Inspiration

Feeling inspiration is always great, but I want to share a little about the other meaning of the word: the drawing in of breath.

Most people take it for granted. There’s no thought required, unless you want to hold your breath or blow out birthday candles. Before I was diagnosed with asthma I never thought much about it.

As a kid I could run – and place with the fastest – in any kind of sprint or short race. But in the Presidential Fitness Challenge the 600-yard dash was my undoing. We ran five sides around a large square of grass, and I usually walked the last two or three with stitches in my sides, panting.

Though I never went to a doctor about it as a child, as an adult I developed a wheeze. Like a squeaky toy under a rocking chair. It actually took me months to finally get checked. I wanted to try all the home remedies I could before going to the doctor, but the diagnosis was exercise-induced asthma. Surprise.

The only effect on my life was occasionally using a rescue inhaler. Maybe five or ten times a year. Not hardly worth the expense of the medicine, and I’d often use it way past the expiration date since I used so little.

My personal experience with asthma attacks was one year on a women’s retreat when an older lady got to laughing too hard and had one. I was helpless. Between a few of us someone thought to run back to her room and get her inhaler, but the woman herself couldn’t speak to give us instructions. She had to concentrate so hard on moving air in and out that she couldn’t waste it on talking.

Inspiration – the drawing in of breath.

Not easy for her to do. In fact we were about to call 911 when she was finally able to pull in enough air to send it over her vocal cords and say she was feeling better.

I cannot tell you how many times over the years I’ve thought about that night. Her distress, my ignorance of what was happening to her, our panic as a group, the way that several voices at once can drown out the silence of the one who can’t speak.

We tend to listen to the voices we can hear. When they go silent, our own thoughts and sounds take over. But not always in a good way.

A couple years ago I suspected my symptoms were getting more complicated, causing muscle spasms between my ribs, and after trying several medications I decided to try an inhaled daily steroid to see if it helped.

I want to be clear about this. I decided this. I went to health care providers begging for help at figuring this out, but got no farther than, “What do you think you should do?” So I did a little googling and came up with a medicine to try, ran it by my very helpful and knowledgeable pharmacist, and picked the cheapest choice.

It seemed to work for about a year. But last fall things ramped up again, and I started into about eight months of frustration with all people medical, combined with constant sinus problems, no sense of smell or taste, increased wheezing and coughing, and the topper – asthma attacks.

My first one came on a Friday evening, and I didn’t know what was happening. I guess I expected it would be instant shortness of breath, but the reality was I started coughing up great quantities of mucus and it didn’t slow down.

I tried sipping water, used my rescue inhaler, and decided it would probably calm down by the time I got to Celebrate Recovery. But when I got there I sat in the car and texted people inside that I was having trouble breathing and was heading home. Two and a half hours later, I was finally able to breath normally.

When the second one happened I knew enough to not push myself. I sat still, I took the medicines I had, I forced myself to breath deliberately.

There is a kind of breathing that is so labored that your chest rises up from the middle from the effort of the drawing in of breath. The expiration is much easier, an afterthought of the extreme work of trying to force air into passages that are closing and filling with mucus.

I could feel this happening, I could point to it, but I couldn’t explain it verbally. So this second time my family was around and would say things like, “It sounds like you have a bad cold,” or “Do you need a drink to help clear your throat?”

Not helpful. I just have to say this. To be visibly struggling to draw in air, and have it dismissed as a sudden onset, already at maximum mucus production cold when I had NO SYMPTOMS five minutes earlier is frustrating beyond belief. I couldn’t even think of the reply I wanted to make, much less send the sounds out of my mouth. I was reduced to violently shaking my head no. And crying. Which only made it worse.

So several more have followed. I should have gone to the emergency room or an urgent care with a couple of them. I finally went to the ER the day after my worst one and was admitted. That’s a story for another day.

My point is that I understand being the person who is clueless as to what is happening to someone having an asthma attack. And now I understand being that person. Sitting in distress, whispering, “inhaler” with nobody hearing, feeling unable to stand and walk down the hall to get it myself.

And I’d like to say that what I need, what my friend all those years ago needed, was for someone to understand that I have no control over this, and that there are only a few things that will help if I can somehow tell you.

So ask: is your inhaler…? and ask all the logical places. Because I may only be able to move my head. Ask if I am able to get any air in. If I’m not, try every drug or device I have. If they don’t work, get me to someone who can help me. Don’t listen to my protests, because I’m basing it on what I see possible for me to do on my own, not on what I need.

If my lungs are closing, I’m not getting much oxygen to my brain. And it is showing in my stubbornness. And I’d much rather yell at you later, lungs full of air, for overreacting, then not be able to draw in one more breath.

Ask me why

I had the great privilege of attending Celebrate Recovery Summit East in Hendersonville, Tennessee in July, 2019. I want to tell you all so many things about it, but it’s going to take some time while I digest and process all the great stuff I learned.

So I’ll start slowly, with one of the first things I heard that resonated deeply inside me.

It was a simple question. Why?

Yes, the one my two-year old granddaughter LOVES to ask, though I’m not sure she understands what she’s saying.

The answer to that question is not, “Because I said so” or “Just because”. It’s a question that, if properly answered, needs to be thoughtfully approached.

It demands involvement, commitment even.

There are many other questions that are easier to answer. Logistical things, like when is something happening or where, how long will it last, how much does it cost, who will be in charge, who will decide which person does which job.

These are the kinds of questions I’ve been fielding as I’ve approached my church leadership about starting a Celebrate Recovery group at our church. But they aren’t the questions I think really matter.

