Taunted to Death (A Bullied Child Remembers)

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In recognition of World Day of Bullying Prevention, I’m reprinting an op-ed that was originally published on Friday, November 6th, 1998, in the Atlanta Constitution. I wrote this editorial in response to a bullying victim’s beating death and another student’s suicide. Their names are omitted to avoid reopening their families’ wounds. (To my bullies who have apologized, this is not meant to reopen your wounds, either.)

It began in kindergarten where I was “Big Bertha Blue Belly.” In sixth grade, I was “Ratchet the Hatchet,” and by eighth grade, “Rogel Wiggle.” I walked down the hall to chants of “Rogel Wiggle, see her jiggle” or “Big Bertha Blue Belly, see her stomach like a bowl full of jelly.”

Born with brain damage, uncoordinated and overweight, I found school a nightmare where, from kindergarten on, my friends were the fat, buck-toothed girls. They were the only ones who were kind, because they, too, knew the agony.

Like most parents, my mother told me to ignore the taunts, while my father taught me at an early age that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

But by sixth grade, I would have willingly been stoned just to have had a square dance partner in PE. Like ———, who committed suicide in 1994, and ———-, who died Wednesday after being beaten by a 15-year-old, I found that words did hurt–and that my teachers and my parents didn’t understand the torment because, after all, ‘kids will be kids.’

Beyond adult platitudes, there’s the child reality, in which 180 days a year of eating alone at lunch, being chosen last for teams, having hair pulled, glasses stolen, and jeering taunts become simply too much. If my principal had made pig noises while my fourth-grade teacher ate her lunch, perhaps she would have understood. If someone picked the back of my science teacher’s neck with straight pins as he worked at his office desk, he might have glimpsed the reality of my life–because there is a point at where the intolerable actions of others make the thought of living unbearable.

Like ————, I became “tired of it.” When my shoes were stolen and thrown on the school roof in eighth grade–my ninth year of enduring mindless torment–I reached my breaking point. I ripped open the door to my science classroom, stormed upon the boys who made my life miserable, and yelled, “I have had it!” I think I threw books: I know that night was the first of many I thought of suicide.

The transition to high school helped some–a 240-pound ‘nerd’ who read a book a day, I was still an outcast, but at a larger school there were more kind people. My English teacher, Mrs. Dillard, encouraged me to write–and capturing my torments on paper lessened their power. Raff wanted to be my lab partner; Julie, a cheerleader, took me to her hair stylist for prom, and Mark, the drum major, sat with me at lunch–these people chose to be bright spots in my otherwise dismal life, and I am convinced they kept me from taking —–‘s way out.

I needed a place to confess how hurt I was, what the years of ridicule had done to me–and I also needed to be accepted for who I was: fat and suicidal, yes, but smart and funny, too. The consistent kindness of a few, over the course of four years in high school, offset the agony inflicted by others. By graduation, though still somewhat depressed, I was STAR student, student body president and yearbook editor–but more important, I knew that there were good things about me.

Now an adult and a teacher of the cruelest of the cruel–middle-schoolers–I am, I hope, succeeding where many of my teachers failed. I punish bullying and harassment, but more important, I take time with the harassed child. I listen to him, acknowledge his pain, encourage others to befriend him–because I remember what it is to be tormented: very real and very painful.

May God be with ——-. May we not lose another child like we did ——-. May we see beyond “kids will be kids” to the child the kids are hurting.

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Long Past Wedding Vows

42418592_2035089123468957_7188472379469725696_nFebruary 2018: There are 202 people on Facebook who are very excited that my husband’s cancer hasn’t spread to his lymph nodes. They are rejoicing, hallelujahing, and praising God with excitement over that clear pathology report.

Greg and I didn’t even exchange a glance when we got the good news. There was no warm hug, no hand squeeze, no smile across the room. We wordlessly let the receptionist validate our parking and headed to the van.

After about an hour in the car, I asked him, “Why aren’t we happy?” His reply was quick. “Because we are so tired.”


The media forces cancer archetypes and a code of behavior for all participants: patients must be perky, wear ribbons and participate in fundraising walks; caregivers should be long-suffering, level-headed, and, above all else, self-sacrificing; and the cancer journey must be only minimally clouded by cancer itself.

The media’s prescribed cancer journey is NOT about a disease that can kill you and orphan your children: it’s about inspiring others–always.

Above all, this cancer paradigm requires that you never grow weary.


But from the outset, cancer number three found us weary, our twenty-six-year marriage in one of those separate-corner lulls that the long-married know: you read novels while petting a cat; he dozes while watching MASH; you both hope that someday you will like each other again.

Last September, I even started a blog with the working title, “Sitting Past the Hate.” It read, in part:

In the category of “things you probably shouldn’t say,” I really don’t like my husband right now.

I don’t think he likes me much, either.

You’re not supposed to say that, at least not out loud, in print, to the world, but he’s already said that he wouldn’t marry me again. Since I shared the sentiment, making it unanimous, I think I can say that there’s some dislike in my house.

Still, I feel bad typing that. Except for the two words at the end: right now.

I didn’t get much further–didn’t get to the part about how, if you have been married a for decades, you learn how to wait–to be quiet, cook a good supper, and to move very slowly forward . . . because you know that there will come a time, the right song on the radio during a family trip, a simultaneous blue heron sighting, a long laugh over a private joke . . . you know that something will come and make you reconnect to the very spouse whom, right now, you wish you’d never met.

You know you will love again, so you sit past the hate.


We were doing that most of the winter before his diagnosis–skulking around, talking some days, silent others. No one ate dinner together, but a Phase 10 game could still draw the whole family to the kitchen table and, with a bowl of peanut M&Ms, we almost passed for normal.


Most weekends, even in the worst of our marital doldrums, my friend Tasha usually wanders over, collapsing on the love seat after planting her son in front of the Wii.

On the Friday after Greg’s cheek was biopsied, we all sat chatting while watching her son enthusiastically kill Wii chickens. One of us asked Greg about the biopsy–whether it was painful, if he thought he had cancer.

I was too stricken that night to write his words, and I’m too stricken still to remember them–whatever they were, they were coldly terrifying.

