Cancer checkups…

Cancer checkups suck. Cancer checkups suck even more without my girl.
I remember where I was last June when the nurse called me with my bloodwork results.
I was in TJMaxx, Hilton Head with Michelle and Keith. It almost brings you to your knees, literally, when you are told that your number was within the normal range. Michelle and I were looking at purses and Keith was off somewhere else. “C’mon let’s go tell Dad”, she said. And so we did and we were all grateful.

Last week, I had my checkup on June 13. Busy week with lots going on. Michelle’s 16th Birthday & Father’s Day were staring us in the face. A cancer checkup was now the least of my worries. But when inside that building…. inside those walls of Red Bank Road Hematology Oncology…… the emotions flooded back. I think of things so much more deeply now. Just that very building alone and its walls could muster tears. How many hours had Keith and I spent inside that building? Thoughts of how these doctors and nurses cared for me and are still seeing me through. Memories of our fight. It was a family fight. For cancer affects everyone. And we were all fighting so that I could get healthy again and God would hear everyone’s prayers and let me stay here on earth…… And the tears came and the nurses hugged me. For they knew. They knew the 2 life-changing journeys that my family and I have battled through. To paraphrase Dr. Cody, ‘you get through one major life trauma only to be blind-sided with another far worse.’ So true. Why would God see me through and let me live, but in His permissive will, Michelle did not live? Why would I fight, be healed, only to see the death of one of my children? These were all my thoughts being back inside that building. If those walls could talk, the stories they would tell.

So the morning of my appointment, I talked to Michelle. I told her that I knew it wasn’t my plan anymore. It was God’s plan. So I told her His will be done. I’ll be prepared for a good number or a bad number. I don’t know if you know, but once you’ve had cancer, the idea of recurrence is kind of always in the back of your mind. Another thing you may not know is that many parents who have experienced the death of a child will tell you that they do not fear death anymore. Now that I have a child in heaven, not a day goes by that I don’t think about what that reunion with Michelle will be like.

So anyway, the results of the bloodwork came in way sooner than expected. Especially for my late in the day appointment. I scrolled through my computer down the long list because the real result is always at the very bottom. Sometimes it is even blank because it takes longer for that number to come back. Not this time. They want the number to be less than 38. There at the bottom I see: CA 27-29 ~ “16”………16.

16…..Really Michelle? Ok I get it. Not only is that the lowest the number has ever been, but it also happens to be the week of your 16th Birthday. I get that you’re telling me, not this time, Mom. The cancer is still at bay. It’s not back yet.

My sweet friend, Kim Moore, texted me this morning and at the end of her story she wrote this, “She is everywhere I go if I put my heart out there.”

Thy will be done.

Advertisements

Guest blogger: Tori Brumer

                                                                                                                                   Tori Brumer

                                                                                                                                In Loving Memory

 

For Michelle,

It was summer going into my junior year, nothing special. While lifeguarding at the swim club there was a certain calmness, unknown to the busy pool. I was relaxing as the sun set and night settled in, as the last swimmer arose out of the water. Just a few minutes before closing time, the news. What? Someone was killed by a tree… but that only happened in movies. I was shocked and taken back as I approached the tables to hear the story. Nothing could stop my curiousness and concern about the abrupt taking of a life, especially in such a small town. A freshman girl, Michelle Chalk… realized the name was extremely familiar and tried to figure out how I knew it. I racked my brain as I tried to figure out how I knew her name. Then it came to me…

Michelle was in the 6th grade, while I was in 8th. As she began a new chapter of her life, I was getting ready to graduate into highschool and become an actual teenager. I helped run tryouts for the cheer team, as I was the oldest grade at that time. Such a small connection, but impactful to say the least. I remember her tall figure and lively nature very clearly. She reminded me of a strong willow tree, wise beyond her years, but strong and beautiful. Her everlasting smile lit up the room, never faltering, always steadfast and strong. She was energetic and passionate, something I lacked most times. Sometimes I would envy her outgoing and selfless behavior. As I reflect back on her personality, me being an adamant christian now, I am astounded and humbled by her case for Christ. God’s character was so evidently woven into her soul and shined through her attitude, I just didn’t realize it at the time. While thinking back on Michelle, a quote from Audrey Hepburn comes to my head “happy girls are the prettiest”, and man was she beautiful.

I remember the day of her vigil so clearly. Not one person was dry eyed throughout the course of the event. I saw how many people that just one child could change. She set an example for those young and old. I questioned why God took away such a beautiful example of his character and loving example for His children. I wondered where He was in this heartbreak.

I realized that this was a part of His wonderful, and perfect plan for all of us. This was no mistake. It was so evident that she fulfilled her place on this dull and overrated earth. She was meant for heaven. She had concluded her time and used her God given gifts to complete her mission. I am so proud that such a young girl can complete such a big task in a very small amount of time, while it takes other almost an entire lifetime to even compare.

I don’t believe for one second that Michelle would want us to lament and mourn her passing, but rather celebrate her life and future in heaven alongside The King watching over us. (and I am sure dancing up there is much better!)

“The Lord is with me, I will not be afraid” -Psalm 118:6

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law”- Galatians 5:22-23

This past weekend…by Keith.

What an emotional weekend! Michelle’s birthday on Saturday, and Father’s Day on Sunday. It has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It has been quiet moments of reflection in solace and surprise acts of kindness from dear friends.

