In The Eye of a Hurricane

I dropped my dance mom basket this week.

The members of the youth theatre board on which I serve discuss wearing different “hats.” Because we are stage parents as well as administrative board members, we have to be careful to distinguish what role we are playing. If I am talking to another parent / board member and lamenting about something affecting one of my daughters I would be quick to clarify “mom hat” so that the person would know I’m not looking at it from a leadership perspective.

However, I have recently started thinking of my different roles in life as baskets I’m carrying instead of hats I’m wearing. The baskets have things in them. They are difficult to balance. I can carry more than one at a time, but the more items in the baskets, the harder it is to figure out how to manage.

I have a partner basket and a house basket. A home parenting basket. An Indy News basket for one job; and a basket for the other, which has strings tying it to this blog and other advocacy work, and my illness. The migraine patient basket is a big one. A theatre parent / stage crew basket, tied to my advisory board basket.

John and I are working hard on our relationship, budgeting, the future, becoming independent financially, and our house. We started couples counseling, which is long overdue. But I think because I’ve been focusing more on my partner and house baskets, my others have gotten neglected. I admit to being a little overwhelmed, particularly this week because both girls are dancing in a big recital on Saturday, and we have long daily rehearsals for Cinderella, our summer musical. I have caught up with my jobs, but not the advisory board. I have been very attentive to the girls at home, and focusing on the musical, which is Zo’s first, and have totally neglected Star Style, the big recital. The dance mom basket was full to overflowing and it slipped from my fingers without me even realizing it.


This is going to be X’s only year participating in Star Style, as she decided to take a dance class to sharpen her skills for musicals. And I forgot to order both girls a t-shirt, the only one that will have both their names on it. It’s too late. There MIGHT be extras in a few weeks but no one knows. X was so disappointed. I’m having a hard time getting over how upset I feel about it.

Another fail was also involving X, who dances very early in the first show. Because of some confusion she totally missed the start of her dance at the studio rehearsal last night, and when I encouraged her to just run on in and join she panicked and began to cry, and I was hard on her. She just turned 12, and I thought she was acting infantile, but later when we talked, she told me she definitely has a “thing” about being late and entering a room or a rehearsal after everyone else has begun. I think instead of being childish, what she was doing was having a legitimate panic attack, and I of all people should have recognized that and comforted her rather than being bitchy. I apologized quickly and profusely and we’re okay now, but again, that was a huge fail on my part.

Tonight we have a break from dance and I actually am not going to attend play practice either. Instead, I am going to get to go see Ron Chernow, the author of Alexander Hamilton, the biography which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create Hamilton: An American Musical. My friend is driving so I don’t even have that stress to worry about, and we are both bringing our books to have him sign and are going to totally geek out. I can’t wait.

I hope that hearing Chernow speak will motivate me to get through the rest of this week. And I know that getting some time without any baskets at all, just being ME, will be rejuvenating, and maybe will help me improve my balancing act.

Sometimes, we all need moments of having nothing to carry at all.

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[Update: extra recital shirts were available much sooner than expected, but the price had been increased so I bought one for the girls to share. My dance mom BFF surprised us by purchasing another for us because “they should each have one.” She even bought the right size. Star Style went great. I made it through the week. I get by with a little help from my friends.]


On Grieving, Celebrating, Writing, & Auditioning

This is a piece I wrote for the alternative local news site J created and maintains, for which I now work. It is a personal story of my experience of the celebration of life service for a beloved choral director. It is published, with additional photos, here.

What was so valuable for me in writing this piece is that after I published it and re-read, I realized that the thing with the Christmas lights wasn’t my real Mr. Brown Story. My regret over not auditioning for Madrigals actually changed the way I parented. I encouraged the girls to try out for things, to go after the dance parts and musical theatre roles and to be brave. And they did, and continue to, creating the best friendships and experiences of their young lives. Which was indirectly about Mr. Brown and is truly life altering.

