by Shannon Dorton
It was December 1st, 2016 – Four months since we lost my brother. My anxiety was running high that day. I was new to having anxiety – I had previously always been able to take things in stride – not a lot bothered me, my feelings rarely got “hurt,” and I hardly ever lost sleep at night. However, I found myself in this new world of vulnerability and anxiety.
In the six weeks prior, we had taken several family trips, and I just wasn’t “myself.” I was moody, on edge, unprepared, smothered, and lonely all at the same time. My thoughts were scattered and overwhelming. I had lost patience and my ability to rationalize. On the other hand, I had gained weight, extra responsibilities at work, and a heart full of pain. I lacked the skill to communicate what I needed or wanted to Todd…hell, even to myself.
Every day I would wake up and wonder if that would be the day that the Autopsy results came in. Four weeks came and went. 6 weeks. 10 weeks. 12 weeks. No one had heard of an autopsy taking this long. 14 weeks. 16 weeks. I knew it had to be any day now. The first thing that morning, I drove to a local charity to drop off the gifts we had purchased for a little girl we adopted for Christmas. It was a wet and dreary day. My head was hurting, and I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like my shirt neckline was choking me, but I made it – I pulled myself together to run inside and drop off the gifts.
As I headed home, my head hurt worse than it ever had. I was overheating and could barely focus on the road. I pulled over, took a few deep breaths, and sent a few emails to cancel my calls that day. I knew it would be impossible to work. When I finally made it home, I stumbled inside and called Todd, but he wasn’t available. I took my wet hair down from my bun, kicked off my shoes and threw off my jacket. I was barely able to breathe and needed help. I called another friend who lived next door, but she wasn’t available either. I found myself wondering outside in my neighborhood, panicking and looking for anyone to help me. I even knocked on a few doors just trying to find someone to catch me when I fell. I had never been more scared in my entire life. I gave up and headed back home, sure that someone would at least come in and find me at some point that day. Finally, both Todd and my friend called me back. I’m not sure they could even understand the words I was saying, but they both rushed home to help me. I crawled upstairs, vomiting, and in complete panic. As someone who was always in control, I couldn’t recognize what was happening. Thankfully, both my friend and Todd made it home to help me. My body was exhausted and dazed. I had no control over what was happening or how to stop it. It was a panic attack. My first of several. All of the stress, grief, and anxiety had built up so much over those four months that my body shut down. It could not continue in the same manner and neither could I.
I share this very private and deeply personal experience to show just a small part of what has fueled my intense desire for change. Most who know me often speak to how strong I am and how my outlook is mostly optimistic. Those same people may be surprised to hear a story like this from me. Even I can’t believe it sometimes. And this is just one of many over the past nine months.
There is the time when I find myself feeling happy or joyful and then I’m stung by a pang of guilt just moments later. Guilt for being happy at that moment, for just being alive.
How I barely spoke any words for two weeks after arriving home from Hawaii. Somedays, barely even moving. How my sweet, dear friend went and bought the same clothing I was wearing just so I would change – because nothing else was as comfortable as that one outfit I had been wearing. How my husband managed house and home – I was home for days before I even saw my children, because I couldn’t bear the thought of responsibility. “What kind of mother can’t take the responsibility of her children,” I thought, adding insult to injury. I have many similar stories that could fill up more blog posts; I suppose I’ll save those for another time.
In the weeks after my panic attack, I started unfolding the lessons I had learned from Dion:
From these lessons, I started cultivating my WHY. And then, through hours of conversation and buckets full of tears, Todd and I started developing our family’s WHY. It was a welcomed distraction and paid tribute to Dion at the same time. We have begun saying NO to things so that we could say YES to others. We started reducing the items that didn’t add value to our home. We have begun actively learning how to get through each day together. I’ve radically changed my views on nearly everything in my life: I’ve sought counseling, shifted my priorities and learned about self-awareness and grace. I’m more in tune with myself than I’ve ever been – and yet still learning how to uncover my truly authentic self.
We are happiest when we are together, free to roam, and without an agenda. And so we flipped our lives upside down in search of those days. For now, for us, state park-ing is the answer. That sting of guilt creeps up as we pull into each park, but I am learning to harness that guilt and bring Dion along for the ride instead.
So much had happened since my Brother-n-law passed away in August, my in-laws had some major health issues and my mother had a fall at home. As we came into the New Year it was very clear to us both that we were running out of steam, Shannon was/is still struggling with processing her grief, and I was feeling stretched, overwhelmed, sad, lost and just frankly confused. I wasn’t sick, physically hurt or grappling the same pain as everyone else but many days I sat at work on the verge of tears. How do I help my wife, my in-laws, my parents, my children and leave enough left to help myself?
