Columns

Twin grandsons make heart grow two sizes

2,142 miles. That’s the driving distance between Spokane and Columbus, Ohio. Even if you fly, that’s a heck of a long way, especially now.

But our recent pre-pandemic-planned trip was worth every mile and occasional discomfort, to celebrate our youngest son’s graduation, and to see our twin grandsons.

Sam recently earned his BA in English with a focus on Literary Studies from Eastern Washington University. He’s 20, graduated cum laude, debt-free, and is already enrolled in the Masters program at the university.

We wanted to celebrate his amazing accomplishment in a meaningful way – and for him nothing could be more meaningful than seeing his brother, Alex, and meeting his identical twin nephews.

Sam hasn’t seen Alex in five years, and Derek’s 76-year-old mom has been longing to meet her first great-grandchildren. So even when the airline changed our flights to include a five-hour layover at SeaTac on the way over and a four-hour layover on the way back, we were just relieved our flights weren’t canceled.

Apparently, air travel is picking up. SeaTac seemed busier than ever and everyone – and I do mean everyone – wore masks and endeavored to maintain social distancing. Even better, Alaska Airlines is continuing to limit seating. Every middle seat was empty on our flights to and from Columbus.

We arrived in Ohio, with just enough light to find our Airbnb house a few blocks away from our son’s place. However, it was dark by the time Derek and I finished our grocery store run, and we got hopelessly lost on our way back. Our GPS was no help. Thankfully, Alex and Brooke are night owls and were able to talk us in by phone.

And then? Four blissful, baby-filled days with The World’s Most Beautiful Boys. At just shy of seven-months, Adam and Nick had already changed so much since our last visit.

Of course, great-grandma Nita and Uncle Sam promptly fell in love with the perpetually grinning, good-natured boys.

“You know, I wasn’t sure if I wanted kids,” Sam said. “But I love those babies. I want some of my own.”

Sam and twins

Sam meets Nick and Adam

That right there was worth the price of the trip, though I did ask him to wait a few years, and maybe not move any place as far away as Ohio.

He and Alex spent hours together, making up for lost time, making new memories, making every minute together count.

They went to the Book Loft in the German Village in Columbus, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores. It’s so big; they lost Grandma Nita in the two- story maze of book-filled nooks and crannies.

And then while the guys lunched at the Thurman Cafe, featured on the television shows “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and “Man vs. Food,” we girls bonded over babies.

And oh, those babies! I was filming great-grandma tickling Adam’s bare feet, when he turned and saw me. Recognition, excitement and love beamed from his face as he reached for me.

I thought when I became a mother I couldn’t love anything more fiercely than my sons. And then my grandsons arrived, and my heart grew at least two sizes that day.

Sam, Adam, Nana, Nick

Spending Father’s Day watching my son dote on his sons, filled me with indescribable joy. I never doubted Alex would be a wonderful dad; after all, he had the best role model.

Speaking of Derek, true to tradition, every time a twin nodded off in his arms, Papa fell asleep, too.

“I can’t help it,” he said. “Babies make me sleepy.”

But when Adam or Nick fell asleep in my arms, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

In fact, if I could freeze one moment in time it would be this: the feel of my grandson’s head heavy on my shoulder, the rise and fall of his chest against mine.

If I could bottle one scent it would be this: the sweet smell of his head tucked beneath my chin.

If I could capture one sound to listen to repeatedly it would be this: his sleepy sighs, soft against my ear.

After 2,142 miles, and more time at SeaTac than anyone would ever want to spend, we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Twins

Adam and Nick

Columns

Walk softly; the stories are etched in stone

It’s the storyteller in me.

Lots of people visit cemeteries on Memorial Day, but I visit cemeteries often, especially when passing through an unfamiliar place.

I wander through rows of markers reading history etched on tombstones. Each grave offers a thread of a story, and that thread weaves through time and place, connecting me to strangers. What’s not to love about that?

In March while visiting our son and his family in Grove City, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, our Airbnb sat directly across the street from the Grove City Cemetery and the adjoining St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery.

Our time in Ohio was filled with making the most out of every delightful moment with our twin grandsons, yet the graveyard beckoned every time I looked out the window. Balloons, ribbons, flowers and Christmas decorations dotted the graves, though the holidays were long past.

