Anaphylactic Shock

This winter, I got my first rejection letter. It came in the form of an email. Riding on the coat-tails of a hundred digital chain letters and forwards, it came. I was sitting outside of my children’s school, early again, I just happened to check for messages. And there it was. Dear Jessica….

Now, as far as rejection letters go, it was the first one, yes, but also probably the nicest one I will ever receive.

The piece that I had submitted took place in late spring, and in real time it was just beginning to turn from autumn’s red shaking to the stillness of winter’s quiet chilling. “You are a great writer….please submit this piece again in spring…..hope you submit again….” It was the loveliest No that I have ever heard.

Upon reading it, my first thought was, whew, well, the first one is out of the way. Now, onto the next!

Except, I haven’t submitted anything for publication since. And I didn’t tell  anyone about the trying or the failing, except for my husband and maybe one other person at the time. Within days, the carefree feeling that I wore about the letter, began to soak up all of the disappointment and shame that was in the air, until it became soggy, and almost unbearably heavy, on my unwanted shoulders.

I had tried. And failed.

Maybe my best wasn’t good enough. Maybe Mrs. Gilmore was right about me in fourth grade, maybe I would never amount to anything.


I found myself loading all my hopes and dreams into containable boxes, then stacking them haphazardly into an unsure U-haul, and unloading them, sweatily, at Maybe. Maybe, is one of the worst places. There is no amusement park there. There is no beach. No happy children running around, their laughter bouncing off the earth and causing things to grow in the soil now fertile with hope. There is only waiting. And wondering. And looking into distorted mirrors, your heart and head completely out of proportion with the things that you actually know. Everything is up in the air, and gravity does not apply, so it all might just stay there.

The air was turning colder, and so was I. Each day hung around my neck like this terrible necklace my brother use to wear. It was made of sharks teeth, and he thought it was so cool. But, it wasn’t, because teeth. But also because it would poke him if he moved the wrong way. It made him instantly less huggable (for others, I had departed that train years before) and, less believable. He had not, after all, killed a shark in our fair city, nor had he ripped the teeth from one’s mouth. He had not even strung those teeth himself. Hi, Mom.

So there I was, poky and not myself. But then, something happened. Aren’t but thens amazing? I kept writing, just because. Because my soul cannot bear to stop, because I love words more than even shoes, because I need to in order to be fully alive.

Something I wrote did not exactly resonate with several people that I love. I was strongly encouraged to be silent, to take back my words. And also, I was misjudged. And hurt, so, so, deeply. Because I wasn’t heard, and because the people I looked up to did not really see me for who I am, and because my own heart laid bare on my little blog, and it was rejected.

But that time, there was no letter, and no please submit this same piece again, only later.

Now, I am no stranger to rejection. I think if you will review the tapes of my life, you will find a period of years known as junior high and high school, where I wore my boy crazy heart on my polyester sleeve. I can remember with painful accuracy having many conversations with different boys in our youth group, that all went mostly the same way. Me: confessing my feelings, laying out my Seventeen Magazine approved desire to move our friendship to the next level. Standing there, in some poorly lit corner, making Gloria Steinham proud, being the pursuer, and roaring with my own impending womanhood. Then watching as their faces twisted in discomfort, like they had a secret gas bubble on a first date, that was begging to be set free. Only, this wasn’t a date. It was youth group, and they did like me, just, um, not the way they liked my skinny friend.

If there is an emoji for pity, it was probably developed in the basement of that youth center.

Rejection. I am probably as allergic to it as I am to bees. Its sting hurts no less, and it certainly has the power to take the breath from my lungs. It, also, makes the ground sway and weave, until what was flat is rolling like the sea, and you just want to sit down, but you can’t feel your hands or feet. And suddenly, you are sitting in the nurses station, surrounded by paramedics, needing intervention to be able to breathe.

That happened to me. When I was 20, and a counselor at a camp for low-income children. Before I lost consciousness, I was standing there, and my friend pulled down my pants and gave me a shot of epinephrine. In front of Everyone. But it saved me. It bought me time for the other help that I needed to get there.

And that’s kind of what happened last winter. I said my truth, which I still stand by, and the ground was ripped out from under me. I lost my footing a little bit, because suddenly everything was so shaky. And then, there I was, my pants around my ankles, for all to see.

But then, (See? But thens are good.) some people believed in me. And because I had chosen to walk in the light, and had not done what I was being accused of, I remembered to breathe.

I know now, that whether my exhales are ever published or not, I cannot let the shock of rejection stop me. Winter might be cold, and dreary, but it is always followed by another Spring.


Obituary Section

When I die, I’d like to donate all my viable organs to people who will be grateful for them, and actually take better care of them than I have. But not my whole body. I will not be giving this giant bag of flesh to science for research, or any other purpose.  I have already had my fill of people standing around and staring at my body, without really knowing the better parts of me, thank you very much. But my eyes, and any internal organs, those are all up grabs.

I hope, that whoever, or whomever, gets my eyes uses them to see things that are as beautiful as my life is full of, or I guess, was full of, at that point.

But what, as the commercial use to say, will they write on my tombstone? It has to be brief, those tombstones are fairly small. The original twitter, offering one last tweet to sum up a lifetime of living.

“Here lies the leftovers of Jessica Rae Ingram Vaughn. Mediocre Wife. Exceptional Mommy. Amazing Sister. Hilarious and Loyal Friend. Occasional Writer. Dedicated Truth Teller. She was shy when it didn’t matter, and courageous when it did. Forever Loving. Forever Loved.”

I think that would be nice. And mostly true. And also long, which is fitting for me. Brevity seems to be my arch enemy.