You guessed it. That question would be “Why?”

Why, when there is a Celebrate Recovery that meets within a few miles of our building, should we let you start a whole new ministry out of our church?

Thank you so much for asking! Because, as I learned at Summit, the answers to the why questions get to the heart of the matter, cut through the busy work and touch the places people need to hear possibilities.

Why, when there are plenty of other recovery type programs out there, should we choose CR as the one we endorse?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Why do you even think there is a need for Celebrate Recovery in our church?

Interesting question. Let me tell you what I’ve learned in the last four years as a part of Celebrate Recovery.

Those why questions, they get my heart pumping because I can see hope and healing and freedom spreading through the people I’ve come to love and think of as family with the answers.

The other questions, not so much. I can make guesses of who will lead what and when we might start this study or that promotional push, but those are all just supposes. The people I think of could easily be replaced, will be replaced as the years go by. The day and time I come up with may change to better suit the needs of the people (because there’s a better why that might need to be addressed!) In the end, those other questions matter to some extent, but they aren’t the crucial ones.

Here’s one of mine: Why did it take me almost 50 years to face my childhood abuse?

There’s a question for you! I’ve been working on this for a little over four years, and I’m finding that I will probably be facing different aspects of how my abuse has affected my life for years to come.

The answer is pretty simple, once I was willing to face it: fear. Irrational, yes. But there it is. I was afraid to say anything to my mom the one time she ever asked when I was 6, and ever after that I created my own ways of dealing with the aftermath. And it took me almost 50 years to name the fear.

From the outside, it might look like that should be that. I got it out in the open. Now I’m all better, right?

If only life were really that simple.

And I’m a strong person. I’ve always been independent and willful. I don’t cower in the face of opposition. I learned to stand up, to be seen and heard. If anyone could face fear it should be me.

But I couldn’t. So again, why?

That’s the question that took me a couple of years to truly embrace, to answer honestly.

Because I am not in control.

In fact, my life is out of control. I admit it. I cannot make anything happen that I think should happen. I can’t control the weather, the economy, politics, my kids. And I can’t control my own tendency to do the wrong thing in any given situation. It’s often the easier choice, the lazy choice, that gets me into trouble.

In facing the answer to that last why, I found freedom like I have never known before. I am not in control! And thank God, He is!

And it’s because I’ve been digging deep to answer my own why’s that I’m eager to answer those kinds of questions, because the answers are so satisfying when you see them come to life.

So let me give you some answers to the why’s. Yes, there are several CR groups that meet within a few miles of my church building. But I don’t see the people in my church attending them. There is something to be said about familiarity, and many people won’t step out of their comfort zone, even when they are in extreme pain.

Why CR as opposed to anything else? Secular programs have very similar steps, similar meetings, success at helping people get and stay sober from chemical dependencies, at least for a time. The simple, yet overwhelmingly complex answer to this is: Jesus. He makes all the difference.

Celebrate Recovery is centered around Jesus, and when I realized that I had no power to handle the things I was facing about my past, that’s when I learned that I have his power flowing through me. He is willing to take on whatever I have to face, if I ask. And that is the thing that makes CR the success that it is. Feeling the strength of Jesus in me helps me know I can face anything life throws me.

So why is there a need for Celebrate Recovery in my church? My simple answer is that I needed it. And I had to look for years before I found it. And I don’t want anyone else to waste all that time when they could be finding hope right where they are.

My church family needs CR. There are people struggling with hurts they can’t get past, hang-ups that keep them stuck where they don’t want to be, and habits that they think are going to take care of their pain, but only prolong their misery and bring sorrow to their loved ones. I know they are there. And I want them to find the healing and freedom I have found and am still finding.

So I dare you. Don’t worry about all those other details.

Ask me why.

Developing a willingness…

This week I’ve had no idea what I wanted to write about. In fact, it’s past the time I usually post my blog, and I’m just now starting to type, so we’ll see where this goes.

It’s not that there aren’t things I want to tell you, it’s that it’s better to wait until I have a clue how I feel about them before inflicting them on you!

Maybe the place I’ll start is with patience.

I was talking to my mentor today, and as the conversation flew from one topic to another, we started to see a theme running through the many things I’ve been through over the past couple weeks and the many things I’m hoping will happen soon – like yesterday.

I need patience.

In my mind I have spent lots of time working out scenarios. Not just for stories, but for my life. If this thing happens my response would be… for all kinds of situations.

So when there is something I’d like to happen, it’s already accomplished in my mind. The real world just needs to catch up to me so I can let it play out the way I’ve imagined it.

In the last few years I’ve experienced a change in that way of thinking. I’ve learned that most of the situations I would work through in my head were things that never happen, that never will happen. And even if they did, they wouldn’t play out just the way I think they would.

Because I don’t control all the variables.

So I’ve spent most of my life working out solutions to problems that don’t exist.

You’d think that would have taught me something. Like that there is a better use of the wee hours of the night than thinking through endless tragedies. Sleeping for instance.

Gradually I’m finding that I don’t follow those trains of thought down the paths of disaster like I used to. As my mentor tells me, wouldn’t it be better if I lived in the now instead of in the what ifs?

So about a year ago I learned how to stop my wild thoughts in their tracks, and ask some simple questions: What is the truth of this situation? What are the facts I can know? What good does it do me to worry about this? Why don’t I try handing it over to God and letting it go?

Not that I do that all the time, never perfectly, sometimes I have to be hit over the head again, usually by my mentor when she hears me trying to take control of the whole world because things just aren’t going the way I know they could.

Have patience, she’ll say. There is value in the waiting.

