Henry

A friend of mine died last week. He was 32. Henry was a peacemaker. He was a big man with a huge heart and an even bigger laugh. He was intelligent and had an amazing singing voice and could karaoke Sinatra like no one’s business. Often when we were together he and I would find ourselves talking — just the two of us — and laughing about ridiculous things. Like — do you ever wonder if Helen Keller found the meaning of life on the surface of a basketball? And she just couldn’t communicate it properly? THAT ONE had us laughing so hard I nearly peed.

We were at dinner together when we heard that Whitney Houston had died. We sang “I will always love yoooooooouuuuu!!!!” to each other and laughed even harder when the rest of our friends at the table looked at us like we were out of our minds.

He and I would make Starbucks runs on Sunday mornings after a night out. We’d offer to pick up drinks for our friends and take our sweet time coming back with them. The truth is, we’d have some of the deepest, most comforting conversations during our Starbucks runs. We’d talk about God and love and families and crazy life. We called it “church”.

They’re not really sure what happened with Henry yet. From what I hear they found him unresponsive on his couch last Thursday. And like that, a beautiful wonderful soul…well, I’d like to believe that he’s in a better place. A place where he knows he’s loved even more so than he might have ever known in life. I’m sure he’s watching us right now, seeing us all mourn him. Watching us share photos of him on Facebook and offer each other words of comfort in his absence. I’m not quite sure what Henry would say to that, but I can almost feel him giving me one of his big bear hugs.

Henners, I’m at Starbucks having church right now as I write this. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go to a Starbucks again without thinking of you. You had an amazing soul. An infectious laugh. Courage to live your life the way you wanted. The way that made you happy. If there’s anything I can do in your memory, it would be to live my life in a way that makes me happy.

May you forever rest in peace.

Me & Henry, Nashville (2012)

Me & Henry, Nashville (2012)

Some days

There are days that I set aside time to write here, only to have the reminder sound on my phone and go, “UGH.”

UGH as in “I just can’t.”

UGH as in “I’m in the midst of nine hours in the office working on extremely complex technical projects that have drained all sense of creativity from my brain.”

UGH as in “My brain is just fried and later I still have to drive 40 minutes to pick up my boys after work and grab something to eat at a drive-thru before baseball practice and God help me if I eat another damned cheeseburger.”

UGH as in “I woke up with the birds this morning so that I could shower and dress enough to have all of my indecent parts covered before waking my children at God-awful-thirty, coerce them into eating breakfast, cajole them into brushing their teeth and fixing their hair and convince them into sweatshirts, backpacks and then the car.”

UGH as in “After all that, I drove an hour and a half round trip to drop them off then drive all the way downtown before my day even got started.”

UGH as in “Some days I just can’t.”

Pledging allegiance

A few years ago, when it became clear that I was, in fact, getting a divorce, there was only one thing I knew for certain.

I was going to be happy.

I was not going to let my divorce turn me into one of those crabby, wet blanket-type people who are just a drag to be around. In fact, I saw no reason to even classify myself as a divorced person at all. The word “divorce” still has very negative connotations. It’s something people whisper and gossip about. “Did you hear? She’s getting a *divorce*…”

I did everything I could to separate myself from not just my ex-husband, but that life I had been leading for years and years that just sucked the joy and happiness out of me.

I was a single girl, dammit! My new life was cause for celebration! I was free! I could do whatever the hell I wanted! (You know, so long as the “whatever the hell” could accommodate my two sons and the fact that I have a 9-5 desk job.)

So for the past few years, I only identified myself as “single”. On forms, quizzes, anywhere — I was simply “not married”.

But I did write about my experiences, as I always do. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote some more.

And while I was happily living my new single girl life, I started to get comments and emails. People were telling me they were proud of me…telling me I was an inspiration…telling me that while they were sorry to hear of my troubles that they knew that I would get through this…and not just survive it but make my life into something amazingly wonderful.

Not long after that, I started to get messages from people telling me that they, too, were also going through a divorce. They told me that doing so was the scariest thing they’d ever done, and that they were sad and lonely and heartbroken, but finding my written words and knowing that someone else has been where they are now was a great comfort to them. Friends I knew only casually through social media wrote words to me that brought tears to my eyes. They thanked me for making my life known because they could relate.

Do you have any idea how powerful that is? To have someone thank you just for making your life known?

It makes me tear up now just thinking about it. I have to go back and re-read those emails and messages I’ve saved to prove to myself that, yes, people really said those things to me. Yep, there they are.

