Monthly Archives: July 2020

I’m a Writer, Finally

When I was little and it was naptime, my desperate mother taught me to feign compliance in order to trick my hyperactive younger brother into lying down as well. I’d go into the bedroom beside his and play silently until he nodded off and Mama sprang me. Often, I just peacefully counted the daisies on my wallpaper, running my hands over the bumpy pink flowers. But there were days that I drug my Scrabble Junior game board into my bedroom closet and sat there on the floor, making words by the dim light of the closet slats.

116183217_568947403787128_4187972490607448831_nI hated the board–abhorred it so much that I feel the repulsion viscerally, still. The pressboard letters slid around on the slick board; the pictures were stupid–but, oh, the satisfaction of making words. It was the purest of pleasures–the simple joy in creation, in order itself.

As a child, I collected words the way other kids collected baseball cards or sharks’ teeth. When I was thirteen, Grandmother Nella gave me my own Roget’s Thesaurus, and I read it like a novel; I carried a crossword puzzle dictionary with me everywhere. (In middle school, after asking my teacher Mrs. Zachary if she knew where I got my “vast vocabulary,” I whipped out my five-pound dictionary, and, to her credit, she didn’t laugh.)

Around the same time, Grandma Williams bought me a set of leather World Book Encyclopedias. They filled my bottom bookshelf, their beautiful gold embossment sparkling satisfactorily. My mother often told me how expensive they were, how fortunate I was. But what I liked best was the accompanying free gift: an unabridged dictionary, a two-volume set–A through L and M through Z. Two thick books–because there were so many words in the world that one book couldn’t contain them.

(Can I confess that I read etymologies?)

But the greatest joy in the dictionaries, the truest happiness perhaps of all my childhood, were the brown pages at the beginning of volume one. There were word lists for the college-bound; grade-level vocabulary tests; root words; lists of countries; and scientific formulas.

Everything was quantified and orderly, and I liked that.

Eventually, I got a real Scrabble board. An expensive one. The tiles locked in place. The board spun like a lazy Susan. My father would play with me whenever he got a chance. I memorized the two-letter\ word list that someone had cut out for me from Games magazine. I got good. And, my father wanted to play me less because I won, every time.

So, nine years ago when I broke my leg and spent six months in bed and discovered Scrabble online, I was elated. I found my tribe.

I have played 11,000 Scrabble games since. I know that I should be ashamed of that. I know I could have spent the time doing other, more worthy things, but, oh, I love the game. Today I spelled GECKOS, a first–and it brought me great joy. I even run a Scrabble group on Facebook called Scrabble Addicts with members from around the world.

As I’ve explained in previous blogs, I began this blog unintentionally. It was seeded in outrage.

I was mad that every Christian internet site I saw about unplanned pregnancy was shame-based and condemning, and, morally, I just couldn’t ignore that void–I had to attempt to fill it. Then, when everything unraveled and my daughter’s baby was stillborn with anencephaly, I had to document that journey as well.

I started this as one thing, with one message–an unexpected pregnancy is an opportunity for grace, faith, and good, not an occasion to “sit down with your daughter’s siblings and discuss her sin.”

This was going to be a blog about babies.

I’m a teacher. I stand in a room and tell students things. And, so, when my life became a series of tsunamis of pain, the only logical thing to do with everything I was learning and feeling and being cast into was to try to find and share some sort of teachable truth.

People tell me that they know I keep this blog to process everything. That it’s cathartic for me to write and release things. That’s such a fundamental misunderstanding. It’s going to sound rude to say, but the deepest truth that writers know is this: if you are a writer, you are possessed. The truth just emerges. When you truly believe something you write, it comes so quickly that it sometimes startles you, yourself.

After reading the draft of one of my earliest pieces for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the editor called me and said that must have been very painful to write. It must have taken months. In truth, it took perhaps ninety minutes (because middle school English teachers are right: writing is sometimes just vomiting on paper).

Online Scrabble changed corporate hands this summer, from EA to Scopely; the transition was disastrous–one reason was that Scrabble GO was simply Tinder and board games. Each night “oil rig engineers” from Europe would fill the online queue with sweet talk. It was embarrassing for everyone. (Scopely finally fixed it.)

But one night, a particularly persistent, fairly decent player named Jimmy wanted my profession. To shut him up, I said, “I’m a writer.”

