Prayers, pleasing, and protecting

This is the part I don’t want you to see.   It would be so much easier to stay invisible, and not set obscure questions I ponder sometimes out there in the breezy air to flutter around . . .



It’s my fault.  I’m sorry. 

These phrases course through my blood like cancer cells.
I feel like they’ve always been there.
That I was born with them inside me: it’s my fault.  I’m sorry.

As an intuitive person, one with more empathy than any one person should have, I’m always sensing, always alert to how others are in a situation and to the unspoken vibration of moments.  “It’s my fault/I’m sorry” is my go-to emotional response, when a moment feels charged, uneasy, subtly dangerous.

My stomach muscles tighten, and my mind scurries across the past several minutes, back and forth, scanning, scanning:  Why is she not smiling?  Why is he not talking?  What did I do wrong?  Why is he yelling? Why is he in that room with the door closed? What did I do wrong?

I remember my 3rd grade teacher once stopped in the middle of yelling at some other student and looked straight at me:  “Am I yelling at you, Colleen? No, I’m not yelling at you. You didn’t do anything wrong.”  To her, I must have looked slapped in the face or terrified or something, I don’t know, but she could visually see I was reacting to her anger, even though it wasn’t directed at me.

So I know these things about myself now.  I spend time consciously reeling back this initial and irrational response I feel I was born with.

It takes energy and focus, but I’m doing it.

One day at the page, I began to reflect about this and a series of questions unfurled from my pen . .

Do you think an unborn baby can sense its unwed mother’s secret thoughts and prayers? Her heartbreak, her shame her sadness?  (Go away, go away, dear God, make this go away . . . )

And then, do you think it’s possible for this same unborn baby to grow up into a girl and then into a woman, yearning to be seen but never to be too much of a bother?  To feel, at her core, that she shouldn’t take up too much space, be too big.  And that she must please and protect – like some unspoken penance for causing this shame and suffering, this derailment of her mother’s then-intended life?

How is it possible to discern the beginning? Where is it?  When does one’s story start?


Postscript:  I’m happy to take the blame for my parents’ marriage.  In October 2016, they will celebrate 50 years together.

Reflection by Colleen Nolan Armstrong, drafted in June 2012 and completed today.  #outofthebox

Stories you aren’t allowed to tell

I survived breast cancer.   My first marriage did not.

No one talks about that.

How when cancer comes, your life suddenly snaps into sharp relief, and what you thought you could do if you just tried hard enough, for just a little while longer, until the kids get through high school, you can’t.  With cancer, you find yourself dropped into an ocean, choppy with waves,  no land in sight, and all you can do is grasp for things solid, those things that are dependable, trustworthy.  You hold onto them, literally, for your dear life.

Everything else – all clever artifice – must fall away – as though turning to ash, impossible to be held, a powder blown into wind and gone.

* * *

My daughter Katie is in Disney World this week, on a school field trip  with her sophomore Marketing class.  Katie has been so excited in the weeks leading up to this excursion. She is a Disney lover for sure, she has been to the Florida theme park twice in her life – first as an almost 4-year old donning her sparkle princess gowns, traipsing park-to-park-to-park in pink Mouse ears.  The second and last time was in January 2007, after my first 9 months of breast cancer treatment – two surgeries, 6 weeks of daily radiation and then a series of monthly shots of a some super-expensive drug that sent my body cruelly and immediately into menopause.

That Disney vacation was like a “Make-A-Wish” trip,  something happy to share with the kids, on the brink of our marriage’s terminal diagnosis.  For I  already knew inside my heart, before uttering a word to anyone else, my husband included, that our marriage was over.

That was to be our final journey together as a family, to play in that magical place we always found the most joy in, the most love.  In fact, my first husband and I honeymooned there, spending our first night upgraded to the Vice Presidential suite of the Grand Floridian hotel.  [But, you know, you can’t tell people this story anymore.   After divorce (and a beautiful & healthy remarriage) you’re not supposed to speak with  sweet remembrance about another relationship’s beginning (even one of nearly 15 years resulting in 2 children who fill your heart everyday with more love than you can bear).  It feels socially inappropriate to speak of the happy parts, the love-filled, hopeful parts, the “once was” parts – when a county court has deemed the marriage dissolved (and more than that, you were the one who filed the petition to end it, to sentence it to its long and painful evisceration of a death.]