So when I was asked to write a short bio to be included in the Listen to Your Mother program, here’s what I wrote:

Colleen Hayes is a writer from Milwaukee who just happens to still have a desk job. She lives in the ‘burbs and commutes to a very techy office job downtown every day. Divorced and thirty-something, she has two school-aged boys who keep her running and laughing constantly. She loves music, obscure pop culture references and used books. And movies that typically make 12-year-old boys laugh. And coffee. A self-described slacker Mom and un-graceful chick, you can laugh along with the stories of her life on her blog, thequeencolleen.com, and follow her on Twitter @mommy_wins.

See it? There in the third sentence? Even now, several years later…knowing what I know and how good my life is…knowing that there is nothing in my life to be ashamed of…calling myself divorced was still hard for me to do, but I did it on purpose.

For the good that it does ME as well as other people, being “divorced” is a badge I now choose wear proudly.

Listen…

My heart was beating so hard while I was sitting on that stage that I could hear it in my ears. For days before…that entire morning and for the few hours we’d had so far of afternoon…even as we climbed the stairs and took our seats…even when they closed the curtain and only the low, sodium-yellow lights of backstage illuminated us…I was fine.

backstage

Listen…backstage

In fact, I had sort of adopted this “I don’t care” attitude. I’ve recognized, in myself, that I do this at times. It’s almost as if the situation is pushing me so far out of my comfort zone that I kinda flip…over the precipice into the other worldly “past” point…where it’s dark and melancholy and colorless.

I know this is my coping mechanism. I know I’ve spent entire YEARS of my life in this colorlessness. I’m THERE. I participate. I talk with people. I laugh, even. But I’m only partly there.

But I digress.

My point is that I was fine until the curtain opened and Alexandra and Jen made the show’s opening remarks. And before I knew it, they were introducing Sini. And my heart opened up and went, “WAIT! NOT YET! HOLY SHIT I DON’T THINK I’M READY YET.”

But of course I was. When it was actually my turn to cross the stage to the podium and stare out into that bright nothing of an audience, I’m told I did well. Truth be told, I was hyper-aware of my every move.

“Don’t take your finger off that page or you’ll lose your place! Don’t touch your hair too much. Look up at the audience as if you can see them, but don’t bob your head up and down too much or you’ll look like some sort of psychotic bird. Is your grandmother’s gold cross necklace showing, or did it slip inside your dress again? DON’T REACH UP AND TOUCH IT! It’s fine. It’s there. It’s near your heart and that’s all that matters.”

I know no one saw or thought these things of me but me…but when they’re screeching around inside your skull you may forget to pause while people chuckle at your story of little boy raucousness.

Before I knew it, it was over. My literal five minutes of fame…done. Complete. Golden in its goodness and sealed with that smack of satisfaction that says, “HOLY SHIT. I DID THAT.”

Afterward I could feel my body relax. If I hadn’t been in a dress and hose and heels and seated in front of hundreds of people onstage I might’ve been inclined to pull my knees up in front of me and hug them to my body as I leisurely listened to the wonderful stories being told by my newest friends. Instead I told myself to sit Princess Di style, legs together and angled to one side, ankles crossed demurely below. Like some sort of lady.

In some sense it was akin to torture…presenting myself in front of all those people, baring a piece of my soul through something honest I wrote like that. My body was cold but my feet were sweating. I could hear only my voice as I blocked out nearly all other sounds.

But I’m glad I did it.

On the one hand, I believe that by pushing yourself to try new things you’re truly living life. I don’t want to just survive. I want to participate. Fully BE there. Immerse myself in all that I possibly can while I’m still young and healthy enough to do it. I so badly want to be one of those interesting old ladies who has stories wild enough to keep the young people listening. One of my favorite quotes ever is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Do one thing each day that scares you.” I want to inspire others with my lifetime collection of experiences.

On the other, Listen to Your Mother is a series of shows celebrating motherhood. If ever there was a show worthy of all the stomach-churning nerves, this would be it. Having nearly a decade of experience under my belt, I can attest to the fact that Motherhood can be a lonely, frustrating and exhausting place where the demands are high and immediate results low. To find not just solace but things worthy of celebration in the everyday is what we mothers strive for. I can’t tell you the number of times a friend has told me a story that ended with, “I know it’s just a small victory but it meant a lot to me.” To which I always reply, “Oh, I know sister!” Because I *do* know.