When I walked Tasha out to her car, we stood under the full moon, the garage cats swirling at our ankles. “He believes it’s cancer,” I hissed. He never believes he has cancer. It’s cancer.

“I know,” she replied. Her eyes were wide.


42377465_331046797644204_4859132531892551680_nIn January, I couldn’t navigate the distance between “I don’t want to drive five minutes through town to go eat a donut with you” and “I’m going to go hear your third cancer diagnosis, then ride in a car with you for almost two hours.”

I couldn’t see any way the post-diagnosis car ride would not plummet into disaster. I knew I would be unable to say anything comforting or helpful–for I knew, innately, that on cancer #3, there would be neither comfort nor help.

I knew cancer #3 would take us to an awful place.

Still, if he wanted me in the car, I would be. I asked repeatedly, “Do you want me to go?”

“I want you to do what you want to do.” Always polite and firm.

“I want to do what you want me to do.”

And so it went, even the morning of the appointment–when he went alone.


There was a lot of “not wanting” during that time: Greg did not want me on the drive; I did not want to wait three weeks until surgery; we did not want to go through every painful thing again. After the lymphectomy and facial reconstruction, I did not want to clean his neck wound; he did not want me to either, but there was truly no one else, no other option. It had to be done, and there I was.

I wasn’t stoic. I couldn’t clean the wound with the practiced neutrality of a veteran nurse. During the leukemia battle of 2001, I saw inside his esophagus, stomach, and lungs–I stood right beside the doctors as they ran the scopes. I measured his urine, charted his bowel habits, sat in the hospital for thirty-one days. I passed those tests, but now, I was failing.

He was angry. After three years of hard losses–his mother and his granddaughter to death and his treasured daughter to New York–didn’t he deserve health, or at least a more competent wife???

I could give him neither apologies nor promises. All I could do was make the observation that in our wedding vows, if silently cleaning up a bloody slit neck three times a day for weeks upon weeks been announced as a requirement, I would have run back down the aisle screaming, “I am not the girl for that.” Oh, how quickly I would have left this life.


I have not left this life.

It is September again. Our nest newly empty, we are at my brother’s timeshare in Hilton Head, South Carolina. We are in separate bedrooms. It is considered a kindness if one of us brings the other something from the next room. If our elbows accidentally touch, we jerk away instinctively.

I am not his. He is not mine.

But it is September again. We have made it through one year of misery. We have sat,  separated by rage and weariness, each of us carrying an anger that would have been inconceivable to the Christian kids we were in 1991. (They are long dead now, but Tasha tells our daughters about them, stories that start with, “Your parents used to be . . .”)

I think it is a sadness that couples do not talk about the sorrowful times that they sit through. No one confesses that marriage is sometimes a long heartbreaking train ride where all you can do is look out the window. People pretend that all is well when nothing is–and, in doing so, they do a disservice to others. We need to see one another’s hard times firsthand. We need front row seats to sorrow and tragedy, not for the spectacle of it, but so that we know that our someday tragedies will be survivable–because we know others who have survived.

I don’t know why Greg and I are enduring the race that we are–so unhappy, angry, and broken–yet we are still here, enduring.

It is September again.

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Carrying Your Big Wet Dog (Thoughts on Cancer Survivorship)

 

 

June 2018

I am in a day-long staff development, never a good place for me. I have a hard time sitting still, being quiet, being professionally “appropriate.” I interject, grow restless, stand in the corner and stretch. I admire the way other teachers can sit and listen and contain their restless minds–how the elementary teachers listen patiently while the speaker discusses high school standards.

I can’t sit like that. I organize my Google drive, catch up on Poem-a-Day reading, and still hear every word. I try to self-regulate. I watch the clock, limiting my comments to one per half hour.

(Years ago, after attending a monthly series of regional staff meetings together, a teacher from another county stopped me as we were leaving. “You know,” she said, her hand on  my shoulder, “I have never in my life seen someone who looked like they weren’t paying attention at all who heard every word.“)

I do hear every word. I just can’t idly sit with my wandering mind. It might go to yesterday afternoon, when, in the back of a desk drawer, I found the inky footprint of my stillborn granddaughter. It might go to the recent death of my co-worker. The death of my best friend. The tests my husband Greg is about to have–since, fresh off of cancer #3, he couldn’t see the other day. My brain may scream, “HE COULDN’T FOCUS HIS EYES.”

I think it is better for everyone if I quietly read a poem 


During the meeting, I messaged a co-worker who was sitting in a waiting room in St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital where his young daughter, an ATRT survivor, was having her quarterly brain scans. He texted that she was in recovery. I replied, “I’m sorry. Every time. I’m so sorry.”

What I wanted to say, what suddenly sprang from my heart, was, “I’m so sorry you have to carry this wet dog around.”

I didn’t say that, of course. Too odd, even for me. Carrying a wet dog? 


September 2018

I’ve sat with that analogy all summer–long enough that he is today, again, at St. Jude’s awaiting his daughter’s scans. No one I’ve run it by gets it. They don’t understand when I look at them and say, “Surviving cancer is like carrying around a big wet dog.”

But . . . picture your dog lost in the woods. He has been there overnight, and you have been searching desperately, wandering down spider-webbed trails, your good shoes getting ruined by the muddy muck near the river. And, finally, there he is–you see him on the shore’s edge–he is soaked, the water running off his matted fur in rivulets. His paw is badly hurt, but you are so happy to see him that you don’t care. You elatedly scoop him up and begin to carry him home. He smells. He is sticky and panting and soaked. Your arms ache. The walk is long–through dry creek beds and briars; you dodge broken vines and stumble over tree roots. Your dog is whining–he’s tired and hungry and hurting–but you happily carry him. You whisper into the warmth of his ear: I will take you home, and all will be well.

You will rest together. He will be in his bed. You will be in yours.40862229_900181213506411_5640981768501723136_n


That’s the goal in Cancer Land. While well-meaning nurses may talk about survival in terms of children’s high school graduations and wedding days, the real goal is only this: everyone back in their proper place. Children in their beds, parents in theirs, under one roof.

When cancer causes you to miss that, even briefly, you realize that life’s treasure is simple: it is presence.

The ordered dinner table with every chair full–Dad, Mom, and offspring. Quiet chatter about boring days. Bickering about the last piece of chicken or who has to bathe first.

