By Christina Blust

I bet you are awesome

In October of 2012 my sister Vanessa got one of those recordable books where you can read the book and store the recording for later, safe in the book itself and able to be accessed later at the press of a button. It’s a book to be read to a small child. I had no children at the time, and no real plans for any anytime soon, but we already knew by then that she was going to die and Billy and Jessica helped her get the book to be ready just in case.

"Christina, This book was for sure intended for your maybe babies! :) Hope they or her/him love it! OK "maybe mom" i bet you are awesome with your kid(s). Love you! Vanessa."

Reading this note gives me so many feels about the slow progression of Vanessa’s cancer. By October 2012, she had already started confusing and simplifying her words. Billy and Jessica had to help her record the book, slowly and carefully, page by page.

I am overwhelmed by how Vanessa had no idea what was in the future for me, but that even through the confusion of brain mets she still “for sure” had faith in me to be “awesome.”

Because everything changed after that. My marriage fell apart, and then Vanessa died, and then slowly my friends and family helped me find ways to grieve it all and be strong by myself again, and then I fell in love again on accident, and then I moved to Nashville “to see if this relationship can work,” and then it did work, with this wonderful person — a spectacular, kind person whom Vanessa never knew and who never got to know her. And then I got pregnant, and Jimmy and I were sort of terrified, but we took a deep breath and decided to walk together bravely towards the unknowns of our future. Then we got married, in a wonderful ten-minute courthouse-adjacent ceremony where I was scandalously, gigantically pregnant and couldn’t stop giggling the whole time, and where I could have almost burst from the enormity of hope and love present.

Then the sister that I still have left threw me a baby shower, and afterwards gave me this book that she had carefully kept wrapped up safe in her basement on the off chance my life would change to welcome a “maybe” (now no longer maybe) baby.

And then I went to the hospital to have this baby, and when right at the beginning the IV was botched and my arm blood was all over the bed and it hurt like hell and we hadn’t even got to, you know, childbirth yet, I thought of Vanessa and her years of treatments and surgeries and how she never complained, and how, when she told me on the phone that her cancer had metastasized to be terminal, she tried to comfort me.

And so then I had a daughter, an actual living human who I still can’t believe they just sent us home with like we’re grownups and know what we’re doing or something.

Then the Winter Olympics opened this month and I was jolted to remember that it was the Winter Olympics, eight years ago, when we first learned that Vanessa was going to die from her stupid, horrible cancer, and how I spent that day in 2010 shell-shocked and frozen and staring at the television to have something else, anything else, to think about.

Maybe Dottie will be a hair-twirler, just like her auntie Vanessa.

Now my daughter, Dorothy Vanessa, is two months old, so little and so infinite. She is beautiful and good, and she will never know my sister, her aunt, the beautiful and good woman who inspired her middle name. I take cute videos of my Dottie and then I send them to Mom and Jess in the group chat we have, and we all feel but don’t need to say how Vanessa should be in that group chat too because she deserved to be, she deserved to live to see what we are all becoming, and it is so sad and so wrong that she has been gone for four years.

Oh! My heart.

This never gets easier. It just changes, from year to year. I am humbled by my sister’s faith in me. I am staggered by and so very grateful for her love, even now.

Sixty-three ornaments

You may remember from Billy’s guest post how he and V went to Ten Thousand Villages and bought 21 years worth of Christmas ornaments to give to Max, Myles & Leo. That’s 63 ornaments!

One of the Ten Thousand Villages ornaments V bought for the boys, handcrafted in Nepal. How cute is this guy, seriously!! If I remember right, I think it’s on the docket for 2013 or 2014.

The basic idea is to have sets of ornaments that the boys, Vanessa’s three nephews, can open each year at Christmas. They’ll all be wrapped and ready, stored in Jess’s attic, ready to open one set a year till 2032. It’s been a group project from the start. (Vanessa had the idea back in Vanessa 1.0 days, and we all wanted to encourage her to tackle the project, since it was such a great idea.)

First off came The Great Ornament Purchase, where Billy and Vanessa spent hours at Ten Thousand Villages picking out all of the ornaments, even cozying up to the saleswoman and getting a special early go at the inventory in the back. A few days later, Jess, Vanessa and I carefully decided which ornaments would go with which years — the smells-like-cinnamon one first (lest it lose its delicious scent before it got opened!), then soft and colorful ornaments for the early years, and then the more delicate ones for when the boys are a bit bigger. Vanessa tied gold and silver ribbons on each one with “LOVE V” and the corresponding year written in Sharpie.

Another day, Mom came over and she, Vanessa and I spent hours wrapping up the ornaments. We put everything in boxes with colorful tissue paper, then carefully wrapped everything, with Mom patiently helping V pick out the wrapping paper, then cut it, then fold it, then tape it, then pick out a gift tag sticker, then write their names and year to open the present…We said things like, “Max will be 17 that year!” and “OMG they’ll have armpit hair! And smelly feet!” and “Whoa! In 2032 they’ll be 25, 23 and 22!”

I was struck by so many things during these lovely afternoons. How Vanessa’s handwriting again looks like it did in 1992. How deliberately she wrote “LOVE V” on every ribbon and every label. How “2032” looks like a made up number, not a year. How nobody knows anything about where they’ll be in 2032. What will that Christmas look like? Will it snow? Who will be there? Who won’t be there?

Vanessa doesn’t ask these sorts of questions much these days. She’s very focused on the NOW, on the project in front of her, on whatever is in her hand at the moment. But I am grateful for the legacy she is already leaving us, the one that prior versions of herself came up with and that the current version carefully contributes to, even if not entirely remembering why she’s doing it. I know if I ever have kids (and again, who ever knows?) I will buy them handmade ornaments and sign them LOVE V and give my children a gift from my sister, through me.

Two women from the Association for Craft Producers in Nepal. ACP producer benefits include “medical and counseling services, a savings program and retirement fund, paid maternity and paternity leave, education allowance to encourage education especially of daughters, low-interest loans for producer groups, clothing and household allowances, and seminars on health, nutrition and women’s rights.”

And I was struck by how great of a choice Ten Thousand Villages was — a company that helps communities across the world live sincerely. How many hands from so many countries made these little ornaments that we attach our own meaning to. Because look at these women! They are part of the Association for Craft Producers in Nepal, and they are creating the little lions that Billy helped V pick out, that made me and Jess go “AWWWWW!”, and that Mom helped pack up and wrap for a future Christmas. These women are sitting together at a table in the sunlight creating something meaningful, just as I sat with my family at a table in the sunlight helping their creations find a home. These women and the stories behind their stitches will be part of the Yaeger family Christmas tree just as much as Vanessa and the stories behind her handwriting will be.

I am so humbled by these stories and the way they weave through each of us.

Thanks, Fox19!

Jessica, Katy, Vanessa & Billy at the Fox 19 set.

On Thursday, Channel 19 continued its coverage of Vanessa’s story and showcased this site and The Live Sincerely Project. We’re so grateful for the support we’ve gotten from our communities, and a special thanks to Fox correspondent Katy Morgan.

If you didn’t get a chance to see it, you can watch the clip here.