So there are things I long to tell you about. Things I am eager to do, but that are not in my power to make happen right now. So I have to wait. So do you.

Because a really good story has many components. Beginning, middle, end. The resolution of some conflicts. Triumph of good over evil. And if I start rambling about what might happen, what I’d like to do, without any real sense of how it will go when it does happen, you would miss out on some great stories.

I am waiting for many things. Mostly for God’s timing, which can seem impossibly out of reach. I want to be the kid on vacation asking, “Are we there yet?” every five minutes.

Like that kid, when I stop being so impatient and start looking around at the surroundings God has placed me in at this moment, I start seeing what I was in too much of a hurry to see before.

That the purpose of my life was never to get all the things done I’d like to do. Frankly, God doesn’t need me to do anything for him in this world. Not that he doesn’t have work he wants me to do, just that he is all sufficient without my help. He is not any more God because I am able to do some small thing for him.

Yet at the same time, before he ever created me, God had a plan far beyond anything I could imagine, in which I would receive gifts and talents and dreams from him and in some way use them to bring glory to him and love and hope to those around me.

And as I am learning to pull back on my own mental reins and see where I am more often than where I think I will someday be, I find that in the day, the moment I am in, there are things I can be doing that I never noticed before.

Like gratitude. That was an area I knew I wanted to grow in, but I kept putting it off, thinking that if I could take a weekend to think about it I could figure out how to be grateful.

But it wasn’t anything I did that brought about a healing for me in this area. It was in a therapy session I recently began going to, in which someone who knows almost nothing about me prayed over me to have a spirit of gratitude towards God.

I don’t know how that worked, but it did. I still haven’t gotten the discipline to add to my list daily, but since last week I’m up another forty items on my list to one thousand gifts, and still many more to write down when I take the time.

Just that one improvement, counting blessings instead of potential tragedies, is making a real impact in my life. Because I’m seeing that in these times of waiting, there is also time to enjoy the lull.

My mentor also pointed out that patience isn’t something we need to seek from God, it’s a gift, part of the fruit of the Spirit. Something we should be able to tap into because that very Spirit of the Living God lives inside all who believe in Jesus.

In The Message that fruit of patience means “developing a willingness to stick with things.”

Not try to get beyond, not long for them to be over and done. Stick with.

So while I’m waiting for the things I hope God has for me, I will stick with him. No matter how long this takes.

…in everything.

Months ago I told about a book I read on expressing thankfulness to God, one thousand gifts by Ann Voskamp. In fact, most of my summer last year was spent poring over the pages, marveling at Ann’s ability to see wonder in the same kind of ordinary things that have always stood out in my mind.

When I restarted this blog on Thanksgiving Day 2018, one of my intentions was to keep updating as I listed my own one thousand gifts. My plan was to start taking more notice of the common things of life as I learned to see them as the gift from God that they each are.

Well. It just hasn’t happened that way.

I expected to write at least one thing a day, one blessing, one unexpected smile, one poignant thought that came as if floating down like a leaf into my mind.

I wrote down 7 entries in the first 2 months. And 15 more in the next 8 months.

I struggle with expressing gratitude. I feel it, I just have problems acknowledging it, naming it.

This isn’t because God hasn’t blessed me beyond my wildest dreams already in my life. It has nothing to do with his goodness, his love, his grace. Pouring himself out for me, and over me, bringing so many good gifts into my life.

There is that part of me that is so independent that I want to be responsible for all the good things that happen to me. I don’t want to have to admit that I am not in control, that I can’t take care of myself, keep myself safe, protect the ones I love.

One problem with feeling in control of the good things is that I should also take responsibility for the bad that happens in my world.

I’m not good at that at all.

Is it a problem I have with God? I know I feel differently about God the Father than I do about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I have personal relationships with each of them, and I feel much more comfortable learning from Jesus’ example in the word or listening to the prompting of the Spirit in my heart.

I have perceived God as silent, as looming over me, waiting for me to make a mistake. I have feared him and not in a good way. I have avoided looking to him for help. I have somehow mixed up in my mind who God says he is with who I have seen earthly fathers be to their children and wives.

All earthly fathers have faults, will fail us. God tells us that he doesn’t. But do I still see him through the lens of my father’s impatience, my grandpa’s neglect?

This is a work in progress, the way I see God, and I’m not where I need to be. Yet. But I’m going in the right direction.

So an interesting combination of things has brought me to a place where I am finally feeling gratitude bubbling up in me, overflowing in a way I’ve longed for. I can’t say what the straw was that broke the camel’s back, but something has opened the floodgates.

Because in just 4 short days, I added 103 gifts to my list of things I’m thankful for! Bringing me to 125.

Celebrate Recovery, going to a Christian mentor, studying Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend, reading the Bible, sitting under the preaching of my pastor, being in a care group, seeing a therapist for the first time ever, and getting to go to my second CR Summit last week.

Something has freed me to express the wonder I see around me.

I’ll tell you more about the day the walls came down another time.

Just a few days after that I was in a place of hurt and fear, sickness and uncertainty, and I had to wait to get relief. I didn’t know how things were going to go.

I was in a hospital bed, being woken through the night for different purposes, but needing to sleep despite pain and apprehension.

So I decided to pray myself to sleep. And when I started with praise, it was no surprise after the week I had just had: that list that only stopped because I ran out of time to write more blessings.

I went to sleep that night thanking God for all the ways he had worked my illness, my recent experiences, to get me to this place where I could finally get the help I’d been asking medical professionals to give me for years.

