I was reading my 13-year-old’s Facebook page the other day, chuckling over his answers to some goofy Q&A he’d posted when it struck me yet again just how different this kid is. For the question “Worst day of your life?” He’d responded “idk. Lol”
“Blake, you goof. You really don’t know the worst day of your life?” I called out to him from the living room.
“Nah. They’re all good.”
“What about the day you died?”
“I slept through that. And when I woke up, you let me watch movies and eat whatever I wanted.” He gave a humble half-shrug. No big thing. Dying. Coma. Months of therapy. Learning to walk, talk, tie a shoe again. Re-learning to read, write, do arithmetic. No worries. He got to eat all the chicken and fries he wanted.
That’s Blake. Utterly, perfectly Blake. His personality has always been larger than life. He’s charming and gregarious, though as a child gregarious looked a bit more like spastic.
When I was 15, my oldest nephew was born. I still remember holding him in my arms and looking down into his blue, blue eyes and wishing with all my heart to someday have a little blue-eyed boy of my own someday. God heard that prayer and gave me three of them.
Our blessings weren’t without loss. More than once, I didn’t make it past the first trimester of a pregnancy. The first one hit the hardest. Perhaps because we didn’t have any children at the time. Perhaps it’s because it was the only pregnancy to be confirmed by the doctor. The only one I saw the flutter of a heartbeat before feeling the sharp pain of loss. Those were dark days for me. Losing our little one left a deep, wrenching hurt in its wake. I vividly remember that time in my life. The pope was in town. I’m not catholic, but it was still a pretty big deal. I worked in the same Mom-and-Pop diner I’d been working at when I met Adam. (I’d been his waitress, in fact.) I was driving home from work one day, down Highway 30 in St. Louis, just passed the intersection of 270, when a feeling of peace settle over me. I felt as if God was assuring me that it was going to be okay. Everything was about to change, and Adam and I were going to have a son.
September 30 of that year, Dylan was born. To quote my mother-in-law, he was perfect. Motherhood did not let me begin with a false sense of security. When Dylan was three weeks old, he began choking in his sleep to the point of turning blue. During the ER visit after that first choking episode, the hospital told us they thought he had meningitis. We were quarantined with our new infant, who had to undergo a spinal tap that took three days to get results on. In the end, they said “Whoops, we contaminated his blood sample. Here’s the bill.” It leveled us financially and left us wondering what caused our son to stop breathing in his sleep.
Many tests, apnea monitors, and sleepless nights later, I listened to my mother-in-law’s advice and put him on a lactose-free formula, just to see what would happen. The apnea stopped and he never had another moment’s trouble. As a young couple living in a mobile home on a shoestring budget, I wish we’d listened to her before letting our doctor convince the scared kids to run the battery of tests on our baby. It would have saved everyone a lot of pain and it might have meant a different story for our financial future.
Our marriage fell apart for the first time somewhere in between Dylan and Blake. I still remember the reasons why, but none of them truly matter. The real reason was that Adam and I were both still, and would be for some time, putting what we needed from the marriage ahead of God or our children. It wouldn’t be until we fixed that glaring problem that we’d develop the relationship the world sees now. In between the two? There was a lot of stupidity and pain. Truth be told, we’re still not who the world sees—far from it—but is anybody ever really?
We also had a few positive pregnancy tests in between Dylan and Blake. I can’t take the pill without horrible side effects, no matter how light the dose. I didn’t mind, though. I wanted a houseful of kiddos. Adam wanted two. In the end, God gave us three. But there was a time that I was sitting across from my doctor hearing that I needed to come to terms with the fact that Dylan would be an only child – or I needed to schedule an appointment with a fertility specialist to find out what was happening between the positive pregnancy test and the first spots of blood that invariably followed. About the time I gave in and said “Okay God, you win. If I’m meant to have only one child, I will thank you for him. He’s wonderful,” was about the time I got pregnant with Blake.
