On Poppies, Pandemics, and not so Pretty Endings

Multiple times a day I walk over to a typically ignored part of my front yard where fledgling poppies are growing through ugly lava rocks that cover the dirt on the side of the driveway. I have tried to grow poppies unsuccessfully for years, so I am very invested in these little soon-to-be flowers.

“Anything interesting?” David asked one evening, as I examined the plants.

I tilted my head, looking closer at the distinctive green leaves. “I don’t see any buds forming,” I said with pursed lips. “All of the other poppies in the neighborhood have started to bloom, and ours look so sad and bare.”

“Maybe this year they are just establishing themselves,” David offered. “Maybe they are growing tall and putting down good roots, and we’ll see flowers next spring.”

“I guess so,” I shrugged. “But wouldn’t that be really disappointing? It seems like a long time to wait.”


­­­­­“I tested positive. Kendra, I am so sorry.” The text flashed across my phone screen and my world stopped.  

Three out of the four adults in our pod, myself included, had been feeling under the weather for a few days. None of us thought it could be COVID—we were simply too careful. Our families had not been in close proximity to anyone outside of the pod and the only real place any of us had been in a couple of weeks was the grocery store, fully masked at that.

We have lived this way for a year. We have our pandemic rhythms and risk adverse behaviors down to a science.

But still, there were enough symptoms to cause mild concern—a sore throat, congestion, unrelenting fatigue. Since it’s always better to be safe, our pod mate who started to feel sick first decided to get tested.

Just to rule it out.

Just to give us peace of mind.

Just to make sure all of us could continue going about our day-to-day routines without “what if” hanging over our heads.

Obviously, we didn’t have it. We couldn’t have it.

But there I was, 24 hours after my friend’s test, staring blankly at my phone while my thoughts raced.

I moved quickly down the hall to David’s office and opened the door without bothering to knock.

“Her test is positive,” I said in a low voice. “What do we do?”

David jumped on his computer and within minutes I had an appointment to get tested myself. He made himself an appointment for later that evening, though he wasn’t showing any symptoms. I put on a mask and sat in the playroom with Ellie and Lauren, attempting to push through my physical sickness and mental panic.

How much have I already exposed them? Will the mask even help at this point? Will we all get sick?

A few hours later we had both been tested, the girls were in bed, and David and I sat on the couch to discuss our game plan. We didn’t need the test results to tell us what we already knew—I had been exposed, I had symptoms, everyone else in our house seemed healthy. We needed to act as if I had it, and I needed to isolate to protect the rest of my family.

“Pray with me first?” David asked pulling me tightly to him, his embrace conveying the worry he wouldn’t express with words. I let him wrap his arms around me, wanting so badly to accept his comfort, all the while unable to shake my acute awareness that it wasn’t safe for him to be near me. We lingered on our “amens” then I walked into our bedroom, my home for the next seven days, and shut the door behind me.  

Among my worst symptoms was a searing, all-encompassing headache that medicine did nothing to ease. When I first entered isolation, I wondered what I could do to be productive with my time. When the headache left me unable to sit up for days on end, I shifted my thoughts to what God might be trying to teach me. Does he really redeem all circumstances? Was there some sort of spiritual lesson to be learned? Does there always need to be a lesson, or are we sometimes dealt a hard hand for no reason? My head throbbed as my mind ruminated on these questions, unable to formulate a real, coherent answer.


On April 6th I received a text from my aunt commemorating California Poppy Day. That morning, vaccines in Sacramento had become available to all ages, and her text found me fighting bitterness over the fact that, thanks to actually contracting COVID, I had to wait 90 days to receive mine.

Poppies hold a place of significance in my life. Present in art hanging on my walls, a tattoo on my back, and my youngest daughter’s middle name, they are far more than a flower. Through the years they have represented a cherished mentor and special friendships, but they have ultimately grown into a reminder of God’s provision. My aunt’s sweet celebration text provided just the lift I needed.