Patty and I were informed in advance of a celebration of Michelle’s birthday planned by her friends and their parents. This took place on Friday night on the end of Scenic View, and at midnight, they launched luminaries. Patty and I were invited to participate, and after much discussion, we made the judgement that this was something for Michelle’s friends and we did not want to take anything away from them. We did not want to cast a pall on the event. Instead, Patty and I arrived at the cul-de-sac a few moments before midnight to watch the launch of the luminaries from the street. Patty and I sat quietly and reflected as each light floated into the sky and drifted toward the Cincinnati skyline.

The next morning Patty and I were up early to participate in the NKYHH walk at Simon Kenton High School. I don’t pretend to have the answers to the problem with addiction. I can attest to the grief shared by the families’ mourning the lost lives resulting from the problem. Michelle was deeply impacted by the death of her cousin Jacob. She saw the ripple effect of sorrow and loss felt by our family. I just hope these events can bring awareness to the problem. That anyone with an addiction can find the love and motivation to find a path to recovery. That anyone that is facing a temptation that would lead to an addiction would clearly see the path of sorrow they are about to walk.

After the NKYHH walk we came home via the Highland Avenue bridge over 471. Some wonderful ribbon ninjas decorated the bridge with blue ribbons and large “M”. When Patty and I saw this, (and the recently placed ribbons throughout Fort Thomas), we are reminded that others still care. They care about Michelle. They care about us. They care about the life that was unable to be fulfilled. They care. This reminds Patty and I that Michelle has not been forgotten. That we are not alone in our grief.

We next gathered at Patty’s parents’ house to celebrate Michelle’s birthday with family. Angel food cake and strawberries. Patty and I struggled with what to do on Michelle’s birthday. We decided to do something low key and personal like this.

Later that night we went to 4:30 mass at St. Catherine’s. It was a mass of intention for Michelle, arranged by our friend Patty Rust. We first met this dear woman in the oncology suite as she provided care support for her cousin. We were joined there also by our amazing friends, Chris & Stacey Rust and their boys. It was a wonderful spiritual way to bring a close to an emotional day. I was especially captivated by Fr. Stef’s homily as he discussed the parables of the Kingdom of God.

On Sunday morning Patty and I got up early and visited Michelle’s grave. We were greeted by the work of more ninjas. There were acts of love that celebrated Michelle’s birthday and support to me on this Father’s Day. Patty and I sat by Michelle’s grave and prayed the rosary together. Whenever I visit Michelle’s grave this is what I like to do. Pray the rosary or chaplet of divine mercy. Through prayer I feel connected to Michelle.

In addition to these acts of love from this wonderful community we have received cards and gifts expressing love to us for Michelle’s Birthday and Father’s Day. Even our boys were not forgotten in their sorrow. These acts of kindness this weekend are another way I feel connected to Michelle. They remind me of things Michelle would do. When someone else is doing it, I feel her spirit remains alive through them.

It truly was an emotional weekend. I thank everyone for making it special. Throughout the weekend I kept thinking about how bright our future is with young people like this in the world. Heartfelt thanks to all.

Guest blogger: Keith

On June 16, 2002, I received the greatest Father’s Day gift ever. Michelle Elizabeth Chalk was born. Thomas had already made me a father, but Michelle made me the father of a daughter. We had a special bond early on. I was the first to hold her and I did not want to let her go. I can remember Patty chastising me that I had to put her down so I could inform our family in the waiting room that she was born.

Patty and I had an agreement that I would do the night feedings. Back then, Patty prioritized her sleep, and I required little sleep. I loved those alone times with my new daughter. I think it was in those early days she wrapped me around her little finger.

It is difficult for any parent to say that one of their children is their favorite. I think we have unique relationships with each child. We can bond on specific issues and we can form conflicts on others. These define our relationship. With Michelle, we had lots of bonding and few conflicts. She was an easy child to parent. This can create the misconception that Michelle was my favorite child, as both Thomas and Robert would accuse me.

Michelle was just so easy for us to get along. We always talk about how kind she was. She was more than just kind. She was empathetic with others. When I talked to her about my experiences, she listened. It was as if she was taking it all in to learn more about me as a person. When I do the right thing, it is often because of a nagging compulsion or obligation. When I watched Michelle do the right thing, it was a genuine interest in the benefits of others. That is the definition of Love, to desire the good for another. That was Michelle.

Since Michelle’s death Patty and I have had a lot of time to be introspective about our daughter. We readily inform others that Michelle was not like either of us. Both Patty and I were, and are mostly introverted. Like our sons, we are comfortable with solitary activities. Not Michelle. Michelle could make a friend easily. Many times we would go somewhere like the swim club, and before we could unload our gear and get comfortable, Michelle would be holding the hands of someone her age she just met, and introduce her new friend to us.

Patty and I were able to live vicariously through the support of Michelle’s extroverted pursuits. There were things that Michelle was good at … singing, dancing, acting, drawing. There were things that Michelle was not good at … mostly sports. She tried every sport, and at the end of the season she would agree that she did not have a passion for it. We were always glad that she tried. I think that was the characteristic of Michelle that I appreciated the best, she tried and gave her best effort.

With our first born, Thomas, we learned about parenting on the job. Among our mistakes were letting him dictate to us his picky eating behavior, and us permitting it. When Michelle started eating sold foods I would call her “My try new things girl.” It was a label that I would use beyond meal time. It was something I think she was proud to embrace. I think it defined her attitude toward life. Life was an adventure to go out and embrace. People were friends to share the adventure.