My marriage fell apart for the second time seven months into that pregnancy. We were separated when Blake was born. I remember being alone in the delivery room when they laid him on my chest. He blinked at me. Even as my heart melted, I had two thoughts. The first was “This one’s mine.” And the second was “I wonder if he’ll grow into those lips.”
Don’t get me wrong, Dylan and I have been two peas in a pod since the moment I laid eyes on him. We’re inseparable and the world knows it. But with Blake, given the state of my marriage, I felt this instant “It’s you and me against the world and I promise right here and now, I will not let this world be cruel to you” thing going. Adam and Blake are close now, but that was a hard-fought closeness. It took them years to overcome his absence in that first year of Blake’s life.
As a single mother with no maternity leave and no other means of support, I had to go back to work when Blake was three weeks old. By that time, I was working in HR at a physical therapy company in St. Louis. I took on a second job waiting tables at a bar to help make ends meet. It was too much too soon and I found myself on my doctor’s table saying “I feel like my uterus is going to fall out, doc.”
“That’s because it is,” was his response.
Given the uterine prolapse and the fact that I was divorced, finding myself pregnant by Christmas with baby number three wasn’t a planned thing. I would joke that Blake was the break-up baby and Chris was the make-up baby, but the truth was that I was mortified. I knew how the world looked at me, pregnant with my ex-husband’s baby. When I had to sift through employee emails at work to investigate a threat that had been made against my boss, I got to read it, over and over, just what the rest of the office thought of me and my pregnancy. I’d always loved The Scarlet Letter as a teenager. There is something beautiful in the notion that the world seeing your worst frees you. In many ways, that pregnancy was my own scarlet letter.
The only person who was truly, completely, and utterly happy at the news had been Dylan. If you ask him now, he says he still remembers how excited he got when I told him he was going to have another brother. And I needed that – someone else to be happy about the baby. A life is always a blessing, no matter the circumstance. Dylan’s innocent joy kept me anchored to that.
And Christopher was a ray of sunshine from the moment he made his appearance. From a young age, he had an infectious smile, which he shared any chance he got.
For the boys’ youngest years, we rented a small house in Crestwood from Adam’s parents. I moved back in toward the end of the Christopher’s pregnancy because I was having complications and my doctor had told me I shouldn’t be living along with two small children. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I told Adam he didn’t have a choice. Once we were there, we both decided it was too much tumult for the boys for us to separate again. We decided to try our best to hold it together for their sake. My mother-in-law once said that Adam and I would probably be perfectly happy living next door to each other, raising our children as friends. It was a pretty spot-on description.
For much of their childhood, I worked too many hours in a never-ending battle to keep the bills paid and the pantry filled. Even after Adam had his degree, he was struggling to put it to use. Every time he would find a job, he’d get laid off and would have to go back to bartending or waiting tables.
I went back to college when I was pregnant with Blake. I remember taking my art history final the day after I gave birth to him. The kid next to me said “Whoa, I partied too late last night.”
I responded with “I gave birth yesterday.”
“You win.” He’d ducked his head down and went back to his test.
It would be 2007 before I finished my degree in Communications. I’d chosen that and a marketing emphasis because it was the most logical thing I could think of that would use my love of writing.
Things got a lot better for us financially by 2008. Adam had found his way to a good job as a project manager and I had a job in the Communications Department at Scottrade. We moved from poor to middle class that year, and we even bought a house in Eureka, the town I’d graduated from. In 2007, we had tried unsuccessfully to move to the Ozarks. It lasted about six months, ended in disaster (literally, a tornado), and we’d spent six more months in my parents’ basement recovering financially from the decision.
So when we had our act together in 2008, we decided Eureka was the compromise between Adam’s suburban upbringing and my deep-seated desire to return to my rural roots. The house we bought was much cheaper than the realtor and bank were telling us we could afford; we wanted to play it safe. Besides, it was more than twice the size of the house we’d been living in for years. It felt like a mansion. In many ways, it was my dream house.
