A Year of Hell, Part II: A Break, Some Condensed Hell, and a Party


After 36 hours of torturing our children with comfortable seats, blankets, games, and snacks, we arrived in South Carolina. Patrick had slept a little here and there, but Colleen had been up almost continuously for three days. She was tired, too tired to sleep, and not happy about it. (Let me tell you, hearing your daughter beg so hard for sleep she can’t even catch her breath is not something I’d wish on anyone.) As soon as she was released from her chains of captivity (and saw Grandma and Grandpa) she lit up like a Christmas tree. She even managed to run around and play for a little while at 2:00 in the morning.

Finally, both kids were asleep, and my wife and I crawled into bed. We were both too wired up to sleep much, but at that point, even a few hours was welcome. Besides, we now had a whole extra day with nothing planned, which is a rare enough treat, plus we had a house full of willing babysitters to help with the kids. Throw in a pool and a cooler full of beer, and things were looking up.

Not to miss an opportunity to keep things interesting, Patrick chose that day to decide that only Kim or I could hold him. If anyone else even thought about it, he’d start screaming. No big deal; he was probably just adjusting to his new surroundings. He’ll be fine in a day or two.

My sister had already been there for a week at this point, so she’d had a chance to visit the party venue and give some thought to adjusting decorations and whatnot to fit the new room. It wasn’t ideal, but we could make it work. Our contact at the venue was still being vague about a few details, but we were doing our best to just work around that. It would be OK.

We spent the day mostly relaxing and talking and eating, as we generally do whenever my family gets together. I made plans to run some errands for the party the next day, including a visit to the venue so I could see it for myself. Again, things were looking up.

The next day went more or less as planned. I ran my errands and I visited the venue, where I learned that our contact would not be there the day of the party. That meant we could safely ignore all of her stern finger-wagging and work with the much more reasonable guy who would be there. We only had two hours to set everything up, but we had gone over the plans so many times, we could do that.

The following day was the party. The schedule was pretty tight, but we had it all arranged. We had a few extra hands who volunteered to help. We could do this. We arrived at the venue a little early, unloaded everything, and got to work. Then we got a surprise.

When I spoke with the venue coordinator, she told me the tables were 3′ wide. So, I bought 3′ rolls of paper to cover the tables. The tables were actually 30″ wide. A small difference, but it meant that we had to fold down the edges on every table. The tape we brought wasn’t strong enough to hold the folded edges in place. Half of our setup team spent the entire two hours trying to get the paper onto the tables. Even so, by the time we were leaving, we could see most of it popping up. We bribed our guy to show up early for the party so we could get back in and finish the job.

So, a smaller team skipped Mass with my parents to go back to the venue and retape the tables. Now, in all fairness, I was probably more concerned with this than I needed to be, but at this point, a year of planning was getting wrenched over 6″ of paper. It was a stupid little detail that didn’t really matter, but it really affected the overall look of the room and some of the decorations couldn’t stand up on the tables. (Plus, I overheard a few snarky comments on MY poor choices in the paper and tape department. After a year of planning and some bad information, those didn’t sit well with me.)

We had about an hour to finish before the party started. It would be tight, but we were on track to make it. Until the guests started showing up about 35 minutes early. When you only have an hour, 35 minutes is a lot. Within another 10 minutes, we had a crowd. I was literally running back and forth, trying to answer questions, chat with folks I hadn’t seen in years, set out the appetizers, start the music, stash all the garbage and boxes, and generally finish setting up for a party in half the time I had hoped.

The party was halfway over before I could catch my breath and stop sweating. The rest of the ‘core’ setup team was in the same boat.

All in all, the party was great. There were a handful of details I would have changed if I could have, but I couldn’t. Most of the people there didn’t even notice. The kids were on their best behavior all night. Most importantly, my parents had a great time, celebrating 50 years of marriage with almost all of their family and closest friends.

I dragged myself into bed that night, feeling a special combination of physically exhausted, mentally drained, but emotionally satisfied.

Up next, Part III, which will probably be pretty anticlimactic after all of this. On the other hand, work starts on the roof tomorrow, so who knows what that will bring?

A Year of Hell, Part I

[Editor’s note: Please forgive the confusing verb tenses in this blog post, as it was written over the course of almost two months. What was the future is now the past, except for what is yet to come.]

The years of our lives don’t always follow the calendar. The crap pile of a year I’m calling 2013 actually began for me in September of 2012. That’s when I left a job that I loved and held loads of promise to get even better. It was an incredibly difficult process for me, trying to balance my dreams and desires against my ethics and standards, but in the end, I had to let it go. In hindsight, it was the right choice, but that hasn’t prevented it from haunting me.

This was also about the time we became a one-car family. The beater we bought to get us through became too expensive to maintain, so we had to let it go. I discovered later as I was going through the paperwork that it had actually been rolled and totalled before we got it.

