Thoughts from Dad’s Memorial Service

Here are the notes from the thoughts I shared at Dad’s memorial service yesterday. Thought it would be good to share it here.


There’s no other way to say it: losing Dad is the hardest grief I’ve faced. I know I’ll never stop missing him and I’ll never stop wishing we had all had more time with him. Especially my kids.

But I also know I’m profoundly lucky that for 35 years, I got to see his humor and kindness and generosity firsthand. As his daughter, I feel like I got front row seats to a large part of his life, and I’ll always be grateful . . . because I got to see what it looks like to love well.

I’ll never do him justice properly here today, but a few things come to mind:

In Dad, I saw what it meant to work hard for your family — I remember the squeak of the front door at 5 a.m. as he left to catch the bus to the shipyard each morning. He’d come home tired from long days of submarine cut-ups, but he rarely complained. And despite his long days at work, he seemed to have a lot of time to give us and others — he was completely generous with his time and energy. If we had a game or a concert, if people around him needed a hand, he showed up.

Dad was my earliest example of love and loyalty — it was always clear to me how much he loved Mom. Some of my earliest memories are of them skating face-to-face, Dad twirling Mom around the rink, like ice-skaters without the ice. They were terribly romantic.

Though we all agree Dad was the world’s worst Christmas present giver (the Snuggie was a real dad-classic), Dad was good at doing thoughtful, consistent things during the rest of the year to let Mom know he was thinking of her. Before he’d leave for work, he’d make sure her mocha was there on her nightstand. After she made dinner, he’d do the dishes, and then he’d rub Mom’s feet while they watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy together. As a kid, I wondered about their quiet evening routine. Now, with kids of my own, I totally get it.

A few nights after Dad died, Mom and I found a check that Dad had written Mom on their wedding day. It was made out to her, and in the amount line he’d written, “All My Love.” They were married 39 years, and I know she’d say he honored the check he wrote and the promises he made that day.

As his daughter, my mind jumps immediately to the things he taught me to love: the ocean. The woods. A good cup of coffee. A long book. The sheer joy of singing loud to a good song with the window rolled down. A good road trip.

When I was seven, my family drove from California to Wisconsin in a minivan. Because for some reason that sounded like a good idea. One morning out on the road, it was still dark and Mom and Kevin were asleep in the back seats. I was sitting up in the front seat and Dad was explaining time zones to me between slurps of black coffee. I’d never thought about sunlight hitting different parts of the world at different times, and was floored by this newfound information. What didn’t my dad know? I pecked at him with every question I could think of until I began to notice the first rays of light coming up over the horizon. This was my first Midwest dawn, and we both fell silent at the shared sight of the huge sun rolling alongside us. It’s one of my favorite memories with Dad, even now.

My dad showed me how to savor things, how to really pause and enjoy a moment.

I’m tempted to stop there, but there’s one more thing I want to share about my dad — a memory that I’ve come back to over and over again this past 3 weeks.

If we’re lucky, each of us have a moment we can point to when we were loved much more than we deserved. This is mine:

When I was in my early 20s, and knew everything, there was a time I felt like maybe my Dad and I weren’t so close. He’d done nothing wrong — I was just a girl who needed a lot of words, and Dad was always more of a doer than a talker. Somewhere between time zones and my twenties, we’d gone a little quiet.

The moment Dad realized I felt this way, he reached out. He called me and took me out for coffee in downtown Poulsbo. He walked with me out onto the gazebo, where he took a deep breath and nervously asked me what he could do to make our relationship better. He must have cleared his throat about a dozen times. He looked so earnest. And so uncomfortable.

As we stood there, I remembered Dad showing up to every recital, every musical — closing his eyes and smiling like he’d never heard anything sweeter. I remembered Dad teaching me how to put a worm on a hook, then spending the next 20 minutes pulling fishing line out of a tree. I thought of all the times he’d rescued me after flat-tires or dead batteries or car accidents. All the times Dad snuck a 20 into my wallet even though I hadn’t told him I was low on gas. I remember him calling me at work: “Just wanted you to know I stopped by and mowed your lawn for you.” I remembered him helping me move. Thirteen times. Up and down flights of stairs.

