Writing

Butterflies by Cara Stolen

IMG_5069.jpg

I grasped the cold fence panel with both hands, and leaned my forehead against the top rail as I watched. His movement was slow, calm, and steady. Holding the lead rope loosely in his left hand, he ran his right hand down the horse’s back. The gelding’s eyes flared behind a long black forelock, but he stood still, and the horse relaxed.

The wind blew my braided hair, and I squinted against the morning sun, mesmerized by the quiet confidence of the man before me. My heart beat hard in my chest, and my stomach tingled with butterflies. I’d never met anyone like him before, and I’d definitely never felt a feeling that strong before.

Though we’d talked on the phone every day for months, we’d only been on a few dates. I went to school two hours from where he lived, and the mountain pass between us made our time together infrequent.

But as I watched him saddle a three-year-old colt for the first time on that windy Spring day, I knew with utmost certainty that I could spend the rest of my life with him.

I was twenty.

***

I peeked through the double-paned glass of the house’s back door, my dress rustling behind me as I leaned forward. The white chrysanthemum in my hair tickled my right ear and momentarily distracted me from my nerves. But when I looked up again, I saw our photographer beckoning to me from outside.

“Ready?” she asked kindly as I opened the door.

The lump in my throat made it hard to speak, but I nodded to her to indicate I was as ready as I’d ever be.

Across the yard, his black wool vest and crisp white shirt stood out against the vibrant green grass. His back was to me, and as I waited for our photographer to take her place I thought my heart might beat out of my chest.

When she nodded, I gathered the white gauzy fabric of my wedding dress in both hands and walked slowly toward him in my mom’s well worn cowgirl boots. And as I approached him, I felt a familiar flutter in my stomach.

He turned to face me when I tapped him on the shoulder, and as our eyes met I burst into tears.

“I’m hot.” He whispered softly, leaning forward to kiss my cheek. I laughed, and dabbed my eyes with a tissue as he laughed too.

I’d warned him that wearing wool in August was a bad idea, but (ever practical) he’d insisted on buying a vest he’d wear again and again. So there he stood, with sweat beads on his forehead, looking handsome in a black vest made for December.

I was twenty-three, and I thought I could never love him more than I did on that hot August day.

***

The light at the head of the bed was on, illuminating the monitors and IV stand that I was no longer attached to. My hours-old son wailed in my arms, still swaddled tightly in the flannel hospital blanket. I heard the recliner squeak from across the room, and the gentle shuffle of his sock-clad feet on the linoleum floor. Then, he placed his hand on my arm, wordlessly offering to take our new baby.

Our eyes met as I handed him our son, both of us exhausted.

From the inclined headboard I watched the two of them settle into the green vinyl chair on the dark side of the room. He softly shushed our son to sleep before tipping his hat over his eyes and nodding off himself.

Though exhaustion coursed in my veins, I lay awake for a while, mesmerized by the two of them together. Amazed by this new exhibition of the quiet confidence I fell in love with. And as the butterflies took flight in my stomach, I marveled at how much more I loved him now at twenty-six than I did on our wedding day.

***

“Da!” Her feet pitter patter across the tile floor, as our daughter races toward the door. “Da! Da! Da!”

A diesel engine hums up the driveway, and our son throws himself against the window to see who it is. “Dad’s home! Dad’s home! Mommmmmmyyyy! DAD’S HOME!”

I smile and stir the stew on the stovetop. The kitchen is warm, filled with the aroma of browned beef and stewed tomatoes. I hum softly along with the Van Morrison song playing on my phone as I chop the last carrot for the salad. Glancing out the window, I’m surprised to find it’s still light outside—he hasn’t been home before dark in weeks.

His truck shuts off, the dog kennel door clangs, and finally, his boots clomp across the porch.

“Dad!” our son shouts as the front door squeaks open. “I wanna show you some-ting!”

I hear him whispering to our girl in the entry as I add the frozen peas to the bubbling pot in front of me. He enters the kitchen carrying her confidently in the crook of his arm, and heads for the dining room to see our boy.

