Ode to Motherhood

I somehow did it. My very first and very rough draft is complete. When I think about loss, losing my mom ranks high. Becoming a mom triggered a whole slew of loss, lessons and love for the woman who made me. I’ve spent years writing about it. This Mother’s Day is no exception. For those who have been kind enough to send me feedback, please keep sending it my way. In the meantime, an Ode to Motherhood.

Chapter 13: WTF? I’m pregnant.

About 4-months after the adoption failed, I started training for a half-marathon. It was just after the holidays in which in typical fashion I had overindulged in food and put exercise aside.

By this point in life, I had been running for a few years. A funny thing happened this time, though. My boobs hurt. As in, really hurt. At first, I thought that I’d jumped into training too hard. But, as the days progressed and the spasms in my boobs grew more frequent, I knew something was up. I was broken.

It wasn’t just my boobs. I was exhausted. I was exhausted when I ran and when I didn’t run. I was tired all day long and had no desire to get up in the morning. Granted, it was January in northern Wisconsin. It’s hard to be motivated about anything during this dark, sub-zero stretch of hell we call winter. But this was different.

After several weeks of enduring this excruciating pain, I decided to take a break from running for a few days. I thought maybe if I reset myself and started over it’d get better. Only it didn’t. It kept getting worse. I didn’t know what to do anymore. I shared my discomfort with my husband. He looked at me perplexed and then asked a very simple but loaded question, “You aren’t pregnant, are you?”

Time stopped. He knew I was not pregnant. I would know if I was pregnant. After all, I’d gone through years of trying to get pregnant. I’d undergone countless fertility tests, prayed to higher powers and visited multiple doctors. While my diagnosis wasn’t dire, I clearly didn’t get pregnant. We had just gone through a year of paperwork and tests to get approved to adopt in the state of Wisconsin, only to have it fail. This was in fact an extremely loaded question. Of course I wasn’t pregnant. Or… was I?

My mind began racing. I had a stash of pregnancy test strips under the sink. It’d be quite simple to do a quick test and put this rumor to rest. But a big part of me didn’t want to get my hopes up. I started to do the math in my head. Yes, my period was late. If I were a gambler, I’d be broke if I bet on the dates my period would hit. Sometimes it’d be weeks, other times months. Plus, with the stress of the holidays, it’d make sense I was late, right?

After several rounds of inner conversation that was slowly making me crazy, I decide to take a test. I’ve got nothing to lose. At least then I can rule out this particular crazy notion. I take the test. After a few minutes I glance at the test strip. I see a couple of lines and dismiss the notion. I knew I wasn’t pregnant.

Later that night, while nursing my sore boobs, I suddenly found my heart racing. I return to the bathroom and dig the test strip out of the garbage. Two lines. Is it possible that meant I was pregnant? I dig under the sink for the directions. They’re missing. I start to panic. How can I not remember if two or three lines mean I’m pregnant?!?!?!

Before you consider me a very dumb blond, remember the circumstances. Factor in that I had purchased these test strips three years ago in bulk on Amazon. They didn’t come in a pretty box. These strips didn’t have smiley faces or pink lines. They were test strips with multiple faint lines.

I immediately turn to Google looking for answers. After finding the directions online, my life changes in an instant.

“Honey…”

“Yeah?”

“I think I might be pregnant.”

Silence.  I can hear my husband carefully formulating a sentence in his brain before speaking, knowing the next words he speaks count.

“What do you mean you think you might be pregnant?”

“Well, this test says I’m pregnant, I think.”

“You think? Isn’t it a yes or a no?”

“Well sort of. But I’m guessing this test is expired.”

Chaos ensues. My husband runs to our local grocery store, the only spot in town with tests, and asks the clerk for a pregnancy test. Meantime, I Google what can cause a false positive. It’d appear that a rare form of cancer and a lot of urban myths are the only options. The sparkling optimist in me becomes convinced that I have cancer.

My husband returns home. “Well, either everyone in town tomorrow will know you’re pregnant, or a rumor will be floating around that I’m having an affair.” The joys of small-town living.

I begin guzzling water. Lots and lots of water. Three tests later, I’m starting to come to terms with the idea that I may, in fact, be pregnant. My husband is beaming and totally convinced this is the only possibility. I’d like to believe this miracle is real, but the pessimist in me refuses. I need scientific proof. Luckily, I have an awesome doctor and work at a rural hospital that can do same-day appointments.

Less than 24 hours later, I find myself lying on an ultrasound table at work, hearing a rapid pitter-patter, for the first time. It turns out that there actually was a logical explanation besides cancer for the nagging pain in my chest. His name is Jacob William Probst. At the time, I was six weeks pregnant.

In an instant, life changes but everything stays the same. I look down at my paunch and realize there’s an alien-looking create growing inside of me. That every decision I make in the coming months impacts the creation of another human being.

I’m humbled and overwhelmed and scared. Let’s face it. This didn’t happen overnight. I had come to terms with the idea of never having a baby. I’m old… in childbearing age. Did you know that if you are 35 and pregnant, that’s considered a geriatric pregnancy?

I’ve never quite understood why the marketing of that. Adult pregnancy, mature pregnancy, but geriatric? It is very similar to wedding dresses being about 2-sizes SMALLER than your normal size. Because seriously, what girl doesn’t want to feel old when she’s pregnant (as if you don’t feel old already) or fat on her wedding day.

I face the facts. I’m a plus-size, geriatric pregnant gal who was not planning to get pregnant this year. I had abandoned the prenatal vitamins and hadn’t exactly been alcohol free over the holidays. Plus, the sugar cookies. So many sugar cookies. I had just booked a trip to Washington D.C. for March and now this?

I confide with a few co-workers. Those closest know what a toll the adoption took on me. They get it. As I’m telling them the news, it finally hits me. I am actually pregnant. This is exactly what I wanted.

Or, was it? My pregnancy would be plagued with complications. An achy back and an uncontrollable bladder eventually led to a more serious diagnosis of pre-eclampsia.  In rural Wisconsin, this diagnosis played out in a 75-minute ambulance ride with three strange men, no shoes, and a heightened hormonal state. Our destination – the nearest trauma center equipped with a NICU.