On our last morning before heading to the airport, we walked across the street and traveled back in time.

The photos caught my eye.

The newer Grove City Cemetery (established in 1906) had many gravesites that featured photos etched into the markers. They offered a surprisingly intimate glimpse of those buried there.

Like, Lisa, “loving daughter and sister,” who died at 19. Her beautiful smile beamed at us from beneath her blonde upswept hair. Fresh roses bloomed in urns. A ceramic horse had toppled from her marker, so I gently replaced it.

Other mementos brought smiles. A bottle of Blue Moon beer perched beside the grave of Georgia, “Loving Mother, Grandmother and Nana.”

Speaking of grandmothers, one gal’s family called her “Grammer.” I loved that. In fact, if my grandkids tire of calling me Nana, I’ll take Grammar (note spelling change) in a heartbeat.

Some gravestones featured beautiful colorized etchings of the person’s favorite place or activity. A covered bridge over a swirling stream marked the Ogg’s family plot, while the Thomas family monument highlighted a stable on one side and beautiful horses on the other. A bowling ball at the top and a pair of golf clubs at the bottom, showed how Robert and Rose Davis spent their time.

Sadly, many of the graves at the next-door St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery (1860) had grown too old and moss-covered to read. Indeed, some of the stones had fallen over, while towering obelisks some topped with angels or crosses stood sentry.

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I caught my breath at one simple plaque, embedded in the ground. “Daddy,” was all it said.

As a mother, I’m always drawn to graves adorned with lambs and angels – children’s graves where the briefest of lives are marked.

A tiny red tinsel Christmas tree fluttered in the March breeze. It marked Darren’s grave. He was born and died Oct. 26, but I couldn’t read the year through my tears.

I hadn’t anticipated the wellspring of grief that the graves of stillborn babies would trigger since we lost our grandson Ian Lucas in 2018.

“Our little angel,” Stephanie Lynn was stillborn April 26, my son’s birthday.

A photo of beautiful Maggie Jean, March 7, 2015-March 8, 2015, brought me to my knees, and since I was there anyway, I prayed for Maggie’s family.

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Some housekeeping seemed in order. I righted toppled ceramic angels and Santas, and brushed leaves and dirt from markers, knowing I’d want someone to do the same for my family.

Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get to my son’s house to hold The World’s Most Beautiful Boys one more time.

But I’ll never forget Maggie Jean, Darren, or Chelsea whose gravestone reads, “Walk softly an angel sleeps here.”

Indeed, it might be wise for all of us to walk a bit more softly wherever we tread in these troubled days. The thread of our stories can be ephemeral, but that connection is what we crave.

A stroll through any cemetery reminds us that our time here is just the merest whisper. How much sweeter our echoes would be if we choose to walk softly and be kind.

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Columns

Grateful for Trip Before Pandemic Havoc

Earlier this month when we left for Ohio to visit our twin grandsons, there were just two cases of COVID-19 in Spokane – the remaining cruise ship passengers that had been sent to Sacred Heart Medical Center to recuperate. There were no reported cases in Ohio.

By the time we returned home, Ohio’s governor had closed schools, libraries and restaurants, as had Washington’s governor, and coronavirus cases in both states had skyrocketed.

A lot can change in a week.

But the change that happened to me over the course of the week had nothing to do with viruses and everything to do with love.

How to describe the feeling of holding your son’s son in your arms for the first time? The joy of discovering your child’s blue eyes peering at you from a new face or, in our case, faces.

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Adam and Nicholas are identical twins and, in my completely unbiased opinion, worthy of #TheWorldsMostBeautifulBoys hashtag I created for them.

Born 7 1/2 weeks early on Nov. 23, they had a lengthy stay in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home in January. Thankfully, they are healthy, and did I mention beautiful?

Derek and I rented a small Airbnb house near our son’s home, so we could watch the twins and their big sister, Farrah, 6, as often as Alex and Brooke were willing to part with them.

To our delight, we got to have them every day. We timed our arrival with Brooke’s birthday, and Alex surprised her by taking time off from work so he could ferry the boys back and forth for her.

We wanted her to be able to rest and enjoy some much needed self-care time. I remember well the exhausting days and endless nights of caring for infants who seemed to rarely sleep – and I only had one baby at a time.