I thought of the poppies in our front yard with a rueful smile. Their bare, still bloomless leaves stood out among the bright orange blossoms all around our neighborhood. They were left behind, forgotten—a physical representation of my own emotions.  

Later that evening we herded the girls outside for a walk. As David buckled Lauren into her stroller, Ellie and I instinctively walked over to the poppies where, to my great surprise, we found a single, perfect bud on the verge of opening. Our poppies weren’t left behind at all; they simply grew in their own time.

I don’t think God caused me to get COVID; he’s not in the business of suffering. I don’t think I got sick because of a lesson I needed to learn or spiritual growth that needed to take place. I think we live in a fallen world where moth and rust destroy and sometimes pandemic-level viruses breach even the most careful precautions. I can’t tie this moment in my life up with a pretty bow, or point to a reason I am thankful—some reason I never would have realized but for COVID. If anything, I am shaken up and angry at the timing of these events. However, while I don’t see a divine purpose, I know this is not a case of divine overlook.

God did not leave me behind. I am not forgotten.

He showed himself through the community that literally and figuratively sustained us—through the dinners left on our doorstep, gift cards for takeout, flowers, treats, and gifts to help me connect with the girls over FaceTime. We received messages of encouragement, regular check-ins, and I have never felt more prayed for. The next few months may look different than I hoped they would, but I have not been left behind. Not by God, and not by my friends.

God gives us the promise of what comes at the end of our time in this imperfect world. He gives us community to sustain us in the meantime.

And, he gives us poppies.

Pressure

My eyes popped open and focused on the ceiling fan overhead. Even in a dark room, I woke up fully in an instant, a feat rarely accomplished those days. I closed my eyes again, staying as still as possible while my left hand blindly fumbled around the nightstand for my Zofran prescription. As the medicine dissolved in my mouth, its strawberry taste bringing the smallest of reprieves, I focused on my husband’s quiet breathing and our bulldog’s loud snores. After a deep breath of my own, I finally rolled over and glanced at my phone. First, I noticed the time—6:00am, a full hour before my scheduled alarm. Then I noticed a text notification with the news I had been expecting, but dreading.

I felt David shift behind me. His arm hooked over my waist and pulled me close as he pressed his face into the back of my neck. “Happy Anniversary sweetheart,” he whispered drowsily.

“She died,” was my short reply. “I need to get to the office.”

I stood in the shower mentally going over the day ahead. I thought of the statement I needed to send and the calls I would have to make. All the while I tried to force my nausea away; I simply had no time to feel sick. God, in his merciful goodness, somehow understood. It was the only day in the first half of my pregnancy I did not throw up.

Earlier that week, I sat with my boss for what I knew was the final time. I thanked her for everything she had given me and her shining example of faith, for the chance to achieve my dream job, for being more than just my boss, but a mentor as well. I told her I loved her and wished she could meet the little baby swishing around inside of me.

I squeezed her hand and left to finish my job—to take care of her one last time the best way I knew how. Billy Joel kept me company at my desk that summer evening as I carefully crafted a press release and prepared a biography filled with her earthly accomplishments.

His music seemed the natural choice that morning as well, his complex lyrics ushering me through my early morning commute as I drove closer to the most important day of my career.

A small smile crossed my lips when “Uptown Girl” came on, as it always does, and I pictured biking around UC Davis with it blaring in my iPod headphones.

The perfect ballad for singing out loud, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” helped steady the quiver in my voice.

You have to learn to pace yourself

Pressure

You’re just like everybody else

Pressure

My hand reached for the skip button. I was under enough pressure; I didn’t need Billy Joel to serenade me with it. But something about the frantic melody met me in the strange in-between I found myself, personally grieving yet ready to take on a task that required little to no emotion be shown.

A calm settled over my shaking body. “Pressure” would be my anthem for the day.

My hand diverted instead to the volume, turning the music up loud enough to drown out the buzzing of my phone. Reporters were already calling.