As I was woken to check vitals, I’d continue my discussion with God, but no matter how many times this happened, I never got beyond praise and thanks.

Because no matter what was going to happen in the morning, no matter what the tests were going to show, God is still good and he still loves me.

I Thessalonians 5:18 tells us, “Give thanks in everything.”

So while I’m walking through this hard place, I’m staying focused on the things that are floating down on me from God’s hand, giving me a chance to lift my face to see God’s provision instead of wallowing in my circumstances and missing the chance to count.

126. being able to breathe

Mom’s New Life

Today, July 11, 2019, is the 3 year anniversary of when my mom died.

The weeks before her passing one of her four kids was with her 24/7, watching.

The day before she took to her bed, my husband and I came to visit. It was the only time I can say I don’t think she knew who I was for a little while.

I was telling her about the new cat we’d gotten a couple weeks before, and she said she remembered that cat, she liked that cat. But she’d never seen it. Maybe she thought I was my sister, who had a cat she was familiar with.

It was the only time I ever felt any apprehension about Mom’s dementia putting a barrier between her and us.

I started talking about a cat she’d had as a girl, a story she’d told many times, and she joined in and filled in the details, and by the time she got to the end she knew who I was again.

Our stories tie us to our past, our memories, each other. They have power beyond a few moments amusement.

So this is Mom’s death story. Or as I saw it, her continuing life story.

That next day after our visit she didn’t want to get out of bed and slept all day and night, and the next day one of my sisters called us all, feeling Mom was going to pass very soon.

I was sitting at an art class downtown with my youngest when the message reached me. There were strawberries to get, kids to pick up, others to call with the news, a list to keep my mind busy for a while.

Then my family gathered at the nursing home, thinking we were going in to see Mom in her last moments.

My siblings and their families were also streaming in, and everyone was quiet and somber. One group was in with Mom and we waited outside to give them time alone with her. Then they came out to give us a turn.

My younger kids used to go over every couple of weeks when Nanny lived at home to do odd jobs, put puzzles together or play games with her, and take her shopping. They had not liked to visit at the nursing home over the nine months she’d been there, and were nervous about coming now, when she was dying.

So we were all a little subdued, walking into a quiet, darkened room, feeling like we had to whisper.

Except Mom had been asleep for most of the last day and a half. And I needed to know if she was still there, still able to interact with us.

So I sat on the bed and held her hand. And she squeezed mine. I told her we were there, the kids kissed and hugged her. Her feet moved.

Aides came in then to do their periodic turn and tidy up, and asked us to wait outside for a minute. So I stood up and very loudly said, “Mom, they’re going to get you comfortable and then we’ll be back in.”

And she said, “Okay!”

By the time they got done she was roused up a little, unlike the past day, and my family went back in to have a real visit. This time Mom did the hugging and kissing, telling each of us she loved us. She smiled a lot, laughed a little, and seemed to know us all.

Soon we went out and told the others that Mom was awake, and the rest of the afternoon more and more family arrived to talk to her. We rearranged her bed so all could gather around her, and at one time there were more than twenty of us in the room, talking and laughing and singing a little.

At one point Mom was in a state of rapture, talking out loud but not to us. Telling God how she never knew this love he was pouring out on her, praising and thanking him for his tender care.

It was a truly beautiful thing to see, to experience as an observer. Because she was unaware of us all for a few minutes.

It was a glimpse into what was ahead for her.

And then she was back, kissing and patting the great grandbabies, enjoying the fruit of her life with us all.

And a plan had to be thought up and set into motion. The home got her moved to a room by herself, giving an extra bed to rest on and space for more chairs. We decided we wouldn’t leave her alone. We plotted out a schedule for the next day, then week, then weeks.

And we had the privilege of helping Mom transition from earth to heaven.

This is what she had lived for. This glorious, unknowable end that is really a beginning and a continuation all at once.

So we took turns, talking to her and each other, catching up. Singing and telling stories, feeding her until she no longer wanted to eat, didn’t want to drink anymore, her body letting her know it was okay to let everything wind down.

People came to visit one last time, always happy to see her. She had touched a lot of lives and hearts. I got to meet people she had talked about from her church, finally putting faces with names.

She and I had a long talk one night about things I’m in recovery to heal from, and I got some closure I needed. My daughter was there, drawing as we talked.

As she weakened she slept more and talked less. I sang through her hymnal, giving voice to every song I knew during my times with her. She would often join in for a few bars.

Until her last Sunday came, and we could tell there was a change. It seemed more critical to get anyone who needed to see her there. All of us kids decided to stay Saturday and then Sunday night with her. We took breaks running to get food, and eventually were all back, along with several of the granddaughters, as Mom struggled to take in breath.

Gathered around her, in the wee hours of Monday morning, drawn in by the sense of urgency, we knew we were going to witness Mom leaving this body that had served her well for 84 years, and entering into the presence of God.

To know as she is known.

Someone started singing “Amazing Grace”, and our quartet of siblings plus the backup choir of our families that were present sang all the verses we could remember.

Mom’s breaths were sporadic and labored. We kissed her as we sang, held her hands, told her we loved her.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.”

As we held out that last note, Mom breathed out her last breath.

And began the rest of her life.

Tears in the Night

It was 1990 and I was pregnant with my second child. My father-in-law had passed away on March 16 of that year, and we were still grieving and picking up the pieces of keeping the family business going just a year and a half after we had taken it over.

A member of my husband’s graduating class threw an impromptu “reunion picnic” at her parent’s house next door to my mother-in-law. That worked good for me, because being six months pregnant and having a 20-month old to chase around, I was badly in need of a nap by mid-afternoon, and was able to crash in a spare bedroom next door while my husband caught up with his classmates.