It resulted in one of the most undramatic, dramatic results in my life. I never went into labor. I stabilized. After two nights of monitoring and Steve eating delicious looking take-out in front of me I was allowed to return home with strict orders of bedrest. I’d spend the next two weeks anxiously awaiting Jake’s arrival while also questioning if I was capable of becoming a mother.

Motherhood is a pivotal moment that plays out over the course of years. I’ll be frank, when Jake made his overly dramatic entrance into the world during an emergency c-section that involved him not only wrapping his umbilical cord around his neck but also somehow knotting it, I didn’t feel an immediate sense of joy. I was in utter shock.

Moments later he was placed on me to nurse. Splayed out on the table, I felt like a unique combo of a milking cow and Humpty Dumpty being stitched back together. I just wanted a full fat vanilla latte with extra whip cream.

Staring down at the little alien creature, I knew I was witness to a miracle. I was torn between sheer excitement of this incredible creature I just brought into the world and scared shitless of everything I could do wrong. In that moment, I needed my mom. Not my best friend or my sister or even the man who helped make Jake.

I knew giving birth would trigger the loss of my mother. I just didn’t know how lost I’d feel those first few weeks. Hormones and sleepless nights didn’t help. Unlike some incredible women I know, motherhood did not come natural to me. It was awkward and uncomfortable and extremely complicated. I quickly learn, motherhood is messy.

Messy and memorable. Somewhere in those sleepless nights, something clicked. I suddenly understood what it meant to love someone so selflessly that you’d sacrifice everything for them.

There’s something to be said about a love that fierce. I grew up in a house full of grace. I now understand why. My mother’s love was built around the notion that I was exactly who I needed to be – not perfect – but enough. My mother never tried to change me and constantly gave me freedom to make mistakes. To learn and grow and evolve into a young woman.

When Jake was born, I felt an unbelievable pressure to not mess it up. To make sure I raise him to be an incredible man. I now understand that I am not raising a child, but rather guiding a human being through life. Jake is his own person and to think I can change that is hilarious. I can guide and steer and pray and love, but at the end of the day Jake will become who he is destined to be. That’s humbling and scary and awesome all wrapped into one. To love someone enough to let them become who they are meant to be – that’s the greatest gift I can give as a mother. One I learned from the best.

If I could tell myself just one thing, it’d be motherhood is the ultimate test in vulnerability. Lots of it. The thing with motherhood is loving someone unconditionally comes at a cost. It is an emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows. The more vulnerable and deep your love, the larger the tidal waves.  I never understood mamas who cried on the first day of school or became insomniacs in a quest to make sure their child was safe until I became one. 

I went into parenthood believing I’d be the best mother ever. As a perfectionist, I wanted to be a perfect mom, because I wanted Jake to have the best. What mother doesn’t? Here’s the thing, by day 1 I had failed on many fronts.

This seems obvious now but I didn’t know it then. I am raising a human. Humans are messy and complicated and contradictory. They make mistakes. They are frustrating and difficult and stubborn and that’s what makes them beautiful. Now, I just do my best every day to lead by example, love him, and set him free to be his own person. It is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Is it perfect? Absolutely not. His teacher recently told us, Jake’s an incredible leader. He just sometimes leads in the wrong direction. I’ll admit, I was a bit embarrassed but bursting with pride and love.

Raising Jake has taught me, I’ll never be ready to parent a person but I was born to be a mom.  

Podcast Fun and Writing Deadlines

Things are getting real. This week, a podcast I recorded last month with Coach Kiah came out.  I first discovered Kiah by accident on Instagram. Since then, I’ve been a huge fan not only of watching her incredible weight loss journey but also her zest for life and all things farming. Yep. She comes from a cattle ranch and often features ag and farming stories that remind me how much I want to own a tractor someday. She mixes cute cow pics and great personal development advice together, resulting in me becoming a huge fan. If personal growth or farms interest you, be sure to follow her.

My latest podcast Episode

She was kind enough to invite me to be a guest on her podcast. It was a ton of fun to record. I went in thinking I’d spent a lot of time talking about my running journey and my one and only self-published book. But, towards the end we got talking about my new book. It was my first time diving a bit deeper into the purpose of my book and definitely had me sweating since it is a hard topic to talk about and even harder when you’re already nervous AF. If you’re interested in hearing more about the book and what I’ve been up to, check out the podcast here.

Since I’m writing, I thought I’d share another excerpt from my book. I am so appreciative to all of the messages I got from my last post with feedback about my writing. So, if you have a few minutes, please consider reading the chapter below and shooting me a note at bethprobst@gmail.com with your thoughts. It really does mean the world to me. My first ever book proposal is due June 5 so the clock is ticking and every bit of advice and encouragement helps!

And now:

 Chapter 8 Therapy

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” David said.

Time stopped. How is that even possible. A few months prior I had started therapy in hopes to fix myself. Mom had been dead for over a decade. Despite graduating from college and landing my dream job, I had wasted my 20s away in a semi-destructive fashion. Perhaps I was just living my single days to their fullest. It is a fine line after all. Needless to say, something in my soul said I needed a change.

I quit my life in television news. I sold my soul to the dark side and took a job at an environmental liberal arts college as a PR hack. It was a straight day job, 8 – 4:30 pm, with weekend and holidays off. The pace more predictable and at times mundane. Come summer, the nearly empty campus and a generous vacation schedule allowed me to finally slow down and process the past decade.

Brutal is the only way I can describe it. At times emotional. One night, out of boredom, I watched boring reruns of The Real World and drank an entire bottle of wine. Somewhere towards the bottom, I suddenly felt I was spiraling out of control. I feared becoming her. Looking at the cheap zinfandel, I wondered at what point my mom transitioned from social drinker to alcoholic. I’d never get to ask her. But in this moment, I felt uncomfortably close. I threw the bottle out.

I chatted with my primary medical doc. She suggested therapy. I had run out of excuses and my insurance covered it. There was immediate availability at a clinic just 10-minutes from my apartment. I didn’t know many folks in this new town I was now trying to make home so I figured I had nothing to lose. YOLO, right?

There was also Steve. He was different than the other guys I’d dated. A keeper some might say. Our conversations ran deep. I laughed a lot. He seemed emotionally available. The attraction ran deep. Nearly a year into dating, a part of me wanted to run. To destroy things before he could break my heart. The other side of me, convinced I’d somehow mess this up because I was in fact a mess, wanted to do the work to ensure I’d get my happily ever after.