Moving into that home began a period of rest for us. Aside from marriage trouble, we were happy. The bills were paid. My relationship with God had flourished in the years since Christopher’s birth. We had a passel of rescued dogs. Our kids were content. Adam worked from home by that point, so he was there to get them off the bus. I loved my job. Things were good. So good, we finally had the money to realize a childhood dream that had eluded me thus far: we bought horses.
I found Rollins Ranch through Craigslist, when I answered an ad for horseback riding lessons. Dylan had been in lessons off and on for a couple of years. He was a natural and I got to live vicariously through him. I’d wanted horses since, I don’t know, birth. No, it was more than a want. It was more like a deep yearning. Every time I had begun to realize my horse dream, something horrific happened to keep me from it.
As a child, my fondest memories were of my grandpa’s farm. Roaming those 200 acres freely with a pack of dogs in tow was the highlight of my summers. I even had two pet calves one summer, Jacob and Henry. The summer I turned 14 was the year my grandpa said we were going to start horse shopping. Only what he thought was a stiff neck turned out to be bone cancer, and I instead spent the summer taking care of him as he faded under the weight of an illness that had been too far advanced to mount much of a fight against it.
Grandpa said he wanted to see the trees turn one last time. He died October 29th that year, just after the peak weekend of fall in the Ozarks. The farm I loved so dearly was sold because his heirs couldn’t agree on anything else, and my childhood dreams of living there someday were gone. Ah, but I can still see those wild and gnarly hills in my mind. I can still remember running through those woods with my ragtag pack of four-legged friends.
My grandpa cultivated my faith as a child. He answered countless questions about God as we’d sit on the porch and watch the deer graze in our meadow. It was the farm that cultivated my imagination and my love of adventure.
For a while, as a teenager, I found my horse fix in the form of my sister’s father-in-law. He had eight, all wild as fox hairs. He allowed me to hang out with them whenever I wanted in return for me watching them when he was away. He even said I could have the youngest filly to keep if I would gentle the others in to make them more marketable. Being young and invincible, I’d done it. How I didn’t break my neck or get my head kicked in, I have no clue. I’m sure my guardian angels will tell me all about it someday.
I had no idea what I was doing with those animals. I’d never had the first horseback riding lesson or ridden a horse outside of trail or pony rides. Instinctively, I communicated with them the way I saw them communicate with each other and, by some miracle, it worked. They were all gentle as lambs with me by the time they were sold, even the stallion. (That statement right there is enough to make people who know horses wonder how I’m alive.) When the farm’s owner remarried, the first thing to go was the horses. I couldn’t afford board in St. Louis at the age of 17, so my beautiful Wildflower was sold with the rest. I can still see her standing on a hilltop with the sunlight making her mane shine gold. That little red roan mountain pony had become my best friend in the four years we’d known each other. I tell myself someday I will see her again, even if it’s on the other side.
The third time I toed up to buying a horse was on our previously-mentioned attempt to move to the Ozarks. A voice in the back of my mind told me to hold off on buying the filly I’d had my eye on. When we lost our home and most of our belongings to the storm, I realized why. It was hard enough being homeless without a horse in tow.
When we started lessons at Jack’s barn, it was a godsend. He raised phenomenal quarter horses. In addition to the lesson horses he had on hand, there were always a handful of babies to dote on. Dylan and I both took lessons from a teacher who’d worked out an arrangement with Jack, the owner. For some reason, Jack took us under his wing and the relationship deepened. It was more than a barn. It was a family. The boys and I were there every spare moment – especially Dylan and me. We leased a horse from Jack and eventually bought two: Samson and Sassy.
Samson was a weanling foal we bought so Dylan could be part of the process of raising and training him. We all adored that colt and his comical personality. He was amazing, his conformation was perfect, and his red coat shone like a copper penny in the sun. Dylan and Samson were the best of friends from the start. Everyone who watched those two together knew they were witnessing something special.