But those weren’t the only reasons I was tired.

The night before I couldn’t sleep.

It wasn’t my normal “night person” wakefulness, but a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I tried, so I stayed awake. I think I was knitting, of all things to do in a house with no air conditioning in July, and kept at it long into the night.

I just couldn’t seem to settle down. But with the picnic coming up the next day, on July 4, I knew I should get some sleep.

So around 3:30am I turned the light out. And I was overcome with the need to cry.

I didn’t know why. I wasn’t sad about anything. My husband and I weren’t in a fight. I briefly wondered if something was wrong with the baby, but from the kicking and punching that was going on, I felt that wasn’t it.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop the tears. For about an hour.

And then I fell into a deep, hard sleep. But way too soon it was interrupted by the phone ringing.

I just have to mention that this was a new thing for us, the phone ringing. When we built our home during our six-month engagement, we found it would be long distance from all our family, friends, and any kind of business we wanted to deal with. So we didn’t have a phone on principle. For about three years.

But then my father-in-law got a new thing – car phones – and my husband’s uncle rigged up a jack for the house, so we could unplug it from the work truck and bring it in at night, in case of an emergency, when we were expecting our first child. By the time he was born we broke down and had a landline installed, but we hardly ever used it. We still drove up the road to one of our parents’ houses to make calls local from them.

Since we hardly ever used the phone, my first thought was something was wrong when it rang about 6:30 that morning.

It was my mom. And she was crying. “Becky, I have some bad news to tell you. Momma died this morning. Aunt Violet just called to tell me.”

Her mom, my Grandma Belvie, was at that time living in a nursing home, where she could be cared for. The last time I had seen her was earlier that year, when we had been down for my other grandma, Mamaw’s, birthday celebration in the spring.

Grandma Belvie had suffered with pneumonia many times over the years, and it contributed to her declining health, but I remember her staying pretty sharp even in her last years.

She was fiercely independent. She could make due with less. She lived on the principle that she wouldn’t spend money on things she didn’t truly need. Like a phone. She never had one during my childhood. It was only in her last years that an uncle had one put in, so family could check on her. But Grandma didn’t like to use it. My mom inherited those penny-pinching ways, and I came by them honestly as well.

Grandma grew the tallest corn, the biggest tomatoes, the prettiest flowers. She cooked and used everything she grew, and her freezer and cupboards were full of the evidence.

I remember when changes happened in her town, and the city was making everyone on her dead-end street go off their wells and use city water. And charging them. So Grandma unscrewed lots of pipes and caught her brown water from the sinks and washing machine to use for flushing the toilet or watering her gardens.

I loved pitching in and scooping a bucketful out of our used bath water in the tub to force flush the toilet. I felt just like the pioneer woman I always saw in my Grandma Belvie.

So that early morning on the 4th of July, I wasn’t really surprised. I had known something was up all night, especially that hour of crying that I couldn’t explain.

But just to confirm, I asked my mom, “Do you know what time Grandma died?”

“They said someone had checked her at 3:30 and she was breathing, but when they came in at 4:30 she had passed. So somewhere in there.”

And I told her how I was crying in that exact time.

I don’t know why God allows us to feel things we don’t understand. In this case at least I got an explanation, but what about all the times when we don’t? When we go through hard things that make no sense, when we can’t imagine the reason for our discontent, when just plain bad things happen to us.

But we don’t have the full picture.

On that deep night of sorrow, I knew I was crying for someone else. I just didn’t know who.

And over 600 miles away my sweet grandma lay alone, like she had been for almost my whole life, yet not.

In my heart I hope that while God was letting me feel sadness and loss that I couldn’t understand, he was letting her feel that she was loved, even though her family wasn’t by her side.

Because for God, the distance between us doesn’t limit his ability to draw us close to each other. Close to himself. Even when we don’t understand it.

Spike’s Legacy

This June my father-in-law would have turned 96.

One of the worst parts of not having him around any more is that my kids never got to really know him. My oldest son was not quite a year and a half when Spike died. I was pregnant with my older daughter when he got what he thought was the flu, and days later died from a massive bacterial infection and heart failure.

So for all their lives my kids have heard about Grandpa Spike. They see pictures of him, hear stories, see his name on Dad’s work truck, as Spike named his business after himself, and it has been our livelihood and his legacy.

I knew my father-in-law, beyond just a name or to recognize his face, longer than I’ve known my husband. Which was a good thing, because he could be very intimidating.

He was a big man, a presence you had to notice. He could also be loud, startling even, when he wanted to make sure you knew he was there.

But for all his blustering, he often was content to just sit and not say much.

I knew him initially as a customer in the restaurant where I had my first “real” job. I had become a waitress and worked some weekend mornings when Spike and his wife would come in for breakfast. I recall the other waitresses would grumble, “there’s that grouch again”, and I would look at it as a challenge.

“He’s just a teddy bear,” I’d say, and march off to serve him his coffee with a handful of creamers (he preferred it black), just to make him yell. But it would soon turn into a chuckle when he realized I was egging him on to get a reaction from him.

It didn’t take long for him to become one of my regulars, and I liked it that way. I wasn’t easily intimidated, and he wasn’t easily won over, so it was a challenge for us both.

So fast-forward about seven years to the second date I went on with my not-yet-husband. After dessert we went to his parent’s house where he lived so that I could balance his checkbook and roll his change, things I loved to do and he never did. And meet his parents.

He warned me that his dad might be a little scary at first, but I assured him I wasn’t worried. I knew what I was in for.