The perfectionist in me won out. I signed up for therapy convinced that a few deep conversations with a stranger would solve my grief, open my heart up and allow me to finally move past my mother’s death. In my mind, it was time to accept my mother’s death for what it was, close that chapter and start my life. Unfortunately, that’s now how therapy works.

Each week I’d find myself in a comfortable office sharing snippets of my past with a complete stranger. Conversations jumped from what life was like growing up to my career path to losing mom and falling in love. It felt very disjointed. Not at all like the movies. David rapidly scribbled notes down while I babbled on and on about all of the things I was trying to process. Occasionally he’d prompt me down another rabbit hole in which I’d bare another piece of my soul. Things I never shared with anyone suddenly came spilling out – I was comforted by the knowledge that this man had taken an oath to never share my deep, inner secrets with anyone.

The more I talked, the more broken I felt. What a mess I am, I thought to myself. But at least I’m doing something about it. At least I’m taking action to put myself back together again. At the time, therapy seemed magical, like the unsung hero who if given the chance, could have magically put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Finally, David said our time was coming to an end and that he felt he had enough information to diagnose me. Finally, a definition to this mess. A definition meant a solution. A pill. A treatment. A book to read. A way to move forward.

Then he said the words that shook my world.

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

Other words followed. A lot of them. An explanation about how grief is hard but that I was in fact processing it and it was complicated. How it was totally normal to be nervous about my relationship because I was ready to transition from living solo to inheriting a roommate. Moving in with the boy was a big deal for me because I had spent a decade alone. I had successfully changed careers, but a lot of my identity was tied to that career I just walked away from. Something about the 20s being a major transition in my life.

He also talked about how my mother dying may have dimmed me ever so slightly. That pre-mom, I was perhaps a bit more outgoing and probably felt like an extrovert. It was impossible for him to know if I truly was an extrovert or just used that as a façade to not address my mother’s illness. Now I seemed to look inward more. To be a bit more reserved and at peace with that. Was that a result of my mother dying? Perhaps. My mom died at a very pivotal time in my life where I was figuring out who I was as a person. And, this would likely be one of the most defining moments of my life. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just meant I had evolved as a human – something we all do throughout our lives.

“But, what does this mean,” I asked.

In my head I was convinced he was wrong. He had to be because if he wasn’t wrong, that meant I was sentenced to this unsettling feeling for the rest of my life. That the random tsunami waves would continue to knock me off my feet at the most random of moments. I would never be the carefree teenager who took chances and felt invincible. Instead, I’d always be on edge waiting for the next big ball of doom to drop.

“It means that without me finding a diagnosis, your insurance likely won’t continue to pay for these sessions,” he explained. “I want to be upfront about that. I still think there are things we could talk through but you really are fine. If I had to prescribe you anything, it’d be to go live your life. To move in with Steve, enjoy this new life you’ve built. You’re ready.”

I couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket costs for these weekly talks. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the money but I questioned the value of paying someone to tell me I was fine, when I knew I wasn’t. I thought about getting a second opinion. Of finding another therapist who’d maybe understand that I wasn’t ok with just being ok. I wanted more.

I left therapy and something happened that hadn’t happened in a long time. I cried. I cried a lot. I cried tears of rage for mom breaking me and then abandoning me. Tears of rage for a therapist who couldn’t fix me. Tears of loss for discovering that the person I was pre-mom was gone. Tears of unmet dreams for leaving a career I loved and knowing I’d never return to it.

When the tears finally stopped my soul felt lighter. I started to understand that losing and letting go of those things meant space for new things. It meant exploring a new career that provided a more equalized balance between work and life. It meant time to start a side hustle writing. It meant giving my heart the space it needed to heal and eventually open up to falling in love. It meant exploring the Northwoods of Wisconsin and rediscovering myself on the south shores of Lake Superior. It’d mean starting to understand the connection and triggers that caused those tsunami sized waves of grief but also making space to remember the good times with mom.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d return to therapy many times in future years. Each time, I’d still ask the question, “am I broken?” Sometimes I wasn’t as whole as I’d like. Other times, I just needed a neutral stranger to ask me the tough questions and give me the space to process the answers out loud. To remind me that life is hard. That even on the easiest days, life can kick us on our ass. But we get to choose how we react. That we decide what comes next in those moments.

At one point, I found myself at a pretty momentous crossroads in life. I was having what I can only describe as yet another existential mid-life crisis, but I was only in my 30s. My career had stalled. I had grown tired of the Northwoods. Dad was sick. My relationship with my sisters was strained. I was a new mom. The honeymoon phase of my happily ever after had long since worn off. I was tired. So tired of going through the motions.

I wanted to run. I don’t know where to. But anywhere seemed better than the sticks of northern Wisconsin in the heart of winter. I just wanted to start over. I found myself once again in therapy, this time with an incredible lady who seemed to read my mind.

“If you could start over, what would you do?”

“I don’t know.” But it doesn’t matter, I thought to myself because I cannot.

She used that moment to give me some tough love. She reminded me that no choice is a choice. I was choosing to stay stuck by not doing anything. That inaction was in fact the action of nothing. I hated her in that moment.

“If you want to leave, leave. You have the knowledge and resources to do so. But, I wonder if that’s really the heart of what’s bothering you.”

Steve would eventually join me in therapy and I’d share my frustrations. I’d share that I was living a life that felt unfulfilled because somewhere along the time, life had started happening to me instead of for me. I no longer felt in the driver seat of my own destiny.

A conversation ensued about choices. I was reminded that I chose to marry a forester. I had chosen a career that provided a work-life balance that allowed me to be an incredible mother. I had fought long and hard to become a mother, it didn’t happen by accident. We had sought out our dream home on a small recreational lake, but that meant living in a very small place away from friends and family, but within driving distance of dad. These are choices I had made that lead me to this life I was living.

My therapist reminded me that this new life I dreamed of was void of making any choices. That if I wanted to start over, it’d mean making a choice about giving this all up. That’s the thing about choices. Choices rarely come without change. Change rarely comes without losing something to gain something else.