“Daddy, want to play Play-Doh with me?” our son asks.

“Hey.” I call to him. “How are you?”

His answer is lost in our son’s excited chatter. I turn down the stove, put the lid on the heavy green soup pot, and wipe my hands as I watch the three of them.

His hands are cracked and calloused, his sweatshirt dirty and faded. There’s mud on his pant leg and gray in his beard. His eyes are tired, but he puts our daughter on one knee, our son on the other, and scoops up a ball of Play-Doh without hesitation.

I can’t help but grin as I watch them, and feel the familiar flutter of butterflies as I do.

He’s wearing the same black wool vest he wore on that hot August day six years ago. It’s faded from black to gray and it’s missing a couple of buttons. If you look closely at the seam you can see blue thread where I mended it last winter. But that vest is a little like us.

We’ve been torn apart by our egos and months-long unemployment, by our son’s undiagnosed cleft lip, and the feeding tube required to keep our daughter alive. We lost a button when the medical bills piled up, and another when we bought our fixer-upper.  

But we mended those places; our seams sewn back together with time and apologies and dedication to one another. They don’t look the same as they used to, and things don’t always feel the way they used to, either. Our love is no longer new and crisp, it’s worn and tested. But tonight, with soup on the stove and two babies on his lap, I feel the butterflies again.

// This essay was originally written for Coffee+Crumbs #loveafterbabies essay contest. You can find a portion of it published on their instagram.

Want to read more about #loveafterbabies? You'll love these essays by my dear friends Molly Flinkman & Stacy Bronec.

Wedding photography by Hailey Haberman.

On Rainy Days by Cara Stolen

‘Mom! Mommy! Mama!’

He has been awake for an hour, talking and singing and ‘reading’ to himself. I take a deep breath and flip on the light. He is bouncing up and down, eager to start the day.

‘Mom!’ He points a chubby, accusatory finger at a book on the floor. ‘I don’t want that book, I want this book!’ With triumph, he holds up his well-loved copy of Cowboy Small.

I had hoped that the quiet time I spent snuggled up with hot coffee and a book this morning would prepare me for the physical and emotional demands of parenting a toddler all day. But I can already feel pin-pricks beneath the surface of my skin and know it wasn’t enough.

Mustering a smile, I roll my shoulders, trying to relax. ‘You want me to read it to you, Buddy? I can go get Sissy and we can all read it together in your bed?’

His face falls, and I silently ridicule myself for being selfish this morning instead of spending some one-on-one time with my son. ‘No. I want up.’

I cross to the window and pull back the curtains to see low clouds threatening rain. Before babies, I relished days like today. They felt cozy and full of promise, begging to be filled with a good book and hot tea. But today, those rain clouds mean a day stuck indoors. Inside, there is never enough of me to go around, and my senses become overwhelmed by the noise and touch and demands of my children.

***

‘Mom!’

I turn to face him and kneel down to meet his gaze. His face lights up again.

‘Mommyyy! I’m going to Miss Sara’s today?’

‘No, today you get to stay home with Mom and Sissy alllll day!’ I inflect enthusiasm I do not feel, and my stomach clenches with guilt. In irony that does not escape me, I spent my morning reading about forming secure attachment to your children, the first tenant of which is Proximity.

Tentatively now, he asks, ‘I get to go to work with Dada?’

‘No, Buddy, Daddy’s busy today.’

His whole body tenses, causing me to brace myself in anticipation.

‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! I DON’T WANT TO STAY HOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMEEEEE!’

Throwing himself on the floor, he is overcome with emotion. Tears stream down his chubby cheeks as he pounds his fists on the floor. I count to ten and resist the urge to react similarly with a fit of my own. I say a silent prayer for the day ahead, and mutter ‘I’m the parent, not the child. I’m the parent, not the child.’

***

‘Mom I want a muffin.’ His hand yanks at the hem of my shirt. ‘I want a muffin. Mom! I want a muffinnnnnnnnnn! MOMMY! I SAID I want a MUFFIN!’