It’s downright painful for me to think about now. Here stood my dad, for whom words were so difficult, humbly meeting me where my immature heart needed him to.

He was saying with words what he’d been clearly showing me all my life. He loved me and would do anything to show it — not because I particularly deserved it in that moment, but simply because I was his girl. It was as clear a picture of generosity and grace as I’ve ever seen.

That moment is, in some ways, one of my dad’s biggest legacies to me. It makes me want to be better at giving and receiving love. I want to be good at stepping out of my comfort zone. I want to be good at seeing love — even when it’s not perfect.

It was hard for us not to get to say goodbye to Dad — he went from Mom feeding him soup in his hospital room straight to whatever comes next. We talked about it and we all feel like we’d have said something more, stayed a little longer, had we known. But in the end, there was nothing that needed to be said, no apologies that needed to be given or received.

Our only real regrets are that we ran out of time. We all loved each other a little imperfectly, but we loved well all the same.

I think Dad’s memory will inspire us to keep loving each other as well and as much as we can.

He’s also inspiring in me a new appreciation of classic rock.

Pretty sure he’d be glad to know both those things.


on leaping part 2


Deciding to have a second child didn’t even seem like a real decision to be made. Both of us knew we were on board for 2, so there wasn’t much hemming and hawing. We simply got overly nostalgic the week of A’s first birthday and took the leap into a second pregnancy.

It was a little hasty, but it was fun.

A third child, however — that’s a whole other kind of decision. Or at least it was for us. We discovered lots of very logical reasons not to. Buy-one-get-ones don’t work evenly anymore. Restaurant booths aren’t built for 5 people. Airfare anywhere becomes a nightmare. You create a middle child. Add another college tuition. You have to get a bigger car. Etc. Etc.

And in our case, a third child represents more than the simple time and expense of another child (not that it’s ever simple, not really). In our case, we know there’s at least some possibility that we might be adding another set of feet that need orthotics, or another several years of speech therapy. (That not counting the other surprises that are also possible with any new child, the things you never know to think about until they happen). I worried more than once that people would judge us for having another child when our first two have some “extras.”

Since F was a year old, we’ve talked about a third kid. Shelved the conversation. Talked some more. Shelved it again. We had each had moments where we thought “maybe”, but we just weren’t sure.

And yet.

When our ultrasound technician said, “Yep, that’s a penis,” at F’s 20-week screening, I was elated. Two brothers, so close in age . . . I loved the idea of raising little boys. (Still do, though I’ve seen quite enough penises, thankyouverymuch). But I have to admit that it left a strange question mark out there that was probably a little more pronounced than if we’d have had one child of each gender. It’s hard to know if we’d have felt the same either way, but all I know is that I didn’t feel done.

It probably didn’t help that as we sat there in the ultrasound room, my darling husband said, “Somehow I just think we’ll be back here again,” in a moment of loved-up fatherly insanity that I definitely took too seriously.

A few weeks after F’s arrival, I had to go back to the hospital to drop off my nursing pump. I had a visceral moment there in the elevator as I headed up to the birth center: I knew in my gut that someday I would be back. The tears came then. I was hormonal and crazy and sleep deprived, yes — but my heart was sure.

How dangerous those moments become. And how quickly. I worked to bury that moment, knowing that you can’t base life-altering decisions on your guts. (Never mind that I had leapt into marrying Justin — my best decision — on just such a sense).

I remember how relieved I felt when, after talks with geneticists, we were told that, while we were likely to have kids with slightly low muscle tone (so: kids just like us) and there was the possibility of mild temporary issues, we had no more risk than anyone else does of having a child with severe challenges.

“I’m just so relieved to know the door isn’t closed,” I said on the drive home. That crazy hope quickly resurfaced.

I once heard a woman announce to our entire small group that she and her husband’s new year’s resolution was to get pregnant that year. She confided to us women later that “Well, I’ve got him at about 80%.” I didn’t have children yet, it wasn’t even a thought yet, but I remember thinking: there’s no 80% when it comes to kids. I knew that I didn’t want to ever have kids unless we were both on board.