115821004_4000387670032885_6957194126248029593_nI felt it when I wrote the words–it was the first time I had said them, ever.

I had never before claimed the thing that claims me–because writing is not a thing any of us claim. We pass it off as a hobby, something worthy only of dabbling in. I don’t understand why painters and musicians are seen as artists and those of us who report in tuneless, colorless words are seen as something other.

Ours is still art.

Forty years ago, the world was one of letters–going through my father’s memorabilia has reminded me of that. People used to write letters every day. After lunch, before dinner, just prior to turning in. It’s what everyone did.

In my house, I have boxes of letters, some a hundred years old; I saved all the papers from my grandparents’ attic because they were full of words.

There is something in me that cannot throw words away.

I read scores of letters. Some were boring–the logistics of buying a window unit for my parents’ mobile home; news of long-dead dogs; reminders to write the maiden aunts. But some are now stained with my tears. An exhortation from the parents of my great-great aunt’s fiancee, dead in the war, to marry again and marry well. A condolence letter from the first-grade teacher of my distant cousin William Ransome Gwynne, an only child, who died in a hunting accident in the cliffs of Alabama. (His best friend sat beside his body until rescuers found them.) The words of comfort she offered his mother, the assurance that he had no equal and would always, forever be remembered–oh, what a treasure those words were. And what a treasure they are.

So, I’m writing blogs because that’s what we do now. They are where our words go, where the memories will be.

I shouldn’t, I’m told, write about some things–the very things I have lived through should, evidently, not be shared. Imagine if I said to you in conversation, “Don’t talk about your new baby. Don’t talk about your grandfather’s birthday party. Don’t talk about your work.” But that’s what people will do with a blog: they will attempt to dictate acceptable terms.

Words we speak are okay because they disappear like vapor–but things that we write down and see and keep forever are somehow wrong. They make us uncomfortable because they will not go away.

If I write about my father’s suicide and post it on the web, that emotion stays, captured forever, and I don’t control who sees it. If I talk about my granddaughter’s death, if I tell you about the tiny weight of her body, it’s hard for you to skip that line. You have to feel those words. You take on some of my pain, you experience it. But, remember, too, you experience my good days as well. I can bring you the feathers of a cardinal. I can bring you a baby’s fingernail. The rough tiny tongue of a kitten. Yes, I am a difficult container, but when my words spill out, the sadness and the joy both ooze.


In the Ocean Too Long: Thoughts on a Marriage’s End

107612282_3333286526684181_928714992422200231_nGreg can give good gifts. The girls used to return from shopping trips with him and give me little reports: “You are going to like what Dad got you.” “You are going to be surprised. He was so happy when he found your gift.”

Over the years, he has given me a bowl carved out of a South African railroad tie. a pansy glass bowl, an afghan with wolves on it, and a stained-glass birdbath. He’s given me plenty of gifts depicting my “mom animal,” as Abby teasingly calls blue herons. I have a painting of one surrounded by gardenias, a picture of one taking flight, a silver pendant necklace with a blue heron on the front and its prints on the back.  He’s given me lighthearted gifts, too: a Bacon of the Month subscription, Calvin and Hobbes, scores of gourmet jellybeans.

Christmas of 2016 was our first Christmas without our elder daughter, April. The three of us were still sad and struggling, missing her and mourning the loss of her daughter, Stephanie Grace. But Greg had–as usual–gotten me a thoughtful gift: a fire pit from Lowe’s. It was fairly deluxe, large, with slate tiles around the edges, a wire top, and a plastic cover. He had positioned it in the perfect spot in the backyard and surrounded it with chairs.

Our family was weak, but, nevertheless, I am sure that he and Abby were, like me, hoping that we could spend some peaceful evenings around the firepit. Nights where we sat to warm our feet, swap stories, eat charred marshmallows. It was an attempt, an offering, a lot cast.

A normally phlegmatic guy, Greg diligently scouted the neighborhood for firewood, making three piles–two near the garden shed were kindling, while the one near the wooden gate was fat lighter. He would come home from a walk and tell Abby and me that he had to get the car: he’d seen some good firewood.

I think we truly thought that maybe if we all really tried, we could be campfire people.