As the morning wore on, the hums of my office became a soundtrack of its own. Quiet tears and words of comfort shared between co-workers drifted in as I worked overtime to maintain my composure with pushy reporters. The angry mutterings of our legal consultant as he overheard my conversations became my lifeline. He said everything I wished I could while I stuck to calmly confirming details.

“Please refer to the statement from this morning.”

“No, the family will not be giving any interviews.”

Then a reporter called simply to say sorry. I cried for the first and last time that day.

Mid-afternoon, I slipped from my office and met David in his car. We had previously scheduled our 12-week ultrasound; it was supposed to be a fun way to spend our anniversary. Determined not to think of the outing as an inconvenience, I silenced my phone in the lobby of the doctor’s office and buried it deep in my purse. In the middle of death, I spent a blissful half an hour focused on new life as I held my husband’s hand and watched our tiny girl wiggle on the screen.

Back in the real world, I fished my phone out of my purse. Ten missed calls and even more new, unread emails.

Pressure.

I turned to David as he pulled out of the parking lot.

“Can I make a music request?”

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Playlist”.

Things I Think About

For Larry

Ten years ago today, my father-in-law died.

He wasn’t my father-in-law then, but the dad of my relatively new boyfriend. The boyfriend I knew I loved, but hadn’t discussed marriage with yet. It was too soon for that.

I didn’t know if I would hold David’s hand forever, but I knew I had the privilege of holding it through that season. I met half of David’s relatives for the first time while they sat with Larry during his last night on earth. I stopped by to drop off food, trying to be as helpful as possible while not intruding. I met the other half of David’s family at Larry’s memorial service.

Being the new girlfriend during such a raw time produced a unique struggle – a funny push and pull of wanting to be supportive of my best friend, but also knowing I didn’t have a permanent place in the family.

Those feelings from a decade ago still sit with me, but they’ve morphed slightly. Now I feel the unique struggle of not actually knowing someone whose life played such a key role in mine. Without Larry, the three people I love most would not exist, yet I never had a real conversation with him. It’s something I think about a lot.


Picture for a minute a long, skinny room. A sky bursting with all the colors of a glorious sunrise and brilliant sunset comprises the ceiling. Soft mounds of pure white clouds make up the ground. Does it sound heavenly? Because that’s exactly where I am describing. At least in my mind.

There’s something special about the tufts of clouds on the ground, though. They aren’t just clouds, but a way for those in heaven to check in with earth periodically – to tune-in and watch special events: birthdays, weddings, graduations, new babies entering the world.

I have absolutely no idea what first put this image in my head; it’s likely a response of my childhood imagination to the well-meaning platitude that those who die are watching over us. I’m sure it’s not biblical, but for as long as I can remember I have pictured these Cloud TVs.

Many people I love dearly are in heaven, and visualizing them watching small snippets of my life like I watch my favorite movies always brings a smile to my face. I most often think of Larry in front of his Cloud TV. I can’t say exactly what his opinion of our family would be, but I bet he smiles a lot. 

Right now, we live in a city where he never visited us, in a house he’s never seen, with two little girls he’s never met. Yet there are traces of him everywhere.

A wooden cross he made hangs on the wall by our family wedding pictures, a symbol that he was such an important part of the celebration, even though he wasn’t physically there. I walk past it an immeasurable number of times a day and think of him.

He built the desk David works at. First owned by David’s older brother, it moved its way through a few other family members before landing in our home.

There’s the tools David uses for projects around the house and the bible he reads, all of which used to belong to Larry.

And then there are those little girls. Ellie has his smile and Lauren has his name.

It seems wrong he never got to meet them. That Grandpa Larry exists only in pictures and conversations about what it must be like to live in heaven. 

The other day, after one such conversation, Ellie told me she was going to play “heaven” during her quiet time, but she couldn’t figure out what stuffed animal could be God and what stuffed animal could be Grandpa Larry. Unable to find the perfect fit for them, she abandoned her plan and moved on to coloring.