For a long time Justin was not so sure about becoming a family of 5. I felt bad — for the both of us, but mostly for him. There’s nothing that’s fair about a conversation when one person wants something so huge and the other person has all the burden of saying yes or saying no. It wasn’t fair and we openly acknowledged it.

I should have guarded myself better, but the truth was that, somewhere in that year of talking about it, a third child had somehow become more than a hypothetical question. It was more like a potential person — another member of our family — was hanging in the balance. I started thinking things like, “Well, it’s not like a minivan would be so bad. And how often do we even fly anywhere anyway?”

Again: it’s so unfair to put that decision on someone. But I also knew I loved my husband more than I loved a possible third kid. It had to be both of us or none of us. And I knew that if he asked me to, I’d let it go. It was just that, after over a year, I needed to know there was a time coming when we’d have come to a decision and I could either let my heart go nuts or I could grieve some and move on. The not knowing was almost harder.

The internet being the font of knowledge that it is, I actually googled — a couple of times — “having a third kid.” One site said: “The number one reason to have a third kid is so you can stop talking about whether or not to have a third kid.” I have to agree.

I’m almost too ashamed to write what helped us land. The first was a sort-of joke: I told Justin that most of our board games are 5 player games, which he said was the most compelling item in the “pros” column. The second was an example of just what kind of man I’m married to and frankly, it humbles the shit out of me.

This one particular morning, I knew he’d landed, but I wasn’t sure what he’d say. He took a deep breath and said, “The truth is that I was already 75% on board anyway. Our kids are cool. But our life is already crazy. And with another newborn — that’s such a rough time. But when I was thinking about it, I realized it would be easier for me to run the gauntlet with another baby than it would be for you to let go of another person in our family. I’m in.”

“…I do have conditions though. This. Needs. To. Be. Our. Last. Kid. You need to feel done this time. Also, are sexual favors on the table? I’m kidding. Kind of.”

A few months later, when I was sure he was sure and our children were more reliably sleeping through the night, we took the leap.

My pregnancies have always run like clockwork and I already knew to be grateful that somehow I’ve avoided the heartbreak of losing a child in pregnancy. But this third time, we had a scare early on and I had to go in for some tests. My hcg levels were really high but they couldn’t see an actual baby yet, which concerned them. They said I’d need to wait a week, and on the next scan we’d see if the pregnancy was viable or not.

It was a long week. I didn’t sleep. I learned how quickly I get attached.

I discovered — and wept to — a newer song of Regina Spektor’s in which she sings, “the piano is not firewood yet/ they try to remember but still they forget/ that the heart beats in threes just like a waltz/ and nothing can stop you from dancing . . .”

The way it worked out, I had to go to the second scan by myself, since Justin needed to stay with the boys. I listened to that song on repeat all the way to my appointment.

The ultrasound room had a big computer monitor mounted up where I could watch the scan. There was no keeping it together when she said, “There’s your baby. And it looks just like it should.” I’ve had blurry eyes at each of my scans all through my pregnancies with both boys — can’t help it — seeing them is magic — but this time I was an absolute mess of relief. The tech had to hand me a tissue or 5, but I didn’t care.

She told me I’m due Mother’s Day.

Baby girl and I are now 22 weeks along. Once this is all over, I know I’ll say it went fast, but it doesn’t feel fast. I’m tired. Nothing tastes good. My sleep is garbage. Heartburn and headaches rule my days. And I know too much about how amazing it is to meet the baby to really revel in being pregnant like I did the first time. There will be no photos of me holding fruit next to my belly in my Facebook feed and I have been too busy taking photos of Ash & F to stop and take a bump photo yet.

Every now and then when I’m particularly miserable and sick of pregnancy I think: I must have been crazy. But then I remember Justin’s prediction at F’s ultrasound. I remember me in the elevator. I remember the morning Justin leapt to 100%. I feel the baby kick, as she does often these days.

Yes. We are crazy. No one sane ever does this a third time. But she is and has been so very wanted. I’ve been dreaming of her a long time and cannot wait to finally meet her.

Til May, little girl.


1. Guarded

These moments come out of nowhere: “So, I was thinking of getting him a book of Bible nursery rhymes.”