The truth is, I couldn’t imagine my life without Steve or Jake. I couldn’t imagine working a 60-hour work week or not being home to say goodnight to my miniature me. I couldn’t imagine a view without Moon Lake or the ability to be at my dad’s bedside when he’s sick. I couldn’t imagine not having time to write, or garden, or read a good book on my deck. I couldn’t imagine Christmas without snow and a massive live pine tree in my living room. I couldn’t imagine not living next to endless green space or leasing chickens in the summer.

The what if game is a dangerous game if you allow it to consume your life. It is one thing to wonder what if, if that is followed by a big dream that you go pursue. It is entirely another telling yourself how wonderful life would be if you could live someone else’s. I realize that now. Sometimes life hands me unexpected surprises completely out of my control. They knock me off my feet and make me angry at the world. But, for the most part, my life is the result of a series of choices I made, consciously and unconsciously, that I should embrace. If I don’t, I should change them.

If I could tell myself one thing, it’d be that a therapist can’t fix me because to fix me, I’d have to be broken. I now understand if mental health is Home Depot, your therapist is that friendly worker in an orange cape who can give you the tools needed to build, renovate or destroy whatever you want. I can google how to plumb a toilet or find happiness. It is just a lot easier to ask the man in orange to provide me the right tools to plumb that toilet, just like it is a lot easier to have my therapist help me understand the choices I’ve made and how that’s lead to the life I’ve created for myself and that maybe if I focused on what I have, I’d discover I am happy.

A therapist is great at arming you with tools and resources. The part that’s often missed, or at least was for me, is that you ultimately do the work. I ultimately decided to move in with Steve. To acknowledge that the life I chose is actually the life I want. To realize that if I don’t call my own shot, someone will call it for me. That’s on me. No therapy session, pill or self-help book will change that.

The great reward that comes with doing the work is you only have yourself to thank when things go as planned. It doesn’t happen often and sometimes it is a long and bumpy road, but there comes a moment when you can make peace with the decisions you’ve made. The other great thing, you get to decide when to do the work. Looking back, I genuinely believe things worked out the way they needed to for me. Delaying the full feelings of my mom’s death until I was in a place to process them, helped me get to a place where I could start to understand the grieving process. To understand that even trivial moments could trigger memories of mom, and that was in fact ok.

Megan Devine penned an incredible book entitled “It’s ok that you’re not ok. Meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand.” In it, Devine spends a lot of time talking about our society’s inability to process grief and acknowledge that grief is not in fact something you get over but rather live with. There is no other side to grief. As a therapist and someone who has experienced great loss, Divine’s stories and advice are based in science and experience. I wish her book had existed in 1996 when mom died. But am so grateful it is available now. I understand now, the piece of me felt broken, is in fact a broken heart over losing someone I loved. But, as cliché as it sounds, it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all. Knowing that and understanding that means I wouldn’t wish this pain away, because for that to happen would mean never feeling the love either.

Writing Truths

Things are getting real. A few months ago, I participated in a free writing workshop. This led to me joining a writing group that provides insight, coursework and assistance in writing a book. There’s also a contest in which you can submit a book proposal. I don’t anticipate winning but I do hope to receive advice with hopes of maybe securing an agent in the coming year. The deadline is in less than 2-months, with a second chance in December.

So here I am, sitting in yet another amazing coffee shop writing. I’m writing about love and loss and the complexities of navigating grief. This in of itself is not a lighthearted topic. Writing is hard. Putting yourself out there is hard. But, I’ve come to the conclusion, not writing is harder. Writing today is also coming at a full-circle moment.

This week marked 26-years since my mom died. The Minnesota Department of Health also concluded their investigation of the days leading up to my father’s death. My gut was right. Benedictine Health System dropped the ball on many levels. At the core, they wrote my dad off as a very sick man not worthy of their attention or medical care while he was still fighting to live. Enough so, that by the time he received hospital intervention, any hope or dignity was gone and he wished to die. We all know how this story ends.

In December, I wrote about the difficulties reckoning with this. I think we all want to believe there is meaning in life and death. I wanted to believe that if I couldn’t save him, I could at least help someone else’s family going through something similar. At first, DHS dismissed me as nothing more than a nuisance. Their first investigation was a joke at best. Their unresponsiveness and misinformation a signal that bureaucracy is alive and well. This continued for months. Shame on them. My dad and other victims deserve better.  

For months, I patiently waited for them to make things right. Legislative intervention, countless emails and pleas to multiple layers of supervisors for them to simply do their job. Last month the finally did. Findings were substantiated, reversed from last fall. Citations were issued. A lackluster response of additional training and chart auditing followed from Benedictine. A well-rehearsed apology and promise to do better with little follow through from DHS. Case closed.

The final investigator on my father’s case apologized for her predecessor and the agency not doing their job. She asked me to not hold it against them. I feel for her because she was doing her job in a system that failed. I admire her for doing her job. Frankly, that’s all I asked of anyone at DHS. I just wish it was the norm and not the exception. Nothing changes the final outcome or what we experienced. No report or blanket apology or admission of guilt brings my father back.

I often find myself wishing that when asked what single moment is the most pivotal in your life, my response isn’t the death of my mom. And now, my dad. At the same time, I keep going back to the reality that despite all of the highs and lows I had with them, I always knew I was loved and they accepted me for whoever I wanted to be.

What an incredible gift to give your children. A gift I hope I pass on to Jake. A gift they instilled in me that I am only fully realizing today. Losing them is still the most pivotal moments of my life, but there are many others that make me who I am today. Things that wouldn’t have happened or been different if I hadn’t experienced this. The truth is, the moments that matter most, often start or end because of loss. I’ve come to believe that’s the price of admission. Life is messy and beautiful and hard and amazing. Grief sucks and the more it sucks means the more amazing the prequel to it was… which makes it suck even more. That’s the premise of my new book. Not so much a book about great loss but all loss we all must navigate.

Today, I want to share my prologue of my new book with you in hopes you’ll send me feedback. Email me at bethprobst@gmail.com or message me below. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please know it is a work in progress, just like me. And with that:

It Could be Worse: A girlfriend’s guide to loss.

Introduction:

The decision was made in an instant but years in the making. “I love you girls but I cannot keep fighting. Please don’t be mad.”

A glance at the nurse and a plea. “Please. I just want to go in peace.”

