with like zero ripples ANYWHERE, and George, cocksure and suave, hand resting on her waist (tiny waist, y’all, tiny) on the way to some film festival. Where were their precious new boy and girl twins? With the nanny, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, us — we’ve been to the movies once in three-and-a-half years. Did I mention that already?

#4 And since it keeps coming up, let’s talk about nannies. Celeb twin parents have nannies, y’all. Nannies who diaper the kids, and feed the kids, and clean up after the kids. Now nannies are not necessarily always a good thing. I did unearth quite a few Hollywood scandals involving nannies doing things with people other than the kids. So, no, I guess nannies are not always a good thing — a sure thing, apparently, but not a good thing. So I guess I’m okay with no nanny.

#5 Celebrity Twin Moms and Dads also dress up. And then they go to galas — to black tie events. (See George and Amal Clooney’s example.)

Us? We go to Prom. (Again, teacher life.) One time we went with the boys, so that one just doesn’t count. And then once I went solo thanks to explosive diarrhea twenty minutes before the sitter was scheduled to arrive. (I guess I should clarify — the boys, the boys developed explosive diarrhea twenty minutes before the sitter was scheduled to arrive.) But Mike and I did make it to Prom once… Just the two of us and five hundred sweating, hormone-juiced teenagers in tuxes and taffeta grinding all up one another and consuming large quantities of ranch dressing from the chicken finger buffet.

So not the same.

#6. I also learned during my research that celebrity twin parents have play money. Like, money they get to play with. Lots and lots of play money. They do things with their play money like sail the canals of Venice, or break the internet with their baby reveals in front of giant walls of roses, or throw it away on things like… brunch. Brunch. That made-up mealtime that combines breakfast and lunch and costs about as much as all three daily meals combined.

Yeah, their money’s not like the money we have. We have real money. Real money in mega-tiny doses that we throw away on things like day care and Big Boy Overnights (our term for Pull Ups, otherwise, the boys think they’re diapers and won’t put them on) and food.  Lots and lots of food. Our boys may be three-and-a-half, but they can put away a large pizza and a side of bread sticks almost entirely by themselves. I can’t even imagine what our food budget will be like when they’re teenagers playing football.  I think I’d best be finding another job. Teaching won’t pay the bills then. Won’t even come close.

Maybe I’ll become a driver of celebrities. I bet where they live, the odds of me getting road rage would be considerably diminished. I bet tractors and Trump bumper stickers are fewer and farther between. Then again, I bet traffic is worse. Cities tend to be like that. And most of those celebrities live in the big city. And I kind of like my quiet, southern town.

And I also kind of like my high school football coaching husband and my twin tornado toddlers. No, scratch that. I love them. Like big time. So I’m good with what we have. Our lifestyle may not measure up to those celebrities.We may not drive sleek SUVs, or have a buxom, blond nanny (thank God), or go to Venetian film festivals, and soon we may not be able to feed our growing boys on teacher salaries, but Mike and I are filthy rich in the things that count most: love and laughter and a close, personal friendship with Santa Claus.

 

 

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