In the year that followed, the three of us enjoyed a handful of fires–between Greg’s fatigue/early bedtime and Abby’s intense schedule, there was rarely a window when our moods and free time aligned. On a few Friday nights, we had guests over and sat together by the fire, chatting while their kids played on the nearby trampoline–and we were close enough to normal to taste it.108293368_1692372057567609_627272323462037511_n

I’ve been looking at those overgrown, rotting woodpiles for two years now. There have been no more fires. Cancer number three took away any hope of joy–the misunderstandings it wrought, Greg once again enduring pain and disfigurement he could not share; me, the shadowed, weeping caregiver, forced again into medical duties far beyond the scope of any normal wife’s.

Twenty-one times cleaning a five-inch oozing, dehisced neck slit, that’s what broke us.

The twenty-one times that the insurance company said, “We’d rather destroy your marriage than spend $250+ on in-home nursing.”

Our marriage ended on those February days where I had to be what I could not–and my husband, forced to demand what I could not give, had to watch me break. Had to watch our younger daughter break. Had to listen to our wails and retching. Had to think about all he required. All he will continue to require.

Being a patient means needing a caregiver.

Being a patient for decades means needing a caregiver for decades.

It means watching one another suffer, daily.

And although there is a push to romanticize this relationship, to make it into a pinnacle of oneness–I have watched as doctors peered inside his lungs, I have sat at his bedside in a hospital for 31 days in Seattle and 12 more in Jacksonville, I have swabbed his mouth and brought him water and heated blankets–although the media and society want to make this into something beautiful, often it is not.

Often it is simply, endlessly painful.

The patient knows that the caregiver’s emotional suffering is caused by his physical suffering. And there is no end.

The caregiver observes the person she loves most suffer agonizing pain day after day, year after year. And there is no end.

And so you “live” in the loop.

I could vomit as I type those words. I feel it in my throat, right there. I am so disgusted by what has been required of us.

For nineteen of our twenty-nine years, we have lived in the loop.

Yes, we have seen God sustain us, heal us, set us on a rock, bind up our wounds. Yes, we know he has sung over us with joy, made a way where there was none, made abundant provision. Yes, we realize that He will do it again. That He will do it over and over and over again.

And we know, too, that we are not supposed to say, “This is where the suffering stops. This is where the pain ends.” We are not supposed to stop suffering together.

In front of our families and our best friends, we said, ” . . . until death do us part.”

There is strength and refuge in words. Years ago, I read an essay in Cosmopolitan–of all placesabout the power in making a vow, in saying words, declaring them to be true, and then keeping them true. 

I believe we both wanted to keep our words true.

I can’t type a but.

I can’t type but this was too much. I can’t say but we quit. I can’t say but the suffering has changed us so much that we can barely recognize ourselves, much less each other.

My therapist, last week, gently told me that I kept expecting him to change, kept expecting things to change, that he was old and I was old, that we were both so traumatized and had suffered so much, that there was going to be no change.

And I thought to myself, “What you have just defined is hope.”

She told me I still have hope.

Even when talking to lawyers, I have hope.

Even when the movers come tomorrow, I will have hope.

Hope refuses to be cast aside.

My biggest grief in all of this–in the tsunami of pain and sorrow of the past nine months after enduring eighteen years of preparatory tidal waves–is that I know God could move in this situation.

I have seen it before. Time and again. But I do not see it now.

And so, in the place of no apparent rescue, I live in the day. I do what is before me.

Months ago, a preacher told me that God sees me, walking around the same wall I’ve circled for years. The preacher told me to shout.

He said it was time.

107612282_3333286526684181_928714992422200231_nThis spring, I’ve had spiritual insights. Known things I shouldn’t. Called people and heard their surprise at what God had told me. But I’ve “gotten” little for myself.

And so, the other night, I shut myself in my bedroom, turned on praise and worship, and sang and prayed.

And God talked to me, He met me in that little room, where I sat in my grandmother’s chair, and He said this:

When you were an infant and did not even know how to pray, I was there. How absurd it is that you think I am not here now . . .  My face never changes. My face never turns. My face is always upon you. It is easy to see that you were helpless there as an infant in the hospital bed  . . .  but you are just as helpless now. You need to have no illusions of your strength . . . There’s such power and recognition in the knowledge of what you are . . .

I am solidly behind you, even when you are as low as you can be, even when you are a lost cause, even when your dismay is great. I am right there beside you even when you cannot fathom that I  would be near, even when your ugliness is so wretched that you do not think I can be near, I am. 