And THAT is the beauty of this show. THAT is why the nerves and the sweating and the internal dialog rolling around in your head is worth it. Why it’s worth it to push past all of that self-doubt and to tell that voice inside your head that tells you that your story isn’t good enough to just shut the hell up.

Because by going on stage and telling our stories, we’re getting an entire audience to go, “OH. I KNOW SISTER.”

And we’re all a little less alone.


 

Listen to Your Mother is a series of shows performed within the two weeks leading up to Mother’s Day. Started in Madison, WI just five years ago, there are now shows in 32 cities nationwide! A celebration of motherhood, the stage show consists of people reading their own works on motherhood – either being one, loving one, having one or not. The Milwaukee show took place last week at the Wehr Theatre at Alverno College, but there are others still happening and I strongly encourage you to attend. If you missed your city’s show, or even if you didn’t, I hugely STRONGLY wholeheartedly encourage you to consider auditioning next year. You will NOT regret it!

The incredible indelible Will

Two weeks ago, I took my youngest boy Will to the dentist for a cleaning. His brother was due for one, too, but had already been through a severe braces adjustment the day before, and out of a year and a half’s worth of orthodontist appointments, had complained for the first time ever that his teeth hurt, so we let him skip it for the time being. (Seriously, the kid has expanders on the top and the bottom in addition to braces on his top front eight teeth. How he isn’t starving to death from all the food getting stuck in his dental appliances is pretty much a near miracle if you ask me.)

Will happily climbed up in the chair as the doc inquired as to whether he had any loose ones, and Will proudly showed him that he could (barely) wiggle the teeth on either side of his lower front permanent ones.

“Awesome!” the doc replied, giving him a high-five, adding, “You keep working on those – they’ve got a ways to go!”

Which was why I was surprised when I got a text from my ex two days later saying, “Will lost two teeth and pulled them out himself with NO TEARS!”

Wait, wha…?

Back home with me two days after that I asked him about it.

“So you didn’t cry when you pulled out your teeth?” I asked.

“Nope! Not a bit!”

“So…how did you do it?”

“Well,” he said, “one night I was supposed to be sleeping. Dad was sleeping and Nick was sleeping. And I just stayed awake and wiggled it and wiggled it and wiggled it til POP! I pulled it out!”

My eyes must’ve gone wide. Poop, puke, blood I can all handle. But somehow snaggly wiggly baby teeth skeeve me out every time. “Then what did you do?”

He shrugged a bit. “I just put it under my pillow and went to sleep.”

I laughed. “You didn’t get up and rinse out your mouth? Or wake up Dad?”

He shook his head. “Nope. But I must’ve put it under there too late cuz the tooth fairy didn’t come.”

I chuckled. “Oh. Yeah. It was probably very late. Didn’t it bleed?”

“Not really.” He started to walk away but I called him back.

“What about the other one? When did you pull that one out?”

“Oh. The next day. In the morning. We were playing Xbox and I was wiggling it with my tongue. I wiggled and I wiggled and I wiggled til POP! I pulled that one out too!”

“Whoa. This time did you tell Daddy?”

“Yeah. He made me rinse and spit but I told him it was OK I’d just drink my blood.”

“Yeah, it’s probably better that way.”

“Then?” he said, excitedly, gesturing with his hands, “THE TOOTH FAIRY GAVE ME FIVE DOLLARS. That’s $2.50 a tooth!”

“Wow bud that’s great!” I said. “You really worked at those! Why did you want to pull them out so quick?”

“Eh,” he said, shrugging again and turning to walk away, “I wanted the money.”

Will

The Estate Sale

Sunday afternoon, The Man and I had left the house clad in sweats to pick up some movies from Red Box when we saw them: bright neon orange signs advertising “ESTATE SALE“.

Some people love love LOVE estate sales…you can find really unique old pieces of furniture or art, and you almost always see a person on Antiques Roadshow that found some amazingly valuable treasure at one. But I can’t help but imagine the lives of the people who had lived in the house — who had lived the lives that are now reduced to piles of crap that strangers are pawing through, haggling for the best deal. Sad or not, we typically stop when we see one and have time.

SALE

On Sunday, my first stop in this tiny two-bedroom home on the south side was at the living room couch. There was a stack of black and white hand-colored baby photos, now abandoned, with things like, “Cathy, 1942″ scrawled carefully across the back. I don’t know if I can imagine anything sadder than abandoned baby pictures. I had to put them down.

