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Bleak bad times can reveal sparkling gems of goodness

I wish whoever keeps asking “what next?” about 2020 would stop it.

Last week the “what next” was thick, choking, hazardous smoke. Each morning, I checked the Spokane air quality before getting out of bed. As the smoke cleared ever so slowly, I’d grimly brush the dusting of ash from my car before heading out.

How bad was it? Well, I actually had to work out at the gym for the first time since it re-opened post-shutdown. Hazardous air is not conducive to long strolls through the neighborhood.

But Saturday morning I woke up to find my husband had opened our living room and kitchen windows. Rain and cooler temperatures cleared the sooty skies. I’ve never before been so giddy about being “moderate,” and cheered as the air quality neared “good.”

Standing on the deck I gulped in the fresh air with my morning coffee and wondered why it so often takes the bad to make us appreciate the good.

This year has certainly given us plenty of opportunities.

During the long weeks of shutdown when just about every place that makes life enjoyable was shuttered, we had to discover new ways to find joy.

Instead of the warm fellowship of Sunday morning church, we cuddled on the couch in our pajamas and streamed the service on Facebook.

In lieu of romantic dinners at upscale bistros, date night morphed into driving to our favorite spot together to pick up food to go.

Weekly meals with our adult sons became regular Sunday Suppers complete with dessert, as we drew our family closer during this worrisome time.

As things slowly opened up, the Sunday Supper tradition became a fixture, and I love having a designated day to spend with my sons.

We haven’t attended in-person church yet, because seating is limited, and we are well aware that for many older folks, Sunday service is as crucial to their emotional and mental health as it is to their spiritual life. We’ll join them when we can all attend.

Date night is on again, though we usually pick a spot that offers outdoor dining. We enjoy eating al fresco in the summer anyway, and it feels amazing to be eating at a venue, instead of taking home Styrofoam boxes.

Yes, sometimes it takes the bad to help us appreciate the good.

That thought sits with me today as we celebrate our youngest son’s 21st birthday. There’s nothing bad about Sam, but his entrance to the world proved incredibly frightening.

On a golden Sept. 24, our grand finale arrived weighing in at a whopping 9 pounds, 9 ounces. He had his father’s broad shoulders, and the trace of a dimple in his chin.

Having given birth to his three older brothers without complication, I assumed we’d be taking our new arrival home the next day. Instead, it was three long weeks.

Within hours of his birth we were told Sam had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia. A hole in his diaphragm hadn’t closed early in gestation. As a result, his internal organs pushed into his chest cavity, squashing his developing lungs. Our newborn was given a 50% chance of survival.

He was airlifted from Holy Family to Sacred Heart and placed in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Twelve hours after his birth, I stood next to his bed. Tubes and wires protruded from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. The ominous whooshing of the ventilator and the beeping and whirring of machines filled the room. He was so fragile that the sound of voice raised above a whisper sent his blood pressure skyrocketing.

When he was 3 days old, he underwent surgery to repair the hole in his diaphragm. And then we watched and we waited, struggling to care for our sons at home, dealing with the unbearable ache of leaving Sam in the hospital night after night.

But at 21 days, he finally came home, healthy and whole in every way, with a pretty impressive scar on his midsection.

Twenty-one years later, he’s our last fledgling in the nest, and having already earned his undergraduate degree, this week he started the quest for his master’s.

He’s filled our home with so much joy; it’s hard to comprehend how close we came to losing him. Those horrible days when his life hung in the balance have made me forever grateful for his presence in our family, and maybe a bit more prone to appreciate the sparkling gems of goodness the bleakness of bad times can reveal.

Sam and Cindy Hval, 2019

Columns

With 20/20 clarity, I see change ahead

I don’t remember ever having 20/20 vision. I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade, my first pair of contacts at 15, and my eyesight continues to decline.

That’s why I’m really looking forward to this new year – I can finally see 2020! And every time I glimpse the date in my new calendars and planners, I smile. There’s just something exciting about turning a page.

2019 brought change to our household. In the fall, our third son moved into his own place, and we’re officially down to just one kid at home. That kid will graduate from college in the spring, and while he’ll likely stay with us while pursuing a second degree – our empty nest years are looming.

So far, meal planning has been the most challenging thing about our shrinking household. Because Sam works mainly evenings, I foresaw a lot of cooking for two in my future. As usual, my vision was faulty, because at least once a week there are five at my table.

When Zach moved out, I told him I hoped he’d join us for a weekly family meal. Our oldest son also lives nearby, and if I’m cooking for four, it’s certainly no stretch to make dinner for five.

The result? I now get to have my three in-town sons around my table on a regular basis, and nothing makes this mama’s heart happier. Besides, I haven’t yet mastered the art of cooking for three, let alone two.

The holidays revealed more opportunities for adapting. In recent years, our two youngest sons have been in charge of tree decorating. My penchant for holiday décor seems to grow each year, so it’s nice to leave the Christmas tree in their capable hands. However, this year, varying work schedules proved problematic.

I’m all about problem solving, so for the first time in at least 25 years, Derek and I trimmed the tree by ourselves. What might have been melancholy became delightful. We took a lovely, romantic stroll down memory lane as we hung ornaments and remembered Christmases past.

Then came the cookie-decorating conflict.

In 2011, Sam made us a book featuring his treasured Christmas memories. In it he wrote, “I love making and decorating Christmas cookies with you.”

That was then.

This is now.

As usual, I baked dozens of sugar cookies, and then checked with our sons to see when they’d be available to frost and decorate them. Sam seemed ambivalent and told me to check with Zach.

I’ve never wanted to try to squeeze my sons into traditions that no longer fit, so I texted Zach, “How strongly do you feel about decorating Christmas cookies? I can leave them out for you guys to do when you come over Wednesday, or Dad and I can just do them tonight.”

He replied, “I don’t feel strongly either way.”

So for the first time in our 33-year marriage, Derek got to be part of the Christmas cookie fun. He’s artistically inclined, so our cookies looked fabulous. And honestly, I don’t much miss the Cyclops angels or graphically anatomically correct snowmen that our sons were inclined to include.IMG_20191216_194208217

Derek and I further simplified our holidays by skipping stuffing stockings for each other. Less shopping equaled less stress and more fun.

As someone who cherishes the familiar, and relishes ritual and tradition, I’ve been surprised at how readily I’ve adapted to this new season of our lives, and how eagerly I’m anticipating the unknowns that await.

Because whatever 2020 brings, the one thing I can clearly see ahead is change. And instead of dreading it, I’m choosing to embrace it.