During a thirty-one day hospitalization, it’s all anyone craves: presence.


In understanding the treasure of presence, you truly comprehend the cost of loss.

The same hospital stay that teaches you to treasure a family dinner, a carpool ride, or a Monopoly game also allows you to survey the spectacle of death and sorrow. You are there when a grade-schooler gives a eulogy for his newly-dead father. When a groom diagnosed weeks after the wedding dies days before anniversary #1. When Val, who is young and beautiful and kind, dies anyway, and the nurses leave her name tag up by her empty room for days–until, when you can’t look at it anymore, you take it down.

(You still carry it in your wallet seventeen years later. You couldn’t throw it away in 2001. You are no closer to being able to now.)

If you are in the hospital long enough, you watch dozens of people die, sometimes two or three a day.

One weekend, five people die. Children die.

You still remember the wails.


319704_10151036722415980_65686374_nIt is a miracle that anyone escapes–that anyone walks away from their front row seats of sorrow and horror–and so much more of a miracle when it is you.

Miraculous to stand, to find some footing, to gather yourself and make your way past the travailing parents, their only daughter dead. To walk past the orphaned children, the people wailing, “All is lost!” To look at them, recognizing that, for them, all is truly, truly lost–yet you yourself are able to continue to walk.

To exit that place, to walk away from the helpless and leave them unhelped–it is, in some ways, the greatest sorrow of your life.

But you don’t care what it is you have to carry–how damaged or mangled or heavy your load–because you are walking flint-faced past scores of the barren and empty-armed.

Your arms are laden, and soon, you will rest.

 

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When God Laughs

39184517_1736073739836405_7478252427066474496_nToday was interesting at work. Teachers know that’s code–a code that encompasses things both good and bad, and as such, a lot of emotion. My new kids are still sorting me–and themselves–out; we are learning each other.

Theirs: Is Mrs. G serious about no cell phones? Does she give a lot of homework?

Mine: Which kid can I trust to actually come back if he runs something to the office? Are any of these kids actually going to talk to me? 

In these first days, too, last year’s kids are still “mine” enough that they drop by for a hug, or to complain, or to sneak an oatmeal creme pie.  And then there’s hall duty, where enforcing dress code amid the boundary-pushing requires an almost exhausting intensity.

I am knee-deep in children as I am about to lose mine: Abby is headed to Yale in two days. So sleep has not been a priority: I’ve been staying up late with her, laughing and eating Reeses and watching NCIS Los Angeles while she does the crossword on the couch and Snapchats pictures of the kitten.

Yet the kids, who are wonderful in every way, still need to be taught. And since I am on extended day this year–with no planning period–I am on all day. (In one of the best essays I have ever read about the demands of teaching, Anna Quindlen writes, “Teaching’s the toughest job there is . . . writing a column, I can stare off into the middle distance with my chin in my hand any time. But you go mentally south for five minutes in front of a class of fifth graders, and you are sunk.”) Walking a tightrope so early in the school year is difficult–doing so without even a chin-rub is more so.

Today, there was need: big need, little need, big need, little need, little need, snack need, very big immediate need–just a whole bunch of kids with their switches turned on. Of course, my co-workers and I helped every single one of these kids–I think educational lingo requires me to use the words “seamless cohesion” when describing how well we helped those kids, whose gratitude made sacrificing our lunchtimes worth it.


Facing collegiate errands, I came home tired; Abby met me in the driveway–I’d called on the way and told her to be ready to jump in the van the instant I pulled up. As she got in and slammed the door, I put the van in reverse, only for it to roll forward. I checked the gear shift again for the R. Again it lurched forward, but before it could hit the carport, it shuddered and died, windows down in the rain in the driveway. Please, God, I prayed, just let me roll the windows up. He did.

The third-hand fishing truck would have to get us to the bank at 20 MPH. There was no stress. No worry or obsession about the van–the Old Gray Mare, her catalytic converter, air conditioning, and now (likely) transmission problems were not worth our worry, so we didn’t talk about it. Didn’t even wonder how we would get around.

It was almost like we trusted the God of the sparrows and lilies.


We went to the bank, then to Ruby Tuesday’s, where we ate pretzels and drank strawberry drinks and looked at our phones too much. Next was TJ Maxx, which is our default safe haven. (You can look at ceramic French bulldogs with the same idle pleasure whether your life is tip-top or despairing.) Abby saw a favorite high school history teacher, and he was delighted to get “one last eye roll before she leaves.”

We went home. I tried to crank the van again. Nothing.


There was a large package on the kitchen table–definitely not the highlighters from Amazon that Abby was expecting. It was a late graduation gift from a friend who’d read Abby’s Common App essay, which includes her salute to a favorite song:

“Humble and Kind” is a little, gentle song sung by Tim McGraw. It stops me in my tracks, every time, with the solace it offers me. Tim McGraw sounds like me, drawing out his words, giving everything too many syllables. With the guitar I have heard my whole life, he sings “Always stay humble and kind/ Hold the door say please say thank you/ Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie.” I listen to this song constantly, doing physics, writing essays, unloading the dishes, because it is something I can do and something I have been doing. I am humble, most days, and kind.

There was a thoughtful card full of kind words with a check tucked in, and there was a wrapped gift that was obviously framed artwork. Abby unwrapped it, read the handwritten note on the back of the painting, then flipped it over. There they were: the framed song lyrics–a touchstone for my daughter’s dorm wall, a sign to say, “You may be at Yale, but this is who you are.”

I just put my head down on the entertainment center and cried. This whole Yale thing has been cobbled together piecemeal, and in this summer of a long cancer pay dock, God had once again shown His compassion and provision. The check would have been enough of a reminder of His sovereignty through this–but the picture? Well, that was just God waltzing through my house, chewing some gum and saying over his shoulder, “I knew you would want your kid to have this, so I got it for her,” and flinging it on the table.

I could see His wink. I could hear His laugh. He Done Showed Out.


39257743_214631729398385_6875106334283399168_nAn hour later, we headed to my dad’s for the start of the Goodbye Tour. As we pulled up, I noticed a small, cute red Honda I’d never seen before nestled under a tree in the yard.