In our small home, Michelle’s first roommates were her brothers. First Thomas, then Robert. As we slowly made incremental improvements to the home, we made the downstairs room into a bedroom for Michelle. At first she was uncomfortable sleeping alone. She never wanted to admit being afraid. She always worried it would diminish my opinion of her. That was another thing I loved about her. She genuinely cared about what I thought about her. It was mutual. I would wake her up in the morning singing to her, “You are my Sunshine … “

When our children were young we had a nightly routine. I would make dinner. We would eat together. After dinner I would give the children baths in the downstairs bathroom while Patty clean up the dishes in the kitchen. As the children exited the bathroom, Patty would dress them for bed. Michelle was usually the last one, and she would like to spend the time making up stories. We would make up stories about a girl name Michelle that sailed all over the world in her blue sailboat with her pet monkey.

I don’t think there was an animal that she did not love. It was not enough that we had cats, she wanted her own animal to care for. First it was dwarf African frogs, then it was hermit crabs, then it was a dwarf Siberian Hamster. The whole time I knew she was working her way up to a horse. She dreamed big. Based on a commercial that we saw on TV she would dream about being a veterinarian of large animals, driving a pick-up truck with a dog as a companion. She wanted a big dog. She asked me what was the biggest breed of dog. I told her that I think the Irish Wolf Hound or Mastiff may be among the largest breeds. I also told her about my godmother and the Great Danes she had. Those were largest dogs I could remember being around. I think she liked the idea of someday owning a ranch, having horses and dogs, and being a vet. She would indulge this fantasy by watching movies and TV shows on Netflix supporting that type of life. When touring UofL with Thomas, she saw a door that said “Equine Business”, and started thinking about that as a career path. Whenever possible she would persuade us to facilitate horseback riding opportunities. She would talk to the employees of the trail rides and stables and inquire about their background and what led them to what she dreamed of doing.

Every year Father’s Day would be overshadowed by Michelle’s Birthday. I would not have it any other way. Michelle brought me so much joy each day. She was my sunshine when skies were grey. She is missed by many. We are all better off having known Michelle. Even now, she challenges us to live our lives in her memory. To recognize what is the right thing to do, to do it not out of obligation, but instead out of love for another. To live free, like Michelle.

Since Michelle’s death, we have had two messages. One for parents and one for children. To parents we say, “Do not take your children for granted. Tuesday, August 1, 2017 started out as just an ordinary day. In the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down. Be careful of what you may regret having done or failed to do.” To children we say, “Do not take life for granted. Your own or anyone else. If anything happened to you, you will be missed. Be kind. Do what is right. Love freely. Live a life without regrets.”

It is still hard to accept Michelle’s death. It does not make sense. It is a futile pursuit to ask, “Why?” Instead, it is much more productive to celebrate the life that Michelle lived. This is easier to say than to actually do. Talking about Michelle helps. As Parents, Patty & I have over 15 years of watching Michelle discover and exercise her talents. We would often imagine the woman she would become. A woman that we will never get to see blossom. Instead we visit her grave. We imagine her soul in heaven. We are comforted in the hope of reuniting with her someday. We miss Michelle, as I know many of you do too.

 

cup insert

For a recent Father’s Day, Michelle made me this insert for a drinking cup. Earlier that year I had introduced her to the TV show, “A Different World.” You may recognize the lyrics to theme song of the show.

Guest blogger: Erin Barker

Today’s guest blogger is Erin Barker. Erin and I were trying to figure out how old she and Michelle were when they became friends through Ft. Thomas Jr. Cheer. We think it was probably the summer before 2nd grade. What I loved is that Erin attended Moyer and Michelle attended Johnson, and we all looked forward to the day they would cheer together at HMS. They did in 6th grade and then sadly, Michelle had to choose between activities and decided to let Cheer go. But that didn’t keep Michelle and Erin from still being the bestest of friends. Thank you for blogging your memories, Erin. Love you.
Here’s Erin……….
May was one of the hardest months for me since Michelle died and I expect June to be even harder. May brought back memories of our awesome Washington DC trip, the last 8th grade dance and finishing middle school together. We looked forward to summer and starting at HHS.
June is one of my favorite months of memories. When we were younger, Michelle and I cheered together for Fort Thomas Jr. Cheer. During June we had lots of practices learning our routines. When it came time to start learning how to stunt, Michelle was my first backspot. I trusted her to have my back when I was falling and she never let me touch the ground. Cheer brought us closer and we couldn’t wait until middle school when we would all be in the same school at HMS. One summer we made the “Pickle” club. The club started one night when Michelle, Grace, and I were in my room for a sleep over and decided to make the club. We learned that she had never had a pickle and we bolted down the stairs and grabbed the jar of pickles and ate them while writing the rules for the club. I found the rules while cleaning off my bookshelf recently and I loved it so much. My favorite rule is the one that says “All pickles must be kind to other pickles.” We made pickle charms using our rainbow looms. Later, the pickle club became GEMM for Grace, Erin, Michelle, and Maggie.
Last June we had so much fun just messing around at the pool in the summer! We went to the pool with each other almost everyday for the first two weeks of summer. It was so much fun and I miss it so much. I remember one night where we went to Grace’s house after the pool and we asked for her dad to take us on a ride in the Jeep with the doors off. We played ‘Baby’ by Justin Bieber in the car and were laughing super hard because she knew all the lyrics. Another night we went to late night swim and we were the last ones in the pool. Mr. Nieporte practically had to pull us out because we didn’t want to leave we were having so much fun.
What makes June even harder is our birthdays. Michelle’s birthday is the day before mine and I always thought it was so cool. We were always joking that she would have to drive us around in the Jeep all summer when she turned 16 this year. I know that she will always be with us on rides in the Jeep. In these last two months, I have seen many blue jays and cardinals outside my window saying hello. Another night a group of friends and I went around town hanging up new ribbons and when we took a group photo a magenta orb was in the photo and in this one photo only. When we looked up what it meant it said “At peace with God”. I know she is with us during these hard months. Thank you for listening to my memories. #LiveFreeLikeMichelle

 

Guest blogger: Amanda Popp

My guest blogger for today is Amanda Popp. Or who I lovingly like to call, Amanda Popp-Star! Amanda is a KEEP sister of mine from Wisconsin. Interestingly enough, we are not even on the same team. That might be surprising to some, but to us, it is not. Because that is what KEEP Collective represents and embodies. Founded on friendships……not divided by teams……… rather encompassing love all across state lines.