Her musings left me glowing with the realization that even though she doesn’t know him, she knows him. Just how I feel as though I know him, too.

This is no one’s first choice, but it’s good enough until heaven isn’t an afternoon game to play, but home.   


Dear Larry,

You’ve been gone a long time, but you are thought of daily. That probably doesn’t matter to you, considering you’re in the presence of God, but to my human mind it’s comforting, so I thought you should know.

There are just a few things I want to thank you for publicly today, since I can’t tell you in person.

Thank you for my family.

Thank you for letting me spend an hour of your last days with you, watching NASCAR and holding your hand.

Thank you for helping to raise David to be the most amazing husband and father. He is incredible and his hard work makes him excel at so many things. I hear he gets that hard-working trait from you. I hope you really do have a Cloud TV and that you watch him from time to time; I know you would be so proud.

Today I’ll play with your granddaughters and we’ll talk about Grandpa Larry who lives in heaven. I’d like to think you’re having a big party.

I miss you, I love you, and I’m excited to really get to know you for myself someday. 

Love,

Kendra

The One With All the Canceled Plans

Since 2020 is moving us right along into our first and hopefully only pandemic holiday season, I have been doing quite a bit of reflecting. How do I make these upcoming celebrations special, yet safe? What traditions are the most important?

This landed me on November of last year and, let me tell you, the perfect storm of events surrounding Thanksgiving 2019 promise to make even a COVID Thanksgiving happy and calm in comparison.

So, journey back with me to those pre-COVID days when we could run around sans masks and buy plane tickets and plan group holiday get-togethers with abandon. It was approximately 100 years ago; do you remember?

Lauren was barely two months old, and my side of the family had been planning to spend Thanksgiving with us in Sacramento for months. I was absolutely thrilled. I couldn’t wait to show off our house and new baby; to have my parents, brothers, sister-in-law, and grandmother sitting around my living room; to go for walks together and enjoy the bright fall colors that Northern California bursts into each November.

I even had the Del Taco location picked out for our annual Thanksgiving feast. (I can hear you now, reader who is unaware of this beautiful tradition. “What? You eat Thanksgiving dinner at Del Taco?” Yes, we do; and yes, it is just as amazing as it sounds. But, that’s another story for another time.)

If you have been following along with my life this past year, you already know that in early November 2019 my mom received a breast cancer diagnosis. At this point, it’s not a new plot twist, but in the moment, it was heartbreaking. A few days after the diagnosis we found out she needed to start chemotherapy the week before Thanksgiving. Her doctor was adamant. There would be no Northern California holiday that year.

“I know not being able to host everyone is small compared to cancer,” I cried to David that night. “This disappointment feels so selfish, but right now I’m sad.”

I didn’t sit in the sadness for long, however, and within days everyone had either changed their flights or purchased new ones. We would spend Thanksgiving in Southern California with my parents. The location didn’t matter, really. Being together was our top priority.

I wish I could stop right here and wrap this story up with a sweet little anecdote about the importance of family time, but Thanksgiving 2019 had a few more tricks up its sleeve.

As is prone to happen to toddlers during cold and flu season, Ellie came down with croup, and we pushed our flights back to give her more time to get better. We wouldn’t be with my family on Thanksgiving, but we would be there the next day. That was good enough.

Ellie felt much better by Thanksgiving Day, so we decided, rather than put all celebrating on hold until we reached Southern California, we would find a few ways to make the day our own. We watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in our jammies and David made “pancake balls” (that’s ableskivers for anyone over the age of three), declaring them our new official breakfast for any and all holidays.

“Do you still want to go to Del Taco for dinner?” David asked later in the afternoon.

I decided I would feel sad without the rest of my family so, despite David’s sweet attempts to convince me otherwise, I snagged a last-minute reservation at a restaurant that served actual Thanksgiving food.

Here’s where things get weird.