The kitchen table was covered in stacks of Depression glass and white milk glass, along side sets of gold-rimmed drinking glasses. You could smell the dust in the air, though it had carefully been wiped away before the sale opened. In the hallway, hanging on a wire hanger on the knob of a closet door was a fur coat I’m sure someone once treasured…a coat probably brought out only for special occasions.workbench

On the back of an armchair in the living room was a fur-covered fedora next to two golfer’s caps. The man who owned them was named Erv. A shelf full of golf trophies in the basement could attest to that, and the fact that Erv was quite the golfer. I was determined to picture Erv, back in ’61, smiling and laughing with one of the trophies held high, raucously giving his golf buddies a hard time for not going home with one.

Part of me wanted to take some piece of it home…keep it alive by reusing it somehow, but I know myself better than that. I’d buy something only to dump it in a box in my storage unit at home and feel guilty for leaving it sit there, unused for more years.

garage organization

In the garage, I said to The Man, “Think about this…we spend so much of our time acquiring things. We’re always saying, “I need to run to the store to get this or I need to pick up some of that for the house. That’s all we do, all our lives is acquire things like this…” I said, pointing to a pile of miscellaneous lawn watering supplies piled in the center of the floor, “…and it all seems so important, at the time. But is this what happens to all of us? We just become reduced to…piles of crap?…that nobody wants?”

Schwinn

He didn’t answer, but instead kept peering up into the rafters. I hate to think of life that way, and yet the point is that yes, the details of every day mundane-ity are unimportant. We get so stressed with our list of errands that simply must be run…the things that must be bought…when in the end they won’t matter very much at all.

Except baby pictures. Those definitely still matter.

Grandma Week

When I was a kid I had two grandmothers who were polar opposites.

My mom’s mom was very young – she was 42 when I was born – and was a playful, loving woman who would sneak us treats and candy and let us stay up late to watch Johnny Carson. She went camping with us, and invented a game we called “Over Under” wherein we’d crawl around her living room floor on our hands and knees, crawling under or over each other’s bodies. We would “paint” on her plush carpeting by first smoothing all of the fibers one way with our flat palms, then “writing” by pushing the fibers the opposite way with a finger. A diabetic, she always had dark chocolate in her purse she’d share, as well as her trademark Velamints and glass bottles of Diet Pepsi. We weren’t even allowed to have soda at home!

She loved college football. With all my brothers you’d think that it was through them I first learned the rules of the game, but you’d be wrong. With a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Schlitz in the other, she’d yell at the TV when the Badgers were losing, then in quieter moments explain what a down was, or what offsides meant. She was a loving, kind woman who died all too soon from complications with her diabetes. She was 55 on March 14, 1992 when she passed away after suffering multiple strokes.

My dad’s mom wasn’t all that much older, but always seemed so in my eyes. She had such a large presence in a way that sort of intimidated me. She was the grandma that would pull you into her pillowy cleavage for a hug when you walked in, then push you away slightly and pinch your cheeks and kiss you with her red lips. She called me skinny minny and joked that the wind might surely blow me away. She had a large laugh and strict rules about eating between meals. All kids in her house were members of the clean plate club, whether they wanted to be or not.

We didn’t have sleepovers at that grandma’s house often, but when we did, my dad’s youngest sister, only 12 years older than I, would pull me onto her lap on the living room floor and brush and braid my hair. We got in trouble once because we went out for a walk before dinner down by the lake and I fell in. It was only much later in my life that I realized that by the time the oldest of us grandkids came along, my dad’s parents were probably exhausted. They raised six kids (a seventh died of pneumonia before the oldest of the surviving six was born), most born one year after the other until the youngest — SURPRISE! — came along five years after the last. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had any appreciation for important rules are when you have multiple children. And it was also later that I learned how much love for life was in that loud laugh, and how much of my own personality was originally in hers. This grandma of mine passed away in 2008 from ALS. Her birthday was March 16.

Now, I’m not one of those maudlin people who go silent during anniversaries like these. I didn’t post any veiled Facebook statuses, asking for prayers or thoughts or even say anything publicly at all. In fact, this is the first time I’ve actually realized that those two dates were only two days apart. I don’t know that the fact that one died two days before what was the other’s birthday even means anything at all…it’s just coincidence I’m sure. But as I sit here today, during Grandma Week, I’m proud to have been loved by them both. One taught me the importance of really being there with my kids. That you should get down on your hands and knees and teach your kids about what you love…because chances are they’ll love it too. The other taught me that family is everything and that you should always tell the people you love what you feel, even if that means that you might come off as a little loud or unpolished.

And God, do I miss them both.