I stammered just a half second too long. My reply came out high and a little choked. “Oh! Oh. Um. Okay. Yeah, that would be fine.”

My mama knows me too well. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. It’s not something I have to get for him. I know you guys are sensitive about that.”

And there I was, trying to explain something that always seems just outside the reach of clear expression. I said chances are, it would be fine. That as long as it was age appropriate, I wasn’t worried. Yes, I knew that a child’s Bible nursery rhyme book should be age appropriate, but I wasn’t completely confident without looking at it. One year seems a little young for Jesus on the cross. Well, maybe come to think of it, maybe J and I would look for something we felt comfortable with. Etc. Etc. Etc.

The phone call ended a little awkwardly. I cried the rest of my drive home, though I couldn’t have explained why.

Mom texted a little while later, her words gentle. She wanted to be sure I was okay.

I called her back and, for the first time that I know of, was able to explain why I’m sensitive about how and if my kids are introduced to faith.

Right off the bat, she said: “Guarded. Guarded. That’s the word I should’ve used.”

“It’s okay, Ma. I knew what you meant, so I took it the right way. Thanks though.”

Right in that moment, I thought: what a gift to us — this careful rephrasing, this automatic translation. It’s a tenderness we fought for together — years of clumsily pressing through painful misunderstandings to the healing just beyond. This hard-won ground is worth it.

I fumbled through an incomplete version of what follows.

I grew up a very scared, very guilty kid. I don’t mean to say I’m devoid of happy memories or that I was somehow unloved. Though we weren’t a particularly communicative family, we were a silly and loving one. But what I learned at church impacted my more-than-usually-sensitive spirit in a way I’m sure my parents were completely unaware of.

Though they’d grown up around religion, my mom and dad first embraced it for themselves just before I was born. Me? I was literally born on Thursday and in church on Sunday. At the age of 4 or 5 I walked up to the altar of our small Assemblies of God church and said the Sinner’s Prayer to ask Jesus into my heart.

I was the Sunday School poster child. Fairly precocious, I sang solos before I could even reach the microphone for myself. I came every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night without complaint — eagerly, in fact. I memorized the verses, read my Bible, said my prayers, was baptized.

But I was still a sinner. And I knew it. Every mis-step, every sin was catalogued — not by someone else, but by me. I’m sorry became reflexive.

I remember regularly lying awake at night in my bedroom, at all of ten or eleven, tearfully asking Jesus to forgive me for the sins I’d committed that day. As I stared at the ceiling, I ran through every mistake I could remember. Asked forgiveness for the ones I’d forgotten (and for forgetting them in the first place). It was all run-of-the-mill sinfulness, I’m sure — a bad attitude here, an unfinished chore there — but what did it say about my appreciation for Christ’s suffering on the cross that I kept messing up? With all my heart, I promised that I’d try harder to do better the next day.

I didn’t see Jesus as my personal buddy, and I didn’t see him as a wrathful man-god, either. He was kind-hearted and good and he was disappointed in me.

I had all of the guilt of Catholicism with none of the clear-cut absolution.

Being saved isn’t enough, either. At a Missionettes (Assemblies of God Girl Scouts) overnighter, a leader sat with me in the dark after the other girls had gone to bed. That night’s message had been about the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, one of the A/G’s core tenets (whereby people speak in a heavenly language they cannot understand). “Just keep singing something simple, like Jesus Loves Me, until other sounds come into your head. God will give you the words.”

We sat a long time. The former happened, I suppose.

Things got worse once I learned about the Rapture. My Sunday School class watched the original Left Behind movie when I was about 12. A small panic arose whenever my family wasn’t exactly where I thought they should be. My personal vigilance increased.

A voracious reader, I blew through This Present Darkness when I was about 13 (for the blissfully uninitiated, it centers particularly on demonic possession in leathery, sulfurous detail).

The dreams started then. I’d wake up, still in my dream, unable to move. An evil presence there in my room had rendered me completely paralyzed. If only I could say the name of Jesus, I’d be free — but my tongue was thick, my jaw locked tight. I’d be trapped in mute terror for what seemed like ages, until God had mercy on me and I’d somehow be able to say the Name. Those dreams continued occasionally until even after I was married.