We waited in an absolute sea of humanity for what felt like ages to be seated, David trying to keep Ellie entertained while I tried to keep the crowd from breathing on tiny Lauren. We finally reached our table and, to my horror, the middle-aged woman seated next to us had taken off her shoes AND socks and had one foot propped up on the table leg while she used every last wet wipe the restaurant had to clean her face. Ellie refused to eat a single thing, including the snacks we brought, and the meal ended with Lauren projectile vomiting all over me, the table, and the floor.

Unfortunately, she missed our table neighbor’s bare feet. That would have been some poetic justice.

I should have gone with drive-thru bean and cheese burritos.

At 5:00am Friday morning, Lauren woke us up coughing. It was her turn to come down with croup. We canceled our flight.

I ended up with a Northern California holiday after all, just not the one I wanted.


I don’t know what the upcoming holidays will look like.

I know we won’t be traveling and will miss out on seeing family.

(I pray there are no barefooted strangers.)

I also know we’ll eat ableskivers. There will be pod dinners, giggling sisters, and quiet evenings at home. We’ll give thanks to God for his abundant blessings.

If last Thanksgiving taught me anything, it’s that you can feel absolute deep, guttural disappointment and, in your grief, still celebrate.

There will always be moments to savor. Sometimes, it just takes a little bit of creativity and a unique perspective to find them.

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Savor”.

Motherhood, Grief, and my friend Chuck

Let me tell you about my friend, Chuck Ball.

I met Chuck when I was 17 years old and preparing to go on my first overseas missions trip to the country of Albania. He was 63 years old and, having been to Albania numerous times before, was one of the team leaders.

Chuck has a bit of a gruff exterior, and when I first got to know him I was more than a little intimidated by him. As it turns out, that gruffness was all show; you’d be hard pressed to find a more generous, encouraging, kind, and even funny man.

On that high school missions trip, thanks in large part to Chuck’s leadership, my love for Albania began. Fast-forward to today and I have been to Albania five times; three of these trips were with Chuck. He was a true friend and mentor, and in this moment it feels impossible to overstate the impact he has had on my life.

Two weeks ago I received news that Chuck had a heart attack and was at the hospital. The updates I heard throughout the day didn’t sound great, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that this was the end. As I assured one friend, “I’m sure he’ll be fine, you know Chuck. We’ll see him at Christmas and give him a hard time about how he’s not allowed to get old and he’ll roll his eyes at us. It’s going to be fine, it has to be.”

Unfortunately a phone call from this same friend later than night confirmed our worst fears. Chuck had passed away. He was home in the arms of his Savior after a life so faithfully and well led.

I put the phone down and immediately burst into tears. But then something happened I wasn’t expecting, although I should have been. It’s something mundane, something that happens all the time. My ten month old reached up for me from her playpen, a big smile on her face. I had been getting her dinner when the news came, and she was hungry.

I dried my tears, picked her up, and went to get her mashed sweet potatoes off the stove. I spent the rest of the evening thinking about Chuck, but not really able to grieve the way I wanted. I couldn’t. There was dinner to eat and clean up, evening playtime to be had, bedtime stories to read… you get the picture. Mom life keeps on going, even when we want to stop.

Over the past couple of weeks since that day, I’ve realized that I have absolutely no idea how to grieve as a mom.

I’m an introvert by nature. I process sad news and major life changes best with a lot of alone time, introspection, and often times tears. Unfortunately alone time is a rare commodity these days, and while I could try to schedule a good cry in during one of Ellie’s naps, tears don’t really work that way.

I guess I’m adjusting to a new normal in more ways than one. How do I make processing my grief a priority while still maintaining the level of selflessness motherhood requires of me? What is the balance here?

I’m starting to suspect there’s no magic formula, but like all things on this motherhood journey I just need to keep prayerfully putting one foot in front of the other until I figure it out.

Grief is hard, but grief also gives us something to be thankful for. I had 13 years of learning from an incredible man, and while his loss hurts now, I would not trade his influence over those years for anything.

If you need me, I’ll be here simultaneously missing my friend and loving my family. And I’ll be sure to let you know if I discover that magic formula.