Well, I went. I couldn’t stay away. When Kevin called and asked if he and the boys could stay longer at family camp to watch a taped replay of the women’s World Cup Soccer Final instead of coming home to watch it with me, I swallowed hard, told him that was fine, and then immediately started trying to figure out how I could get there to be with them. Warm Beach Camp is less than an hour from Bellingham, so if I found a car and left right after church, I could make it for the delayed kick-off. Also, surprises are so great.
Because I have the best neighborhood on the planet, I knew that SOMEONE would be willing to let me borrow a car. “You know where to find the key,” Chris said when I asked (which is true, it’s in the gas flap in case anyone else needs to borrow a car). This is the neighbor from whose table our dog, Lupine, had eaten 14 chicken thighs just before a big dinner party last summer. If you haven’t heard that story: stay tuned.
As I got onto the highway, I started picturing my arrival at camp. Would my in-laws be upset that I hadn’t come out sooner? Would they be happy to see me? Would I get the cold shoulder? Should I just turn around and go home and watch the game with the dogs? There was heavy traffic through Mount Vernon, for no apparent reason, and I was starting to worry that I was going to miss the game entirely. But it cleared and I was there in just under and hour. I turned down the gravel road to the camp, parked the car and took a deep breath. I was happy to be there.
I headed for the chapel where they were showing the game. I got to the doorway, and the very first person I saw was my Mother-in law, Cheryl. She smiled kindly, like she does at everyone, and then did a double take and pulled me into a big hug. She told me the boys were mini-golfing with their grandpa, and Kevin was up in the front row by his brother watching the game. “I’m so glad you’re here!” she said.
I passed Kevin’s sister, Sara, and her husband Dave as I walked to the front, getting big hugs from both of them. Both of my 3-year-old nieces were on stage in the front wearing baby carriers and their dolls, performing a dance to their very ‘attentive’ audience. I snuck in and sat down slyly next to Kevin and put my hand on his knee. He turned his gaze from the game in confusion, and when he realized it was me (and not some Dutch creeper putting their hand on his knee) he smiled big and gave me a hug.
“I couldn’t stay away!” I said.
“The boys will be so excited to see you,” Kevin said.
I sighed and settled in against his ribs, his arm around me. I wasn’t sorry that I had missed most of the weekend, but I was happy I had decided to make the trip for the last day. There was something poignant in the fact that the US was playing the Dutch team. It was a win-win game for most people in the room. We had watched other games in the tournament, and I found it interesting how so many different national teams look so ethnically distinct. The Swedes were all blonde, for instance. The French just look, well: French. But that’s not the case with the US team. Or the US crowd. Americans don’t really have a ‘look’. We are a melting pot. But this amazing, powerful team of US women (I mean, total bad-asses, can I get an ‘amen’?) comes together on the field and they play their game. They are a team. They have chosen to be a team. And they do it with such grace.
I looked at those sweet little girls and their baby dolls up on the stage, and I thought, “I want to be on your team.” They call me ‘Auntie Nicki’ just like they would if I was blood. And it’s only me who is missing out if I choose not to love them like they are my kin. I have spent so much time lamenting what I don’t have, that I have missed the beauty of what I have. I’ve allowed the sadness of what I have lost completely overshadow what I have gained.
As far as in-laws go, I pretty much hit the jackpot. Kevin has lovely, kind, generous parents and 3 really great siblings (two with amazing Dutch spouses) who I would want to be friends with even if I wasn’t married to their brother. But, because they are not MY family, there has always been a bubble of protection around my heart keeping them at arm’s length. There is a certain confidence that you have, being part of a family, and I lost that when my family died. You are no longer known in the same way. Your rear guard has been knocked out. Kevin’s family gathers often and repeats the same wonderful stories about one another, time after time. But I have no one to tell my stories, so I feel that loss, and I build another wall.
At half-time, I walked over to the mini-golf course to find the boys. Along the way, I passed a few faces I recognized from years past. They actually said hello like they knew who I was. Why was a so surprised? I had deemed myself a stranger here, a German wandering in the land of the Dutch, but they didn’t know that. Hell, I could probably pass for being Dutch if I really tried. Several times while she was still alive, Kevin’s Grandma Terpstra asked me, “Now, are you Dutch?”. “Nope, Grandma T, I’m still not Dutch.” We had a different history. But then it hit me: history starts NOW. History is in the making. We are living history. Later that day, one of Kevin’s friends said within ear shot of me, “Hey, I saw that your wife showed up.” And I smiled, feeling like I had been recognized, and like I maybe even belonged.