From the news website BG Independent Media:

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Bowling Green was nearly full for Jim Brown’s Celebration of Life service Saturday morning. I scanned the crowd as people filed in, looking mostly for those I remembered from high school. We sat in the section to the right of the pulpit with other members of the Memorial Choir. Stacey (Timmons) Higgins from the Class of 1990 was sitting on my left; Amanda Gullufsen, a fellow graduate of the Class of 1991, was on my right. Both had been Madrigal Singers with Mr. Brown in High School and had traveled with him to the former Soviet Union as it was crumbling. I had been in regular Choir my 10th – 12th grade years, singing such memorable pieces as “I Sing The Body Electric” (from FAME) and the Rutter Requiem. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Brown had known John Rutter personally.
My husband, John Zibbel, had graduated from BGHS some years after me and had been fortunate enough to be a student in the first Humanities Class co-taught by Mrs. Dianne Klein (Former English / Creative Writing) and Mr. Brown in their last years teaching before retirement. John’s class in the 98-99 school year was themed “Making The Midwest Home.” They traveled by bus to Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. In speaking about the Humanities class, Mrs. Klein stated that due to the closeness that the groups experienced from traveling around the country together, the students became family to Mr. Brown as much as his own blood relatives. John’s classmate Jessica Snyder Ruffner commented, “The humanities class had a major impact on me and I am forever thankful to her [Klein] and Mr. Brown for choosing me to participate.” I know John felt similarly.
As I continued watching, I spotted Class of 91 alumna and friend Michelle (Whitacre) Crites. I saw Dr. Eric Myers, former principal of BGHS and school board member, and Mayor Dick Edwards and his wife Nadine. And Andy Halleck. “Did you know he was a Madrigal my senior year?” Amanda whispered to Stacey. “He had chops!”

I was happy to hear this, because as well as being his student, I had also been Mr. Brown’s neighbor, living with my parents and brother diagonally across the street on North Prospect. Mom had told me Mr. Brown’s stately Victorian had been purchased by The Hallecks, and being reminded that Andy had been a Madrigal made me feel pleased that he would be honoring the memory of Mr. Brown which surely infused the house. The positive impact Mr. Brown had on those elite, beautifully-voiced Madrigal Singers through the years was always very evident to me. They were the best of the best, braving auditions I was never able to face.

“I was trying to think of a ‘Mr. Brown Story’ to share, and I couldn’t think of any at first,” Amanda confided in a low voice while we waited for the service to start. Her mother, Linda Gullufsen, was the director of the Memorial Choir and a former colleague and dear friend of Mr. Brown’s. At the first rehearsal, she had stated, Everyone has a Jim Brown story, and she had shared a few of her own through tears. Amanda continued, “I finally thought of one. He gave me the only B I ever got. And it was a B minus! In Choir! When I went to him to ask why, he looked at me and replied simply, ‘Just shut up!’” She grinned. The admonition had been spoken in a direct, but light hearted way. “And oh, I knew he was right. I was a talker for sure. But what was I supposed to do? I was in the back next to… oh you know, Alex DePue. And Dave McCutcheon. But he was right, and I learned so much from that.”

While the organ prelude rang out through the church, I thought about my own Mr. Brown Story. What could I say about him? He hadn’t changed the course of my life. I hadn’t traveled with him the way Stacey, Amanda, and even my own husband had. But, I was his neighbor. And I thought about how beautiful his house always looked decorated for Christmas, and how sad it was the first Christmas after he’d passed away to see it dark and bare. My friend and neighbor Geoff Howes had even written a haiku about it. But during my junior high, high school, and college years that house had been the beacon of holiday cheer, and when Mr. Brown’s white lights and garland went up, we truly knew the Christmas Season had arrived. That, then, was my story.

The service started and the congregation sang a hymn. Then there was a prayer, and Mr. Brown’s younger brother, Bob, got up to speak. He thanked Mrs. Klein and others for taking care of his older brother’s health when he hadn’t been able to; and thanked Mrs. Gullufsen, Mrs. VanBlaricom (former BGHS German teacher) and others for putting together the Memorial Choir, a group of former students, colleagues, and friends of Jim Brown’s spanning fifty years who had been moved to travel from near and far to sing and remember him. Bob then told stories about Jim as a child; talked about Jim’s love of music and theatre and directing and how a severe illness his senior year of high school got him started on piano; talked about his travels, and all the famous people he’d met. Bob became too choked up to speak at least once, and made everyone laugh several times. He then leaned over, looked at Reverend Spicer almost impishly, and apologized to him in advance before telling the final story. He talked about going to visit his brother, whose name just happened to be James Brown, a common name he shared with another, rather more well known musician. Bob said that he would do the James Brown yell for his brother, and he did it right there. “AAAOOOWW! James Brown! I feel good!” And he said his brother Jim would be always be embarrassed, and afterward would whisper an affectionate, brotherly “Stop it.”

Then Bob told us all to stand, and to yell it with him. So we did. “AAAOOOWW! James Brown! I feel good!” Do it again, he said, and we obliged. Then he paused and whispered into the microphone “Stop it.” The church erupted into spontaneous applause, which felt only natural at a celebration of life for a consummate showman.