Both of us were actors.

A staged photo and feature story “Supporting Roles: Fox Valley actors cast lots together in marriage” published in The Beacon News on Sunday, August 8, 1993

I, his Cinderella, he, my Prince Charming.  The year of our engagement, we were actually cast in a play of this fairy tale. We took to the stage – waltzing together at the Ball – creating this beautiful illusion for an audience of children who believed so strongly that we were really these characters.   Maybe we did, too.

This man I loved (and still love) breathed life into me, into the stories I was writing and imagining.  On our first date, he set them up there for me to see – there on some grand movie screen in his beautiful mind,  casting the roles, telling me how the costuming would be, the colors, the music.  Together we were a whirlwind of creativity and magic and storytelling and the art of imagination.

At our story’s beginning, we were these things.  We were hopeful and in love.


Two days ago, I texted my 15-year old daughter when she first arrived at the Magic Kingdom, her first day at the park:

“Disney has a special place in the story of your life.  Your dad and I were always happiest there.  Grateful we could share that joy with you.”

Later, I received the following texts back from her.

“Tonight was a lot harder than I thought”
“What do you mean?”
“Just thinking about how our family used to be”
“I know”
“Made me sad”
“It makes me sad still too”
“Yea it was just a little hard watching the fireworks because that’s the part I remember the most with you guys”
I know. 
It was just really hard to think about how happy we were and now it’s so different.
It is hard.  You wish it could be back that way, I know.
It was just something that hit me while seeing happy families at the park.
And sometimes feeling everything is a blessing but also a curse because feeling everything messes with your head a lot.
I love you.  And I am glad you feel everything – even if it is difficult.
Thanks mom.
Oh, and I love you too.

January 2007


A reflection written (hesitantly) after yesterday’s visit to the Loyola Cancer Center for my annual mammogram, which was clear.  My husband Mike drove me there, and waited with me, because he knows how scared I am, even when I try not to show it.  I am still scared.  I think I always will be scared.  For when that cancer diagnosis happened, my whole world changed, as did the world of my children.  As did the world of my first husband, whom I loved (and whom loved me as best he could, with what he had to give, having lost his mother to ovarian cancer less than a year before meeting me.)  Seriously, the two of us had no business getting married.  We were young, and hopeful, and believed in the fairy tale so much.  I will never regret the choice to marry him, foolish as it may look now.    I regret nothing.  Even sharing this story with you today, as hard as it was for me to hit the Publish button now.

One beautiful life

I live in a 2 story colonial in the suburbs of Chicago, one with an outdated kitchen and a storm door that doesn’t close right.  I wear Old Navy jean capris  I’ve owned for the last 6 years and my hair is a dyed, frizzy chestnut with centimeter-tall grey roots.  I walk my dogs twice a day and pick up dog poop in individual plastic bags, and worry about landfills.  I’m saving for my son’s college, which starts next year, and am woefully behind, but still trying.  I love my husband even when he’s stressed and grumpy and not sure being a step dad is all that terrific.  I eat Ben & Jerry’s out of the carton and then follow that with a handful of pretzels.  My bras are old because I am cheap and I hate that the straps fall down when I’m talking, and wish I had better shoes.

I work really hard for a  big-name consulting firm, and I love solving complex problems  and figuring out how to make the place stronger and better (even while working from home wearing old, Old Navy jean capris).

I let our Himalayan cat outside even though there are coyotes every once in a while, passing through the sub-division.  I drink red wine, if given a choice, and toss out milk as soon as the expiration date comes.   I detest left overs.

I wonder at the songs my teen kids play when they are in the shower and how they can stand to be in their rooms, given the explosion of mostly dirty clothes on the floor.

I love to look up into the trees as I walk.

I eat kale and avocados and also italian beef.

I love gardenias, and they have been blooming just crazy beautiful this May (fresh soil and plant food is magic!)

I love excel and know approximate exchange rates for the Euro and Pound Sterling in any given month.

I write poetry sometimes and crap most other times.

My mom is a competitive swimmer who was just diagnosed with Parkinson, and I am so scared for her, and for my dad, and for myself.