I physically recoil from his touch. My chest tightens, and I force myself to take a deep inhale. My nerves feel frayed. Exposed. Raw. I am not supposed to have this reaction to my own son. His incessant chatter shouldn’t cause such a visceral response in my body. How can my own child trigger my anxiety? Shame courses through my veins.

***

A therapist once described my anxiety as ‘free floating,’ and I sobbed grateful tears that someone finally named the feeling I had experienced for my entire life. For me, anxiety is physical, and I feel it in every cell in my body. A tightness in my chest, an inability to expand my lungs, a claustrophobic tenseness in my muscles. I feel like a caged animal. A prisoner. Like I drank 15 cups of espresso before an MRI. And more often than not, I have no idea what is making me feel this way. No specific worry or concern, no fear of impending doom. Just the feeling, without the specificity.

I am most often triggered by sensory overload: loud noise, excessive touch, clutter; but also by the rapid fire of my own thoughts. Sitting in silence makes my skin crawl, but I find relief from reading in silence. The sensory overload of sitting in traffic can be mitigated by an audiobook or podcast. For me, occupying my brain and avoiding sensory overwhelm when possible are ‘best case scenario,’ and I have survived that way for years. But living that way is also incredibly selfish, a fact that motherhood has forced me to face head on.

***

The room fills with laughter, drawing my attention away from the mountain of laundry I am folding. We have retreated to the master bedroom as rain pelts the windows. He has pulled the comforter from our bed and giggles as his sister tries to use him as a climbing gym, tickling him in the process.

‘Mom! Come lay with us!’ His eyes twinkle as he meets my gaze with a grin, his words wrapped in a blanket of joy and delight.

I am startled by how light and innocent his voice sounds. Where I have so often seen a demanding, loud, and attention-seeking toddler, I see a sweet energetic boy with his daddy’s eyes who is growing up too fast. Am I missing it? Am I too preoccupied with my own survival to truly enjoy his childhood?

I hope that my children remember their childhood with fondness, my love for them shining golden light through those memories, the way the evening sun shines through a forest and creates pockets of twinkling magic. But I worry that they will instead remember me as being sober and withdrawn, busy battling my anxiety. I fear that this illness will prevent me from providing them with the mother I know they deserve.

‘Mommy! Come lay with us! Please!’

And so I do. I lie on the soft down and wrap my arms around my babies. I breathe in their sweet smell, and feel my lungs fully expand for the first time all day. I fly my white flag, and temporarily make peace with my demons. I snuggle them closer, and close my eyes to allow this momentary calm to wash over me. In moments like these, when I am so aware of all the ways I am not a perfect mom, I am still exactly who they need me to be.

 

 

 

Photo by Danielle Dolson on Unsplash

Why I Write by Cara Stolen

IMG_3572.jpg

Occasionally, words come easily; flowing through me and onto the page effortlessly. But more often, writing feels like wrestling. I’m not a wrestler, so one might argue that I have no business in a wrestling match. I don’t know the rules. I don’t know the strategy. Despite that, I feel a consistent, gentle nudge to show up anyway. A quiet invitation to dig in to the turmoil of life to try to find hope and meaning.

Sometimes, the struggle produces something I am proud of. But often, it simply serves as practice, building my strength and stamina, conditioning me to be a strong and competent steward of words, and preparing me for the rare moments where the words seem to write themselves.

I had that experience recently. I, an inexperienced and untrained ‘writer,’ sat down and wrote 1631 beautiful, difficult words, that filled me with a deep sense of clarity, peace, pride, and accomplishment. It’s the peace and clarity that keep me coming back for more, compelling me to keep fighting for words even when I lose more than I win. But the accomplishment component appeals to the achiever in me, and I walk a thin line between writing for the right reasons and writing for the wrong reasons.

For me, writing is both deeply personal and connective. I feel called to use my words to help others feel seen, heard, and understood. But I struggle with the difference between ‘sharing’ and ‘connecting.’ When I shared my essay, it fell flat. And I am ashamed to admit that a lack of ‘likes’ affected how I felt about words that I was previously so proud of. Words that provided me with a deeper understanding of myself suddenly seemed unimportant. But this is because sharing appeals to my ego, while connecting nourishes my soul.

