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Chandra's Blog



October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

In one of my writing classes, we study the literary device of reverse storytelling. I ask my students to think of a moment in their lives they regret, a situation when they wish they could turn back the clock, do things differently, change the outcome. Then I tell them to write the story, backwards. Of course when I sat down to write beside my students, I thought of Nic.

* *** *




In Memory of Nicole Rhoads Peppelman*


It was standing room only at her funeral, a service that brought none of the hundreds who stumbled out of the Cathedral into the cold, early spring afternoon any closer to closure. The air smelled like daffodils dripping rain, and our whispers tumbled similarly from our lips, asking, “How did this happen? How did we let this happen?”


Before that, I sent a text to her son, telling him we loved him, begging him to hold on. I could not fathom what he was going through.


Before that, my son, his friend, clung to a conspiracy theory with a tenacity far too naïve for 13. “Someone broke in and killed them both, Mom, someone killed his parents. A robber. A stranger.” Even after my son had watched the news and read the autopsy report some asshole posted on social media. Even after the boys’ friends had written words of strength on their arms in Sharpie, he crawled into our bed at night insisting, “The police need to find who did this.”

Before that, I threw up chai tea under a gunmetal sky and the chaotic slap of the news helicopters circling overhead. I accused our mutual friend of lying. I had been planting lillies when he told me. “You’re wrong!” I  told him, throwing my shovel down so it clanged against the driveway. “I’m sure it was a gun. He shot her and then shot himself. What you just said,” I swallowed bile, the warnings of the coming tea, “that’s a disgusting lie!”

“I’m sorry,” our friend backed away, hands up in apology—none of us needed any more  violence. “I shouldn’t have said anything. But my cousin is a first responder, he was there just now. It wasn’t a gun—it was a chainsaw.”


Before that, her ex-husband choked her, stabbed her and murdered her, before killing himself, orphaning their three boys. Their oldest son came in from playing basketball to find them.


Before that, she and I were holding our littlest ones on laps at an end-of-season game, cheering for our boys on the ice, bundled in Flyers fleece blankets and sipping powdered hot cocoa gone cold. She half-joked that she was going to smuggle her youngest home with her, even though it was HIS weekend to have the kids. Farther down the stands, he overheard her. The last time I saw his face it was twisted; an ugly, angry snarl.


Before that, he came to Sunday pond skating on a custody weekend, patiently tying their youngest’s skates, carrying a generous stack of boxes--steaming pizza--and though his skin was painted with the familiar ruddy tinge of rage and hard drinking, his eyes lit up watching everyone skate under the bare birch trees, chased by the dogs. We all drank a beer, leaning against the side of his truck, basking in the late winter sunshine that promised spring, and I remember I thought, he seems to be making peace with the divorce.


Before that, I wish-wish-wished I had grabbed her arm with my mittened hand and asked, under my frosty breath, “ARE YOU SAFE?”


Different rink, same kids on laps, he started a fight. Custody stuff. Coparenting stuff. Money stuff. He played to the crowd. It got ugly fast. Foul language, mud slinging. I wished for more than a wool hat for my daughter – earmuffs, noise canceling headphones even. I wanted to leave, for Piper’s sake, but stayed, thigh to thigh with her under our shared fleece blanket, trying to drown out his accusations by cheering loudly for our boys. Squeezing her hand. I am here. SOLIDARITY.


Before that, a Christmas party in someone’s basement, too much eggnog and red wine, and she made a not-funny joke about the state of their marriage—“Why do you think it looks like I have two black eyes?” And I thought, squinting in the twinkling holiday lights, “But it does look like you have two black eyes.” I said nothing.


Before that, I heard there were problems. That she was trying to leave him. Rumors, like fall leaves, swirling on the soccer field where we cheered on our boys from the sidelines. I didn’t ask. We talked about the game. I thought I was respecting her privacy.


Before that, they stood side by side at our Labor Day party, him in ridiculous lobster print shorts, her hair in a casual ponytail. We ate burgers and drank hard cider and swapped medical war stories about our boys while the husbands chatted about the upcoming sports' seasons, and the kids played tag in the wildflower field.


Before that, I picked our boys up at their house after summer roller hockey. Happy chaos. She apologized—she had served them Mountain Dew and Doritos. He had taken the furniture out of their carpeted living room, and they were playing knee hockey with all of our kids and more, one parent in each goal. Laughing.