I had big ambitions as 2012 drew to a close. There were a number of large projects around the house that I was finishing: new windows throughout, painting the exterior, lots of wiring, and I had even hoped to start on the plumbing. As winter settled on Minnesota, I had to concede that not all of it was getting done, but I still felt OK about what I had accomplished. I started to get a little more comfortable as a stay-at-home father of two, even if it was exhausting. My daughter started using the potty pretty regularly, and it seemed like maybe we’d be down to one kid in diapers soon.

Somewhere shortly after the new year, things began to fall apart. Even as my son started to sleep through the night a little better, my daughter stopped. I think it was a delayed reaction to bringing home a new baby, but she started to get very needy, demanding more and more attention. She stopped using the potty, almost with a vengeance. She took hours, literally, to go to bed each night. My wife and I would spend every night from around 6:00 until 11:00 or so trying to calm her enough for sleep.

She and I were getting a little stressed at this point. Our free time was from about 11:00 PM until 5:00 AM each day. That’s when we would eat dinner, wash the dishes, and try to get some sleep. She was still getting up with the little guy once or twice at night.

Fortunately, I was keeping reasonably busy with my DJ work through the winter. It’s usually pretty slow during the colder months, but I managed to do alright. It also gave me time to get the groceries each week, since Cub is open 24 hours.

I had gotten really aggressive with my diet, giving up caffeine, most dairy, most animal products in general. After two years of serious dieting and exercise, I was down to the last 15 pounds I needed to lose to hit my target. Then the lack of sleep started to take its toll.

First, I stopped getting much exercise. Colder weather and icy sidewalks made it hard to get out, two kids not sleeping made it hard to do anything inside. Plus, let’s face it: it’s hard to get motivated when one can barely stand.

Then I started having a little more caffeine. And a little more. And a little more. Then it was time to admit that I was drinking coffee daily. Then I’d have a little more when I was working late.

Then my diet started to fall apart. Healthy, natural food fell to the side in favor of food that was ready now.

Then the pounds started to come back. I fought and fought, but I just couldn’t keep the weight off anymore. My doctors kept telling me to get more exercise, and somehow they couldn’t understand that I didn’t have it in me to work out when I was sleeping three to five hours a night.

My wife was in the same boat. She had the added bonus of having given birth six months earlier, which as you may know, can cause a woman to gain a pound or two. She actually enjoys exercise, and had been itching to get out and run, but she was sleeping even less than I.

We were both getting cranky. We barely spoke, not out of anger, but as a practical matter. When two people are only awake in the same room for an hour a day, there’s only so much conversation to be had. We both felt bloated and sluggish, but couldn’t find any way out of the cycle. Every day was the same: crawl out of bed, feed the kids, wash the dishes, do the laundry, repeat, collapse. My meals generally consisted of whatever my daughter left on her plate and whatever I could microwave at 2:00 AM.

I started dragging myself to a yoga class each Saturday morning, and that helped a lot. The exercise was great, but it was also the one hour a week I had of serenity and adult interaction.

When spring came to Minnesota, it brought its usual renewed sense of hope. This time was going to be different. I was going to start making decent money as work got busier. We had a number of major projects lined up for the house, but they were solidly planned and prioritized. It would be a busy summer, but it was achievable.

Every Saturday I was either working a wedding, working on the house, or both. I was still exhausted, but I was DOING SOMETHING, and that felt good. I got most of the trim done on the windows. I built six new garden beds (plus a little one just for my daughter!) I hadn’t started on the plumbing yet, as we were still running the boiler almost every night, but that could wait. We had the whole summer ahead of us.

We had two big events planned, too. In July, there would be a family reunion in Wisconsin. In September, we were throwing a big party in South Carolina for my parents’ 50th anniversary. Over the last couple years, I’ve been gathering some information on the family to try to get a decent family tree together, and the reunion would be a great opportunity for that. The party in South Carolina would just be fun. Both would give me chance to meet some new people and get reacquainted with others.

Work was pretty solid. In fact, August was lined up to be very busy, and I was likely to make more money that month than I had since my daughter was born.

Yes, this summer was looking good. Until it wasn’t.

In April, my brother-in-law suffered a terrible accident while on vacation. The first report we got was three broken vertebrae in his neck and he’d likely need surgery. As the weeks went past and he saw more and more doctors, the news did get better, but it was still going to be months of treatment and therapy.

In June, there was a big storm and a tree fell on our house. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the roof didn’t fare so well. The contractor (who was selected by State Farm because they were more or less preapproved for whatever repairs they felt were necessary) told us we’d be getting a whole new roof, no problem. The insurance adjuster, however, thought it would make more sense to try to get a variance from code to do a crappy little patch job. In the mean time, the roof continued to sag, causing more damage to ceilings and walls.