I met Amanda on both of our very first incentive trips. Glam Getaway to Cancun. What I recall most about meeting Amanda was a regret. A regret because we met on a shuttle on the way to the airport to go back home. However, in that short amount of time in the van, we covered alot of topics. Family, KEEP, and our lives. We were quickly friends.

Over the course of the years, we’ve been able to re-connect at various other events. More Glam and several Hooplas. And even a dinner, with her entire amazing family, one night in November when they were in the area to visit The Ark.

I remember at Michelle’s visitation….talking person to person, next in line etc. Honestly, I don’t remember alot about those hours standing beside Michelle’s casket. But there are moments that stick out vividly in my memory of that evening. I remember looking up and seeing who was next for me to greet and it was Amanda and her husband, Shaun. I nearly fell over. So many tears.

Below is her story about Michelle.

P.S.-For all of you out there who bought KEEP live free or high five bracelets…Amanda was the brains behind that idea 😉

____________________________________________________________________________________________

My story and memories of Michelle are a little different than most. Why? Because I actually never met her in “real life”. I knew of Michelle because of her momma and Facebook.

But let’s go back to where the story begins. It was a warm sunny day in Cancun and I was fortunate enough to end up on the shuttle bus and sat next to Patty on the way back to the airport. I had seen Patty throughout our few days in paradise, but never had the chance to actually meet her. We did the normal “Hi…I’m (fill in the blank).” Asked the where are you from questions. When I found out Patty was from near Cincinnati I threw out everything I knew about the area. We stop there on our travels to Tennessee. It felt “cool” to know the area my new friend was from. Somehow it came up that I was missing my daughters’ dance recital by being in Cancun. Naturally, Patty brought up Michelle and how she danced as well. We connected over being two very proud dance mommas from the midwest.

We quickly became Facebook friends after our initial meeting and I enjoyed staying up to date with my new found friend over social media. I loved following Michelle’s dance. She was only a few years older than my oldest and I could see the talent that they both shared.

I saw Patty again a few times over the next few years in Charlotte, Punta Cana and in Vegas. I loved that we could connect like no time had past and bond over the fact that we felt a little out of place amongst the crowds of people around us.

Vegas was only a few weeks before Patty’s life would change forever. When Patty’s life would become before August 1st and after August 1st. Before Michelle died…and after Michelle died.

The morning I found out about the tragic accident I stared in shock. I stared at my seven kids in shock. I read the news reports about what happened and stared in shock at my phone. HOW!? WHAT!? OH MY WORD…WHY!?!

My kids were immediately concerned for their momma and through tears I explained to them what happened. We all shared tears together for a sweet girl we had never met.

I called my husband and waited impatiently for him to call me back. Through broken words and more shed tears I told him what happened. I fell even more in love with my husband when he said, “I guess we’re taking a road trip.” Through the tropical vacations he had the pleasure of meeting Keith and chatting a bit. (and if you knew my husband, you’d know that chatting a bit is a huge deal. He’s super shy, but thankfully Keith could break into that shell a little bit.) Our hearts were connected to a couple we’d met only a few times, but it didn’t matter. We knew we needed to be there.

I am thankful for the help of my sister who took our seven kids willingly for a weekend so we could make the 9 hour drive to Cincinnati.

We woke the morning of the wake and found a church near our hotel. The service was one that only God could have ordained. It focused on Daniel in the Lion’s Den. What struck me the most was when the Pastor was talking about our lives. When we step back and take a look at our life we have so many Lion’s Den moments. When we step back and take a look at those moments we realize, that just like with Daniel, God was with us the entire time. And since He was with us then…He is with us now. Because THIS moment will become THAT moment sometime in the future. We will see how He never left us. Not at all. Even when it was the hardest moment we’d ever been through. HE WAS THERE. HE IS THERE. THEN. NOW. and WILL BE.

Of course, we are human. In the moment it can be so hard to see. But what a promise to rest on that He is always there through it all.

I thought of the wake we’d be attending in only a few hours and I actually felt at peace. Peace knowing that SOMEDAY my sweet hurting friends would look back at this ugly Lion’s Den moment and realize that God had never left their side. Peace knowing that I could make it through the day because God was also at my side. Then I felt dumb a little. How could I think about how hard this was going to be for me when my children were safe and sound. But I know that I could feel sad and devastated for my friend and that’s what I was. And I knew I needed to have the strength to stand before my friends and give all the love I had in me, because what I wanted to do was crumble to the floor and just ask, actually scream, WHY!?! God gently reminded me in the moment that His ways aren’t mine. That I’m actually not even going to realize or fully understand all the things on this side of Heaven. They’re not mine to understand always.

We drove through the quaint town of Fort Thomas and found Starbucks. We were super early, and I think we both needed some time to just sit and prepare our hearts for what we were about to walk into. We sat in mostly silence as time ticked away. Then. It was time. It was time to go. We drove down the bow lined street and my eyes filled with tears. The tears fell and slid down my cheeks and I wondered if I could do this. If it would be weird that I drove 9 hours for a girl I had never met. For friends I really knew the most through Facebook. I think the enemy really worked on my emotions and wanted me to feel stupid.