Suddenly we are out of time. After years of ups and downs navigating a broken health care system watching my dad fight for his life – and win; and advocating for his life more times than I can count, the decision is made. My sister and I advocate for him one last time. We watch dad initiate hospice and support him with all of our heart while feeling a piece of our heart break. He signs the papers instantly. He cannot nor should he suffer for another second in a system where folks fight to keep him alive, regardless of the physical pain he endures and his desire to die. He is ready.

He tells my sister and I he’s proud of us one last time in a sterile hospital room. A man of few words, he couldn’t have chosen a better book ending to a complicated yet rich life. I do not know it at the time, but I will not see him conscious again.

I should have seen this coming. In my head, I had prepared for it over and over again. I had made time for visits, listened to my dad’s endless stories and jokes, and sought therapy to help navigate the struggles of an aging parent. I had worked through my anger surrounding an amputation and a healthcare system that never understood my father. I had resolved all of the what ifs in my life – the times growing up where I was too busy pursuing my dreams that I missed the simple things. You know… the weekend fishing trips, county fairs, camping, phone calls and lunches. I spent the last ten years making up for those moments. I said everything that needed to be said. But yet, I still find myself in this moment, completely lost. Caught in the in-between. The part where you pray for a quick ending but guilt bubbles up and challenges why you would actually wish your father dead. A friend who knows grief all too well reminds me there is a difference between honoring your dad’s wishes and accepting them. 

Later, I find myself alone in the hospice room watching my dad gasp for air. COVID-19 has added a logistical layer of complications in saying good-bye. Science says my dad is on enough morphine that he is comfortable. My heart says he knows I am here. Here. Sharing one last moment with dad.

I choose to use this moment to remember. I remember our fishing opener trips – including the time I was so engrossed in my book that a fish pulled my rod into the lake before I noticed I had caught it. Somehow dad managed to retrieve the rod (with a very tired fish on it). I remember my one successful day of fishing catching Sunnies with dad and how delicious his pan-fried fish tastes. I remember our annual camping trip including the year my girlfriend and I snuck out to meet boys on the beach. My mom had to let us know she knew while my dad just gave us that look. You know – the one dad gives that say a thousand words. It was the same look he gave when I flicked matches into his ice shanty and got removed from a little league softball game for being sassy.  

I remember arguing over the cost of a good steak, grapes and a 12-pack of diet coke more than once. I remember the endless conversations about weather where only Google could resolve the temperature differences between my hometown Cloquet, Minnesota and today’s hometown Iron River, Wisconsin. I remember arguing just to argue and then argue about why we were arguing. My dad loved a good debate about nothing. That trait lives on in me.

I remember the endless days of playing ball growing up. Or, how dad would patiently watch me twirl baton, doing his best not to comment on the fact that I was destroying the lawn with my endless pivots in a quest to land that double turn around. I remember helping him plant his garden and sharing that first ripe summer sweet pea. I remember our trips to the Chicken Swap that resulted in unconventional pets and dad buying me a mule named Goldie and trying to pass her off as a pony because I was sad the pony I had wanted got purchased before we could buy him.

There was the advice. Dad lecturing me on how I didn’t need another degree to feel smart or that changing jobs wouldn’t make me happy. That a job is called that for a reason. I remember my wedding day where after our father-daughter dance he simply said, I hope he makes you happy and if he does, I’m happy for you. Or, the time he casually asked if I knew how babies were made when he felt I was taking too long to make him a grandpa again. I was 34 at the time.

I remember dad telling me he missed mom too when he knew I was sad. I remember dad walking me down a makeshift aisle at my wedding and holding my son after he was born. I remember him helping me pack for college, see me off to Oxford and inspect my first home. In every critical moment, dad was always there on the sidelines rooting for my success.  He’s been the constant in my life. For 42-years, every major milestone has been marked by dad encouraging me to pursue my dreams.

These memories and thousands more will carry me forward. On Christmas Eve at 3 am in the morning, I get the call. A health record error meant hospice staff waited until he was gone to notify me. Given the blizzard and distance, it is unlikely my sister and I would have made it in time to say one final goodbye.

After 24-years of waiting, he joined my mother. For me, the waiting is now over.

Instead, it is replaced with grief. Grief is a crazy beast I’m all too familiar with. A new void in my life no one or thing can ever fill. There will be no story big enough, no fish large enough, or joke bad enough to replace the man who made me.

For a moment, I focus on a higher power and try to believe that dad’s struggles are finally over and that he’s reunited with mom in time for Christmas. I want to believe Heaven gained another angel this Christmas. Faith is complicated in the face of grief, though. Instead, I only feel a hole in my heart draining whatever energy for life I once had. I don’t wake my husband to tell him the news. It would be too real. I call my sister know, text my aunt and try to keep breathing. Tears flow freely. I lay in bed anticipating what’s next.

A part of me knows what lies ahead. The tsunami of highs and lows that follow losing someone or something you love. The cost of his suffering ending comes with a price that I must now pay. I’m an orphan at 42. I immediately dismiss my anger. After all, as Winnie the Pooh once said, “how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

For over a decade, my dad battled countless illnesses. He came back more times than I can count. My mom’s story is similar, only I was 18 when I lost her. In both cases, I knew death was inevitable, I just didn’t know when.

Despite mourning the loss of my mother for nearly a quarter century, I struggle with what comes next. How to grieve the right way and meet society’s pressure of grieving enough but not too much. How to mourn but move on. As a generation X’er who thrives on facts, I sought the simplest of answers.

How do I get better?

When do you get to the other side of grief?

Will it ever get easier?
How long should I be sad for and at what point can I resume life?

Is it ok if I’m still sad anyway?

Is it ok to hate God right now?

Or to suddenly find God right now?

Why did I wish them dead?

Is he dead because of me?

Is resenting him for ruining my favorite holidays of the year ok?

Why aren’t I sadder?

Why aren’t I happier?

Should I be questioning my faith right now?

Why do I feel so alone, despite being surrounded by people?

Is this my fault?

Why am I so tired?

Why do I just want things to be normal?

And on and on and on.

After months of researching and years of living with loss, the questions seem obvious.  The answers – unavailable.  As time ticks on, I settle into a rhythm of grief suddenly knocking me on my ass, only to a few moments later find myself resuming the mundane crisis in front of me – somehow pushing grief aside. Unexpected laughter and joy would find its way into my life only to leave me feeling ashamed; that some how I hadn’t paid my sorrow dues in full. 