In July, I started to get a little sore. I still wasn’t sleeping or exercising, and I had put on some weight, so I wasn’t too surprised. It got worse. There was some swelling. Eventually, it dawned on me that I had been through this before: it was another hernia!

I ended up in urgent care to get a diagnosis. I had to cancel on a wedding that night; I ended up in the emergency room instead. The hernia was definitely expanding and getting more painful. The ER doc didn’t believe me or the UC doc. He found an infection, and decided that was impossible for me to have more than one medical problem at a time. So, after blood tests, urine tests, an extremely uncomfortable ultrasound, and a CT scan over the course of eight hours, he gave me a pill and sent me home.

So, I had to schedule another appointment to get the hernia rediagnosed. Much like the UC doc, this doctor found the hernia in seconds. We scheduled the surgery and discussed recovery times, follow-up procedures, etc.

All this was just in time for me to clear my schedule for August. Remember August? My busiest month, in which I would make really good money again for once? Yeah, cleared it.

Still, we had the family reunion in between the diagnosis and the surgery, so that would be fun. Sure, I’d rather be feeling 100% for that, but it was Wisconsin, so I knew there’d be beer.

Well, the kids were still having a pretty rough time. There hadn’t been a lot of sleeping, and now my son had stopped eating. Instead, he chose to subsist entirely on milk again, which led to some pretty serious constipation. Yeah, all day away from home with a plugged-up one-year-old. That’ll be relaxing.

My wife and I ended up spending most of the reunion taking one of the kids for a diaper change or outside so their crying wouldn’t disturb anyone. I hardly managed to speak to anyone there. Still, there were some good times mixed in there, and I was glad we went. We visited the old family farm, which my daughter loved. I got to meet a few new family members and learn a little about my ancestors.

By the time we got home, we were wiped out. I was actually looking forward to surgery, when I’d be forced to relax for a couple days.

Yeah, no luck. Within 24 hours of getting sliced, things were going badly enough with the kids that I had to get back to laundry and dishes.

A couple days later was National Night Out, and I was heading up our block party. I couldn’t really lift anything yet, but it still went well. We had a pretty good turnout, lots of food, and more folks were just starting to drift in when the rain started. So, we quickly tore everything down and scampered back home.

The next couple of weeks were a bit of a blur, as I tried to do as little as possible while still caring for the kids and maintaining a household. The anniversary party was looming, but we had a pretty solid plan for that. I was on the phone almost every day arguing with someone at State Farm about code violations and roofing repairs.

Then the party plans started to fall apart. In some ways, it was a good thing: we had gotten so many “yes” responses, that we had to change venues. No big deal, there was another room in the same building we could use. We were going from 65 people in a room that holds 75 to 120 in a room that holds 350, which would involve some creative space-filling. Our main contact at the venue was kind of a dingbat, and in the end, we just decided we’d have to show up and make the best of it.

Finally, the time came to load up the car and head to South Carolina. Right before we left, we got a phone call from State Farm that they would rewrite the estimate to cover ALL of the damage to the house: new roof, structural repairs up to code, ceilings, walls… everything. The party plans were as solid as they were going to get. We had ECFE class in the morning with the kids, so hopefully they would be tired when we started driving. My daughter hadn’t slept at all the night before, so she was due for some serious sleeping. I thought this was my turning point. After almost exactly one year of lousy timing and bad circumstances, things were looking good.

Nope. My wife didn’t get to start her packing until after midnight the night before we left. Instead of having everything ready to go and getting some sleep, we ran and ran and ran all night. And the next morning. Then that afternoon after class. Finally, two hours late and soaked in sweat, with everything but the kitchen sink crammed into the car, we left.

Then the screaming started. First one kid, then the other. Then both. Then they’d get quiet just long enough to make us think it was over. It wasn’t over. It wasn’t ever over. We stopped for diapers, we stopped for snacks. We stopped to try to soothe them. For every two hours on the road, we spent an hour stopped.

We had planned to do the 1300-mile journey in two and a half days. Things were going badly enough that I decided to just keep moving. Like tearing off a Band-Aid, it seemed best to do this quickly and be done with it. We made it 12 hours the first day, and it took 18 the next day to finish the trip. I’m pretty sure those were two of the worst days of my life; I could probably write a book about them, but I won’t. In short: our first stop was for coffee and sandwiches, our second stop was cleaning three gallons of vomit off the car seat, our third stop was for Febreze. The first 100 miles took over three hours. I drank some coffee, I fantasized about starting a new life as a troll under that next overpass, I drank some coffee, we listened to “Family Time” by Ziggy Marley 736 times (the song, not the whole album), I drank some coffee, we were chased by a psychotic truck driver, and I didn’t need any coffee to stay awake for a while after that. We missed getting creamed by a drunk driver by a matter of inches, we had a few not-so-proud parenting moments, and by the time we arrived, my daughter had slept maybe four or five hours over the course of three days. On the plus side, we now had a whole extra day at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.