People often worry about what will happen if young people don’t take the Cross seriously. It doesn’t occur to them what might happen if they do.

My therapist expressed relief a few months ago once we finally stumbled into the Church conversation. I hadn’t mentioned it because in my mind, it didn’t have anything to do with why I was there. She said that up til then, I was a bit of a question mark for her. Articulate. Creative. Good childhood. Loving partner. Lacks confidence. Anxiety-ridden. First one to ascribe bad motives to herself.

For her my experience of church was, in some ways, the missing link.

“Teach your children that they are broken. Deeply broken,” a pastor in Illinois recently tweeted.

“On behalf of therapists everywhere, thanks for the job security,” someone replied.

My mom’s voice grew stern. “I didn’t know all that happened. I wouldn’t have been okay with it, either.” Then she grew teary: “I had no idea. I wish you’d have asked me about it.”

“Mom, I didn’t know there was anything to ask. As a kid, you think everything is as it should be — you don’t question. I figured if there was something wrong, it was wrong with me.”

I don’t know how to tell her that maybe no one was doing anything considered inappropriate by religious standards. If growing a good little Christian was the goal, mission accomplished. But guilt and crucifixion and hell and sin are tall orders for adults. Kids have no filter. I had no filter.

We cried together. And it doesn’t fix everything. Or anything at all, maybe. But there was a warm, deep comfort in knowing my mother’s first instinct wasn’t to question me.

It was to protect me.

It’s what I’m trying to do now. For now, it’s enough for my boys to know they are deeply, deeply loved.

FB part 2: Communication is easier, not (necessarily) cheaper

Well, all my initial misgivings aside, it’s been a little over a month and it’s been lovely.

A few thoughts:

—The break has been nice. The quiet has been nice. I felt more focused, both on the kids during the day, and on work in the evenings. I’m tempted to take every September off. It’s nice timing because . . .

—I’m in the midst of a busy season with work that has no real end in sight (this happens every fall) and I’ve had more internal resources for it this year (see also: wasn’t an insanely stressed banshee of terror).

Part of that definitely has to do with seeing a counselor and finally learning how to deal with anxiety better (hey! only took 33 years!), but I think the other piece came from sharpening my focus and limiting where my emotional energy goes. Home with my 3 boys and work. That’s more than enough sometimes.

I also worked more quickly when I didn’t have Facebook to distract me from the blank page and the blinking cursor!

It was a relief to find that “thinking in status updates” and the urge to check my smartphone went away fairly quickly once the break began. There were some times I thought, HA! This would be so great to post! and other times I missed interacting with friends (one of my dearest friends just had a BABY! for Pete’s sake — and yes, I cheated and pulled up the pictures) but generally, the thought pattern faded to the background.

It was a nice reminder that social media is as ingrained in my life as I allow it to be.

—I realized that social media amplifies my many self-conscious tendencies and that, online and off, a lot of it simply isn’t worth worrying about. I’m working on confidence in my in-person interactions, so it makes sense that this would be an area of growth online too.

There’s always going to be some self-righteous jerkface on the internet talking about how their sooooo tired of people’s pictures of their dinner/vacation/children/pets and how they’re sooooo much better because they only post links to NPR articles or whatever. They can de-friend me anytime they want to. In the meantime, I get to choose the experience that works for me and my life right now. Kid-land is where I dwell and I like having a place to share and catalog the mostly-enjoyable parts and find a little support for the tough stuff. I’m done with allowing snobs to ruin it for me.

There is always the possibility that someone will judge me as a narcissistic moron for posting too many updates or photos of the kids. But it’s probably not the most likely scenario. Again. The unfriend/unfollow button. People get to take responsibility for their own social media experience. Problem solved.

The place I do want to adjust is how I participate in more involved discussions (especially with folks I disagree with). I know myself better than to think I’ll shut up completely or that all my mistakes are behind me. But I’d like to change my approach somewhat. If it’s worth a comment that’s longer than a sentence, it’s probably good blog post fodder. I don’t have the energy for a Facebook fight, but I do like a chance to work through what I think and why. The blog is a much better platform. Anyway. Remember that time someone was challenged and thought about changing their long-held position because of a comment they read on Facebook? Yeah, me neither.