Currently, with regards to health, everyone has stabilized and is on the road to recovery. Like I mentioned in my original post, the grief is like the ocean, some days the water is calm, sometimes there is an unexpected storm slamming the beach. You’re just never sure what they weather will be. You can’t cancel life because of inclement weather. Shannon came up with a wild idea that we should invest some time in and focus on
something that we enjoy, put some energy into something else, start spending time doing things we enjoy. Somewhere along the way she came up with the idea that we should hit the road this year and travel to all the Missouri state parks. There is 56 of them!!! Let that sink in. Shannon has spent hours and hours mapping out our calendar of trips to the parks. Some we will drive to for day trips, other we will camp. Many trips will just be the four of us, but others will have guests. We bought a travel trailer, that’s fancy talk for a camper that you tow behind your vehicle…this is the moment when most people start to think we are crazy since neither of us knows anything about towing ANYTHING.
For me, this is about defining who we are as a family, resetting our focus and living a life with a bit of adventure. As a family, we were spread thin and stretched between all the burning fires. Our youngest child, Birdie, came into the world the day my father-n-law had a stroke, and we had all finally got back to somewhat of a “post-crisis” life when all hell broke loose again. For Shannon, I think it is more simply about her brother, while I don’t recall him being a big camper or even really being into the state parks but that’s not the point, He was really into the outdoors and loved nothing more than hanging around a fire pit with friends. He had recently started to travel and experience the world outside of his hometown, travel was new for him, and he was excited about it. Traveling does something to people; it’s like magic. It changes your perspective and shows you endless possibilities. For him, I think it was freeing. I believe Shannon sees this as a way to connect with him, a way to experience some of the activities that he loved but more importantly a way to continue his journey.
We have been to fourteen parks as of Sunday. My original plan for this blog was to tell the story of each of our park visits. Clearly, I am a little behind! Here is a brief recap of our adventures so far.
Edward “Ted and Pat Jones – Confluence Point State Park – It is only by chance
that we started at the park where Lewis and Clark set out on their epic adventure. I don’t recall from history class what it was like for Lewis and Clark when the started out, but I should, you can’t be from Missouri and not hear about Lewis and Clark at ever turn. For us, I don’t know if I have the words to explain the feeling of that day. We were naturally excited to get started.
Don Robinson State Park & Robertsville State Park – A quick day trip is better than anything else we would have had planned. You simply can’t beat a sunny day and a picnic lunch looking over a Missouri bluff
Big Lake State Park, Knob Noster State Park, Wallace State Park, Weston Bend State Park, Watkins Mill State Park, Lewis and Park State Park, and Rock Island Trail State Park – We were busy, seven parks in three days. It’s a lot. The girls and I explored Kansas City while Shannon worked during the week and when the weekend came we visited the parks in the KC region. When you go to so many parks in one weekend, you realize a few things. First off, not all parks are amazing; some are worth hours or even days of exploring and others are worth a drive through and a bathroom break. Secondly, seeing the excitement on your wife’s face when finding the elusive Rock Island Trail in the small town of Windsor, MO is priceless. We had almost given up trying to find the newish offshoot of the Katy Trail, but after choking down some Sonic Drive-In, we took the advice of a man on a horse and finally found the trail. Shannon’s excitement is what this adventure is all about.
This is who we are and what we love to do, this is us at our best. Shannon and I have always wanted to raise our children to be dreamers and wanders, kids that love being outside as much as the love a smartphone and camping has always been our happy place. Combine that with the state of Missouri celebrating 100 years of state parks this year, and we have a recipe for adventure calling our name. My yard at home has gotten a little less attention than it normally would in the Spring, and our Summer is already pretty booked with park visits, but in exchange for that we have already experienced so much. We have laughed and cried. We have found ourselves lost on back roads and wandering through the forest. We are making memories, processing grief and learning more about each other. This journey may not solve everything, but the therapy we get from a hike in the woods, from the smell of a campfire, or from hitting the road is all we need right now.
It was hard to write a follow-up to my first post, mostly cause it was hard to shift to a new topic but also cause I got such a great response and now I was feeling some pressure. I have written this one three times already.
Today is day four of being an at-home dad. How’s it going? I will spare you all the stories of how its hard work and should be considered a “real job”…it is and probably should be, but we all know that. The gravity of the change though has finally struck me; I QUIT MY JOB!!! After seeing my last paycheck deposited in my bank account on Friday, its hard for me not to think about the decision our family has made.
