As I write this, I’m sick yet again. I’ve had some sort of respiratory illness pretty much since November, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s my house—the mold, the dust, the mice. This is one of those houses that no matter how much I clean, it’s never clean. No matter how much I battle the mice, they find another hole. We never intended to stay in a tiny, outdated house. The plan had always been to update, to add on. Life has a way of laughing at plans, though.
As I think about where to start with this particular chapter, it’s a needed reminder to be thankful, and there was a time I was very thankful for this house. November of 2013, my family embarked on what would be our most difficult adventure yet. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had purchased our land and cabin just in time for what would be the harshest winter in anyone’s memory.
The cabin was just 325 square feet with one room and two lofts. We didn’t have running water. I built us an outhouse with a composting toilet and a makeshift sink. Adam took one of the lofts for his bedroom and office. The boys took the other loft for their bedroom. I resumed my usual spot on the couch. We had a wood stove in the center of our room. I turned one corner of the cabin into my “kitchen.”
The setup was as close to a Little House on the Prairie kind of gig as I ever want to come, and it gave me a whole new appreciation for the women who settled this vast country of ours. It was not an easy life by any stretch.
As odd as it seems, the boys and I were all excited about this new adventure at the outset. After 18 months of being buffeted about by the whims of others, this was something we felt we could control. This was our chance to own something, to sink down some roots. The plan was to hunker down for the winter and break ground on a cob house in the spring. (In fact, I have an entire Pinterest board to attest to that plan.)
The week we moved into our cabin began the most brutal of winters. Arctic winds howled seemingly non-stop. It snowed, it snowed again, and then it snowed some more. My boys got really good at splitting wood. Our little stove was so tiny that it only burned for two hours at a time, so Dylan and I slept in shifts to keep it stoked, lest it go out overnight and the family freeze to death. Even so, there were mornings the water jugs at the far corners of the cabin would freeze through.
On the coldest of days, there was little more we could do than pile up in blanket igloos on the couch to watch TV. We watched a lot of Netflix that winter. We watched so much Psych that to this day, whenever I hear the theme song, I’m transported back to that cold little cabin.
We lost several animals that year, despite having barns and plenty of bedding. The oldest alpaca, two of our baby goats from kidding season (which started in January for us), and a bottle baby goat named Anna that we’d taken in. Anna was the hardest. I adored that little goat and the way she’d dance when she saw me. We never knew what happened to her; we just came home one day to find her dead.
One night in December, I agreed for Dylan’s friend Zach to come spend the night with us. Zach’s parents had a party to go to and they didn’t feel comfortable leaving their teenage son to his own devices. I was reluctant to have company because I was so embarrassed for their friends to see how tiny our home was, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. As it turned out, Zach wasn’t alone. He’d brought another of their friends, Noah, with him. Those goofy boys got to horsing around in the loft and you could feel the entire cabin rock. When I smelled burning rubber, I looked around for the source, only to discover that Noah had thrown a pair of Dylan’s shorts onto the wood stove. I snatched them off the stove and threw the smoldering britches outside, but my house smelled like burnt shorts for pretty much the rest of the winter.
Noah was an enigma. Sometimes he was a total punk. Sometimes he was as loveable as an overgrown pup. Sometimes you’d catch a glimpse at the pain he carried inside and it would tear your heart right in two. I don’t think anyone really understood how much Noah carried around inside; he took his own life in February 2015. The story of the burning shorts was one of the stories the pastor told at his funeral. That funeral was one of the hardest I’ve ever gone to. There was a group of us football moms who huddled together, all with the same look on our face. That look was a mixture of our hearts breaking for our own boys as they dealt with the loss of their friend and the question none of us wanted to ask: Could I have done more?
Noah taught us a lot of things, most of which is not my story to tell, but first and foremost he taught me that the things that can seem so insignificant to us can be the world to someone else. You never really know what kind of impact you have on someone else’s life.
There were times in that little cabin that we thought the winter would never end. By February, I was in a pretty dark place. I was severely depressed and felt completely and utterly trapped in my marriage and in the constant poverty that seemed to be tightening its grip on us ever since Blake’s accident. But I continued to put one foot in front of the other, if for no other reason than my boys needed me.
If there was anything that got me through besides my boys and my faith, it was hearing from an old friend from Scottrade. Kate had written a book and wondered if I’d be willing to read it and give her feedback. Not only was the book amazing, it was heart-wrenching (I went through an entire box of Kleenex). And it reminded me that our lives are never as insignificant as they can sometimes seem. In many ways, that book saved my life. (Saving Jason by Kate Anslinger, btw. It’s worth reading.)
Ironically, the time of my deepest depression was also when I was writing Waiting for You, one of my happiest books. There were things that were good about our “Derksen Days.” We learned a lot. We drew even closer to God and each other. I lost all of the weight I’d put on after Blake’s accident. (Hey, I’ll take a win where I can get it.)