My oldest is leaving for Germany next week, and I just wonder how it is possible I agreed to let him live 5000 miles away for 3 weeks.

My youngest wants to marry Netflix.

The black & white dog I adopted a year ago, to keep our 9.5 year old collie young and “with a spring in her step” is not 3 years old, but probably closer to 8 or 9.   I “pull” him on our 2 daily walks, but he grins and waddles the whole darn way, the lucky little con artist . . .

one beautiful life

I live one beautiful life.

You do, too.

Reader, Reader, what do you see?

Thank you, Eric Carle & Bill Martin, Jr.
Thank you, Eric Carle & Bill Martin, Jr.

Reader, Reader, what do you see?

I see a Writer looking at me.

Writer, Writer, what do you see?

I see a Reader looking at me.

With gratitude (and a wink) to Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle for creating the picture book Brown Bear, Brown Bear

In my memory, it is summer and there is still light in the sky and my child is small enough to curl into that soft safe space that is my bent arm and lap.  And I am rocking in that old white-wicker chair, with the milky breath of my child warm on my skin, talking low: 

Blue Horse, Blue Horse, what do you see?
I see a Purple Cat looking at me.
Purple Cat, Purple Cat, what do you see?
I see White Dog looking at me.
White Dog, White Dog, what do you see . . .

How wonderful it is that a story can exist inside us, while holding us, at the same time.


Day 15 - parade

It is Memorial Day, a day of remembrance, and I am remembering.

It used to be when our kids were small, we would put on our best red-white-and-blue clothes and stand, tippy-toed, watching the parade pass through our town.  Anxiously we’d peer down the street to spot the first firetruck  

“It’s coming, it’s coming. I see it! I see it!” the kids would inform us falsely several times. 

What a tease to hear the faraway sound of drums and sirens and old-fashion car horns “ahh-oooing, ahh-ooing” but not yet behold the bright and gleaming ribbon that is a parade: the flashing police-car lights; the white-gloved waves; the pretty girls, in sparkles. tossing up silvery batons, spinning high in the air, like fireworks.

My parents would have saved us a spot on the parade route, having set their picnic blankets out early: “Can you believe it was 7 o’clock and spots were already being saved?” my mom would tell us every year.

I’d sip coffee from a travel mug, the kids poke straws in their juice boxes, and we’d slather on sunblock if the sun was feeling hot and was rising high in the sky.

day 15 - memorial dayWhen the veterans and soldiers would pass, all of us would stand and clap.  I always felt like crying.  I was remembering my grandfather, my mother’s father, and how much he would have loved to have marched in such a parade. How proud he would have been to wear his uniform again, to have people clap and stand, and salute, and be honored in such a magnanimous way.  I hadn’t known this about him, however, until after he died.

My grandfather served in World War II and was in the Army Air Corp.  He flew on B-17 missions and was a technical sergeant and waist gunner.   The stories he told us as children seemed like romantic movies, and we loved hearing him tell them.  But they were just the stories about war and combat you could tell people, you know?   There was so much more he never spoke of, protecting us still,  as soldiers are taught to do.

My grandfather died of emphysema the night before my 30th birthday.  He died in the VA hospital he trusted and was so loyal to.  That night, someone at the VA made a mistake and didn’t read the instructions we’d left not to call my grandmother.  Someone called her in the middle of the night and my grandmother answered that ugly green phone in her bedroom and the nightmare she’d been dreading for decades came true and she fell on the floor and my uncle found her and she was rushed to the Somerville Hospital and then transferred to Mass General and she could not speak or walk because she had had a massive stroke.

Life changes in moments like this one.

The day after, there was to have been a surprise birthday party for me, which my now ex-husband reluctantly, though lovingly, chose to tell me about.  We went through the motions of the party, but no one knew how to be, or to act, and I felt so guilty about having ruined everyone’s good time, especially given how much planning and expense had gone into it.

Maybe this is why I told my ex-husband it was okay for him not to travel to Massachusetts for my grandfather’s wake and funeral and to visit my grandmother in the hospital, when we still had hope she would recover and be herself again (she never was).  I told him that I could do this on my own, that I didn’t need him there.  How adept I was at keeping him on the periphery, of putting on a brave face, of not allowing him opportunities to be a loving husband. 