1) The new normal is strange. Waking up in the morning without really having to worry about the alarm going off. That stress of taking a quick shower, grabbing your clothes for the gym, dressing two kids and shoving food in them and then cramming them into a car to dash to daycare. You get to work late and get through the day but you been up most of the night, either due to the kids or to stress, and then you dash back to daycare, cook dinner, baths for the kids and back to bed. We repeated that cycle every day over and over, and now it is suddenly was gone. This week, the only feeling I had was “oh crap,” do I have enough time to shower without having to talk to a pooping toddler before Shannon goes into her home-office to work…that’s the moment I realized that things were dramatically different.
2) They said it was going to be a challenge and they were right. I didn’t use the word “hard” because I like the word challenge better. Being with a one-year-old and a three-year-old child basically around the clock is not for the faint at heart, no matter how much you love them. Four days in and I can clearly see how this can be very isolating for many people, it’s like you are on an island. An island with only two other survivors. One is always pooping, and they other is always asking questions about pooping. Bottomline: it is challenging, but I have confirmed what I always knew, I REALLY enjoy my kids.
3) Before Monday I HATED playgrounds. As Robin Williams’ character in the movie Hook, I have been quick to forget the magic of childhood. I have realized children live their lives on the playground. It’s where they fly to the moon in a rocket, slay the evil dragons or captain a pirate ship. If you are not participating, you’re missing the magic, and the bonus is they will take long naps when you get back home.
4) Money matters – but what are you using it for? As a kid who grew up just outside the city limits of Ferguson, MO, where I thought all the rich kids lived, no financial plan will ever make me feel 100% comfortable. I spent my entire adult life trying to live as high on the hog as I could get and just to stop and start trimming the fat, is like quitting a drug. I immediately jump to how I want a new car (I DON’T NEED A NEW CAR) and then rationalize through how the want for that new car is out of fear. Keeping up with the Jones’ is so real – FIGHT IT, PEOPLE! Just ’cause you neighbors get new counter tops doesn’t mean you need them also!!! I have everything I need, and the things we need the most right now are free. (Seriously though did you see those counter tops!)
5) You will never work in this town again. It is no secret to those that know me well, that I am often a ball of anxiety. It is in many ways my biggest gift: it fuels my curiosity and my creativity, but it can also be very limiting. I have always tried to stick to a traditional career path. I worked for a huge company for close to a decade because it felt like it was safe and secure. My most recent employer was much smaller, and it opened my eyes to different ways to get to success. I have learned about entrepreneurs, and others who have been wildly successful and what I have noticed is that most of the successful people out there didn’t do it the way everyone else did. They wondered, stumbled, failed, and then the shifted to success. Many probably think I am killing my career, hell I have considered it, but I see it as a potential catalyst for something great. I see nothing but opportunity. I feel a bit of freedom to take on some smaller projects in my spare time that I might not have ever considered.
6) Who is wearing the pants? Well not me, I am at home, I don’t have to wear them. I am not going to worry about the stigmas that come along with being an At-home dad. There are tons of them out there, the one for a while that had prevented me from taking this plunge sooner was that men leave the workforce because they can’t cut it. I been successful in my career and excited to take on the challenge when I return to work. I am a hustler; I will make it happen. The other stigma is the one that attacks my manhood, PLEASE, they have been attacking my manhood since middle-school. Clearly, I am doing something right.
7) Was this the right decision for the girls. It all comes down to this for me, yesterday my three-year-old, Fancy, got to help the Postal Worker lock the mailbox doors in our neighborhood mailroom – it made me instantly feel like we were walking through Mister Rogers’ neighborhood and that Shannon and I had made the right move. She was learning from being out in the world, and it was awesome. With only a few days into this new “job,” while still trying to get my feet under me, It was a lesson I needed to happen. While this is still very new, this is exactly what Shannon and I have wanted for our children. It made me feel confident in our decision. Big moves are better than not moving at all.
I love my girls, all three of them. It has only a week, and we haven’t even got to the really fun stuff that we have planned. I know being an At-home dad was 100% the right choice, and I have spent every moment trying to imprint even the smallest details in my mind. In a flash, it will have passed, in a few short years, those playgrounds will no longer be rocketships to far off planets. The magic fades, and I will have to give them to the world.
If you haven’t already, check out my About page for the background on why I decided to become an at-home dad.
I have been sitting here trying to figure out what my first blog post will be. What should my style be? What tone should I use? All that kind of stuff is bouncing around in my mind, and starting seems very overwhelming. For weeks people have been asking me to start this thing, and so here I go…now I have to type something. As my wife, Shannon would say I have an opinion on everything, so this should be easy. Well, it is not! This blog is going to be a story about change and family, but before we get on with that, I should tell you all about Hawaii.