I don’t know if he remembered me from the restaurant, but I had no trouble getting reacquainted with my future father-in-law. We went for cheap dates, so I spent lots of time in their living room. And once we were engaged we were down the road where our house was being built every spare minute, so we often dropped in to eat dinner with them.

Even after we were married and moved into our house, we didn’t have a phone for a few years, so I made a habit of stopping by their house most afternoons to make calls and chat with them. And see if they’d invite us to dinner.

Then when our first son came along, we broke down and got a phone, but the habit of stopping in almost daily stayed with me. Especially since the summer I was pregnant it broke records for the most days over 90 degrees, and I’d sit in front of a fan until I couldn’t stand it, then drive three miles to sit in delicious, cold air.

And since my mother-in-law was not a big talker, and my new husband took after his mom, Spike and I carried the conversations. I loved his stories and jokes and pronouncements on the latest happenings in our world.

One of my absolutely proudest moments came when he showed me how much attention he’d been paying to the things that were important to me. We were out to dinner with them, and walking through the restaurant I was behind him carrying our one-year old son. Spike pointed at the baby and told everyone along the way, “Look at this kid. Look how healthy he is. He hasn’t had a drop of anything but mother’s milk his whole life. Not a drop of water, no juice, no cow’s milk, just mother’s milk. Isn’t that something?”

I never asked him why he was so impressed by this, but he was, and it was the most empowering thing I think anyone had ever said about me to my face.

He’ll never know how, when our second child was born a few months after he died, and I would breastfeed her, I would picture him standing over me, bragging about how healthy she was, and by association what a good mom I was.

It was the same for our other children as they came along, for all the years I nursed them I had Spike’s voice in my head cheering me on.

Some of my children look like him in ways. Others have some of his personality traits. Or maybe I just like to imagine they do, because I got such a kick out of knowing him that I want them to be a little like their ornery grandpa.

And when they did seem to act like him, I’d just say what he always said to his grandkids, “Go outside and get the stink blown off you!”

Spike was a hard worker, proud of a job well done, but also a man who liked to kick back in his recliner and chuckle over a corny joke, especially if he could goad you into laughing with him.

So when my kids are horsing around or lazing after a long day, I like to think that Spike would have loved to sit with them, maybe holler to get their attention, have them pull his finger, or just lean back and smile at the parts of himself he would see in each one.

And that’s the real legacy.

Lost

(This is a little something for my younger sister. Of course I couldn’t really know the dialogue and the details, but from the stories my parents told ever after, this event could have happened something like this. I hope you enjoy this story from a long-ago summer.)

The breeze through the screen door chased a chill across the sweat on the back of my neck. The rooms at the motor court had no air conditioning. Not in 1970, even in Nashville.

About twenty people from Toledo had returned from a busy morning in sessions at our denomination’s annual convention. Dad had let us kids jump in the pool to cool off and tire us out. He needed a rest. And Mom and some of the women wanted to go shopping, while Dad got my baby brother and little sister down for naps.

They were next to the room my older sister and I shared with a grandmotherly woman willing to chaperone two preteen girls. The dark cave-like space the drawn shades created lulled us into sleep, while tree-shaded air off the pool rocked the screen door in and out to the limits of the hook high on the doorframe.

But Dad hadn’t secured the screen door where he, the toddler and the five year-old rested up for the evening’s activities.

As a busy pastor’s wife, Mom didn’t get much free time with other women. After driving past many unique stores on the busy streets of Nashville she was eager to window-shop, free from little hands to hold, tired bodies to carry. When they returned an hour later, leaving the traffic behind on the main street beyond our drive-up motel, the inviting shade around the pool and courtyard welcomed them for a mini-siesta before dinner.

Until Mom saw a police officer talking to Dad, baby in his arms. But where was my five-year-old sister?

A year or two before, my older sister and I had flown to St. Louis with Dad for this annual convention, staying in a downtown hotel suite in blistering July with no pool, but at least there was air conditioning. And while Dad had his afternoon nap, we girls and a friend staying in the same hotel grabbed swimsuits and “swam” in the biggest shower we had ever seen for hours.

A year or two after this convention in Nashville we’d attend one in Macon, Georgia, older and wiser. But this was my little sister’s first time.

Coming just weeks before she would step onto the school bus and ride a half mile down the road to kindergarten.

About a mile down the congested street from the motor court, a used-car salesman stood in the open doorway of a glass-enclosed sales hut, waiting for the next customer. In the middle of the afternoon, in the music capital of the world, there was always the chance of someone famous passing on the sidewalk.

More unlikely was seeing a barefoot child wandering aimlessly.

“Little girl, where are your mommy and daddy?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you lost?” he asked as he knelt down to her level.

“My mommy went down the street,” my sister answered, looking around her on the sidewalk.

“Down this street? It’s a pretty busy one. Do you live around here?” he asked, though the whole street for miles was lined with businesses of all kinds, and the neighborhoods were a few blocks down the side streets.

Where had this child come from?

“I live in the country with the barns.”

The salesman didn’t hear a hint of a drawl in her voice. He doubted she was a local. “Are you staying in a hotel?”

“We have a pool. And my baby and my daddy are sleeping.”

“How big is your pool? Is it a little bitty wading pool?”

“It’s blue. My daddy threw me in. Where’s my mommy?”

“I don’t know, honey, but let me see if I can help you.”

Our church group gathered under the trees in front of the line of train-car-like rooms planted side by side, some praying, others whispering about how much trouble Preacher was in for letting his daughter walk right out the door, and now who knows where she is?