We got to the funeral home and stood in line. The line. Oh, the line. It was already out the door when we arrived. The lump in my throat as a I stared at the shocked faces of the people in line with me. As I stared at those who walked out of the funeral home. We all shared the same shocked emotion. I think we all shared the same “we shouldn’t be here for a 15 year old girl” feelings. But. But yet, we were there. We stood in solidarity for that sweet 15 year old girl, for her brothers and for her parents, for everyone who knew her…and…for me, for those who didn’t know her more than a smiling face on Facebook.

The line moved slowly as it went up the front stairs through the foyer and wound through rooms. I stood in the room with the slide show. It hit me then. We were here for a funeral that I’d never grasp understanding of. We were watching pictures fly by, essentially…a life fly by. Right before our eyes.

I filled out a memory and truthfully, don’t remember what I wrote. I’m sure it was something about dance. I don’t even know. I just pray it held a bit of comfort to those that have read it.

The line slowed as we made it up towards Patty and Keith. I saw my friends standing so bravely next to their daughter’s casket. We saw Keith first and I’m not sure I can explain the emotions of being able to hug him. I’m sure he mentioned something to me about being “awesome” for coming, because he really does know how to make a girl feel good about herself. Yeah, during one of the toughest moments of his life HE was encouraging ME. That’s the man Keith is.

Patty was next and I held her as tears fell from both of our eyes and the sorrow of losing a child filled both of our hearts. I have never known the loss of a child I’ve birthed alive, but have lost 3 to miscarriage. Our hearts beat together, but not full, and to be never full again. Because both of our hearts have pieces in heaven. She whispered to me that I should hug my kids and hold them tight. She asked me what she was going to do without her baby girl. I don’t know what I said. I think I said that she was tough, and that she was going to be okay, but it’d be hard. I hope whatever I said sounded as comforting as I meant it to. Patty introduced me to her mom and her boys before we left. It was in those moments my heart could have exploded with joy. Joy that I was given such a sweet friendship in the Chalks and that’d He’d allow us to have our paths cross. In the joy I danced with the grief I felt with them at the same time. And I knew those feelings of “stupid” from earlier were…well, stupid.

We walked silently out of the funeral home and stared at the shocked faces as we walked out with our own.

We got into the vehicle and I looked at my husband and said…now you want to know why I am so annoying and take all those pictures. Because that is all they have left of her. Pictures. He didn’t respond with words, but his eyes gave me all I needed…his understanding.

Days after the funeral I thought of the words Patty said to me. “Hug your kids.” Patty had no idea what her words would do to me. I had been struggling a lot earlier in the summer. Just being a mom of 7 was getting to me. I wasn’t enjoying being a mom. I was wondering why in the world I was a mom. I just didn’t know how I could be a good mom, and survived the best I could.

Patty’s words resonated within every part of my soul. When I got home I had a renewed spirit. I had a new perspective. Patty would have given anything for a teenage daughter eye-roll or to tell her to quit picking on her brothers. I learned to find the joy in all things parenting again. To know that God had given me these blessings and I was in charge of taking care of them the best way I could. Because just as quickly as He gave them to me…He could take them away.

Michelle’s life changed my life and I never had the joy of meeting her in real life. In January of this year I “met” Michelle in a dream. It was the strangest of moments. My oldest daughter, my ballerina, and Michelle danced together at the request of their mothers. They danced. And then Michelle was gone. Patty and I shared tears again in my dream. I woke up with such a crazy joy. Somehow I felt like I had met Michelle and it was a sweet moment I’ll truly cherish. I can, in fact, still picture the moment of them dancing.

I wear a #livefree bracelet each day in honor of the life Michelle lived. A life that her parents helped her live. A life instilled with pure joy and awe at the life she was given. A life that was lived so freely and joyfully. A life that was only 15 years short, but was worth a million years. A life so filled with so much I don’t think anyone could write down everything she impacted.

My memories of Michelle don’t come from knowing her in real life, but knowing the spirit in which she lived her life. My life is richer because of it. My life is richer because I was seated next to a “random” couple on a shuttle bus. It was a God ordained seating and I’m forever grateful that He knew even then what would happen only a few years later…because that bus ride changed my life.

 

 

Guest blogger: Brooke Donelan

Brooke Donelan, lovingly known to Michelle and many as Brookie Cookie, has danced with Michelle for as long as I can remember. Though complete opposite in stature: Michelle, tall : Brookie, tiny….their love for 3 things was the exact same. Dance and friendship and kindness. Thank you Brooke. Love you.
Here’s Brooke…..

Recital

“On August first….” and the rest of the speech was a blur. I broke into pieces. My team looked at me through tear filled eyes and offered hugs. The single white rose in my hand trembled as I shook. It never hit me that hard before, but at the recital everything from the last 10 months came over me. The good, the bad, the joyful, the sorrowful all hit me at once as I looked at her picture and attempted to listen to my dance teacher’s speech. I heard whimpers from the crowd and realized just how much she meant to everyone. After the speech, I walked over to the table with her picture and attempted a place my flower in the vase accompanying it. As I mentioned, my body was shaking and my vision blurred with tears. I almost knocked the vase over so I just sat my rose in front of her picture.

brooke blog

Next, we danced. Or so I was told. All I really remember was grabbing Campbell after we ended in our final pose, and beginning a group hug with all 12 members of our team. Yes, 12 because Michelle most definitely was there, too. Just like how she was there at competition, pushing us to be our best. We all felt her, as we have many times previously. After the first recital of the day, Mrs. Chalk and Mr. Chalk came backstage to talk to us, Michelle’s friends.