Our brain is miraculous in that one can be at rock bottom in shock and grief while somehow navigating the complexities of securing a goldfish for an 8-year-old in the very same moment. I know experts say you shouldn’t multi-task, that it in fact is not a thing, but I believe emotional multi-tasking is the only way to survive.

In some respects, the big losses are predictable. You know they are going to hurt. And to love or experience anything meaningful, that’s the price of admission. There’s also a slew of books by people much smarter than I that’ll help give you a roadmap to grieving a spouse, parent, child, best friend. There are endless meditations and faith-based support systems that’ll help you walk through the 5 stages of grief and even tell you about a 6th stage focused on meaning in an attempt to help you cope with catastrophic loss. Or, tell you why the 5 stages of grief were actually created for the dying not the grieving and that in fact catastrophic loss has no rhyme or reason.

Here’s the thing. I’ve come to realize that grief in all forms suck. It knocks you off-balance, challenges your identity and at times cripples you into believe you’re crazy. Other times, it leaves you to live your life, also wondering what kind of human you are for continuing to live, even during the darkest of times. God help you if you compare your loss to the person next to you—their loss is either bigger or smaller depending on the narrative you’ve created in your head. Your grief too minimal or too big in comparison to whatever you are grieving.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it all go away. But what does that even mean? If you erase the loss, does that mean you also erase the person you loved? The problem with anything meaningful is it hurts that much more when you lose it.

Life is a series of gains and losses. A new name, new identity, new friends, new career, often come with a cost. There’s that moment of compromise when you settle for what is versus what might be someday. Or, that realization you won’t be the next golden girl baton twirler or make the cut for all state band. How motherhood challenges your sanity. Or, the stories you tell yourself to avoid working on your shortcomings or celebrating your strengths. That moment you regret or let someone else call your shot. These moments of loss quickly add up, even when replaced with something better.

Sure, you can tell yourself that in order to gain something you must let go. Sometimes you do it willingly. Other times, a force greater than you takes it away. Both scenarios are difficult and remind us that life is hard. It hurts. Even in the most beautiful moments, loss lives in us.

That’s what this book is about. A series of stories about loss – ordinary and extraordinary losses – that define us. I’ve spent a lot of time asking why me, researching and asking people how to cope with loss in hopes of sharing some wisdom here. Some simple, tactical tips and stories of how to lose gracefully. Of how to lose, without losing yourself. 

I have no authority writing this book. I am not licensed in anything other than driving a car. This is not a replacement for therapy. This is simply my stories and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way that might help make your road a bit less bumpy. This is not an inspirational story where I reckon with loss, find God or resolve my feelings of loss. This is a story about being in the trenches and navigating hardship while giving myself grace to find joy as well.

There’s an old saying that misery loves company. I hope you find some comfort in these stories and understand that you are not alone in your loss. I believe everyone grieves loss differently but there’s value in the collective reality that we all will experience loss throughout our lives. For some odd reason, at least for me, I find peace and comfort in knowing I am not alone.  

Call Your Shot

Hey Universe – here I come with another story to tell!

I’ve been a bit MIA lately, but for good reason. Last year, I spent a lot of time doing what is known as productive procastination. This year, I called my shot and am busy picking away at it… one painful word at a time.

This past month I dug deep and committed to writing my second book. I know, I’ve been rambling about it for a year. The difference is I paid money to join a writing group that has two submission deadlines for unsolicited book proposals from humans without agents. If selected, I’d have an actual publishing team to help me through editing my next book and financing to fund it. This is with a major publishing company so it is more than a long shot. But, what I know without a doubt is that I’ll have a proposal and accompanying chapters to shop around this year because despite all of the blessings my parents gave me, frugality is alive and well in my life.

My book is honing in on everyday losses, including the death of my parents. For the purposes of this book, the bookends will likely be losing mom at 18 and dad at 43, but in-between I plan to share plenty of advice about the losses that are so often overlooked. Things like my failed adoption, friendships, pets, first loves, career and how motherhood challenged my identity. How we evolve from dreaming big to accepting what is and the limitations that come with adulting. I hope to share some of my life experiences framed around wisdom of folks much smarter than I to provide some context for coping with everyday losses.

Losses, grief, the two are somewhat interchangeable. But, there’s another word that’s been popping into my mind since listening to a fascinating podcast about regret. Daniel Pink recently wrote a book on the topic that I cannot wait to read. The Cliff’s notes version – we regret more of the things we don’t do than what we do, do. And, so many stories of my uncontrolled losses are a result of inaction versus action. Pink puts a lot of perspective to why that is which I hope to share as well.

I hope to share some snippets of my story in the coming months to gauge reaction, ask for some input and hopefully create a proposal that will result in a second book someday. It feels good to be writing again and my why remains just putting my perspective onto paper in hopes it’ll help someone else. I’ve also found that anytime I put a goal out into the universe (aka posting an update on this blog), I feel obligated to finish it. So this is me sharing my latest adventure.

When I’m not busy writing, I’m running again. James Clear continues to wreak havoc on my life with this 1% notion of leveling up. I’m building a strong base of what the healthy version of Beth would do. Right now, that looks like exercising daily with a 5k on the horizon and a TBD longer race to follow. So far, so good!

And that’s the latest from Moon Lake. Running, writing and living. It is a good life.  

The Missing Piece

It took 16-months of a global pandemic before I finally sat down and did a puzzle. About 95% of the way into it, I discovered a piece was missing. It didn’t matter. I was committed to finishing, missing pieces and all. Like I’ve said before, there’s a fine line between stubborn and stupid.

Plugging away at the puzzle, I couldn’t help but compare this to life. How often life hands us a pile of jumbled up pieces that we’re supposed to somehow cobble together into something whole. That how after much trial and error, a pile of mess can transform into something beautiful. Or, how we can get to the end only to realize we never had the tools needed to finish what we started. 

This past year was no exception. I’ve talked a lot about grief this past year. How losing dad left a big void in my life. Not just with grief, but with time and my identity. It was an odd combination that left me struggling with where to go next. I decided rather than bail, I’d sit in it for a while. I gave myself the gift of time and space to ponder what’s next and slowly put things back together one piece at a time. I discovered the absolute joy that comes with productive procrastination. That sometimes, you cannot rush the puzzle because you need some time to find or create new pieces.