Before that, we got babysitters and drank too many margaritas at a tropical themed swim team fundraiser. We broke into the school gym and played couples’ badminton, husbands and wives on opposite sides of the net. I asked him the story of how they met.

“All these years of us being friends, of our kids being friends, playing sports and I never knew your love story?” His eyes shone when he talked about a pick-up basketball game, how she caught his attention by dunking on him. And I remember I thought, Oh, he loves her so.


Before that, years and years before, we met on the field hockey field, when our boys were just babies on sideline blankets. She strode across the green grass with confidence.

“Hi, I’m Nic,” she introduced herself, smiling, swigging from a water bottle, gum snapping as she pulled her hair into a shiny ponytail. She drove a ball effortlessly down the field to me like it was a late spring dandelion fluff, like it was nothing, like she would do a hundred times in our games, a gifted, generous athlete. I liked her immediately.

And I remember I thought, smiling,  “We are going to be friends for a long, long time."


* *** *


This essay is posted with permission from Nicole's family to raise awareness of domestic violence. Donations may be made in Nicole's name to the Laurel House Shelter 5k. 


Learning to Fall

For the third summer in a row, in the first week of July, Piper has fallen from something and broken bone(s). First, when she was 7, she fell off a pony on a trail ride. He caught her jaw/neck with his front hoof on the way down, and when she hit the ground, though he tried desparately not to, he stepped on her chest, breaking ribs, her collarbone and puncturing her lung. Two ambulance rides, two days in ICU, and eight months for her bones to mend.


Back on the horse literally and figuratively a year later, she was jumping a palomino at a friend's barn, and came off over the handlebars, breaking two bones in her right elbow and upper arm. Six weeks in a cast and six months of PT to regain her range of motion.

This summer, her first day of rock climbing camp, she was bouldering (climbing without ropes) a tricky V2, and at the top, 9 feet up, missed a hold and unfortunately, missed the landing mat as well. Sprained wrist and elbow fracture, left arm.

Another sweltery summer with a cast.


Piper and Mercy, July 2015








Let me back up. This started last winter, with gymnastics. After two tough tumbles off a horse (my sport), J and I agreed to her pleading to try a season of gymnastics. 



Though we both had reservations about the culture of the sport, the inherent wear and tear on developing bodies, and it being a good fit for her, we thought it might help her learn to fall. 

We bought the leotards and basement tumbling mats, learned a whole new vocabulary--brannies and Bratayleys. When the Quiet Room at the gym where I usually graded papers was closed and I had to sit in the general waiting area, I suffered through disparaging stage mom monologues that made hockey parents sound like Dr. Sears.

"Mine's that one with the big butt who still can't get her pull over. Do you see her? Pathetic. She's never going to get her goddamn ass over the bar! I told her she has no hope of ever advancing if she can't pull this off. I make her practice at home, an hour each night, but, it's useless. Ugh, I can't watch." [pound pound pound on the glass] "Get your fat butt over that bar!"

This hopeless kid? She was five, maybe six.

Piper enjoyed the class, but complained that there was a lot of waiting in line. And then, one night in February, I said the wrong thing. She was watching floor routines on the computer, musing about competing and I told her we weren't on board with that, that to us, gymnastics was about learning body control and balance, having fun and tumbling, but she was probably too tall for the sport, long term. Though we don't have a crystal ball, she is already 4'6", and in the 90th% for height.

"What?" Piper narrowed her eyes. She paused YouTube and googled, "world's tallest Olympic gmynast." For the next ninety minutes, she railed at me, sobbing. "Why would you let me do a sport where I have no chance of winning in the Olympics?!"

After the storm subsided, she came back out of her room with the laptop, wiping her eyes a little sheepishly. 

"Here," she turned the screen to me. "Watch this. This is what I want to do." It was a video of Brooke Raboutou, the Colorado-based world-record setting rock climbing phenom. Later, when I dug back in the search engine history, I saw that Piper found this because she had googled, "best sport for tall girls with long arms and legs."

the tree from which our apple fell, New Mexico 1994

Perfect. For years, in college at Arizona State University, J's whole identity was as a climber. He traveled all over, Hueco Tanks, Joshua Tree, Smith Rocks--hiking in, sleeping on cliff faces, pushing himself. Plus, though we ride horses together, all three kids golf and play hockey, Piper has been hungry for something to do with her dad, just the two of them.