Thankfully spring did come, eventually. And with the lengthening days and sunshine, my mood improved. I only let life keep me down for so long before I look around to figure out what I have to change to make things better for us. The instant the ground began to thaw, I knew the first order of business was to build us a home. I’d spent my winter studying up on cob building and was dying to give it a try. We started with a cob chicken coop, which was absurdly fun. After a couple of days, we really had the hang of creating just the right mix of sand and clay and water to create our building material. For a week, I utterly enjoyed the hard labor of hauling materials and the feel of the cob under my fingers. I envisioned all the lovely things I would make out of cob.
We had the trench dug for the house’s foundation and we set a date for a “cob party”—we knew we’d need more hands on deck if we’d ever get our home built. Our friends and family showed up and worked hard all day. It was fun, it was exhausting—our bodies ached from it—and at the end of the day, we had absolutely no discernable progress to show for our efforts. It was right about then that I began to rethink my cob house. In fact, that’s when it began to occur to me that a person who’s biggest building accomplishments to date were a chicken shanty and goat houses probably shouldn’t be building their own home from scratch.
As I re-thought my strategy, we began to spend quite a bit of time at the coffee shop in town. They had tasty drinks, wi-fi, and it felt good to be in a normal building. Adam really liked the shop’s owner, who also happened to be the mayor at the time. I always got the impression that she was nice to me because I was a customer but we wouldn’t be friends if we met on the street. She was nice, though, and she let me put a couple of my books in her shop. She was also pretty with a lovely singing voice.
I remember one particular day—by that time I’d taken a job doing some book marketing at Booktrope in addition to my own book stuff—anyway, I was sitting at the shop working when a man came by the shop to practice a duet with Kristy. He was cute, they made a pretty pair sitting there singing, but the thing that struck me was how obscenely talented he was. He could play a guitar like I’d never heard before, and his voice was both soothing and gripping at once. That was the first I learned that Buffalo has its very own rising star in Lyal Strickland. Once Adam told me the name, I realized I’d heard a couple of his songs on Adam and the boys’ playlists.
I didn’t think much else of it after that day, but man, I was jealous of her in that moment. If I could have been anything besides a writer, it would have been a musician. There are times I toy with the idea of learning guitar and singing in coffee shops and wine houses for the sheer joy of it someday, when my kids are grown. But I’m not sure I’ll ever get over my fear of singing publicly to accomplish that one.
Spring was in full force by then and I was no closer to solving my housing issue. We couldn’t stay in the cabin much longer without losing our minds, but I had no real clue what to do about it. And then, our neighbor put her tiny little house on the market. The house sat on about an acre, completely ensconced by our property because the two had once been one. Buying the house seemed like the perfect solution to our problem. If nothing else, it had running water. Hauling animal water from the creek had lost its appeal months before—more than once, I’d get the water to the top of the hill, only for something to send the bucket rolling back down, emptying its contents.
There were a couple of problems with that plan, though. Namely that I had a short sale on my credit, a mountain of medical bills, and no money for a down payment. And that’s when the same deacon we’d bought our land from stepped in and bought the property solely for the purpose of reselling it to us, owner financed. It’s been three years, and I am still at a loss for words to explain my gratitude to that man and his wife for what they did.
We now had an end in sight, indoor plumbing was tantalizingly close. The only problem was the closing date got shuffled a few times after we’d packed up the cabin and told the company we’d rented it from they could come get it. Money was tight and we couldn’t afford both. And that, my friends, was the birth of gypsy camp. For a few weeks in May, my family literally camped on our own land while we waited for the house to close. We called it gypsy camp and did our very best to make it an adventure. And most days, it really could have been worse. Storms sucked.
But then, the house closed and we moved in and began to feel like normal human beings again. (If you’re counting, this makes the fourth address we’ve had on the same street.) We had running water and a propane heater. At first, 725 square feet felt huge. Adam got a room/office. Blake and Chris shared the second room. Dylan turned a shed into his own room, and I resumed my spot on the couch. But, whether it was due to our kids getting huge or just the newness to wearing off, it didn’t take long for the house to start feeling cramped.
Things break faster than I can fix them. We’re right on top of the dirt road and the house has terrible seals, so it’s ALWAYS dusty, even five minutes after you dust. The internet is awful. The house next door (that sat vacant for a decade) got a tenant who, quite honestly, scares me. I could go on—there are about a million things about this house that drive me crazy or I wish were different.
But then there are the flowers. I mark my year by the rhythm of the flowers and the trees. I adore our creek and our orchard. Everywhere I look, there is something about this land that I love. I wish things were different, that I wasn’t so alone in tending the farm, that I had more money, more time, no creepy neighbor… but however discontent I may be at times, I am thankful for this little house, down to the very core of my being. I know things could be so much worse.
It’s been three years since we moved into our home. And we have had so many happy memories here. We have dear, dear friends on this little road—good, hard-working people who have been there for us in good times and bad. Our horses, Dixie and Casper came back to us. Sadly, we lost Casper to cancer. I still remember my youngest son, curled up with that horse out in the field. He didn’t leave his side until the end.