We sat around the snack bar sneaking servings of my step-mother’s stuffing and talking about Yale and cats and cousins. I talked about my difficult day in vague terms, told them about the coup de grace, the likely death of the Old Gray Mare. Off-handedly, my step-mom said, “Well, there’s an eighteen-year-old Honda in the yard.”

Dad took me outside to see it: mildewed from sitting, with a leak in the roof, it cranked right up. The AC worked, and I wouldn’t have to duct-tape over the check engine lights. He wondered if I liked it.

I just stood there in wonder.


This is what we have learned from Stephanie Grace’s death; from cancer three times; from April’s return to her birth family; from Abigail’s admission to Yale; from our long-standing financial problems and all those medical bills: to see God’s hand.

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A Slow Walk to Wonder: Anencephaly, and Love

37233069_10215261927874206_5466771748877762560_nOn the day that my daughter April found out that the baby she was carrying had anencephaly, we weren’t terrified. We didn’t know enough to be. Even the baby’s gender was still unknown. We weren’t given sonogram pictures to obsess over, and we certainly didn’t know anyone else whose baby suffered from it.

Our friends, likewise, had never heard of anencephaly, and several googled it–and saw things they wished they hadn’t. More than one friend said, “You should have told us not to look that up.”


On the day of her birth, for just an instant after delivery, life felt like Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was not until we saw her that we learned Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly was brought about by a severe case of Amniotic Band Syndrome,  in which bits of the amniotic sac’s lining somehow tangle around the baby.

Our world had shifted once on diagnosis day; on her birthday, those amputations and alterations we did not know could even be–horrors so great no one talked about them–changed our world again.

But the wholly-engulfing terror and loss lasted only a moment–a millisecond where the roller coaster plummets, the stomach goes–and then everything settles, the breath returns. The terror is gone.


In 2016, on those early-summer afternoons when I stared at the Drake elm in my backyard, I was lost. We all were. And people were scared to try to reach across our chasmed grief, since, as a cousin in New York confided, “They don’t make greeting cards for this.”


I’m not easily soothed. I can’t soothe, either. From the outset each school year, I tell my students that I will not pat them. They will not get daily compliments from me; praise will not be flung like confetti. I stand there and say some sweet things, “Honey, I love your jacket” or “Your hair is lovely,” and even though they do not know me yet, they agree: it sounds fake.

Then I talk about alcoholism, privilege, and pain. I talk to them about self-doubt and pregnancy and wild parties–things on teenagers’ plates. I tell them that I know that a teacher is just another problem in their lives; I know they pay their parents’ water bills, and Mom sometimes does crack before school. I acknowledge their pain.

I sound real.

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It was not until four months after Stephanie Grace’s birth that we found the Facebook support groups Anencephaly Info and Anencephaly Hope. April, by then, was a thousand miles away living with her birth family, and I suppose my initial thought was that Facebook could provide her connection–a virtual peer group.

My initial Messenger exchange with Info’s founder was twenty-three words. It hardly seemed life-changing.


In those days, I listened to Shane & Shane’s “Though You Slay Me” on a loop during my planning period. Over and over I listened to John Piper declare, “Of course you can’t see what [your affliction] is doing . . . It’s not meaningless . . . do not lose heart. But take these truths and focus on them. Preach them to yourself every morning . . . until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for.”

I saw no meaning in my granddaughter’s horrific death or my daughter’s anguish.

To even consider the possibility of a singing heart was absurd.


But on a quiet Spring morning, on the day of what should have been a sad stillbirth, my family instead had witnessed the hand of God. In that little hospital room, we felt the splitting of time, we glimpsed the eternal, we lived a Truth that most do not. And I will say it always, testify forever: I didn’t know Time could freeze like that, that Solitude could descend, that Love and God could wholly fill a space.

I shake my head as I type those words. I marvel still.


I imagine God chuckled, looking down at me that day–broken, willful, and impulsive on my best days–and said to Himself, “She is going to tell everyone what she sees Me do,” as He wooshed into that room.


37209108_10216042626315933_6139790444101369856_oBecause that’s what you cannot fathom on the dark diagnosis day: you cannot fathom that anything good will come; you cannot see any option other than pure pain. You see loss, loss, only loss. Such an abundance of loss.

And there is no room for joy in the words “incompatible with life, ” because, for parents, their children’s lives are their joy–the cuddling in the bed on Saturday mornings, everyone warm under the covers, safe and together; the first walk in the muddy backyard in the pouring rain, reveling in the toddler’s joyous splashing of his rubber frog boots; the simple pleasure of looking at cows.

On diagnosis day and in the shell-shocked weeks that follow, when so much is newly ruined, to imagine any possibility of redemption is almost impossible. To suggest it is nonsense.


But that’s what comes. After the funeral home, with the tiny Moses basket; the coffin so small a mother can carry it; the urn smaller than a child’s fist. After the months spent in the dark on the sofa–or in the rocker on the patio staring at silent trees. After the memory garden is planted and the headstone with its tiny angel wings arrives. After the first Christmas is survived, the Mother’s Day endured. After all those tears.

After all that, redemption slowly comes.


When I was younger, at church youth group, we had testimony time. We would stand in front of everyone, the microphone tightly gripped, and tell each other: this is what I’ve seen God do. This is what I know for sure. And there would be applause.

Truthfully, at that point in our lives, most of us had endured very little.

But I am thankful for that seed, for the understanding that it is important to say to others: I have done this hard thing, and I am standing here–because your standing implies that if they, too, have to walk that route, then they, too, will also stand.


That’s how I spend several hours a week now: testifying into a Google phone, talking to women in England and New Mexico and Belgium. Telling them how terrified we all were, how April didn’t think she could bear her sorrow, how I wanted to run from the room,  how we all thought we would collapse, but instead, we saw God.

I reassure them their babies are going to be beautiful, that their lives’ best worst day is coming. I tell them to try and believe me, despite the pictures on Google.  I ask that they instead look, really look, at the anencephaly family pictures posted in our Facebook group–the bonneted babies held by truly proud parents, their tiny fingernails painted like their mothers’, their footprints pressed into the family Bible, their beaming siblings bedecked in “Big Brother” and “Big Sister” shirts.

I tell them of the Love in the room.