Sassy, a tall classy bay, was my girl. I was crazy about her, even though she made me earn every inch of our relationship. I learned so much on that horse. Most of her siblings were competing in cutting and reining competitions; she’d missed her chance to train because she’d had strangles as a foal. But she was the best trail horse I’d ever seen. I trusted her in woods and on hills. Oh, the ground we covered together.
I eventually took over as a barn helper for Jack. I gave his beginner lessons; he only worked with advanced students. I exercised his horses for him and we helped clean stalls. One of my favorite memories of that time was trot races in the golf course, a particularly well-manicured front pasture that doubled as Jack’s driving range when he didn’t have horses on it. Dylan and I would saddle a couple of horses and “race” at a trot, up and down the field, laughing until our sides hurt. We’d always find out afterward that Jack had been watching from the windows in his kitchen. He’d tease us as we’d stop in for goodbyes.
Jack was a hard mentor – always demanding better, never failing to rail at you for the slightest wrong move. Dylan and I both hate to ever do anything wrong, so the time we spent under Jack’s tutelage was intense. And, even though Jack was quick to chew us out if we overcorrected or missed a cue, he was also quick to boast to anyone who’d listen that Dylan and I had the most natural seat on a horse that he’d ever seen. Sometimes I wish he’d boasted less; I could feel the weight of his praise every time I’d ride there – people watched, constantly and intently, to see if we’d live up to it.
But I loved that hard old cowboy. Maybe it was because I never stopped missing my grandpa, or because my relationship with my dad was at times bumpy. Or maybe it’s because Jack had given me the gift of horses, but I loved him fiercely. Sometimes, I think it would baffle Adam how loyal the rest of us were to the barn. The place stressed him out. He tried to be a part of our love for horses, but his infrequent visits always left everyone tense.
There were two other important things happening in this period of rest and happiness in our lives. The first was that I’d decided to pick up my pen again and write. I’d always loved writing, but I’d never been comfortable sharing my words with others. I did once, in fourth grade, and had been ridiculed by my peers for it. After that, I only shared my words under duress. No amount of praise from those peers could erase that first reaction, though, and for years I would write entire books and screenplays, only to pack them away when finished. I stopped writing before Blake ever came along.
But one day, the stories swirling around my brain just refused to be quiet any longer. I decided to not only give writing another go, but to get serious about trying to publish those words. I came close to realizing that dream fairly quickly, in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t feel quick at the time, but looking back, it was. Within a year of setting my mind to it, I’d had multiple conversations with agents – no small feat – and even found myself sitting face to face with the president of major literary agency in New York. She told me, point blank, that I would have to choose: Either keep writing the books I’d been writing or pick a style that was easier to sell and have a successful career as a writer. The books I wrote were apparently too much of a paradox to properly market. They were too much a mix of light and dark, too hard to classify.
I cried for a solid day after that conversation. Then I decided I cared more about telling the stories I wanted to tell than I did about a career and I decided to self-publish. By spring of 2011, I had four books self-pubbed. I gave the ecopies away for free to help raise awareness for human trafficking. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of publishing those books, and they’d done surprisingly well since their release. The girl too shy to share an essay in class suddenly had over 10,000 readers from all over the world. I got fan mail. It was crazy.
The other big thing that was happening at that time was my job at Scottrade had shifted, and I was working in their training department, building and teaching communication and writing classes. That job meant I traveled, often to Denver and sometimes to Arizona. I adored both places, but by March 31 of 2011, the travel was starting to wear thin. I’d just gotten back from a trip that day. I missed my kids like crazy. I remember Blake had had a bad day at school; some kids had been bullying him. I picked them up and Adam took off work early and we decided we’d go as a family to the barn before trying the Culvers that had opened in town while I was away.
We never made it to Culvers that night. Instead, my happy little world came crashing to my feet.
... 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.