Shannon and I went to Hawaii last summer; it was a reward trip she earned through her sales job (I am a very lucky man). We had been there once before, liked it, thought it was beautiful but never had a strong urge to return. We travel a lot and probably take for granted some of the trips we go on. Our indifference on going back was not a slight on Hawaii but more about we like to always go to new places. Thankfully, the second chance to go to Hawaii opened up the door for us to explore places we had missed the first time, mainly Pearl Harbor. Shannon had given birth to Birdie about seven months prior, the arrival of the second child was amazing but like many couples adjusting to the second child came with some stress on our relationship. We were beyond excited to be a family of four but finding that family rhythm took us some time to find. So we were excited to have some time one on one time together.
We arrived in Hawaii, hopped in a Jeep Wrangle and spent a couple of great days in an Airbnb on the North Shore of Hawaii, driving from beach to beach, eating at the local food trucks, trading travel stories with our 67-year-old surfer-lady host. I can only speak for myself, but I felt alive and energized. Hearing how our host had hopped a freighter to the Pacific rim when she was in her early 60’s planted a seed in my mind that there was more out there than just work, home, work.
On my birthday we said good-bye to the North Shore and drove down to Honolulu and met up with some of our travel friends from Shannon’s work. We spent the day at Pearl Harbor I have always been fascinated with WWII and to be in Pearl Harbor and see it first hand was an amazing experience. I was overcome with all this emotion and curiosity, and it was much more somber than I naively thought it would be. While standing at the memorial above the USS Arizona, you can’t help but be caught up in the fact that you are standing above a sunken tomb. It is POWERFUL and MOVING, one f the best experiences of my life. After a long day of sightseeing, we spent that evening celebrating my birthday in the restaurants and bars on Waikiki Beach, telling stories, laughing, drink champagne and just having an unforgettable time. We woke up the next morning slightly hung over, put on our swimsuits and headed to the airport to hop islands. We were headed for the pool at our hotel on the Big Island.
The plane landed, and we were ready to go, excited, connected, happy. Shannon checked her phone, and there was a voicemail. You know in the movies when a bomb goes off, and there is this loud ringing noise but still quiet at the same time, that shell-shocked feeling they convey so well with excellent sound effects. Shannon’s 27-year-old brother had suddenly and without explanation passed away. In a blink, everything changed. I remember Shannon screaming, some man asking me if he could help us get our luggage and the employee at the gate asking me if everything was ok as we walked off the plane. I remember someone unknowingly putting Leis on us, and a group of people praying around us in the middle of the open-air terminal and us. The airport was very open; there was nowhere for us to go for privacy, Shannon was hiding under her baseball cap that she bought last summer in Canada as if that was a shield from all the vacationers passing us. It was still deafening and quiet at the same time, and I was struggling to hear and even actually speak.
My wife had lost her brother, and there should be a whole other book worth of pages explaining who he was and what he meant to her and the family, not sure that I can do that part of the story as much justice as his sisters would. I was supposed to go to the movies with him the day before we left. We didn’t have a lot in common, but we loved movies, and we both loved Shannon. I bailed out on the film because a lot was going on with getting ready to go on vacation, you just never know when a movie is just a movie or when it could be something more important.
Since we were on a company reward trip, there was a lot of event staff around that jumped in to help me figure out what our next steps were. I was failing to grasp what was going and how to manage the situation…Those last three words are important. It’s taking me a while to figure it out, but you can’t “manage this situation.” My intentions were always good but my execution over the next several months at times were more like a robot than a spouse. After around 6 hours I finally persuaded Shannon to go to a hotel and sleep until we could get a flight back home. We sat in a beautiful hotel room overlooking the ocean and counted the minutes until we could get away from this “awful” place. It took us nearly a full day to get back, and I am not sure we spoke all the much…there was a lot of silence. Three flights later we were home.
Shannon had lost her brother, her best friend, and a major part of herself. All of us were forever changed by that day in many different ways. My part of this story, which for the record is the only version I feel comfortable telling, is, of course, the part of a brother-n-law and a spouse, and unprepared support person. I watched grief and loss swept across our family like a dark thunderstorm rolling over one of those beautiful beaches on the North Shore. Our near perfect life felt like it was being torn to shreds beaten by an endless wave of loss that doesn’t go back out to sea when the morning comes. Those of us that were in the position of being the support people were ill-equipped with the right knowledge or tools to effectively help, and in many ways I think I made things worse. I have had to accept that this husband, who is a pretty good project manager in his work life can’t manage this monster of a storm. I didn’t have the years of friendship or blood relationship with him that the others did, they have been devastated by his passing but it’s hard not to be impacted profoundly no matter what their relationship was, I loved him like family, and I love my wife more than anything.
This post is about many things but first and most importantly is about the loss of my brother-n-law. It’s secondly about you truly only get one shot at life, and it can end in a blink. Thirdly this post is about giving a back story to the start of us shifting our lives, this post is the flashpoint that finally pushed us to change our lives, and the rest of this blog is about the life after