After a round of mini golf with my oldest son, Jude, in which he beat me soundly (I didn’t even have to go easy on him), my younger son, Leo, wanted to go to the pool to show me his recently perfected cannon ball. I was packing a whole weekend of missed opportunities into a few hours, so, of course, I went. The pool was jammed with tiny swimmers and a handful of adults. I vaguely recognized a couple of faces, but not enough to say more than a friendly hello. Leo dunked and splashed and flailed and I watched dutifully because I have intense fears about my children and water. Then I saw her. I saw a dear, sweet, young woman, maybe just twenty years old now, whose family I knew when I was teaching school more than a decade ago. And my throat closed. Her young, beautiful, kind, boisterous, loving mother had recently died of a terrible cancer. I had thought I would probably see at least part of this family if I made the trip. I thought maybe I could avoid it if I really tried, but there she was, inches away from me in the pool. I hadn’t seen any of the family since the death. I wanted to go to the funeral but used the excuse that I didn’t really know her that well. Really, I was afraid of my own emotions. And I was afraid of them again in this moment. My mind raced, thinking of the ‘best’ thing to say. We were in a pool playing with kids, so it really didn’t feel like the place to go deep. (Although, if you’re going to cry in public, a pool is probably one of best places.) She was within arm’s reach with her back to me, so I reached out and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Hi!” I said, possibly with more enthusiasm than I intended.
“Oh, hi!” she said, in a way that made me feel like she had noticed me already and was waiting for me to say hello.
My instinct was to next say, ‘How are you?’ but I managed to stop myself. “It’s really good to see you,” I managed, still choking on a huge ball of sadness.
She smiled, a small boy in her arms. “Have you seen my brother’s yet?” she asked.
“No, I actually just got here. Is this one of Michael’s little guys?”
“No, it’s my cousin.” She had so much family all around her. “But the rest of them are here, too.”
“I’ll look for them. Tell them hello from me.” I said.
The little boy squirmed and swam out of her arms. “I’d better go after him.”
“Yep. Bye!” I turned back to Leo, unwinding the long list of things I really wanted to say to her. I was so, so sorry to hear about your mom. It is impossibly hard to watch your parent die. You are so lucky to have your family around you. Talk to them. Or call me and talk to me. Talk about your mom as much as you can stand it. And most importantly: You are going to be okay.
We came back from the pool, and everyone was just hanging out, waiting for dinner time. I helped Kevin pack the car to go home and then wandered next door to the neighboring cabin where my in-laws were staying. My sweet little niece, Tess, was rolling around on the bed next to Kevin’s mom and sister, Sara. I sat down on the bed and Tess rolled in my direction. I gave her chubby belly a little tickle, and she snuggled even closer, her blond hair looking just like pictures of my sister as a child. “White as milk,” my grandpa would say. She was holding a giant punching bag balloon that was deflated. I took it out of her hand and pretended to swallow it and then cough it up again. She scrunched up her nose and giggled hysterically, “Do it again!” she squealed. So, I indulged her, and she laughed and laughed, and I would tickle her in between. “Again, again!” she said, giggling. I was the funniest person in the planet at that moment. I was loving it. I loved the ease of being a safe, and loving person for this little peanut. And to think I could have missed it by letting my resentment get in the way.
Sara is an oncology nurse at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. I told her that I had just gotten Jeni’s medical record and that she might find it interesting to read to compare to the treatment patients are getting 25 years later.
“Who knows, you might even recognize some of the names on the reports,” I said.
“Whenever a veteran nurse is on my floor who has had transplant kids, I always ask if they remember a ‘Jeni Lang’,” Sara said.
I was floored. I wanted to bawl. Sara was trying to connect to my sister, and I had no idea. And I would have had no idea if I hadn’t been willing to say these things out loud.
When Kevin asked me to marry him, he gave me a beautiful necklace with a little gold plate inscribed with this Goethe* quote: Nothing is worth more than this day. Kind of a funny sentiment to build on going into a marriage, but, whatever, I said ‘yes’ anyway. I proceeded to lose the necklace a couple of years after we were married, and was devasted, but never forgot the quote. In the years since, I’ve looked for a replica to replace it, without success. This year for my birthday, Kevin gave me a new necklace, bearing the same quote. I think he had it made by someone on Etsy. “Nothing is worth more than this day.” I believe it more now than I ever have. In fact: Nothing is worth more than this moment. Live this moment, friends. Good or bad. Because it’s all we’ve got.
*Goethe was German, by the way.