We all shared a big group hug and Mrs. Chalk told us how beautiful we all looked. After reflecting on everything, I noticed in the dressing room that she wasn’t wrong. With our flower crowns and dresses we looked like angels. How very appropriate. I know that Michelle was wearing our costume in heaven and helping us dance on stage.

brooke blog2

The Dance Express Pink Team

I only knew Michelle through dance, but what a bond you can make just by seeing someone once or twice a week. I wonder what I would be like without having her as a teammate. She always had the brightest expressions, biggest movements, most positive attitude, and a true desire to better herself and others. I remember the small things from our time in the studio together. How she dressed as Pikachu one year for the halloween party, making funny faces at each other in the mirror, her laughing after someone said a really bad joke, or her look of absolute determination after an instructor would say “Michelle! You have beautiful, long legs but you need to kick them higher!”

brooke blog3

The comment about Michelle’s height made me laugh. We never we able to stand next to each other during dances because I stand at a whopping 4”10. She was always on the center of the stage, as it should have been, because the tallest people go in the middle and the shortest go on the ends. Her big smile and enthusiasm belonged center stage anyways. That’s one thing I try to replicate during performances. Her facial expressions. I haven’t come close yet, but that could be for the best. It makes it more special to have seen her animated face in person.

brooke blog4

We have a tradition we do before every performance. We form a circle, hold hands, point out toes inward, speak to each other, then say 5,6,7,8…. DE! Now we have an addition to that. After our usual ritual, we all put our hands in the middle of our huddle and say 1,2,3, LIVE FREE! I really do love each and every one of these girls. We were close before, but now more than before. We text each other on the dance team group chat everyday. Every first of the month, we text about how much we love and care about each other. We encourage each other to live free like Michelle everyday. At the end of the day, I personally treasure everyone on dance team. We laugh, fight, and grow together like sisters. I wish I could see them everyday.

brooke blog5

King’s Island
            This trip was the last thing I got to do with Michelle (besides dance) before August came. I remember that my cousin, Jenna, and I were the main coordinators of the event and tried to get as many people to come as possible. We got a group of dance team girls to go on the trip and were filled with excitement as we waited for them all to arrive at King’s Island. My mom was nervous about Michelle walking into the park alone, and was texting me the whole 30 minutes it took for everyone to get to our meeting place inside the park. She mentioned after the trip that Michelle was the only reason she let me go without an adult. “If Michelle was there, how much trouble would you really cause? She’s too sweet to do anything irresponsible.”

Brooke blog7

Our group was very big, and hard to manage. So, to save ourselves from the stress, we split into smaller groups and promised to meet and ride the Beast together. I ended up in a group with just Michelle and Jenna, which was just fine with me. From that second on began one of the best days of my life so far. I don’t think we went a full minute without laughing!

We created so many inside jokes that day, and I’m proud to say that Jenna and I quote them almost every time we see each other. Two of which were born on the ride Banshee. On the way up the hill we were bored. So, being the dancers that we are, we did a ballet exercise called first, first, second, first (I’ll talk more about this exercise later). That little memory is quite possibly the most iconic for Jenna and I. The other inside joke happened on a corkscrew turn during the ride. I suppose the man riding near us wasn’t ready for it, and let out a really dull yelp. All three of us broke out laughing because up to that point the man, who was later named Disappearing Devin due to him being unnoticed, hadn’t made a single noise.

brooke blog8

On Diamondback Michelle told us something she always said with friends from school. On everyone’s favorite part of the ride, a big turn before being sent into the little pool at the end of the ride, she told us to shout, “GOD BLESS AMERICA FOR FAST FOOD AND ROLLER COASTERS…. WEE WOO!” Of course Jenna and I did as told, and I’ll always remember the smile on her face as we all yelled this phrase as loud as possible.

There were several more inside jokes from the day, but the best of all was the receipt. All three of us bought a locker to store our bags so we could walk around the park quicker and ride the rides without bag holding areas. We got a little slip of paper with our locker number on it. Michelle took the job of holding the receipt for everyone while we rode the new ride Mystic Timbers. The ride was quick and whipped us around quite a bit, so when Jenna and I saw something fly through the air, Jenna began to scream, “THE RECEIPT! THE RECEIPT!” I laughed because I knew it wasn’t the receipt at all, it was a pair of reading glasses that had flown up into the air and nearly hit all of us. At a section where the ride slowed down, my and Jenna’s insane laughter was heard by Michelle, who turned around to see what was going on. Jenna calmed down slightly and informed Michelle that she had lost the receipt mid-ride. Michelle was really confused. She pulled the receipt out of her pocket and twisted around in her seat. “Guys, I have the receipt right here!” she said in between giggles. I had been wheezing with laughter watching this all go down. Finally, I collected myself and said, “Jenna, it wasn’t the receipt it was someone’s reading glasses!” About then the man who lost his glasses reached up on this head and made a remark about getting his glasses back. We all must have laughed for five minutes straight! To this day I crack up when Jenna reminds me of the receipt.