They joined the local rock gym. On her second day, she was conquering routes where I had maxed out, back in the pre-kid days when J and I used to climb. She asks to go to the gym nightly, begging to do one more route when her body is clearly maxed, hanging by her fingertips off the lip of our stairs to increase her grip strength. 




Piper and J take on a challenging 5'10

We agreed she may have found her sport. Solitary, independent, constant opportunity to reach farther, try harder, climb higher. She has this quiet, jutting chin determination, a steely, silent core that is just waiting to be challenged.

And then on Tuesday morning, her third route of the long awaited rock climbing camp, she fell.

The thing is, the staff didn't realize it, didn't even write an incident report, because she kept climbing. The rest of the day, she ate snack and lunch, tie-dyed her camp shirt, played team building games and continued to quietly top rope and boulder, with a broken arm.

When I asked her why she didn't have them call me when it happened, she said simply, "Because I wanted to keep climbing."

We talked about it last night while we went on evening walk with Sampson. I told her the coach had called to find out how she was, and was astounded to learn her arm was broken.

"Did you ask him if I can finish camp later in the summer, when my cast comes off? Will it be too late to try out for the team?" she worried, and I promised we would talk, thinking one positive from the fall is that at least now the coaches know this about her. One of the biggest challenges in coaching Piper will be teaching her to respect her limits, and how to fall.

"I'm stubborn, aren't I, mom?" Piper mused.

"Pip," I told her, "you're tenacious."

"Isn't that the same as stubborn?"

I thought about this.

"Well, to me, stubborn has a negative undertone. Listen to the word--stubborn, synonym: obstinant. I picture a grouchy, hard, face, someone who has dug in their heels, maybe to their own detriment. But tenacious feels like ferocious. Like a tiger. Like someone who will not give up, even when things are hard."

"Like someone who keeps climbing," Piper said, swinging her cast hand in mine, "even if they fall."

* *** *

Waiting for the cast room, CHOP, July 2016







Ticking boxes 

Over Easter weekend, I was searching for a recipe from a Caymanian woman for a heavenly, dense cassava cake I had jotted down in one of my notebooks, when I stumbled across this:


Boxes waiting to be ticked


My To Do list from the morning two years ago, after my sister and I discovered our father, ankles crossed, jeans, soft chambray shirt and Carpe Diem sweatshirt folded at the foot of his bed, with his hand over his heart, quietly gone.

On the list, there is everything from writing an obitaury and creating a memorial slideshow that somehow honored his long and vivid life, to gathering his eight children from the corners of the country for a service. There is the mundane, like cleaning out Dad's kitty litter box and fridge and contacting his attorney. And there is the emotionally loaded--calling his cardiologist and asking for his implanted heartrate recorder to be downloaded, so I could know once and for all, if I had gotten there earlier in the day, could I have saved him? (The answer was no--he experienced a silent heart attack before dawn. Dr. Harding said he probably didn't even wake up, reminding me of the line from one of his favorite Kenny Rogers' songs, The Gambler, "the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep". )

For weeks, through shock, grief, and excruciating jaw pain from gritting my teeth at night, I woke up and made these lists, with empty little squares in the lefthand column, waiting for my attention. My sister was making lists of her own, and at night, when we would check in with each other--how many times that day had we felt sucker punched by the realization of this new reality, life without him, sometimes we recounted our lists to each other, the squares we had filled, adding items for the next day.

"How are you?" we asked each other.

"Ticking boxes."

"Ticking boxes" has become code. It means we are getting up, going through the motions of getting things done, in spite of wanting to curl up and cry.

Today, my To Do list includes attending the memorial service of a friend murdered by her ex-husband, orphaning their three boys. She died a year ago. There was a funeral then too, standing room only, and a reception, in the gym where J and I once played hilarious, margarita-inspired couples' badminton across from Nicole and her husband after a swim team fundraiser. It feels like forever ago. 

When a loss is this huge, when it comes with the baggage of domestic violence, when a whole community is broken, it is necessary to acknowledge it again. To honor and remember Nicole, for as long as it takes.

The end of March feels like death and sadness to me now. I don't want to go to this anniversary service, to relive the feelings of this time last year, and the year before, and at the same time, I can't imagine being anywhere else. 

Ticking boxes.