Daniel Boyle, also from the class of 91, accompanied the choir on piano and had composed a gorgeous original piece called “Thank You, Mr. Brown” which he played beautifully. Next to me, Amanda dabbed at tears with one of the tissues Stacey had thoughtfully given us before the service. Dan also played the postlude on organ, the Widor Toccata, which he later said he had just played for the congregation at his own church for Easter.

Soon we were standing up and joining the other choir members on the risers for “Breathe On Me, Breath Of God.” The story about this song is that the Madrigals sang it in Estonia, in a building so cold they actually could see the white plumes of their own breath. Having attended only one of the rehearsals I was sight reading, but I was proud of the way I had no trouble keeping up and blending my rusty alto with the voices of the rest of the choir, one eye on Linda’s flying hands. As I had many times before, I regretted not having had the courage in high school to audition to be a Madrigal myself. And was proud, thinking about my own young daughters and how I taught them to start auditioning for theatre and dance parts early, to never be afraid to go after what they want and to believe in themselves in a way I never had.

We stayed on the risers through a reading, then sang “Alleluia.” When we were finished, the congregation was once again moved to applaud. We sat down.

Mr. Brown’s nephew Kevin read the Gospel with the familiar words “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” and singing the Rutter Requiem came back to me, with the flute and the timpani and harp which accompanied us, and those same words. “And whosoever liveth and believeth in me… shall never die.” I was wiping my own tears then.

The Meditation by Reverend Spicer was very nice, and a smaller group sang “Sing Me To Heaven,” which Mr. Brown had chosen for both his parents’ funerals. Then it was nearly over and time for the Hallelujah Chorus. Michelle, from the congregation (I keep wanting to say “audience”), posted a video of it later and wrote “The Hallelujah Chorus was sung at the end of every Jim Brown Christmas concert. He invited all previous singers that had sung it in years past to join his current choir on stage to sing as one large choir and it was always beautiful. Today’s memorial service ended the same way. Very touching tribute to a wonderful man.”

After the service, I felt the familiar flush and drone of a migraine coming on, so I didn’t stay for the catered luncheon. I later asked Stacey to describe it for me. She said there was a presentation made by Dr. Myers and Linda VanBlaricom to Francis Scruci, current superintendent of BG Schools, of a plaque commemorating Mr. Brown to be hung in the lobby of the Performing Arts Center, inscribed with the lyrics of “Sing Me To Heaven.” Brother and nephew Bob and Kevin Brown shared touching and humorous stories about his life, and were followed by loving tributes from former students Andy Newlove, Molly Ogden, and former colleagues Jan Woodend (German teacher) and Linda Gullufsen. The event ended with the serving of Mr. Brown’s favorite dessert, ice cream, which was enjoyed in the camaraderie of those whose lives he touched.

I’d like to end with the comments of two Madrigals who are friends of mine from high school and could not attend, made on Facebook after viewing J.D. Pooley’s lovely video of the Memorial Choir’s first two pieces, and shared here with their permission.

Jeremy Smith, Class of 92, wrote “I just sang w/ the basses in my living room. God bless you, Jim.”
Chris Hutchinson, Class of 91, said “I was fortunate enough to be part of the Madrigals that sang Breathe on Me Breath of God in the Soviet Union. To hear it again sung by this group as a tribute to Mr. Brown really caught me off guard…in a good way. It sounds amazing and really brings back a lot of incredible memories.”
And finally, some last thoughts from Linda Gullufsen on her way back home to Tennessee with her husband Rex this morning. “The Memorial Choir came together, not for a choral performance, but as 70+ individuals wanting to pay tribute to their teacher, colleague, mentor, and friend. A community of singers was thus created from 15 states, 2 centuries, and a dozen different choral ensembles that spanned 5 decades. We came together for one brief moment to celebrate Jim’s life. I told the singers that this experience would grow sweeter and more precious to them over time, that it would become one of their cherished memories. And I believe it will. In the words of a song from the musical Wicked, ‘Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.’”

Thank you, Mr. Brown.

“I look back on Venus, look back on Mars / And I burn with the fire / Of ten million stars / And in time, and in time / We will all be stars”

-I Sing The Body Electric

Hello, It’s Me (Part 2)

So there we were, me hauling costumes and my purse; Zo with her book bag on her back and pulling the supplies bag behind her like a caboose. A wave of sick heat rolled over me, with that horrible certainty as your stomach contents rise toward your throat. “Zo, I’m going to throw up.”