The rest of the day was amazing, but those are the best moments associated with her for me personally.

brooke blog10

Secret Dance Buddy

            At dance we have “secret dance buddy.” These are much like a secret santa, except they run all dance season. Michelle was my dance buddy the year she passed. I often reread the notes she gave me throughout the year. I have most of her gifts she gave me during last year. I read the cards and notes she left behind for me the night she died. Some of her messages are in a frame in my room. Others are on my corkboard near my bed. I have three gifts from her in my room right now, besides the notes. A stuffed dolphin toy, a mint green purse, and a mason jar filled with little goodies like bath salts and chapsticks. She really took my little “list of likes” to heart. I mentioned that dolphins are my favorite animal, that I love mint green and blue, and enjoy relaxing times during summer. She always went above and beyond to ensure that I felt special after receiving a gift. Well, mission accomplished Michelle!

Michelle’s Miracles

            In order to fully understand her signs, you have to know something. One of our favorite ballet barre exercises is first, first, second, first (first position, second position…). I can’t really put a finger on why we love it, we just do. One of the songs that best matches the exercise is “Shut up and Dance” by Walk the Moon. We did this exercise during dance camp the evening before Michelle died. Now that you know, I can begin….

The first sign occured while i was getting dropped off at school. I was texting on the dance team group chat, of course, about whether or not I would go to a Ballet and Bows class in honor of Michelle. The studio is a good distance from my house so convincing my parents to let me go to extra classes would be a challenge. Right as I began to text the group that I couldn’t go, the song Shut up and Dance began to play in the car. I remember thinking, well played Michelle…. well played. I couldn’t help but laugh as I filled in my team on what had happened.

brooke blog12

Another miracle occured while I was on a field trip to King’s Island. As you know, I already have strong memories there regarding her, so when I went there I felt her already. I remembered our old inside jokes from the day. I remembered them all at once, then “Shut up and Dance” began to play throughout the park. I was still in shock from the song when a butterfly began to flutter around me. I thought things couldn’t get better but right as the butterfly began to fly away a gust of wind blew my #livefreelikemichelle bracelet in ways that I could only describe as dance. She was there, walking beside me in my mind reciting all of our inside jokes from our late July visit.

 

brooke blog13

Another sign didn’t occur at one specific time but as more of a reoccuring event. My livefree bracelets. I have three different kinds as of right now. One that is the same style as most other people (mine is rose gold with with grey bands), a custom one (mint green with charms), and the one I received from the studio (pink and navy blue writing). My days, especially at school are best when I’m wearing them. On the days when I forget to wear them the test seems harder, I miss my transfer bus, or my hair is more of a hot mess than usual. This sign might be all in my head, but I still enjoy the thought that these bracelets are protection from bad days.

brooke blog15

During  the middle of August, 2017, Jenna and I returned to King’s Island with my mom, brother, and another one of my cousins. This was our first visit since Michelle’s passing and both of us were a little choked up as the memories flooded back. Jenna and I made an effort to relive every single memory and inside joke that day. We stopped walking for my cousin to attempt a basketball game. Jenna and I were leaned up against the gate that separated us from the game. Out of nowhere, a butterfly fluttered around my face and landed on Jenna’s back. The butterfly stayed on her long enough for us to smile and snap a quick picture. Here’s why this was a miracle…. Michelle promised us one more trip to Kind’s Island before school started. She wanted to uphold her promise to us.

brooke blog16

When I received the texts from my dance team that Michelle had passed away, I was watching the movie Descendants 2. This was a little sign because at King’s Island Jenna, Michelle, and I had a long conversation about the great soundtrack and impressive choreography from the movie while eating Larosa’s by Vortex. We talked about how it was a step up for Disney Channel movies. I remember laughing as we said, “Well….it’s pretty good for a Disney Channel movie.” Every time I watch that movie, I go back to our conversation and smile. I know the whole soundtrack and can pretty much quote the whole film. I am aware that I’m 14, which is considered too old to appreciate a new Disney Channel movie, but I just can’t stop watching it because of the good memories attached to it. Jenna and I also have countless inside jokes that accompany the film (of course).

brooke blog18

The last Michelle Miracle I’m going to write about took place during competition. I felt hands helping me through A Dance for Michelle. During a step where I arch my back I felt someone pushing my arch. When I went up into my handstand, I felt hands holding me in place. After the dance, I ran offstage and hugged everyone. Jenna was frantic and claimed that she had seen Michelle in the audience. I knew these two events weren’t coincidence.

brooke blog19

Closing

Michelle goes through my mind every day. I’ve written poems and drawn pictures that were inspired by her. I’ll leave you with the last lines of one of my poems.

My last words to you are as true as they can be,

whatever you do, live free, live free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections.

I sometimes think that I failed at one of my main tasks as Michelle’s mom: protecting her from harms way, seeing her safely into adulthood. I realize that attributing her death as my own failure is irrational. But the thought creeps in every now and then. She is my child, and I couldn’t save or protect her.

Now I know lots of other mothers who’ve lost children, and they’ve tried to prepare me for how unbearable the ‘first year of firsts’ is going to be…. how your very identity as a mother is shaken and upended when your child dies. We’re a dismal, heartbroken club of kindred spirits. We share the pain of empty, quiet rooms that hold the remnants of our children’s lives — keepsakes that remain long after our babies have gone.

How can this be? Every day I pass by the open door to Michelle’s room…. see it just how she left it on August 1, 2017, and wonder how any of this is real. How is it possible that all I have left is her collection of journals, her rocks she collected when she was 3 years old that I could never make her part with, clothes she and I had just ordered from Old Navy dot com on July 31 to start freshman year…just laying on the floor of her room now, her new dance duffle bag we found at IKEA that Sunday before she died and she immediately loaded it up because dance camp started the next night, and her closet full of clothes, her empty hamster cage from Spade who died several months after Michelle did, a bag from Michaels that has tshirts and paints because she and a couple of friends were going to tye dye shirts before going back to school, her Kings Island pass laying on her bed, her most beloved stuffed animal. Now in a ziplock so I can still smell Michelle’s scent as she snuggled to sleep each night with it, and a room full of memories. Her memories. I could go on and on. Everything that made her room her.