Mother of Girl 

Two nights ago, Piper woke me up at 2 am, standing beside my bed with her hand gently shaking my shoulder. As the dreaded 12 hour barf-a-thon norovirus just made its rounds through her school, I sat up straight, ready to bolt for a bowl.

"Mom?" she said in a tiny, anxious voice.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," she took a trembly breath. "I'm just... feeling an inexplicable sadness."

Oh. I lifted the covers of our bed like a protective wing and invited her in.

At eight, nearly nine, she is experiencing the beginnings of the high and low mood swings and sensitive feelings that may be her emotional lot for the next fifty years or so.

almost nine years ago...I am realizing this is one of my most important parenting jobs right now--helping Piper navigate these feelings, identify who she is, and doing my best to soften the harder edges of the world for her.

So I tucked her into my crook, and listened as she listed all the things that weren't wrong, but tearfully recounted that her heart just felt heavy, and she worried because sometimes these feelings happened in school.

I told her I remembered being super-sensitive in third grade, the feeling of taking on other students' embarassment or discomfort like it was my own. I told her sometimes I would go into the bathroom, and turn the sink on, and plug the drain. I'd fill the bowl with warm water, and put my hands in, imagining I was home in a bath, until I felt like I could go back to class.

I promised her it got easier, but being a sensitive person is part of why I cry when a favorite chicken dies, and pretty much every time we read The Lorax, why it is an emotional commitment for me to read a novel--because I live the characters' experiences viscerally. It is also why I rarely watch anything but the Flyers, the occasional funny movie or the most formulaic HGTV shows.


"But how can I stop feeling things so much?" Piper wailed.

I smoothed the hair off her sweaty forehead and told her I would help her learn some ways to cope, but that she doesn't necessarily want to stop.

"Being someone who feels things deeply is part of your creative, sensitive soul. It will help you be a great artist, a musician, a writer, a lover of animals. It will make you a good, caring friend, a worthy partner, and one day, an excellent mother."

"Nobody is good at all of those things," Piper scoffed.

"Um, have you met me?"

She giggled, which was my hope.

But there is a fine line as mother of girl between projecting healthy self-confidence and setting up unrealistic expectations, so I countered in a more serious tone,

"Well, I'm actually not great at everything."

"Yeah..." she allowed. In the darkness, I imagined she was making a mental list of all my shortcomings, and I started one of my own, creating my family's additions. I am often three to five minutes late for everything from meetings to car pick-up. I have a hard time staying on top of the laundry. I sometimes drop balls when juggling our crazy sports schedule, getting the right kid to the wrong field with half of his brother's gear bag and no water bottle. Dinner is frequently uninspired. I sometimes beg off reading aloud at the end of the night out of exhaustion. When I have a training project, I disappear to the horse barn for hours. I get busy with teaching and writing and work, giving the best of me to the outside world, leaving my family the dregs...

"Yeah," Piper said matter-of-factly, adding on a sleepy yawn, "I imagine you're not very good at badminton."

Badminton? And in those moments, I saw myself through her shining eyes.

"You're right, honey, I am not very good at badminton."

* *** *





In Writing 101, I posed a question to my college freshman: what are you passionate about, passionate enough to stand up for? What do you care enough about to leave your warm cozy bed and sleep out in the cold?


For long moments, there were crickets in the classroom. And then came the answers:

1. Black Friday sales.

2. Money.

3. One girl said, "Well, I have never been camping, so I guess I would sleep outside to try camping."


Before you lose faith in the youth, when I tried to come at this same question from another angle, when I thought I had come up with something to ignite a fire under their apathetic butts--a hypothetical reinstatement of a mandatory military draft--their passion and patriotism floored me. I promise you, there is hope for the future.


But this isn't the point of the story. The point is, it made me think about what I would actually leave my bed for. I started posing this question everywhere: to my own kids at the dinner table, lying beside my husband as the snow fell outside our bedroom window, at dinner parties and coffee dates, volunteer groups and morning walks.

Each time I asked it, as the other person spoke, I learned something new about them. The answers have been both touching and telling.

                                                                                                                                                                                    I'll pose the question here, and maybe even challenge you to ask it yourselves. I'm not trying to start something political (the president I want to talk about on this blog is a fat cat for sure, but more of the white belly than the White House variety.) El Presidente













What do you care enough about that you would leave your warm cozy bed, that you would sacrifice your time and energy to stand for or against, in protest or support?