And I ran. I tore around the corner toward the glass exit door, pushed it  open, and swung my upper body toward the mulch and spindly December bushes to the right of the sidewalk as I tried to aim over the priceless, irreplaceable costumes I was holding. It all poured out of me in a rush. Gasping relief. A bystander pretending not to see me. A little splash back onto the garment bag but all in all, a nice save. Zo’s white face behind the glass.

“Okay honey, it’s okay.”

“Do you feel better now, Mama?” Hope, desperation in her tremulous voice.

I had looked Mindy,* mom of Zo’s best dance buddy (and a boy! boys dance too!), in the eye and told her I wouldn’t drive if I realized I wasn’t safe. I was starting to have my doubts.

I sent J a text. “I puked.” What to do. The airport conference building where we were was in the middle of nowhere, 40 miles from home. I had noticed we were close to one of our favorite area metroparks… maybe I could make it there. I called J and said I did need him to come get me, that I’d meet him at the park. 

But when it was time to turn out onto the road I knew driving was a mistake. Cognitively, I would have  as much chance of finding the park again as Zo would, and iPhone Maps Lady’s calm mechanical voice was not helping, she might as well have been the teacher in Peanuts specials. “In 3.2 miles, wah woah wah wah wahhhhhhh.” Having no idea where I was going, I turned down another road adjacent to the airport. I saw six large dumpsters in sort of a pull-off parking area, so I drove into it. I think my plan was to try to figure out how to get to the park. Zo started crying. My memory is hazy here, but I think I realized I needed to just find a safe place and stay there, and as a truck pulled into the dumpster area I decided that would not be the place.

I tried to reassure Zo and drove slowly to the main airport, the closest and only landmark. I said, “We’ll wait here for Daddy.” She replied in a shaky voice “can he come really fast?”

Fortunately the huge parking lot was nearly empty, but it seemed like a maze, never ending curves of road with no access to actual parking spaces. I thought I had found a way in, then saw there was one of those parking gates in the down / closed position and a sign which read “Employees Only.” At that I made a sound somewhere between a bark, a laugh, a moan, and a sob and Zo said “Mommy! Are you dying?”

I had to reverse and drive backward out of the curve. I got turned around and as Zo cried tears of pure panic and I whimpered and talked to myself, I drove around trying to find  a parking area I was able to enter. It occurred to me that in a few more minutes, I would need to just stop, put on my hazard lights, and call 911.

But there, an opening. “Rental Car Return.” I pulled into a spot, opened my door for a breeze, and called J again that I was at the airport. He was on his way, with his mom so that he wouldn’t have to leave his car.

While we waited, I tried to reassure Zo. We’d never let the girls see me so  sick, so she didn’t realize this was still “just” migraine. I tried to explain and she said “Okay that makes me feel better.” I fought to remain conscious, my burning forehead in my hands, elbows on knees, bare feet on the asphalt. Zo’s little hand patting my hair from behind, her terrified, feeble suggestions. “Think happy thoughts, mama.”  “What if you play your game on your phone?”  “Do you want me to find you a show on my iPad?” “Can daddy tell the police he needs to drive really fast?” And, every now and then, the plaintive repetition of “Are you dying?” 

All I wanted to do was hold her in my arms and tell her it would be all right. But at a 9 or 10 pain level, I could barely speak or move. When I did use my voice, my lips felt numb, and my words were slurred. “Everything is going to be all right. You are safe. Daddy will be here any minute. You are so brave and I am proud of you. I’m not dying… I have a migraine.” Her hand on my head.

When my mother in law’s SUV roared up, it was like the parting of the waters. I realized I had been afraid I would never be found, that I’d slipped into a circle of hell or a Murakami-esque parallel universe. Joy and relief radiated from Zo as she launched herself out of her booster seat. J’s mom took both girls with her, and I let go completely and gave in to my pain and fear as J shifted me over to the passenger side and drove us toward home.

I decided to not go straight to the ER, though with a vomiting level 10 I knew I’d end up there. All I wanted was my bed. J was truly a knight in shining armor as he got me upstairs with my “Icekap” migraine hat, a basin, and pills mashed into powder and mixed into applesauce. Dark, quiet cloud. He called in my imitrex injection refill and went to pick it up. I went all the way out.

Two injections and one serious nightmare (about having a severe migraine while juggling responsibilities) later, I told J it was time to go. I’d just been in the ER two weeks prior, but I was out of options. J dropped me off at the door and I shuffled inside, wrapped in the Frozen fleece I always bring.