2021 was the year I did nothing but something. I didn’t go to school, run a PR, score a promotion at work or publish a book. I started the year with a blank page, lots of questions and not much direction. So I wandered. I polished rocks. I grew sunflowers. I read a lot of amazing books. I traveled. I saved money and spent money. I did a book signing. I plotted my next book. I cried. I laughed. I laughed so hard I cried and maybe even peed my pants a little. I watched my kid play baseball and basketball and wished my dad was here to see it. I cried on Christmas morning. And Easter. And my dad’s birthday. And on random days that end with Y. I also remembered our time fondly and worked to create new memories and traditions. I took up spin. I invested in the people that matter and let some other fade away. I enjoyed a lot of happy hours. I gained weight. I lost weight. I lengthened my plank time. I upgraded my fitness tracker and bought an espresso machine. I got rid of unrealistic expectations and discovered the joy of saying no. I added some boundaries and dropped my guard. I said good-bye to my cat. I was a guest on some podcasts and discovered my love for Teremana tequila. I completed my first real writing workshop. I blogged. And tried new running shoes… only to discover there’s no point in fixing something that isn’t broken. I tried meditating, practicing gratitude and sitting in stillness. I binge watched Yellowstone. I made new friends. I discovered things I never knew about myself and was reminded about things I had forgotten. I got my first tattoo.     

In other words, in 2021 I did a whole lot of life. No matter how hard one grieves, time keeps moving. It is a gift we’re all given each day to create something. This year was no exception. It was hard but beautiful at the same time. Somewhere along the way, the pieces of the puzzle started coming together. I find myself ending the year with new goals and dreams and direction while also never wanting to lose the joy of productive procrastination. I don’t know if I’d feel the same if I had powered through 2021 like year’s past.

But back to the puzzle. I eventually finished it, missing piece and all. I left it assembled on our table for over a week, annoyed about the missing piece but proud of finishing what I started. As I went to tear it apart, I noticed something peeking out from underneath our table runner. Turns out the missing piece was there all along. I just wasn’t ready to see it.

I hope your 2022 is filled with many moments of productive procrastination, moments of discovery, and time to assemble the puzzle pieces of life.

The Reckoning

Two empty seats at the Christmas Table that’ll never be filled, but in the wise words of Pooh, how lucky I am to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

Your wings were ready. My heart was not.

This quote popped up in my Pinterest feed last night buried between recipes about homemade chicken pot pies, Christmas appetizers and running exercises. I’m working on a book about grief so I imagine there’s some logical algorithm explanation for this moment of clarity that literally scrolled in front of my eyes.

This Christmas marks one year without dad. One year of reckoning with my faith and trying to come to terms with how things went down last December. How my dad went in for a hairline fracture and in less than two weeks was so isolated, distraught and heartbroken that he was begging ICU staff and his daughters to let him die. I genuinely believe we made the right choice – if choice is the word one uses in a situation like that. I’m so grateful that even with COVID-19, we were allowed to be there to say goodbye. I know many families did not have this luxury. But, the logical side of me struggles with the unanswered questions and lack of accountability in a system that failed.

I imagine in this moment, some turn to faith. To let go and let God – to believe that the universe had decided it was time. Others, want to understand. The past year, I did what any daughter would do. I sought to understand the events that had unfolded by asking questions of those who cared for him in his final days. I expected a logical explanation and medical records that supported that. That this logical information would provide much needed closure and peace. Instead, I was dealt a series of calculated conversations packed with misleading information, missing documentation, unanswered phone calls and shaming family members. Each encounter left me with more questions than answers and heightened skepticism about multiple systems that failed my father and was in cover their ass mode.

This story isn’t about the mistakes made, though. There are countless books about how our healthcare system sucks. That despite having many heroes on the frontlines, the systems they are boxed into are costly, inefficient and at times deadly. This is a story about what happens next. How far you go to get a simple answer.

For me, I sought the most basic of answers and was dealt more heartbreak. The lack of empathy in a world focused on risk mitigation, even though I never threatened litigation, broke my heart. The latest – a so-called investigation in which the Minnesota Department of Health investigated Benedictine Health System in under a few hours. The investigating nurse so “committed” to her case that she left me a voice mail on a Wednesday afternoon stating she wanted to get more information from me and despite me calling her back within the hour – never spoke to me again. The case was closed that same day. After several attempts, I finally got an opportunity to speak to her supervisor. Turns out, that’s the definition of a quality case review, skilled nursing home lie during investigations (her explanation, not mine), and that I wasn’t entitled to any information about the investigation without filing a freedom of information act. As for wanting to talk to me, apparently that wasn’t necessary. This, despite the state’s QI department citing Benedictine for quality issues relating to my father’s case. As for an apology or explanation about the unreturned phone calls and emails – that’s just not a thing. And so it goes.

How long does one keep asking the questions? The truth is, nothing will bring my dad back. But, reliving his final days over and over again, only to get more questions than answers, does nothing in finding closure or peace. It is one thing to set-out on a crusade to make the world a better place. It is another to advocate for change in a system that’s indifferent to your pain knowing nothing will change. That’s the trouble with asking questions. The answers are often worse than the unknown.

Twelve months in, I’m still grappling with how to let this go. A new reckoning so to speak. An attempt to carry on with life and a new normal of no dad, while also honoring his legacy. To advocate for others, including dad, who deserved better those final days but not let it consume me. A man who deserved to die with dignity versus defeat. Perhaps that makes me irrational and angry, a logical stage in grief. Or, perhaps just a daughter with a broken heart trying to bargain for his return. Or, finding meaning in his death by not letting him die in vain. It is a fine line.

Yesterday, my son scored two baskets in third grade basketball. I couldn’t help but think of how proud my dad would have been to see this. A part of me even feels he even played a role in this shot in-between cribbage games with mom, hunting bucks with Uncle Booty and securing the perfect Christmas tree. Picturing these moments bring me peace. It makes the empty seat this Christmas a bit easier to bare. I know I’m not alone in grappling with the reckoning of holidays. Of finding ways to remember those lost while celebrating new moments and traditions with those still here. After more than 25 years of holidays without mom, I know it never gets easier. Different perhaps. But never easy.