After my grandfather’s funeral mass at his beloved St. Anne’s, we were driven in limos, behind the hearse, on city streets and highways that were at first dirty and crowded and then slowly became open and soft, framed on both sides by forests of scotch pines.

I opened a window for air and let it blow on my face, eyes closed.

I remember the journey itself feeling exciting and special, which is a strange emotion to have travelling to a cemetery.  We drove for a little more than an hour to Bourne, with its high grey-white suspension bridge and the rotary with the manicured hedges that welcome you to Cape Cod.

Before following the signs completely around the traffic circle, my uncle’s family, who were travelling in their own limo ahead of us, stopped for doughnuts and coffee, which is something my family recollects aloud and laughs about whenever we drive through Bourne on our way to Falmouth, where my parents live now.

I didn’t have any idea how important it was to my grandfather that he be buried in a military cemetery. To me, he was a pharmacist and a tailor, and a grand & long-winded story teller, who had trouble knowing when to end a story no matter how grand.  (God help the poor soul at my grandparent’s kitchen table at midnight trying gracefully to exit one of my grandfather’s stories!)

The afternoon at the cemetery was a sunny one, but still cold, and we were gathered in a small, sacred-feeling, outdoor place, at some precise-to-the-minute time that the funeral home had arranged for us. The space felt like a garden in a convent with stone walls and old shade trees and ivy growing.  Birds were singing and you could hear the wind and it smelled sweet like honeysuckle in rain.  I remember there were comforting words spoken by someone official, then startling rifle shots, then, “Taps” was played, on a lone trumpet, from some faraway place I couldn’t see.

I stood reverently and tall, and I cried.

Written in honor of my grandfather William Joseph Meehan, who looked like Ronald Reagan and believed him to be our best president ever, and who thought I might be a communist when I was in “that liberal woman’s college”, but who still showed off my high school graduation photo to any one who would stop long enough for him to pull out his wallet “Isn’t she beautiful? That’s my grand-daughter”  I miss his teasing, smiling “Meehan eyes” the most and of course, hearing his stories.

Today I hold the tranquil peace of that place in Bourne, where he, and 62,789 fellow soldiers, ‘safely rest’ and are mourned and remembered on this day, and on other days, the more ordinary ones, the days without parades.

National Cemetery at Bourne on Memorial Day Weekend
National Cemetery at Bourne on Memorial Day Weekend

You have permission

Day 12 - Play today

What if we gave ourselves permission to play? To dabble and draw and paint?  What if it didn’t need to be perfect?

What if it was okay to climb a tree barefoot or stretch our toes to the sky on the school-yard swing?

What if we didn’t care what others thought? Or we laughed so hard we a snorted?  What if we built a castle of bright-blue kindergarten blocks and stomped across it like Godzilla? What if we risked looking silly?  What if we sang show tunes to the dog?  What if we skipped down the sidewalk?

What if we bought balloons or cotton candy? or Razzles or Fun Dip?  What if we sat in the front yard wishing on dandelions?  What if we ran through a sprinkler? or drank from a hose? or made paper mache?

What if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously?  What if we softened expectations?

What if we gave each other permission to play?

You have permission to play.

(I do, too.)

Offered with gratitude to fellow artist Suzi Banks Baum. and her Permission Slip project.  When I first met Suzi, what pulled me into her blog was the laundry line image.

I remember as a girl, standing being beside my mother, handing her clothespins, as she was hanging clean sheets on the line.  It was a special job, and made me feel loved and important – the memory of it is steeped in sun and has a clean, breezy smell to it.  The memory feels warm like skin in summer.  I remember wanting to be like my mom, and deciding to create my own clothesline, stretching my green plastic jump rope, up between trees.  I would hang my doll clothes there.

An older neighborhood boy, named Greg, spotted me one day and shouted nastily “Colleen Clothesline!  Colleen Clothesline!”  when he saw what I was doing.  He then shortened it to just  Clothesline  “How’s it going Clothesline?” he’d say every time he saw me, and this lasted for years.

When he said it, I just wanted just to disappear.  I was only  6 or maybe 7.

I never played with my laundry line again.

Permission to play.  It’s an idea worth considering.  Thanks, Suzi, for the inspiration today.