And, that is pretty much the end of the story, a terrifying migraine experience that ranks near the top of worst case scenarios. I could describe the ER, and in fact the handsome young doctor did ask more questions and seemed less inclined to give me the meds I need than anyone else this past year, but I did end up receiving the requested fluids, zofran, and dilaudid. As the nurse started my IV she said, “We can always tell when it’s the real deal. Makeup and hair done? Migraine my ass,” she extrapolated. “Sorry about the language.” I assured her it was fine, and wanted to say that drug seekers piss me off too, given that they cast an umbrella of suspicion on all of us, but still couldn’t really communicate. I’m sure that, along with my high blood pressure, didn’t hurt in their determination of whether I was really in pain.

The saline bolus burst through my parched veins and carried the dilaudid on little cat feet from my chest, through my arms, and up into my burning brain. The rush, the relief, tension and fear draining, the cacophany of the hospital (a raspy never ending cough, a baby screaming, machinery beeping, carts rolling) fading away, pain fog replaced by a soft blanket of well being.

I left at a 4, but a calm 4. There were more medicines at home, and my own bed in my safe space. Right now, a day later, low levels of pain still come and go. J and X took Zo to her Nutcracker performance. I’m not going to die, it’s “just” a migraine… and, with a little help from my friends, life goes on.

*names changed to protect innocent dance moms   

Everything Is Horrible – I mean, Fine!!!

My stomach hurts. J has resigned and is wrapping up his cases. And looking for a new job. The changes and our tension make the girls nervous and they are acting out, making it difficult for us to get anything done. We all have colds. I have a fever. And cold sores, which I get from stress. X has auditions tonight for the fall play.

Disability put me on Medicare and things are such a mess that I didn’t realize I had to actively decline it so now I’m on it and it costs money, and my pain therapist doesn’t take Medicare, so I have to call and straighten it out somehow, might be straightforward or it might be hell, but I hate stuff like this. Red tape beaurocratic stuff emphasizing my poverty.

And poor. We are poor. We are so fucking poor. Just applied for Food Stamps again and I know J will get a job and it will be a GOOD job this time, one that isn’t traumatic and pays him what he deserves, and we have help, but it is so scary right now. The cloud of unease has settled on my shoulders and in my chest. I walk around feeling like a zombie. 

School starts next week. A time of year that is always hard for me anyway. And expensive. And heartbreaking. And scary. And X goes to 5th grade camp like the first week. And her molar is loose and bleeding, which I guess is normal at 10, but a huge tooth gaping and filing my daughter’s mouth with blood periodically doesn’t feel normal.

Zo is pretty much an emotional basket case. And is starting first grade not knowing how to read.

And last weekend I had to go to the ER for my standard puking level 8-10 headache. I had to go twice. They didn’t give me multiple doses of pain meds this time and in fact the second time the nurse said “To give you more we’d have to intubate you.” I may have mentioned this in a previous entry; I was very depressed afterward. The first doctor kindly wrote a prescription for tablets which my parents tried to fill for me but because of my pain clinic prescription it wouldn’t go through, so they called my pain doctor, and she approved it because she’s awesome, but now this afternoon I have to go see her and she’ll know I went through my supply too fast and I am very nervous.

The CGRP injection didn’t seem to work as well this time, although I now  am having very few headache issues since the ER, just stomach stuff and anxiety. I get my monthly CGRP booster tomorrow. 

I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff in the wind, and the girls are clinging to me, and all my effort is going to keeping them from falling or even being scared of the heights and danger. “It’s not that far! But don’t look down! This breeze is nothing but don’t let go! And don’t pick on each other! And don’t cry! I’M DOING THE BEST I CAN OH MY GOD!!!!! No- no- I didn’t mean to yell, it’s just this wind- I mean the breeze—”

And worrying does no good. I know that. I know I need to stay calm for them and for J and me too. But it’s so very, very hard.


A Tree Grows In Ohio

Today I ended up getting the worst headache I’ve had in months, severity-wise. I haven’t been sleeping well and didn’t make it to the girls’ joint birthday party.

And the dread and constant worry of poverty. Feeling really hopeless right now, and know my only job in the world is to make my children feel safe and happy through it all.

“Even the minstrels who came in the back yards and sang ‘If I had my way, You would never grow old’ were sad, too. They were bums and they were hungry and they didn’t have talent for song-making. All they had in the world was the nerve to stand in a back yard with cap in hand and sing loudly. The sad thing was in knowing that all their nerve would get them nowhere in the world and that they were lost as all people in Brooklyn seem lost when the day is nearly over and even though the sun is still bright, it is thin and doesn’t give you warmth when it shines on you.” ~Betty Smith, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

[Sheet Music from the early 1900’s, which I am archiving at the museum]