Maybe, with dedication and practice, this line will become clearer and better defined. Or maybe it won’t. Only time, and many, many more words will tell. My hope is that taking this hard, honest look into the face of my ego helps me to always remember the desire for peace and clarity that kept calling me back to my desk. Mostly, I hope that it helps me to become a better steward of words. Both the hard fought and the given.

The Weight by Cara Stolen

June, 2015

The house is unbearably hot, but the sound of the window-unit air conditioners rattles my already frazzled nerves, so I’ve turned them off again. I stand in the tiny downstairs bathroom, looking at my foreign postpartum body in the mirror and watching as tears stream down my face. There is silence on the other end of the phone in my hand, my mom waiting patiently for me to get the words out, to take some of this weight from me and shoulder it as her own. I desperately try to control the tears, control my emotions, control the grief that I can’t even accept as grief yet.

‘He’s not the perfect baby I pictured. It’s just...I’m sorry, I’m just really emotional. I think it’s my hormones.’ I stammer between sobs. I turn from the miserable stranger in the mirror, and walk away disgusted with myself.

I feel a heaviness in my body. Much heavier than the tiny 7 pound newborn sleeping upstairs. Heavier than anything I have ever tried to carry before. Too much weight for one person to carry alone, but I am stubborn, and unwilling to admit that I need help.

***

May, 2016

‘How old?’ the middle aged checker asks as she scans my cart full of groceries. I am preoccupied with keeping my very active 11 month old from grabbing the candy, or gum, or yanking my card out of the chip reader again, so by the time I realize she has spoken to me she is staring pointedly, as if I have snubbed her.

‘Oh! I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear you!’ I’m flustered, and my face feels hot, the weight of her gaze making me feel as though I should be better at this. ‘He’s 11 months!’

She turns to face him, and he leans as far away from her as possible in the seat of the cart. ‘It’s ok, buddy, you can say hi if you want,’ I say as I grab his hand and bounce it up and down in my own.

‘It’s ok,’ she says to me, her expression not exactly matching her words. ‘Would you like a balloon?’ she asks him, in what seems to be an attempt to make us all feel better about this awkward interaction. She turns back to me and raises her eyebrows, asking permission.

I nod, and smile. ‘He loves balloons, that would be great.’

She turns behind her, and untangles a ribbon from the web attached to her station, then hands the balloon weight carefully to him. ‘Here you go buddy, this will make that ouchie split lip of yours feel better.’

I can’t hide my confusion and irritation, and I feel my face contort into a look of pained annoyance. Knowing that she is referring to his Cleft lip, I stammer out a thank you and wheel the cart to my car.

After unloading the groceries and safely securing my son and his balloon, my hands shake as I call my husband in the parking lot. But he doesn’t answer, and I am left burning with anger, and irritation, and, if I’m honest, shame. Why can’t I get over this? Why do I even care what some stupid middle aged woman says about my son’s appearance? I drive home with tears streaming down my cheeks, overcome with the weight of it all.

***

February, 2016

‘Can I ask you something about his lip?’ a friend asks nervously. I am standing in a freezing cold arena, waiting to watch my husband rope. My son sits perched on my hip, completely enthralled by the bawling cattle, the horses, and the ropes flying through the air.

‘Sure.’ I say. But I already know what he will ask. His wife is pregnant, and I can see the worry and fear written all over his face.

‘Did you know about it before he was born?’

The question that so many people want to know, but are afraid to ask.

‘No. We had no idea. They missed it in all the ultrasounds. We didn’t find out until he was born.’ My answer disappoints him, and his nerves fill the space between us. I glance away, desperate to find my husband in the crowd, but it’s too late. His fear has added to the burdensome weight I carry, and I am left shifting my son from hip to hip, trying to balance my load.

