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Filling in Some ‘Blanks’ after Candy Chang’s Talk

Susanne KernsRepublished by permission of Susanne Kerns

Today is my birthday. I had planned on spoiling myself with a spa day, but instead I decided to spoil myself with time to write, which these days is truly a rare treat.  I typically try to stick to humor, but I hope you won’t be too scared off by a more serious post today.

You may or may not have noticed that I’ve been off the blogging and writing radar since this summer. Every day, I promise myself that “today will be the day I sit down and write.” I have an idea-list two pages long, which is coincidentally as long as my list of excuses for why I haven’t been writing, but really, it comes down to two main things.

One, is that back in March, I started a part-time consulting position with an ad agency. (Yay!) Considering that securing a job like this was the true end goal of starting, this was a huge accomplishment, and one that I am so grateful for.

I’m doing social media consulting for two clients for a total of 20 hours a week. To those of you with 40+ hour a week jobs, this probably sounds pretty luxurious, but after ten years of living on a stay-at-home mom schedule, I’m still working out the kinks of how to transition from all the duties of a full-time SAHM, to a WAHM (while also shifting the expectations of two kids who insist that I must be doing something fun like Minecraft every time I’m on the computer trying to work.)

Although my new position means I have less free time to write, the main reason for my absence is that a few months ago, I learned that my stepdad was going to be entering hospice due to complications from diabetes. Overnight, writing my goofy posts seemed trivial compared to the all the things our family was going through to adapt to the “new normal” of living our lives while we tried to accept the reality of the end of his.

In early September, I flew to Idaho to help my mom begin her new role as hospice caretaker to the love of her life. The closest comparison I can make is bringing home a newborn in terms of care requirements, attention needed and sleep deprivation. My mom has always been my hero, but in the past two months she has been promoted to saint status.

The day I returned to Texas was the hardest of my life. It’s not every day that you say goodbye to someone you love, knowing for a fact that it’s the last time you will ever see them.

Once I was home, my mind was still in no place to write. My life now a roller coaster of volatile emotions, including the occasional mental breakdown, complete with screaming “F***!” at full volume at inanimate objects around the house.

I felt guilty for going out with friends and laughing and joking while my mom and brother were still back in Idaho providing full-time care for my stepdad. I felt an overwhelming sadness and helplessness imagining what he must be going through. I felt scared after coming to the realization that I’m now the grown-up who is supposed to be able to make sense out of all of this for my kids when I couldn’t make sense of it for myself.

On October 2, my stepdad lost his long, painful battle with diabetes.

For anyone who has had a loved one in hospice or suffering from a disease that involves a long goodbye, you know what a conflicting experience this is. Even though you know it’s coming, nothing can possibly prepare you for the surprise when it finally does.

I had been grieving his loss since the doctor uttered the word “hospice.” I had said goodbye a month before. We had lived our lives in a way where our love for each other was never a secret, so there were no regrets about, “I wish I had told him….” My sadness over losing him was outweighed by the relief of knowing he was no longer in pain. There was also a morbid peace that came from being able to quiet the cycle of my mind constantly worrying about how and when he would die. He was gone and now it was time to heal.

The months before he died were so laser-focused on his illness and treatment and the “sick” version of my stepdad that I had come close to forgetting the hilarious, joking, flirting, fill-the-room-with-his-energy (-and-loud-voice) man I loved. Fortunately, ever since his funeral, I have entered a phase of re-remembering and allowing myself to not feel guilty about feeling joy because that’s all he ever wanted for everyone around him. Not to mention, watching someone you love face the end of their lives gives you a new sense of urgency about not wasting the precious moments of your own life.

It was around this time that the universe decided to drive this point home by literally putting it right in front of my face.  When I was at the Texas Conference for Women, they had placed a giant version of Candy Chang’s “Before I die________” wall in the center of the convention center. I had read about the original version of this wall in downtown Austin and had even been asked to take part of a social media effort to spread the word about it by filling in the blank for myself months before.

When that original request came, in the midst of hospice care and uncertainty, the wall had made me sad and even mad.  How dare people fill in these blanks with dreams about trips to Europe and writing books while someone I loved was living in a constant state of “I wish I would have_______.”

But now, months later, staring at that wall in the convention center, I saw it with new eyes. I saw it through his eyes. I saw it with all the hopes and dreams that he had for my life instead of the regrets he may have had about his own. I saw it as all the wonderful things in life that I wish for my children.

He was a painter, a writer and was passionate about his hobbies. He would be so mad if he knew that I had put my love of writing on hold because I thought I was dishonoring him by writing my silly stories. After all, he was the silliest person I have ever known.

The conference that day had many valuable sessions on following your dreams and learning how to make the best use of your time so you have time to explore and pursue your passions. The central message that every session seemed to come back to was the idea of having a finite amount of time in this world and how most of us squander it by making decisions out of fear and wasting time doing things that simply fill hours instead of our spirits.

That day was a much needed kick in the butt to stop using my sadness as an excuse to waste those hours, especially when my sadness was over a man who cared so much about my happiness.

It’s in that spirit that I am finally filling in the blanks that had made me so angry just a few months ago.

I fill the blanks with excitement about the possibilities.

I fill the blanks with gratitude for the gift of another day.

I fill the blanks with the limitless hopes that a parent would wish for their own child.

I fill the blanks knowing they don’t mean a thing if I don’t take the steps to make them a reality.

How are you filling out your blanks?


Susanne Kerns is a former advertising executive who started her blog, The Dusty Parachute, as a way to dust off her online advertising skills and begin her job search. Instead, she now uses it as a way to spend lots of time on the computer so her kids think that their mommy has a job. Her essays have been featured in Scary Mommy, BonBon Break and Redbook, and she has contributed to the books It’s Really 10 Months, Special Delivery and Martinis & Motherhood—Tales of Wonder Woe & WTF?!.


▶ Read more from the December 2015 newsletter.