For those grappling with these big questions and no answers as well, I can only provide this word of advice. Grace. Give yourself grace and give grace to those around you. Allow yourself to feel all of the emotions. Early on after my mom died, I didn’t do that. I kept it all in. Decades later and some hefty therapy bills, I now understand the value of the human body being able to process multiple emotions. How we’ve been gifted the ability to feel joy and pain simultaneously. To laugh and cry in a single moment. To be grateful and heartbroken. That this is in fact normal. For me, that reckoning has been the single greatest gift I can offer myself this holiday season. I hope it helps you as well.

Grief and Gardening

This month, an essay I wrote about dad and gardening was published in Northern Gardener magazine. You can catch a glimpse of it here. It was shortened a bit since in typical Probst fashion, I was a bit wordy – so the full version continues on below. I learned a lot from my garden this past summer, including a bit about faith. There are so many things I never told my dad, but topping the list is just how much of him lives on in me.

Grieving in the Garden

Father daughter bonds take many shapes and sizes. For me, gardening offers me a rare moment to reconnect with dad. At just 42, I became an orphan. The story is complicated but the void in my heart is easy for any daughter to understand. Sure, I knew my parents wouldn’t live forever. But, my dad had 1,000 lives and for a while seemed invincible. Despite defeating the odds over and over again, it was a minor case of pneumonia that blindsided me Christmas Eve and left me alone.

Now, a few months later I find myself looking to the soil for answers. My dad and I shared a common love for making things grow.  Growing up, gardening season started at the local feed mill in early spring. It was there, I’d watch my dad slowly count out the exact number of seeds he’d need and place them gently in a brown paper sack. We’d then move on to the potato starters picking the ones with the funniest eyes. Back home, I’d watch him turn the soil over with fresh manure, prepping it for planting, but not placing a single seed in the soil.

“Is it time,” I’d ask almost daily. “Nope. You must be patient.” This was one virtue I didn’t inherit from dad. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, my dad would determine it was time to plant.

One by one we’d place the seeds in rows marked by twine. We’d round out our plantings with small tomato and cucumber plants from the local greenhouse. And then we’d wait.  As the weeks dragged on, I’d watch my dad lovingly water and weed those tiny buds.

“Is it time,” I’d ask in earnest every day. “Nope. You must be patient.” I’d see those initial white blossoms morph into tiny pea pods knowing that someday we’d finally pick our first super sugar snap pea of the season. I can still taste it. Green beans soon followed with juicy cherry tomatoes, bi-colored sweet corn and bright red raspberries. Endless rows of cucumbers were soon ready to be canned in mom’s secret pickle recipe. Each day, I’d wander the garden in awe of what transpired over the summer. Dad made it seem so simple.

Years later, I’d try to replicate the magic in a makeshift garden in my first home. The veil was pulled back. Without the loving eyes (and watering) of dad, the plants died. I discovered that cheap soil, no fertilizer and an unfenced area in a heavily populated deer area spelled disaster. Weeks later, I glanced at my shriveled up decaying plants and decided I was too busy to tend to the garden. By summer’s end, the once plotted space was nothing more than grassy weeds.

I’d move several times over the next few years. Each move marked a new opportunity to plant. But, something always got in the way. And when it did, dad would share his bounty with me. As time went on, dad’s declining health limited that bounty. I didn’t realize it then, but I wanted to make up for lost time. So I returned to gardening.

I began plotting my vision of the perfect garden. Every year involved bigger and better. My husband tried to keep up with my growing demands of more raised beds, additional fencing, more hoses, more fruit trees, and perennials. We trucked in fresh manure. We fenced and fended some more. Despite being on a small lake lot with acreage under 2.0, the project quickly became unmanageable.  To overcompensate, I planted what was easy and could grow no matter what.

It started with the beans. There were so many beans. Purple beans. Green beans. Beans on top of beans.  And then there were the zucchinis.  I don’t even like zucchini. But it grew fast and furious in my garden, somehow compensating for my missed years.

I proudly shared my bounty with dad. “I don’t even like zucchini,” he’d quietly hint as I brought him baskets of them. “But I grew them, dad.”

“So, why don’t you eat them,” he’d say. (He knew I disliked them as well).

Back and forth we’d banter. He’d hint, in a not so subtle way, what he wanted from my garden. And, I’d try to navigate around the fact that we liked the same things and I didn’t want to give him my cherished sweet peas because I wanted them all for myself. I even attempted to pass off sweet peas from the Farmer’s Market as mine. He instantly knew they weren’t. This push pull relationship continued for years, yet for some reason I kept planting the zucchinis.

After my son was born, my priorities shifted yet again. The balancing act of being mom, daughter, wife, professional caught up to me. Areas of the garden were quickly taken over with mint. My raspberry bushes left untrimmed spreading like wildfire. Asparagus quickly became trimmed to the nub by north woods creatures and my unfertilized lingonberries succumbed to their demise. Areas of fencing now aged, were nothing but a minor inconvenience for the resident deer in the neighborhood. But yet the zucchinis kept growing.

Last summer I finally stopped. The garden scaled back to a mere four, 4×4 beds and a small plot of raspberries, sweet peas, sunflowers and mint. A few fruit trees remain and deer friendly perennials surround a newly made (and easily maintained) rock garden. I fertilized and doubled down on water. My dad, now an amputee, gladly accepted my single, simple offering of sweet cherry tomatoes and a few sugar snaps that I snatched from my son’s hands.  

“You might get this gardening thing down, yet,” he’d say before giving a friendly suggestion on how to improve my outcomes. “You just need to be patient.”

In hospice, dad declined quickly. I suddenly understood we were out of summers. There would be no more garden banter about how to make things better. His parting words of “I’m proud of you girls and I love you” captured a lifetime of love in a single moment. And then he was gone.

Due to COVID-19, there was no funeral and I’m left wondering how to live out my dad’s legacy. There are so many things I could do. Do I plant a tree or an entire apple orchard? A garden statue? Planters? My dad loved blueberries. I thumb through countless mail order catalogs looking for the perfect tribute. I turn to Pinterest. But, each time I’m overwhelmed with grief.

Like clockwork, spring finally arrives in the north woods. I find myself longing to solve this legacy question so I can check grief off my to-do list. If only it were that easy. Instead, bare ground looks back at me. I return to the basics. Prep the soil. Fertilize it. Plant it with what you love. Water it. Nurture it. Each movement is a living legacy to dad. Each time, it gets a little easier.  Turns out, grief like gardening, needs patience and grace.