Last week, two moms had their sweet babies. Born alive. Miracles, both.

And their moms’ first report was, as I promised them it would be, of all that Love.

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About that Fried Chicken: Thoughts on Your Teenager’s Safety

fried_chicken_leg Money has been tight around here lately, what with college application fees, SAT and ACT score fees, and the $16 it costs to tell each college how broke you are using the College Board’s CSS form. The pantry certainly isn’t bare, but is full of boring apples, popcorn, and raisin bran–so Greg and Abby were both excited when, on a recent Sunday after church, I texted that I was bringing home some hot grocery-store fried chicken.

When I walked through the door with the bright yellow box, Abby happily told me that she had invited my longtime best friend to join us, saying,  “Momma bought some chicken.”

I had bought one $6 chicken. Eight pieces. (And grocery-store wings are small.)

Greg and I acted as if she’d invited the Son of Sam to lunch.

“What??? I got one chicken.”

“Your mom only got one chicken!”

Abby didn’t understand why we were so mad; she didn’t know that a chicken had only eight pieces. That her dad usually ate three. That grocery-store wings are small.

Even at eighteen, there’s a lot she doesn’t know.


 

The other night, Abby stood in her small bathroom, raging about college.  She’s applied to twenty-six schools, all thousands of miles north or west. To any college that waives the fee. To state universities “that don’t have Georgia in the name.” To heart’s desire “reach schools.”

She is going far away.

Despite the fact that this has forever been her plan (this is a girl who was drawing scenes of Paris at three), no one in our small town can believe it.

As she applied eyeliner, she ranted, “All these moms are like, “How’s Abby going to survive? My Leslie doesn’t need me as much as Abby needs her mom,” and I’m like, ‘But there’s a Snapchat video of your Leslie snorting coke.’ Maybe your kid isn’t dependent on you, but she is dependent on other things–boys or drugs or partying–maybe she does, in fact, need you and you just won’t see it.

It is amazing to her.

After twenty years in the classroom, it is time for me to yell, “Amen.”


Those of us who spend decades knee-deep in teenagers learn the mischief they create (“I just drop my cell phone whenever I need a new one, and then I tell my mom it broke.”); the things they believe (“My dad would rather see a beer than me.”); the people they admire (“My Papa is kind, but he is also tough.”); and the things they do (“I snuck out at three AM.” “I met a guy on the pier in Florida, and we went off riding.” “I bought my girlfriend a pregnancy test last night.”).

Of course, we report what we hear and see. We pull students into the hall for quick chats; we hand them Post-it notes with scrawled pleas–“Think about your future”–and stop by ISS, where the kids can’t escape us, and whisper long speeches about choices and decisions. We tell them, “You are going to break your mom’s/grandma’s/auntie’s heart.” We sometimes care too much.

So we nearly lose our minds when parents don’t seem to care enough.

Because, above all, teachers have to be polite. Always. We have to measure our words, phrase things kindly, restrain the urge to scream, “Don’t you see that your child needs you?”

We have to censor. I am censoring even now.

And I just want you to know how hard it is, especially when I am considering my daughters’ classmates, children I have known since they were four, whose hair I have brushed, whom I have fed pancakes, whose knees I have patched with band-aids. I love these children, and some are imploding, and I can’t say anything because IT IS NOT POLITE. 

There’s something in South Georgia permissive parental culture that says, “I drank beer by the river as a teen, and I’m okay.” “I went to that cheerleader’s house when her parents were away, and that party was wild, but hey, I didn’t die.” But there is nothing wrong with holding your children to a higher standard than you held yourself; to do otherwise is to allow your seventeen-year-old self’s decisions to impact another seventeen-year-old child–who needs, desperately, for his forty-two-year-old father to show some judgment and some interest.

What parents need to tell honestly one another is something along the lines of, “If my daughter starts to lose her mind, I want you to tell me. If you hear things about her or see pictures or just get suspicious, I want you to let me know. I won’t get mad at you. I promise not to hate you. Just help me before things get too bad.”

We care more about Sunday church-pew appearances than Friday night realities, and it shouldn’t be that way.


33363778_10214857303318845_6814365961890562048_nLast week, as students piled in my classroom, they were chattering about the previous night’s parties in a neighboring county. Their social media feeds that  night were evidently full of drunken kids, including middle schoolers, and their worldly sixteen-year-old minds were blown.

“There are going to be parties all week, Mrs. G.”

“These children thinking they’re grown.”

Loudly unspoken was the “and you have to do something.

I warned parents on Facebook–as did that county’s sheriff. He said he’d called in the Georgia State Patrol, but more importantly, he reminded parents to be parents, ever so politely, since this is the South: “Nobody wants to get a late night phone call that their loved one has been killed or placed under arrest for any reason. So parents and young adults please help me in preventing any of this from taking place.”

It is true that soon enough, our children will be hundreds of miles away on campuses full of drugs and frat parties and kegs and one night stands.  But they aren’t there yet. As the sheriff reminded us, we parents are still in a place to prevent–literally, “to hinder before.” 

And that’s what we should do.

 

 

 

 

 

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A First Farewell: To my Senior Daughter–and Poetry at Night

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Every day during my planning period, I walk to the cafeteria, make my husband a huge tumbler of tea, then deliver it to his classroom. Today, his co-teacher asked if I was okay, saying that he had seen me earlier and I looked lost and confused, standing there in the hub of the school in a daze.

“Oh,” I said, “My leg is giving me a fit–do you know about my broken leg? I broke it in two places five years ago, missed a semester of school. I was in a hospital bed in our den for three months–Greg got cancer at the same time. It was a mess.

He stood there, open-mouthed, then said, “Y’all need to quit getting God mad . . . or maybe He’s using you to inspire people–y’all have nothin’ but turmoil and adversity.

I told him that one of my good friends, a football coach, says that Greg and I are winning just by getting out of bed. By showing up at work. That most people would have quit by now, wouldn’t even attempt to go on.

I guess those people have sick days.


We are 63 days out from Greg’s surgery for Cancer Number Three. His neck wound finally quit seeping last Saturday–eight weeks of slow, oozy healing, some of the longest weeks of my life.