I got my darling Daisy in this house—she’s an appaloosa filly who has become the horse of my dreams. We got her when she was six months old from the same breeder we’d bought Dixie from. The first few months we had her, she was kind of a brat and I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. But I kept working with her and then one day, we just started clicking. She’s two now and I’ve never had a horse I trust more. We have a bond I can’t explain, the kind I’ve always dreamed of having.
We still visit Jack on occasion; it was important to the boys and me to keep that friendship going. On one of our visits, he offered to let us breed Dixie to his stallion, who had been moved to a nearby university. I was beyond excited to take him up on the offer, knowing the foal that pairing produced would be far better than anything I could ever afford. (Though, in truth, Daisy is an amazing horse worth far more than I paid.)
I felt awful for agreeing to the breeding when poor Dixie was so miserable during the process. But the breeding took, and I will never forget what it felt like to watch the baby’s heart flutter on an ultrasound. I cried. I think I was as emotional as I had been watching my own ultrasounds. The year between that ultrasound and foaling seemed to drag on forever. Dixie ran past her due date. Jack lost one of his foals to fescue poisoning, which made me worry all the more about Dixie and her baby. I was terrified I’d do something wrong and mess it up.
And then came the morning that I went to check on Dixie and there was a little red filly learning to walk at her side. She had a huge blaze of white that rambled awkwardly down her face. I don’t know how long I stood there watching the pair, crying like a fool, before going to get the boys.
Pip eventually grew into the white blaze and her color deepened to a dark bay, just like her daddy. She’s a phenomenal horse. Watching her grow, being part of her start in life, has been one of the greatest joys of my life. Of all the things I love about my farm, I love the way we have it set up the most—the land wraps around the yard in a way that means I’m always close to my horses. I can always look out a window and see them. And when life gets too rough, I go out and hug their necks and drink in the smell of them. Pip and Daisy are the horses I waited my whole life for, and it was worth the wait.
I want so badly to end the chapter there. It feels happy and complete, but there is one other event I feel the need to work in. It was the October after we moved into the house, and I was walking across my parents’ lawn when I stepped in a hole and twisted my ankle. I could hear it tear and the pain was immediate. It just so happened that on that particular night, my sister’s friend was also there. She was a nurse and I knew she’d take one look at my ankle and insist that I get it treated, which I had no intention of doing. (We have a high deductible health plan, and I know I've mentioned the crushing medical debt before.)
When I was 15, I tore all of the ligaments in my left ankle and knee doing step aerobics in gym class. (Ironically, my middle name means “full of grace.”) Anyway, that little slip saddled me with years of physical therapy and surgeries. At one point, my orthopedic surgeon told me that I had arthritis so bad in my left foot that by the time I was 40, I could very likely be in a wheelchair. Off and on through the years, my foot will flare up or I’ll re-sprain it. When that happens, I baby it, do my PT exercises, and move on.
But on this night, as I sat staring at my enormously swollen foot that was an ugly shade of purple, I suspected I’d need to more than baby it. Somehow, I got through the night without having to go to the hospital, even though I couldn’t bear any weight at all on the foot. When we got home, I wrapped and iced it and we pulled my crutches out of storage.
I kept telling myself it would heal soon. “Soon” turned out to be more than 8 weeks before I could even get off the couch without it instantly puffing up and turning purple again. It had to be elevated ALL THE TIME. Try running a farm, keeping up with three kids, cooking from scratch and not having a dishwasher with a foot that has to be elevated ALL THE FREAKING TIME. All of the from-scratch cooking that had become part of our routine went by the wayside during that time. We fell back in the habit of eating easy but unhealthy packaged meals since I was no longer able to cook.
The foot did eventually heal, though it was probably a year before it stopped hurting and I have only now, more than two years later, started wearing cute shoes occasionally instead of the support shoes that I’ve needed to walk without pain for so long.
Two things happened as a result of that fateful night: the farm went downhill, fast, and I’ve never been able to fully reclaim the ground I lost. The other is that by switching back to processed foods and my activity level plummeting, I packed on 70 pounds over the course of two years. I’m sure my age has something to do with that, too, but that’s a rather touchy subject this year.
Here’s the thing about gaining weight, and it’s also true of getting older: you might not recognize the person in the mirror anymore, but you’re still the same you on the inside. It’s frustrating when the rest of the world doesn’t recognize that.
When I asked Dylan to proof this installment for me, he commented "a lot happened then, didn't it?" He's right. I mean, I didn't even get into the mountain lion attack. As we talked, we realized we haven't had much of a breath since March 31, 2011. No wonder the boys and I are all feeling so worn down.
But for every hardship, there's an Uno game that left us laughing so hard our sides hurt. For every time life has thrown us a curve ball, there is a friend who unexpectedly cooked dinner or checked in on us "just because." This life may not be easy, but it is full and we are thankful.
To be continued...
Rolling hills that had been vibrant green just weeks ago were now muted in tone, as if they were taking a deep breath before bursting into the song of fall.