After our first stint of babysitting, Derek and I sprawled on the sofa, exhausted.

“How does she do it?” he asked. “How does she do this every day? I mean, she’s by herself when Alex is at work. Look how worn out we are and there’s TWO of us!”

Two of us, whose only agenda was cuddling, feeding, burping and changing our adorable grandsons. Our only other objective was to be able to tell them apart by the time we left. More on that later.

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When the boys napped I cooked meals for the family – another reason I’m so glad we chose an Airbnb over a hotel. But I didn’t have to clean, or tackle laundry, or do any of the myriad things Brooke has to do on a daily basis. We are simply in awe of her.

On our first full day in Ohio, we bundled up the boys and took them on their first walkabout in their double stroller.

It was a new adventure for them, and Adam was not a fan. Nick, however, took in the sights, sounds and smells with equanimity and wonder.

We slowly began to get a sense of their personalities. Alex and Brooke weren’t kidding when they told us their boys are very opinionated and not shy about making their preferences known. We thought it was mighty kind of Adam and Nick to let Nana and Papa know how they like to be held and fed, but the first time they both cried at the same time, we looked at each other, stricken.

Nick hollers, but Adam’s cry is more dramatic and heartbreaking. It quickly became clear my job was to calm any tears, and Derek’s job was to fall asleep with a baby in his arms.

Not much has changed in the 20 years since we had our last baby.

Initially, Brooke dressed them differently, so we knew who was who, but when Alex dropped them off wearing identical outfits, I panicked.

“Which one is which?” I asked.

“Hmm, I’m not sure,” he said.

Then he showed me his dad trick. He swiped his thumb across their foreheads.

“This is Nick,” he said. “He has drier skin.”

That was helpful, but Nana’s no dummy. I quickly popped their labeled pacifiers in their car seats.

The boys have their dad’s beautiful lips and when they smile, it’s like cuddling Alex all over again. They love to “talk,” and enjoy lying next to each other and kicking their legs like crazy.

Of course, I took oodles of photos and videos. Leaving them to come home was incredibly difficult because I know how much they’ll change before we see them again.

And we will see them again.

Coronavirus restrictions and protocols won’t last forever. We’ve already scheduled our next visit for the end of June. Grandparents are optimistic to a fault.

I understand our world has been forever altered by this pandemic, but not all change is bad. For instance, I’ve discovered my heart really can be in two places at once.

Me and my boys

Columns

A Trip to Remember

I’m not going to lie. I cried when I hugged him. And then I laughed when he grabbed his father and hoisted him off the ground in a bear hug.

Derek is 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds. No one picks him up – except his second-born son who is an inch shorter and considerably lighter.

Recently, we spent a week in Columbus, Ohio, with our son Alex, his fiancee Brooke and her 4-year-old daughter, Farrah.

We’d planned the trip months ago, hoping to arrive when our grandson was a few weeks old. Sadly, Ian was stillborn on Feb. 23.

I’d wanted to fly out immediately, but now I’m so glad we waited. Alex and Brooke needed that time alone to grieve, to rest and to begin to process the devastating loss.

Our first day together happened to be the one-month anniversary of Ian’s death. We spent time looking at some photos of the baby that we hadn’t seen. Holding the tiny hat he’d worn. Shedding tears over the impossibly light container that held his remains.

“Will we have another Baby Ian?” Farrah asked. “With chubby, red cheeks?”

“Maybe,” Alex answered. “Maybe.”

I was relieved to find how naturally Ian’s name was mentioned – that Alex and Brooke are able to talk about him. While their broken hearts will never be fully mended, talking about their son and his death shows they’re grieving in a healthy way and that will help the healing.

Of course, our visit wasn’t all sad. Derek got to meet Farrah for the first time.

After a few minutes of observation and conversation, she announced, “I love you, Papa Derek.”

The feeling was definitely mutual.

As planned, one of the first things I did was bake an apple pie for my son. It’s been four years since he moved from Spokane – way too long for a boy to go without his favorite treat.

While Brooke rested, and Alex and Derek caught up, Farrah helped me in the kitchen.

She giggled as I sifted flour into the mixing bowl.

“It’s snowing in the kitchen!” she squealed.

And when I rolled out the crust, she eagerly helped “squish” it.