We are now in the post-trauma phase where you try to regain normalcy–but we are each trying to regain it in front of classrooms full of teenagers, themselves in the throes of Spring Fever. Teaching in the spring requires stamina that we barely possess, and we are quick to collapse the instant we get home.  There’s not a lot of chit-chat–it’s all logistics: mission-driven chore division; to-do list negotiation.

Today, as he left to buy cat food, Greg said, “If you think of anything you need, don’t text me. I don’t want to get it . . . and I’m only half joking.”


Because I was too tired to cook, Abby ate cold pizza before heading to bed at 7:30, exhausted, while Greg and I watched a couple of episodes of The Tonight Show (Kevin James won the pratfall contest). We were surprised afterward to find Abby still up.

“In fact,” she explained, “I am about to die of heartburn.”


While Greg went on a Tums run, Abby, miserable, said, “Can you come sit with me for ten minutes, Mom?”

She has new majestic lights from Target in her bedroom–against the grey drapes, they look like stars, truly. She was piled under the mountain of her comforter. “I’m sorry I’m not much help to you these days,” I remarked as I lay down beside her, her face close in the false twilight.

“I don’t need much help right now,” she replied, absolving me. “Isn’t this nice?”

“It’s like being outside on the trampoline under the stars,” I agreed.

She had her phone out. I asked her if she had read the Poem of the Day, Danez Smith’s “say it with your whole black mouth,” a hot-poker of a poem, She said she had read half illegally on her phone in the hall, that it had made her late to class, but that the teacher had “turned her head hard” to allow her to sneak in.

She asked if I’d read, “If All My Relationships Fail and I Have No Children Do I Even Know What Love Is,” and I said no, so she read it to me after assuring me it wouldn’t make me sad.

She read me “God Letter” next–a poem about a sister’s death, anger at God, complexity–her quiet voice telling me of the poet’s story and sorrow. She finished, saying, “I think those last two and a half lines sum up my whole life, you know? ‘I was a mess then/ goodbye goodbye we left there to clean/the house for mourners to come.'”

I could not argue.


She swiped over to Snapchat and said, “Oh, there’s a story by Cosmopolitan about a girl who hid her pregnancy and gave birth at prom.” She shushed me as she read.

When she was through, she said, “The girl must not have had parents. No one knew she was pregnant; she had the baby herself, and it was stillborn, and she buried it in the backyard, and now she’s charged with homicide.”

My child, open-eyed to the realities of life in South Georgia, looked at me and said fiercely, “I want to buy condoms. I want to pass them out. Sure, I’ll say, “Abstinence is better.” But you know what I care about more than if you have sex? The babies who are born dead or born hurt or born and nobody takes care of them. I care about the babies.

She told me of her summer camp friend who gives out condoms. “Her parents know. She has, like, an industrial drum of condoms.”

She asked me if I knew what ————- thinks about Adam and Eve: that there were more people around at the start of the Bible, but that the Bible just talked about Adam and Eve. (This explanation keeps the brothers and sisters from inbreeding.) She is taking world religions this semester and remarks, “Did you know some people think the Bible is an allegory? The whole thing?”

I said, “Please don’t believe that. It’s very important that you believe the Bible, you keep Jesus and God.”

“I’m more something than you, Mom, but I’m not weird.” She was reassuring.

“It’s just that life is so bad, so hard with Jesus–I just can’t imagine life without Jesus, what that would be.” My girls both know I can promise them nothing beyond God’s presence: not happy marriages, not healthy kids, not finances, not personal health. They have endured what we have. With us, they have seen and felt and walked.

They have no blinders. This is no fairy-God.


I had been sneaking touches of Abby’s cheek–when she is tired, there is no touching her. I knew this night, this homework-less, boyfriend-less night, was a rarity, that I have perhaps a dozen more before she is gone.

I know she will go away for good. Even if the cancer comes back, she will stay at college. (We are a family that lists hypotheticals, having found them all too real.)


She always promises me: the far future consists of an apartment near hers. A garden. And cats. 

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Amazing Grace: Now, I See

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(This artwork was done for Royce Quill Goss who, like Stephanie Grace, had anencephaly. Used by permission.)

On October 13, 2016, six months had passed since Stephanie Grace’s birth.

It had been almost four months since April moved to New York.

And I was good. Not at all weepy or gray. I was in a good enough place that, when I looked back at August’s blog entries, I thought, I felt that badly that recently? and felt a bit stunned, although I could think of no time when I felt the switch flip, when I felt a bit more like normalcy was mine.

Then, night came. I had to pick up my sixteen-year-old daughter, who was arriving at the school late after a field trip to the state fair. It was dark, and I waited with our dogs in the van, thinking about the drastic changes in our lives over the past six months and the settling that had finally occurred.

Things were better.

Abby trekked to my van–I’d parked in the wrong lot–and got in the van, eager to show off the goldfish she’d won. I said, “Show me your cell phone first,” and she started rummaging through her backpack, explaining that it had died, so she had zipped it up in her bag. The bag hadn’t left her side since, and so, she explained, it would be right here, buried beneath the Rice Krispy Treat wrappers . . .

But it wasn’t.

It wasn’t in her bag at all.

The fish was pushed aside as she ransacked the bag. The bus pulled away from the school in the distance, its lights dim and distant.

We drove around to the front of the school, where the two new club advisors were waiting on straggling parents. They reported that they had walked through the bus before it left, and there was no phone.

All I could picture was a random student finding her phone, opening those pictures, and seeing sweet Stephanie Grace, and not understanding. Irrationally, I envisioned the baby’s photos shared on Snapchat, Instagram, in group texts.

Of course, I knew that all of the students on the field trip were great kids. That my daughter’s phone case was unique enough that they’d know whose it was. That anyone who picked it up accidentally would return it.

Yet the horror that was May and the loss that was June engulfed me. Drowned me again. I sobbed inconsolably on the school steps.

We raced to the bus barn. I wept the whole drive for those pictures, this life.

The bus driver, whom the advisors had called, stood atop the bus steps holding the phone. The phone had been right in the center of the aisle when he went to look. Pretty as you please.


This was, for me, no relief.

It was, rather, reminder. That our deepest sorrows, though temporarily soothed, are constant.

I felt foolish for crying so, for incoherence, for my inability to rein in my anguish.