I especially like the bit about forever loving, because that’s my goal. I suck at it sometimes. And sometimes I don’t. But you know that part in With Honors, Joe Pesci’s best movie, where he is doling out all his worldly goods postmortem, via his hand written will? Well, he gives Moira Kelly’s character something and says, “For (whatever her name is), who knows how to love.” I saw that part over 20 years ago, and it still makes my breath catch. Can you imagine a better compliment? No, neither can I.

So, that is my goal. My end game.

And yes, I am vain enough to keep wondering. But, also to keep striving to live that way. Even tonight. Even after today. Even after I practically ran from the house screaming because all the children and all the chips were stacked against me, or thrown at me, more likely. My sweet babies, whose angelic faces I adore,  joined forces in some kind of Unified Urban Spring to overthrow their dictator today. I’m almost proud of their effort, it was so wonderfully and intricately constructed. My little Revolutionaries.

It’ll be funny in a few days. Just, not today.  Today, I am sitting in a café, drinking tea while some college man/child plays soothing music on guitar, contemplating my own mortality. This manchild, who is not half as good a musician as my husband, and who I have no doubts could not handle five children. He is too calm. Too soothed. He plays slowly, needily, looking around to see the impact that his playing is having on those around him. I could not bear to watch that smooth veneer crack wide open when the children broke all of his finest things. I can barely watch this calm cloying, his virginal fingers meeting the hardened metal strings.

I hate to tell you, buddy, but the people playing dominoes, couldn’t pick you out of a lineup. The guy at 12 o’clock, well, I’ve seen him eat a half pound brick of cheese straight out of the package, like it was a freaking candy bar. And the selfie king by you, is only using you for Facebook/Twitter/Instagram creed. Whereas, I appreciate your trying, as much as your reminding me of how amazing my husband actually is on the guitar. It kind of soothes the rug burn of his needing another guitar every few months. Well, a little. But, play on.

I’ll just be sitting here, planning for my hopefully not too imminent demise. Lovingly.


Two By Two

At this time, eight years ago, I was being wheeled into an operating room. I was 36 weeks to the day, pregnant with twins. Two little girls that surprised me by coming at the same time, two little girls that surprised me by coming at all. But there I was, my nerves and emotions jangling, skeleton keys in ill-fitting keyholes.

At 7:10 in the morning, my first daughter was born. She came quietly, a graceful ballerina making her way onto the stage of the earth. Two minutes later, at 7:12, my second daughter, and mini me, arrived. She was alert and vocal, neither of which have changed in the eight years since.

I laid there, feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by emotion, overwhelmed by relief, overwhelmed by hormones, and deferred pain. I remember being so worried that I was incapable of loving them as much as I already loved my then three year old son. There was no way, and I knew it. Except, like so many other times in my life, I was wrong.

As the surgeons stitched me back up, nurses brought over my little 5 pound miracles and introduced us. We all, my husband, about 20 medical staff members, and I, sang them Happy Birthday. I told them hello, and that I love them so much. And that’s when it happened. Some veil in me was torn. Some hugely selfish part of my heart broke open and spilled its darkness out of me, onto the sterile linoleum floor, then righted itself and filled back up with love. My heart ached and hurt, the same way my shins had in fourth grade when I grew over five inches in a year. Growing pains. And thank God, because I needed to change.

Soon they were whisked away, up to the NICU for a full diagnostic, and I missed them. I mean, I missed them. In the way that you long for your best friend as your family drives away to a new city, your house still in the rear view mirror, missed them. An hour later they were back in my arms, sweet and warm, and always needing to touch each other to feel safe.

I felt joy and panic weave together into some kind of tapestry or rug, one that I would walk over many times. I was not ready for them. I was too selfish, too immature, too used to only having one little sidekick that I could take on any adventure. One boy, who went everywhere with me, Canada, Disney World, Seattle, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, etc.. All at the drop of a hat. Usually his. I probably left baby/toddler paraphernalia in 7 different states. At least. And suddenly, there were three of them. Three children that I had to take care of. Three children that I had to raise. Three children that I had to be an example to, and keep safe.

To say that I was terrified, would be a monumental understatement. My two weeks of postpartum depression looked like postpartum anxiety. I rocked them to sleep, swaying wildly between new mommy bliss and barely contained panic. Icantdothis, Icantdothis, Icantdothis, became my empowering mantra when the two were asleep. Gloria Gaynor was wrong, I would not survive.

And then my father would say, just get some rest, just go lay down, it’ll work out. And so I would, and then I would wake up refreshed. My father, who I had still not forgiven by then, for all of the cracks in our relationship that started when I was three. He, who was so hurt by his parents, that he did not know how to love me. Except, suddenly he did. Because it wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about him, it was about them. And isn’t that the only way to love fully? To have it be all about the other person?

For us, it was. And so, in loving them, my father and I found a way to come back to each other, as much as we could then. It was unexpected, and shocked me, to have the voice of reason and calm be the one I spent high school and college defying. But, there it was, and so were they, and suddenly I had my own family.

The last eight years have not flown. They have crawled, and walked, and sometimes run by, in a flash and flurry of changing so many diapers and doing a million small things that make me worthy of the title Mommy. There have been tears, and whispers, dreams shared, and fears overcome. There have been hurts, and joy, hopes, inside jokes, and so much laughter. But always, always, love.

Today, we celebrate the birth of two of my babies. The day that the sky cracked open, and the whole world became better. The day that love decided that I would become something better than myself, and that our whole family would learn to love better than it knew it could. We celebrate eight years, so far, of experiencing the miraculous, wrapped up in everyday clothes. We celebrate their lives and their journeys, all the ways they have taught us, and all things that they have learned.

And while I can barely remember life before them, I remember that it was their arrival that taught me that love won’t keep us waiting. That love sometimes comes before we are ready. And that life is surprising, but can also be twice as good as we were expecting.