The policeman had voiced assurances that she would be found, but this was a strange city and it didn’t keep my mom from crying helplessly.

Several of the adults spread out walking away from the motel, while my mom and dad stayed where they could be found easily. With no phones inside our rooms, just a pay phone outside the office cubicle, we were decades away from instant information. We could only wait.

So when the police radio squawked to life, we held our breaths while the officer turned his back and picked up his receiver.

Six blocks down a squad car pulled up, lights still, siren silent, scared child shaking on the sidewalk.

Lost.

“I can’t get much information out of her, officer, but I think her parents may be staying at a motel nearby. She says there’s a pool, and that she just walked out the door. Maybe one of those pull-up places?” The salesman had tried to get names and descriptions, but nothing my sister added helped identify where she had come from.

“Let me get on the radio and see if there are any lost child reports coming in to dispatch,” the officer said to the man, and to the little girl, “Don’t you cry now, we’ll find your momma and daddy.”

Long before Code Adam and Amber Alerts, my sister got lost in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee. Bad things did happen to little kids in the 70’s, but thankfully there was a sense of community at that time that went beyond the neighbor you knew to the person in need who walks down your sidewalk.

It’s something we’ve lost, people looking to the people around them to find answers instead of an anonymous screen in their hands.

Shortly after the officer at the motor court put his radio back into its mounting, the second cruiser pulled into the oval drive. The patrolman parked, turned to my sister and said, “Is this your momma?”

And she was found.

26 years less than I wanted

Tomorrow, June 14, 2019, will be 26 years since my dad died.

I think about him every single day.

I remember when his life began to end.

It was actually a comment he made that my mind goes back to when I think of his final illness. It was his birthday in February. He turned 61, and after he opened my card, he looked up and said, “Well, I probably won’t live another year. My dad died when he was 61, and I guess I will, too.”

I checked a few years later in death records online and found my Papaw actually lived a couple years longer than that, but for whatever reason Dad had it in his head, and it was almost like he was resigned to a way-too-early death.

Because 61 is not old. I’m 57 as I write this, and though I have a few health issues, I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near death. Not a natural one at least. Everything else is up to God’s timing.

I held my breath for the year my husband was 61, not because I’m superstitious but just because I was struck with how young and healthy my husband is, and how tired and worn out Dad seemed by that age.

Dad grew up knowing hunger and need, but also love and compassion. His hard childhood, decades of smoking, and about twenty years of addiction to painkillers took a physical toll on his body.

So on March 4 that year he was out chopping up and shoveling snow on top of ice in their driveway when he had his first heart attack.

One of the neighbors who was helping ran in to call an ambulance, and from then on life was never the same.

I was in the emergency room with him when he coded.

He had just given me our special look, the one that meant I would get what he was going to say next, and then pointed up to a corner of the ceiling and said, “Look! I see an angel!”

And the steady alert started.

They rushed me out of the room as they worked on him, closing the blinds because I had my nose pressed to the glass watching his face as they worked on his heart.

They didn’t know I had been looking tragedies and injuries in the face for almost all my life. I still can’t understand why, when someone could be dying, they try to send the ones who love them away.

There is a time to every season under heaven. Even death.

But not that day.

Dad stayed in the hospital for a few weeks. He had procedures and tests, drugs and therapies, and came home to wait for the date of his scheduled bypass surgery.

Five days before that date, on April 14, he had his second heart attack.

I got the call and rushed to the hospital. On the way, there was a song that played on YES-FM that got me through that frantic drive. “Carry Me” by Legend 7.

“The love of the Father is always guaranteed, the hands of the Father will always…carry me.”

I didn’t know at the time how prophetic that song was. I counted on Dad’s faith to guide my life. I was lazy about developing my own. And while that night my thoughts were on Dad’s love, Dad’s hands, in the 26 years since, I have experienced God’s love and care in deeper ways than I could have imagined back then.

But I still long for the physical hands and arms of my dad.

They did a triple bypass, but the second heart attack had done too much damage. He wasn’t up and walking the next day, he stayed weeks in the step down unit, and most of that time he was sedated.

He reached a point where the medical staff wanted to invoke his signed living will, indicating he didn’t want to be kept alive on machines. He’d seen it too many times as a pastor.

I for one wasn’t ready to unplug and wait to see what happened, not when Dad was just a little beyond consciousness. So we decided to bring him out of sedation and ask what he wanted to do.

Food and water? Yes.

Medicine for a kidney infection? Yes

Oxygen to help you breathe easier? Yes

If your heart stops, should they try to resuscitate? Another nod yes.

Hmmm. Everyone is entitled to change their mind.

So we asked them to wean him off the i.v.’s, give us pill versions of his meds, and oxygen, and instructions so we could take him home.

We had two weeks more.

Two weeks of living, with his wife and mother, kids and grandkids, fussing over him not eating enough, late nights spent talking with one of us kids while Mom slept so she could work during the days.

And that last day and night.

All the family had been over. Dad sat in his wheelchair cleaning out the garage, handing things that would explode to my husband and telling him to throw them in the burning barrel. The kids climbed on him and pushed his chair around. He ate a big bowl of fresh strawberries with sugar and milk, and later bargained with me to reduce his tube feeding by half because of those extra calories.

When everyone else had gone home I helped him down on his sleeping bag on the floor, where he had preferred to sleep for years, and tried to make him comfortable on that hot June night. After hours of sleeplessness and sporadic conversation, he agreed to let me help him up on the couch.

So we sat side by side, my arm around his shoulders as he leaned into me.

It occurred to me that I kind of liked being the strong one for once.