The next day we treated Alex and Brooke to a date night, featuring dinner, a movie, and a long nap, and Derek and I earned our grandparenting gold stars by taking Farrah to Chuck E. Cheese.

When she was pizza’d and soda’d up, we took her back to our hotel for a swim.

Let’s just say Miss Farrah, Nana Cindy and Papa Derek all slept extremely well that night.

Then we hit the road with Alex for a day trip to Cleveland.

Our first stop was the “Christmas Story House,” the actual house where our family’s favorite holiday movie, “A Christmas Story,” was filmed.

The home has been restored to its movie splendor, complete with the leg lamp, shining in the window. Visitors can pick up Ralphie’s official Daisy Red Ryder BB gun that’s tucked behind the Christmas tree, and climb into Randy’s hiding spot under the kitchen sink.

Alex, 25, handled the BB gun without shooting his eye out, and squeezed into Randy’s cupboard. However, he declined to taste the Lifebuoy soap that rested in the bathroom soap dish.

Having experienced his own soap-in-the-mouth experience as a child (Irish Spring), he didn’t feel inclined to risk soap poisoning again.

From there we drove to the iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located on the shores of Lake Erie. We wandered through several floors of exhibits highlighting the history of rock ’n’ roll and celebrating the artists who influenced its development.

My most pressing question (besides why Bon Jovi doesn’t have its own wing) remained unanswered until I returned home to Google it. Why is there a giant hot dog suspended in the middle of the museum?

Turns out the 15-foot flying frankfurter was used as a prop by the band Phish.

It must have wielded a strong influence over Derek. How else to explain why the following day he ordered the Big Dawg at the famed Thurman Cafe in Columbus? The 1-pound footlong Coney Island features the cafe’s Coney sauce – a secret family recipe that’s been homemade since 1942.

Yes, he ate the whole thing, and didn’t even have heartburn later.

On our last night in Columbus, I made Alex’s most requested birthday dinner – white chicken chili. The fragrance of garlic, onion and cumin filled the townhouse.

“When Nana Cindy’s cooking in the kitchen I am starving!” Farrah said.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye.

We had laughed. We had cried. We’d made memories.

I can’t think of a better way to honor Ian.

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Alex on top of the “E” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Columns

Strengthened by Sympathy

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Within hours after my most recent column ran, notes began to trickle into my inbox. The trickle soon became a flood as kind readers wrote to express their sympathy at the loss of our infant grandson, Ian.

Scores of people responded on social media. Dozens sent cards.

The messages echoed: “We are so sorry.” “You and Alex, Brooke and Farrah are in our thoughts.” “We are praying for you.”

Each one felt like a warm embrace.

Of special comfort – the notes that mentioned Ian by name. To see his name written on cards and emails made me feel that however fleeting his tenure was on this Earth, he mattered.

He will always be Alex and Brooke’s firstborn son. He will always be our first grandchild.

Jaded journalist that I am, I still was profoundly moved by a postcard informing me that the Congressional Prayer Caucus was praying for our family.

I’d never heard of the organization. But it’s an official, bicameral caucus of Congress focused on the role that faith and prayer play in our life and history. Each week the members gather in Room 219 of the Capitol and pray for the nation and for specific prayer requests.

The card read, “We just wanted you to know that we prayed for you this evening. You will remain in our thoughts and prayers.”

Representatives from several states signed the back.

As a person of faith, the knowledge that others are lifting our family up in prayer during this time of sorrow makes the burden of loss seem a bit lighter. It helps to know we aren’t alone in our grief.

My heartfelt gratitude goes out to all who wrote. Your kind thoughts help the healing process, and I sent many of your notes on to Alex and Brooke.

Of course, I’d trade every thought and every prayer to hold Ian in my arms. To watch his eyes flicker open. To hear his cry.

Many who wrote used the words “brave” and “courageous” to describe the column. I didn’t feel brave when I wrote it. I felt broken.

To me, courage describes the parents whose souls are forever seared by grief. The mothers and fathers whose joy and excitement vanishes in the silence of an inexplicably stilled heartbeat.

The members of this tribe are more numerous than I imagined. Many mothers and grandparents wrote, generously sharing their own stories.

Each story mirrored the sadness that my family feels, but also offered words of hope and encouragement.