As the days go by, we’ve now seen every season through. Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. I say to Keith it feels like she’s been gone forever and her proximity to me is fading…. the reality of her absence becomes more concrete. This would be okay if it were because she had graduated high school, gone off to college and started her life, but that’s not what happened. She stopped existing at 15. My sweet girl is fifteen forever.

I don’t know how to ‘do each day’ with all of these other Moms and Dads who Keith and I have met on our grief journey. A journey we wish we never had to embark on. The natural order of families is this: Our babies are gone, but then we had laughing toddlers in exchange, and then our toddlers are gone, and we had curious, bright-eyed preschoolers in their place. And then they become elementary school students, when interests and personalities emerge and blossom. And oh how she blossomed. And then we have middle schoolers, giving us teenagers who are whole, unique people. The fact that our kids will grow up into actual people, moving and shaking the world with their personalities, distracts us from the pain of their fading childhood. Except, of course, if they don’t grow up. And Michelle won’t.

I am two mothers now — the mother you see walking beside my remaining 2 kids in the all-too-real world of chores and trivial things, because most everything does seem trivial now. And the mother you don’t see — the mother bereft, imagining that my daughter is two steps behind me, just out of sight.

There are too many mothers like me, rushing here and there, pretending we’re fully in one world when, really, we’re in two. And I constantly feel like I’m stuck between heaven and earth. Because even when your child dies, you don’t stop worrying about them. So heaven, to make sure she’s happy and earth to be here for Thomas and Robert.

I look whole and normal, but deep inside there’s an emptiness where my heart used to be. My heart, Michelle. I can’t walk with Keith and the boys without imagining the shadow of Michelle right beside us. I can’t bear to take a ‘family photo’ anymore.

I wish I could go back to last Mother’s Day, for instance. When my kids were in 6th, 8th, and 12th grades. I wish Michelle was here to make me one of her cards. Let’s be honest. She was the one who did the acknowledging. I can almost see her sitting at the kitchen table working on her card for me, or a piece of art. And as I approach, she turns her body and the card so I can’t see it.

Dwelling on the past is the only thing that allows me to feel something other than numbness and despair. The others who walk this path of intense grief tell me it gets better. Eventually, I’ll start feeling what I’m supposed to feel. I’ll move more fully into the world of my living children. Until then, I just have to wait. And Keith and I do the best that we can on each day.

But what if I don’t want that to happen? What if time erases the only thing I have left of my Michelle, dulling the edges of her face in my mind’s eye like a faded photograph? Living this quiet pain is how I feel closest to her right now.

I guess ‘each first’ is just a day, not unlike the day that came before it or the day that follows. Realizing this somehow makes it okay that it’s hard to celebrate things this year. Our daughter isn’t here anymore, but that doesn’t make me any less her mother, or Keith her Dad. Since she’s died, I’ve been afraid of losing that, losing the last little bit of her that I’ve been clinging to. That’s why I say, ‘my girl, Michelle’ all the time. Because she’s still my girl. And always will be.

There will be more painful days to come — her birthday, Father’s Day (she was born on a Father’s Day), the first vacation without her, her ‘1 year anniversary’ and on and on. I know I need to reconcile her absence on these days so I can be a mom to Thomas and Robert. But it’s so hard. Somehow, I must figure out how to forge a new connection with them now that she’s no longer here. The dynamics of our house and home and lives have changed.

I would be remiss if I did not thank our village. Our families, our friends, our city, our schools, our teachers, our acquaintances, old friends and new friends, friends near and far….some we know dearly, and some we have never met. God is in each of you. And whether you know it or not, you are doing God’s work. People ask, “Where is God in this tragedy?” God is coming to us in all of you. There is no doubt about that.

So…. the mothers that walk with me in grief tell me it’s hard to face all of these milestones in the first year, but it’s even harder in the second. That’s when the reality of Michelle’s absence will finally feel real. I believe them because I can sense it’s coming. I dread the full weight of time and distance that will inevitably make her absence a solid thing, final and irreversible. Even so, they tell me that Keith and I will find joy again. Until then, we wait. Thank you for waiting with us. Thank you for helping us keep the monumental promise I made to her in the emergency room, “That no one will ever forget who Michelle Chalk is, and what she stands for.” Every day, I hear of another person who is helping us shine her light. Thank you.

Fly High Sweet Girl of Mine, Fly High. With all the Angels and Saints. Dance for Jesus, Ask Mary to take care of you until I can be with you again, Sing in the Alleluia Choir, Play with little children, and Pray for me and Dad and all who miss you.

32804394_10156097290708673_2718800489771696128_n

 

The last day of freshman year.

nest

It’s hard to believe an entire academic year has gone by since Michelle died. It’s really unfathomable to me.

I knew this day was coming, yet there’s no way to prepare for it. And not only that, but Keith and I know it’s just one more sad day of many yet to come. It won’t just be the first year. We will always be thinking ahead to what memorable date is next to pop up.

Today is the last day of what should have been Michelle’s freshman year. I have a special song that I sing to our 3 kids on the first day of school and the last day of school. I remember singing it to her before saying good bye to her at the funeral home. Even though she wasn’t having a first day of school anymore. And today, I know that while at the cemetery, I’ll find that I want to sing it to her. So I will. How can I not?

Forever and always my sweet, sweet girl.