The sun was coming up and the air had finally cooled. Dad turned his head a little to look at me, and he gave me our look again. He raised his eyebrows, wiggled them a little, and laid his head down on my shoulder with a long sigh.

Finally. I sat still, wanting to make sure he was really asleep before laying him down and covering him with a light blanket, adjusting the oxygen canula on his nose. His blood sugar tested high, so I called my older sister to come give him a shot of insulin on her way to work.

I lay back down in Dad’s sleeping bag, and I felt like he was hugging me. My oldest son, four at the time, was staying the night, and when he came down the stairs I had him crawl in the bag with me. He felt Dad’s hug as well.

And though I didn’t realize it until my older sister came in and knew right away he was gone, Dad had died in my arms.

Every day since, I have looked at my life through a different lens. What would Dad think of…my kids, my life, my calling, this meal, this newly mowed lawn?

Ordinary things take on significance when I am saving them up to tell to someone I love.

Because I know when I get to heaven, I can spend as long as I want filling him in.

Twenty-six years. Lots of things to talk about.

66 years

Today, June 6, 2019, would have been my parents 66th wedding anniversary.

Over the years there were lots of stories told about their lives as children and teens, school and chores and their families.  Dad was a storyteller and Mom was a talker.  So we grew up knowing a lot about their lives.

I especially loved hearing the story of their wedding.

It was June 6, 1953.  Both 21, Dad had served in the Air Force in Korea during the Korean War, and after he got home to Marion, North Carolina he moved up to Toledo, Ohio to work with his uncle, Wayne Lovingood.  Dad had trained as a boiler engineer and also worked on radar in the Air Force, and he found a job working for Toledo Public Schools as a boiler engineer.

So like every other Friday, he worked his hours that week and then headed down to Marion to marry Mom.  He made it there by Saturday morning, where I hope he at least had a chance to clean up and put on a suit.  The ceremony was early in the day, followed by a cake and punch reception in the church fellowship hall.  They changed clothes and packed Mom’s bags into Dad’s car and headed north.

This was long before I-75 was built, before there were chain restaurants in every town and along every highway.  And in the mountains, the roads wound and twisted and were built for the purpose of getting from one place to another.  Being fed and entertained weren’t high priorities.  Even gas stations were few and far between.  It was a time when they didn’t think to call long distance to make a reservation for the night, and the kind of drive-up roadside motels they would come across didn’t need them.

So Dad’s mom, my Mamaw, packed them up ham biscuits wrapped up in a paper bag.  They hit the old Route 25, and by evening they stopped at a roadside stand for milkshakes to drink with their sandwiches.  That was their wedding supper.  They stayed the night at a motel on Saturday night, and Sunday they finished the trip to Toledo, where Dad went right back to work on Monday.

They lived in a couple different apartments, then bought their first house before my older sister was born.  A younger sister was born there also, and the summer Mom was pregnant with our younger brother we moved out to the country.  I remember driving on the highway, I-75 had been built south of us by then, but the bypass I-475 was just being built as we drove around town looking at all kinds of houses.

They settled on one that the radio station Dad worked at part time had bought to convert into a recording studio, and then decided it was too big  a project.  I remember visiting it several times before we moved, Mom up on ladders painting, us kids rummaging through boxes of treasures in the basement and attic, workmen knocking back out an archway they had filled it to make the studio in what was really the dining room of the house.

We moved into that house in July, and my brother was born in August, and I lived there until I got married.   

It was many years before us kids realized what a wedding anniversary was, much less knew the date our parents got married.  Eventually we caught on and started buying them a card and urging them to take us all out to dinner to celebrate.  

But really the day was theirs to mark however they wanted.

When I was growing up it really was a different world.  It was a rare thing for anyone I knew to be divorced.  Marriage was something I looked at as a lifelong commitment, and through the sixties, in my community, it was.

Then things started to change in society and relationships.  I won’t go into my ideas on what started the ball rolling, but roll it did, and in the seventies things changed in the world, and divorce became more and more accepted.

So every year when we celebrated Mom and Dad, I was more thankful that their marriage was still something I could count on.

Not that they didn’t have their disagreements, times of distance and preoccupation with all the details of life.  I remember there was a popular song playing on the radio one day that I liked, and I was surprised to see my mom trying not to cry listening to it.  It was “Torn Between Two Lovers”.  

As you might think, the song is about a woman who loved two different men.  So my mind went wild trying to figure out which of my parents’ friends my mom might possibly be interested in.

Thankfully she was just touched by the song, maybe an old memory, though she never explained it.  And even though I wondered for years, there was never any reason to believe there were any serious problems in their marriage.

After seeing a number of people around me go through divorces, especially young couples, I resolved that I wouldn’t get married unless I would be willing to commit to never walking away.

That could be a very naive thing to do.  From the perspective of my early 20’s I couldn’t foresee what kind of man I might get involved with.  And I wouldn’t be in control of the things he may choose to do that could harm me, things I might need to walk away from.  

I could, however, choose to be careful and thoughtful about who I would get involved with.  And after I failed miserably in my choices time and time again, I turned the whole thing over to God, and he did a great job of bringing the right man into my life, the one I could stay married to for as many years as we live.

So this year, this day, would have been Mom and Dad’s 66th, and last fall my husband and I celebrated our 33rd.  And Dad died a week after their 40th anniversary, Mom a few weeks after their 63rd.  She never remarried.

All those numbers.  Big ones.  Significant ones.  Because it is possible for love to not only last, but to grow and nourish us, even after the ones we love are gone from this earth.  

And especially while we’re walking through this life together.