***

August, 2015

Her name escapes me, but I remember her face. They have driven all night, ten hours from Eastern Montana with their son, at the urging of the rural hospital where he was born. She tells me about the rare genetic disorder that was discovered in utero, and apologizes for nervously checking her cell phone.

‘We have two older kids at home. I had to leave them with my mom…’ Her voice trails off, distracted by a message on her screen.

Glancing again at her son, I am taken aback by the tubes, and by the severity of his birth defects. Desperate to look away, I look around the waiting room we are sitting in, and see wheelchairs, and specialty medical equipment, and sick children everywhere I look. Each one of them accompanied by an exhausted, burdened caregiver.

I smile at the woman as she looks up at me again. So badly do I want to say something, anything, to ease her suffering. To ease my own suffering. But as I look at our two sons, side-by-side, I know that I am the lucky one. In the competition of ‘who has it worse,’ she wins. Every time.

When they call our name from the orange doors of the Craniofacial Clinic, I am surprised by how hard it is for me to get to my feet. I struggle under the weight of it all: the infant car seat, but even heavier, my grief, my shame, and my guilt.

***

February, 2017

The room is too dark, the couch is too soft. I am distracted by the mess of paperwork on the desk in the corner, feeling an overwhelming urge to tidy it up. I don’t want to be here. I have known this day is coming for weeks, and I’m still not ready.

‘Let’s see...where did we leave off?’ My therapist’s voice is calm, and I’m surprised by the anger I feel toward her. I want to shake her shoulders and scream in her face: ‘YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHERE WE LEFT OFF!’ Instead, I twist my sweaty hands in my lap, waiting for her to read through her chart notes.

Half an hour later, I have shredded three tissues, and sit surrounded by paper shreds, like a naughty cat, or nervous toddler. It has taken all of my strength to tell her what details I do remember of my son’s birth story, and I am emotionally spent and exhausted. ‘It’s ok to let yourself grieve. It’s ok to use the word traumatic.’

There it is. The permission I’ve been waiting for. The invitation to set down my baggage, and leave it in this dark, messy room. But I can’t. I look into her kind eyes, pick up my heavy bags, and struggle out the door, thinking of the mamas in that waiting room. The moms that have it worse. The moms that deserve their grief.

***

June 30, 2016 06:00

‘Will Mom or Dad be accompanying him back?’ the nurse-that-looks-too-young-to-be-a-nurse asks. The four of us are crammed into a tiny pre-op room, seated awkwardly around an iron-railed hospital crib that I refuse to stick my 12 month old son in. My husband and I exchange pained glances. We have discussed this already. It will be me. While I asked to be the one, part of me hoped that he would fight me on the issue.

When it’s our turn, I gather my sweet boy in my arms. He struggles against me, wanting to walk on his own and explore this new, strange place. I desperately try to stay in the moment with him, to see every detail of his face: his crooked grin and chubby cheeks, his white blonde hair and gap between his teeth; to remember how he looked as God gave him to me. But the hallway to the operating room is too dark, and I am distracted when the room itself looks everything and nothing like I expected it to. I need a minute. I want to scream at everyone to be quiet, to stop moving. I’ve been anticipating this day for 393 days, and now that it’s here I’m not ready.

***

June 30, 2016 14:00

I follow a different nurse down the same hallway, this time headed for post-op recovery. My heart beats in my ears, making it impossible to understand what he is saying to me. As we enter the recovery room my eyes frantically scan the cribs for my son. My heart jumps when I spot him: sitting on a nurse’s lap, in a tiny mickey mouse hospital gown, clutching his grey blankie with the hole in it.

Then, we are rocking together, as we have so many times before. Just the two of us, in this strange room, in this strange chair, surrounded by strange and unfamiliar noise. I stroke his hair, and gaze into his beautiful blue eyes, so filled with love and adoration. I examine his stitches, surprised by how few there are, and he smiles his big toothy grin at me. My breath catches in my throat. What was crooked is now straight. What was ‘broken’ is now fixed. And, to my surprise, I miss it.

We rock and rock, until they ask to move us. A still spot in a moving picture. Just me and my boy, and the heavy bags at my feet.