You are so concerned that you are drifting, You think you can be in the ocean too long. You think you can walk too long, that you can walk and walk and walk and be lost. You are not lost. You are not far from Me.

You cannot see any beauty in all that has destroyed you. But I am the God of the pit and God of the mountain top, God even under the ocean.

I felt everything break during that prayer time, I felt it all break away. God had never spoken to me like that, talked to me that clearly for that long. But that day, He knew I was broken, and He bent low.

In the day of my distress, He answered me.

What a wonder: I cannot be in the ocean too long.

And, so, here still, I swim.


Planting Roses in the Dark

106750077_1060186801050959_3184702429651912070_nOne Saturday at Walmart, I heard a tiny, happy voice behind me. “Granny?”
I turned to see a brown-haired two-year-old boy toddling toward me. His mother, a smile in her voice, said, “Did you think she’s your granny? She might be somebody’s granny, but she’s not your granny,” and, together, they headed off down the baking aisle.

I can still hear it: his voice, her perfect answer.

His voice is with me now, months later. His complete, curious hope. His is the voice that fills my ears in the space where Stephanie Grace’s lilt should be.

One December night, when Abby’s plane was arriving very late in Jacksonville, I went to Steak and Shake to await her arrival. There were only a few people in the restaurant–a father with his teenage daughter, a man working on his laptop, and a family of four: parents, a seven-year-old boy, and an impish three-year-old girl with straight brown hair and huge dark brown eyes. She was overdressed in a burgundy velvet dress with fancy shoes, and she was busy, looking and acting like my elder daughter April did at that age–this was no time to sit and eat! There was so much to explore!–and so much like my granddaughter Stephanie Grace would have probably looked, had things been different. Had she lived.

The little girl’s relaxed parents let her march around the center loop of tables. I just watched, vicariously enjoying their happiness, and I was okay (I am now, generally). Then, she stopped in front of their table and began slowly spinning in a circle. She reached out, grabbed a handful of fries, and then started eating them, eyes closed, as she spun. It was such nonsense and such joy–the clack of her shoes against the black and white tile, her velvet ribboned dress, her squinched eyes and stuffed mouth. I felt so robbed–and yet, so happy that someone, at least, had this.

Her mother glimpsed my tears, and we spoke for a second, but she already understood so much.

She knew how rich she was.

She sent her girl to hug me before they left, the child whirling out the door, a smiling swirl of brown-eyed velvet.

April 13th, Stephanie Grace would have been four. We are not a family who has a cake and remembers. We don’t light candles on an altar in our home. We don’t talk about our sorrows–they are too big and heavy for our words and hearts.

But when Stephanie Grace was born, friends sent plants, and somehow, we managed to plant them in a makeshift memorial garden in the side yard. There are hydrangeas and roses, and this year, I added elephant ears from my father’s funeral, in a nod to those by Grandma Williams’s back stoop.

On Stephanie Grace’s birthday, one month into the quarantine, I was determined to plant yellow roses and freshen things up. And I don’t know how the day got away from me, but it did.

It was 9:00 p.m., and the roses hadn’t been planted. But, her birthday demanded recognition, so I got my shovel and the mulch and headed outside to garden by headlights.

The soil was hard, and I was angry and tired and feeling deprived. I wanted my granddaughter to be four. To be in my house, or living down the block, my Friday night Chick-fil-A buddy, my Sunday morning seatmate. I wanted to feed her macaroni and feel her shiny hair. I wanted her birthday to be me with her, me with my daughters, me with my husband, us together with her.

I didn’t want to be planting flowers in the dark.


And then, through the darkness, I heard voices. A childhood friend and her mother were walking in the cool night. Their voices were surprised: in my yard, despite the late hour, Luke Combs’ music filled the air; the car’s headlights beamed upon the yellow roses, and I stood, covered in sweat and grime, holding rocks for the flowerbed’s border.

“Rachel? Is that you? It’s been forever.” (Truly, it had.) “What are you doing out here? What are you working on?”

I explained.

I can do it almost offhandedly now. Sum up Stephanie Grace’s little life, explain anencephaly, tell about April’s subsequent move to New York state.

There are no longer tears. There is no gasping or panic. There is just the profound ache, the absence.

And it was good to stand there in the dark and share the story of my granddaughter with these dear friends, sweet people, who let me stand there, aching amid the roses, and just for a moment, be somebody’s Granny.