It is so American, to apologize for legitimate anguish, for our own destruction and ravaging. Standing in our own obliteration, we offer others coffee and donuts as we, independent and prideful, box up our woes and shore up our facades–all is well here, please don’t worry about me, move along.

We sit upon our Sorrow Boxes, firmly clamping their lids. We speak of hairstyles and football scores, exchange recipes and funny memes, preferring to ignore the things that have left us rattled and shaken. Widows, longing to speak of their husbands, sit silently. Mothers who have buried children politely chat about the living ones, speaking of T-ball games rather than nights spent weeping in their missing children’s beds in untouched rooms.

And for a school teacher to become unhinged, even by desperate grief, is certainly taboo. Teachers are our steadfast moral pillars–equalled perhaps, only by ministers–and they are expected to do all things well. To be model mourners.

My coworkers who have lost children return to stand in rooms full of other people’s kids. They touch the children’s heads, see their smiles, help them make Mother’s Day cards. The grace that God piles upon them, that I can see in their eyes and smiles, stuns me in its palpability. It is there, in their classrooms, upon them, and I am amazed.


My grandparents used to sing “Amazing Grace,” my grandfather’s flat bellows ringing  throughout the Presbyterian Church as he enunciated every word. They would listen to it on an old boom box, shush us all if it came on during a Billy Graham telecast–they would close their eyes and go to another place, and I did not understand.

I did not understand Amazing Grace. I was a child.

But now, oh, now.


Tomorrow is Stephanie Grace’s birthday. Two years ago right now, I was standing in a hospital, alone with April, begging God to let us hear that baby’s heartbeat, pleading for my granddaughter’s life.

Two years ago tonight, that prayer was denied.

And although we had already spent months falling–from drops at once both bottomless and repetitive–and we foolishly thought we’d hit rock bottom, that false floor gave way.

We fell so far. We fell so far.

We fell and fell and fell.

The peculiar thing about falling to such depths–falling so far that wherever you once were is immediately unthinkably unattainable–is this simple truth: when you have fallen that far, when you are that broken, you no longer want to climb back up.

I could cry as I write that–those words, bought at such a heavy price are so true. When much–all–is lost, you are so stripped, so broken that in your naked state, you realize all was dross, and what is the point in regaining nothing?

But, oh, in that nothing, that is where you see the grace–because everything else is stripped away.

There is no person that can help you. No thing that will hold you. No thought that can comfort.

There is only God. Only Jesus.


Fifty days ago, my husband had his neck cut open, glands taken out, cancer removed. He had nerves and muscles and blood vessels from his arm grafted in. He had skin from his arm, white and shiny, put in his mouth–a patch where there should be pink. An aberration.  His arm now looks like he fought with a shark–and lost.

For weeks after the surgery, as I walked through the house or as I sat on the sofa, I would hear myself say, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Help, Jesus.”

It was so strange, like I was hiccuping prayers.

Even my prayers were broken.


We are 50 days out. We are 730 days out.

We have marked off the days in black Sharpie:  we have shuffled to work, gone to church, written our sorrows.

For 50 days, for 730 days, we have staggered in, bathed in, been propped up by grace.


On a quiet morning in April 2016, the four of us each held a one pound, three ounce baby girl.

We said hello. We said good-bye.

(We first knew Grace.)

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The Love–in The Horror

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I am rereading my most recent blogs–and it’s interesting, the things that I do not remember writing. All the careful explanations that I can’t recall crafting. The phrases that I have forgotten putting together.  The blogs of the past months were written blindly in rage and despair, with God sorrowing in the room.

I am not a theologian, but I think if you see enough horror and look at it long enough and feel it deeply enough, you get some insight into the heart of God.

The past two months have been full of things that no one should see.


My students are told on the very first day of school, approximately thirteen slides into the Day One PowerPoint, that they should not come into my classroom bleeding. Not  with a glistening paper cut, an over-chewed lip, or a nosebleed. They are told to go, to go fast, to flee to someone who Does Blood. I joke that they will have a 248-pound old lady falling out, and someone will have to catch me.

But, despite all the chipper lists of what “cancer cannot do,” cancer CAN and WILL make you do the unthinkable, the horrific. It will put the knee to your throat, crush you, leave you on a floor begging for breath, for sleep, for any sort of respite, because cancer does not care. 

It doesn’t care that you can’t afford surgery, that it’s your daughter’s senior year, that you don’t like blood.

If your loved one is ill in 2018, you become a managed-healthcare RN.


I was given a four-minute rudimentary lesson on wound care and sent home with a husband who had his neck cut from under his left ear to three inches from his right–a clean line, a red wound that any NCIS or SVU make-up artist would have been proud of.  And, three times a day, I was expected to examine it, clean it, and slather it with Neosporin like it was just a skinned knee.

Greg tells me that I ran from the room. He tells me that I screamed in terror. I know that I cried, I know that I cried and cried and cried, hours a day, a sorrow no medication could touch. I was failing my husband, failing my family, unable to stagger toward the finish line–to even care or believe that there was one. Fed a decades-long diet of Cancer Propaganda that makes caregiving a Pollyanna-ish all-or-nothing arena in which you are either Selflessly Succeeding or Failing All, I knew I was failing everyone.

After four days the wound began to reopen, its sutures unravelling like everything else in our home. My eighteen-year-old-daughter, the only other person available, had to help. She handed me gauze, cut tape, held my gaze, was brave. As the blood ran down her father’s bare chest, she had to say, “It is not that much blood, Mom. It is better tonight.”

Then, one night during wound care, as Greg spoke, something emerged from the wound. We will never know what it was, but we will be ever-certain of this: it was a breaking point. She and I, ever-competent, got the wound bandaged. Then I collapsed as she retched in the bathroom and Greg wandered helplessly between us.

Facebook Live recorded as I hysterically begged for help–for I, a veteran caregiver, a champion medical string-puller, could find no help anywhere for our family, and we were disintegrating. I said some things about medical mission trips to Guatemala and medical mission trips down the road, and I made assurances that we needed the same help as the Guatemalans, that we were as desperate and would be as grateful.