With her permission, I’m concluding with a note I received from reader Donna Peterson. Her son was stillborn many years ago and her reflections offered great insight and comfort.

She wrote, “I can’t know how you feel, but I have been there, too, with my own child. I am 65 now, so medicine was not as advanced with prenatal issues at the time I lost my son. I had no idea why it happened.

“My daughter, who was 4 at the time said, ‘God took him to heaven and will make him better. Then He will send him back.’

“In 1980 I gave birth to another son. When my daughter looked at him for the first time, she said, ‘See Momma! God sent him back to us!’

“As I read your words I cried again. I grieved a little again – with you – for you and your precious wee one and family.

“Then I remembered my healing moment.

“I had a dream about a poem. I woke up and got my pen to write it down before I forgot the words. For some reason I wanted to share them with you. They are not as eloquent as yours always are, but maybe they might help a tiny bit.”

He would call me Mother

And call his father DAD!

He would be a bright boy …

A handsome, clever lad.

The days passed by so quickly

As joy grew deep within

Then all too soon he left us …

The tiny light grew dim.

Although I’ll always miss him

I will not be sad

For a light will always shine inside

For the son I almost had.

 

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at http://www.spokesman.com/staff/cindy-hval/ Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

Columns

Moving Mom

The For Sale sign swung wildly in the blustery October wind, and though I’d known it was coming, the sign startled me.

I pulled over in front of what used to be my house and let the memories wash over me.

Growing up in a military family, I moved a lot. Nine houses in 16 years, until we finally returned to Spokane to stay.

This house represented permanence to my parents, who’d grown weary of years of moving. It welcomed my best friends and high school sweethearts. My first day of college photo was taken on its front steps.

On my wedding day, I woke in my twin bed, in my blue bedroom with the switch plate that reads “Cindy’s Room.” The switch plate is still there, though it hasn’t been my room for 31 years.

A few years later, a photo taken in the entryway shows my dad proudly holding my firstborn son – his namesake, Ethan Thomas. It was Ethan’s first visit to what was now known as Grandma’s house.

Dad is wearing a sportcoat and tie, so he must be home for lunch. After he retired from the Air Force, he went to work for the Department of Social and Health Services, and his office was within walking distance – a huge selling point when they bought the house.

By the time our sons Alex and Zach were born, Dad had retired, and my husband and I had bought a home nearby. Dad delighted in dropping in to “check on the babies.” I always thought he meant my sons, but chances are he meant me, too.

When he died 22 years ago, my mom remained in their home – happy to know I was close. And when after several years of widowhood, our last son arrived, she was especially glad she’d stayed in the neighborhood.

Grandma’s house became a rite of passage. When boys anxious for independence wanted to venture from my nest, unsupervised – it was to her house they went. Sometime after the magic age of 10, I’d let them walk the six blocks to her house. This was long before every kid had a cellphone, so the kid had to first call Grandma to let her know he was on the way, then immediately call me when he arrived, and then call me again when he left.

Freedom had a laborious cost back in the day.

As Mom aged, the split-level design of the house proved daunting, and one spring she took a tumble down the stairs, breaking her ankle.

Still she wouldn’t move. Wouldn’t hear of it. This was her home – the place she and Dad ceased their wanderings, and besides, I lived just a few blocks away.

We worried that when the time finally came for her to move, she wouldn’t be able to help us choose her new home. And that’s just what happened.

This summer her mental and physical health failed at an alarming rate. Suddenly, my siblings and I had to make major decisions with no input from Mom.

Thankfully, my brother David and his wife, Becky, had retired to Spokane several years ago. They were able to find Mom a nice apartment in an assisted living facility, arrange for movers and an estate sale, and last week they sold the house.

Mom is 86, and doing better than she was this summer, but she’s still confused about what happened to her home, to her things.

Her new residence is just two blocks from her old one, so the landscape of her neighborhood is familiar. Her grandsons visit more frequently, now that she doesn’t have to come down any stairs to open the door. And when they visit they talk about the happiness and love they always found at Grandma’s house. The location may have changed, but the love hasn’t.

I pull away from the house, and I don’t think I’ll drive by again for a while.

It’s someone else’s turn to make memories on Standard Street. My own are locked safely in my heart, and there isn’t a house anywhere big enough to contain them.