—I may have been wrong about the communication being cheap. It’s easier. Not cheaper.

It’s only cheap if I think all 200 or so people on my friends list are my very best friends and that FB offers the very best interactions. They aren’t and it doesn’t.

But it’s kind of like gchat or texts during the day from J. I love that we’re able to be in contact on and off during the day. It wouldn’t work for all couples, but it’s a huge win for us (and helps keep me sane when caring for the tiny overlords). It doesn’t compete with an in-person conversation or the sweet notes J leaves me sometimes in the morning, but I love the connection, the casual updates on how the day is going. I’d never call it cheap.

There’s the big friends list. And then there’s the 5-7 people I talk to most often. I value those conversations. If we could hang out face to face we would, but I’ll take what I can get. Nothing cheap about that.

I enjoyed this Ted Talk on this very subject — still thinking about it and trying to decide where I land. If you watch it, let me know what you think!

F turns one!

It’s hard to believe, but the littlest Lawlis turned one at the end of September. He got his first 4 teeth this past few weeks, he’s starting to walk short distances when he thinks we aren’t looking, and he’s starting to sign a little. We’re loving it. Every day, Justin comments on some new aspect of how adorable F is . . . one can easily understand how, when A was about this age, we decided to give him a brother. 🙂

This past Sunday we held a party in F’s honor, and in what I guess is now a family tradition (if 2 times = a tradition), we dedicated him during the festivities with many of our friends and family present.

Having grown up in church, baby dedications are something I saw regularly. A beaming couple brought their baby up on stage, the pastor asked them a few questions (almost like vows for parents) and then he prayed with the family. Even if I didn’t know the couple (most times I didn’t), it was always a sweet moment to witness — just sensing how special it was for them as parents.

Justin and I thought about it and realized that to us, it would be more meaningful to dedicate F with people who do know us well and who will be around as our boys grow up. We aren’t currently connected to a big brick-and-mortar church, and sometimes I wonder if we will ever be. But we do have a tribe, and it seemed important to make our promises with them there.

So, Daniel — who, after marrying Justin and I, marrying my brother and his wife, and doing both our dedications, is now considered the family chaplain — sat down with us in our living room, a little packed with our nearest and dearest.

Justin and I sat, holding hands. I got a little teary, as I always do at such moments.

Dan asked our family and friends if they would stand with us and support us as parents . . . if they would cheer on our son as he grows. They said they would.

F, unaware of the solemnity of the moment, stuck a matchbox car halfway in his mouth and was quite pleased with himself.

Dan asked us if we would be an example of love and grace to F . . . in our love for each other as well as for our boys. He asked us if we would raise him to care about people — all people, including outsiders and misfits — the way Jesus did. He asked us if we would raise our son with grace and be willing to say we’re sorry when we make mistakes, as we of course will.

We said we would.

Dan prayed. And that was it.

Such a simple thing, but a powerful thing. To have my dear friend and mentor walk Justin and I through yet another set of vows, to have our friends and family around us, to fumblingly ask God for help in raising our boys . . . it was a tangible reminder that J and I aren’t alone in this. During many of the unexpected challenges of the past few years, I’ve often felt alone, but we aren’t. It was good.

And there was cake.

I hear this is how cake is done.
I hear this is how cake is done.
I don't care if I'm named after you. This cake is mine.
I don’t care if I’m named after you. This cake is mine.
Note the sugar-high-crazed eyes.
Note the sugar-high-crazed eyes.
The camera almost didn't survive.
The camera almost didn’t survive.

Thanks to everyone who made it out (and those who weren’t able to make it but who love and support us all the same). We’re grateful.

Team Lawlis & Team Serdahl
Team Lawlis & Team Serdahl
Justin and Grandma Lawlis
Justin and Grandma Lawlis
Grandma Rich & F
Grandma Rich & F

I was generally a photography fail the rest of the time, but here’s a sweet moment with Grandma Rich after folks went home.