And coworkers with no medical training, Sunday School classmates we hadn’t seen in years, neighbors, people from old churches–they began lining up to do wound care. To hand me Q-Tips at dawn, to drive over at night after tucking their kids in and hold the flashlight and make jokes about Nurse Ratched. My husband was bare-chested, his arm and jaw disfigured, vulnerable in front of the most casual of friends–we were all so miserable, but aware of the love in the room.

I think that’s what Christ is: the love in the room. He is the sobs of a terrified wife who is still filling syringes to squirt saline in open wounds. He is the silence of a daughter who is mute as her senior year is destroyed, and the silence of her father, who can do nothing, who suffers most, who feels all of the pain but does not complain. He is the bravery of the daughter 1,036 miles away, powerless but trusting. He is the kindness of those who showed up and lovingly stood for ten dark days beside us in our horror.

The love amid the horror.

The Hope Of Glory.

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Far Past Agony: Reason for Rejoicing

28310031_10214123184966345_286739087_o“But what could you do? Only keep going. People kept going; they had been doing it for thousands of years. You took the kindness offered, letting it seep as far in as it could go, and the remaining dark crevices you carried around with you, knowing that over time, they might change into something almost bearable.” –Elizabeth Strout in Amy and Isabelle

On a March day in 2001, as our pastor stood in our driveway, Greg and I put seven-year-old April and fifteen-month-old Abby in our secondhand Ford Windstar and set out for Seattle, Washington. I was thirty and confident–full of love for my family and faith in God. I’d done my research–nationally, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance had the highest survival rate for the bone marrow transplant Greg needed for his leukemia. We would see the country on our nine-day drive, easing our transition from a normal couple to our roles of patient and caregiver.

It was when we crossed the Ohio River that I felt the reality shift–the fact that this was a life-altering experience for our family, and it couldn’t masquerade as a little cross-country jaunt. I drove over a big metal bridge, and then I drove across America, and, sure, we saw Mount Rushmore and the St. Louis Arch and flew in a seaplane over Pocatello, Idaho, and marveled at much, but we also spent months watching 21 people die. 21 mothers, fathers, and young children.

Twice, we were the first to comfort the freshly widowed. As they wailed, Abby toddled past, whispering, “Heart’s broken? Heart’s broken,” and patting them with her chubby hands.

Greg and I said good-bye to our marriage with its traditional gender roles and warm affection. The “casualities of caregiving” were tremendous–from the financial and romantic to the mundane: initially, Greg had little energy to participate in the family life he’d fought hard to save. We remained consciously grateful because, after all, Greg was one of a literal handful to emerge alive–there are four remaining survivors from our 2001 summer crew.

Greg never embraced the role of “cancer survivor”–never did a survivor’s lap at “Light the Night,”didn’t celebrate his transplant anniversary as his “second birthday,” didn’t write his anonymous donor yearly. He just quietly went on with life. With normalcy.


Seattle, after a decade, began to feel reasonably far away. Throughout the transplant process, I had claimed Job 11:16, “You will forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by.” (Note to the über-Christians: I realize that Real Christians aren’t supposed to claim anything from Job, that it’s just men talking. But the verse helped me.)
And it seemed the waters had gone by.

I spent the summer of 2011 in a hospital bed in our den with a badly broken leg. On our twentieth anniversary trip to Las Vegas, I’d fallen while hiking in Red Rock Canyon, resulting in a perfect compound maisonneuve fracture that orthopedists screeched delightedly over. Our den was turned into a hospital room, complete with a potty chair at my bedside. (When Greg good-humoredly yelled, “Code Yellow!” the girls ran to hide.)
In August, Greg had a spot in his mouth that hurt, and even in though I was in a wheelchair, getting it checked became a top priority; in Seattle, they trained patients and caregivers to be hyper-vigilant regarding mouth sores and skin changes. We went to an oral surgeon in Jacksonville for a biopsy, and he assured us that he would call Thursday by 5:00 if it was bad news.
Thursday found Greg and I lying together in my hospital bed watching David Letterman and joking around. I said, “Hey, it’s almost 5:00 and the doctor hasn’t called. I’d like to congratulate you on not having cancer.”
And with that, the phone rang.

Greg was diagnosed with Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma, which affects 1 in 500 bone marrow transplant survivors and is caused by the TBI that the bone marrow transplant regimen requires. He was told he would need part of his jaw removed; that he would need a neck dissection and radiation.  He drove to Douglas to a store-front church where the pastor had a reputation for the gift of healing. They said a simple prayer together, and Greg came back and told me he wouldn’t be having a neck dissection–that I needed to let the surgeon know he no longer need it.
The next day, we went to the hospital. Greg was somewhere being prepped for surgery when I ran into the surgeon at the elevators. I knew he spent his vacations as a Christian missionary; he nodded, unfazed, when I said, “Greg believes he has been healed and won’t need the neck dissection.”

Later that morning, the doctor came to tell me, “The tumor is less angry . . . he won’t need the dissection.”


Those people, the people we were in 2011, they were still nice, kind, and warm-hearted. They were even reasonably hopeful. On September 29, 2011, the date of Greg’s  jaw removal, my Facebook status read, “D-day!!! Expecting good things!”

I read those words and marvel.

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I did not go with my husband to any doctor appointments in January. I did not drive him home from the biopsy appointment. I was not there to hear the words, “You have cancer.”

I was 81.3 miles away. I got a text.


This third cancer is different. We are starting from a place far past agony. There is nowhere to plunge–there’s no nearby cliff’s edge, no tied knots, no knuckled fists clenching stubbornly to bent branches.

Myself, well, I don’t know if I am shattered at the bottom of the cliff or on a ledge under the initial fall, but I do know that I am no longer in a mode where “I must hang on” is a thought.

There’s just me over here, and him over there.

And there’s cancer.


Isaiah 30:15 says, “In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” The Message puts it like this: “Your strength will come from settling down in complete dependence on me.”

The twenty-two days waiting for surgery have been awful and long, but that verse hasn’t left me.

Last night, Greg wrote on Facebook, ” Right now it is nearly impossible to see how we could ever recover from this and live a life that would pass for normal.”

But then he added, “If there was ever a situation where we could see the hand of God move to do great things this would be it.”

Selah.

I am over here, and he is over there, and there’s cancer, but there is also the hand of God.

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