Category Archives: Resilience

The Land of Before: The Thirtieth Year of Marriage

December 2, 2018

Last night, I called my younger daughter, who is 1,001 miles away at college.  She said that she was in the common room with her suitemates, and they were bonding, and I was glad because I think, in general, common rooms should be used more than they are.

Somehow, they got to talking about abortion and babies and whether you would keep a baby who you knew was destined to die. Abby had to tell her new friends that, actually, that happened to her family–that we lived that two years ago.

Until Abby wrote about Stephanie Grace’s death for English 120, I didn’t how much it destroyed her. Of course, I knew April was heartbroken, lost, and bereaved, and I knew of my own helplessness, but I did not know how deeply everything–comforting her sister, shoring up her mom, all while still keeping perfect grades–had impacted Abby.


That’s the thing, the stunning thing: some of us carry tragic loads that seem too heavy to lift even once–and yet we must carry them evermore.


I am in a group of women, anencephaly mothers and grandmothers, hundreds upon hundreds of them who have lost these precious babies, who are lifting their precious loads, and who are walking on in pain.

Before Christmas, I didn’t think I could walk on any longer.

It all seems so unfair. We should have a two-year-old granddaughter romping through this house. We should be worried about keeping fragile Christmas ornaments out of reach, and instead, there’s no baby–even her mother is gone. There’s just sadness, resignation, and anger.

With losses like those we have accrued, it does not matter if you can pick yourself up–because everyone must emerge from despair. If one person remains in the pit, then the other family members find themselves staying near the edge–there is, after all, an intrinsic moral imperative: you tend to the hurt. You try to carry them out–and, if you can’t, you remain nearby. In a family, there is no TRUE moving on unless everyone is ready to walk.


I cannot believe how long my little family has lived with rage, for rage is–in some ways–the absence of love. But rage has within it an angry love–a love that says, “None of this should have happened, and it happened while you were with me, and you dared to stand beside me and endure hell and hard things. You stayed there with me, you propped me up, and I am mad that we had to endure this hell–but every single time I see you, I think of the hell.

That’s what’s no one’s really honest about. That’s what no one says: if your husband holds your hand through two miscarriages, and if he’s there during two failed adoptions, and if you’re there during his three cancer battles, and if you’re both there during your granddaughter’s devastating death, then it will not matter how many roses one of you someday summons the energy to buy. It will not matter how many candlelit dinners you eat together. It will not matter how many times you reach for his hand in the car.

The sad anger is always there.


I understand that God can do a work. What I am even more fully aware of is that God has not yet done a work, unless you consider the marvel that we are both in this house, that he is sitting beside me on the sofa as I write this. There is still a resilience despite the losses stacked like cordwood.


In this edge-of-despair, often angry world, sometimes I feel far from God. I know I feel far from my indoctrination–I joke with friends that I need reindoctrination, I need to go back to those early days of adulthood, days where anticipation was great, when there was joy in keeping a house and fulfillment in the suppertime smiles of my husband and children.


What you must never, ever say, the thought you must fight with ferocity–the one that you must always keep captive is this: I can’t believe this is my life.


When I got married, I intended to be a frugal homeschooling quiverfull mom with six children–everyone on one pew at church.  Instead, it sometimes feels like the only true harvest I have is sorrow–buckets and buckets of sorrow, and it just seems like God has forgotten us.

But I know that, despite everything I feel, God is there because Mr. Chalk told me so. As did Lou Turk. And Mrs. Mullis. I know that at the bottom of the ocean, He is there. On the top of the highest mountain, He is there–and so He has to be in my sad and angry house, but I can’t find Him here.

And so I get tired, And I want to raze the house.


Rationally, I want to destroy the house. To give up, take a cat and dog and flee–because there’s no way that God could have built this. Rationally, there’s no way the “tapestry” they talk about these Christian memes and movies can actually be something that works for me.

All I see is ugliness.

All I see is destruction.

All I know is the silence of the joyless house that I sit in for eight hours a day.


It is only natural to think, how can this be God???

I don’t know because I’m not a theologian, but I think it can be God because I think that God, in the hard times, can teach us the meaning of the word sustain.

He can teach us what it means to be held up.

He can teach us what it means to be propped when there’s just no more energy for propping. When there is absolutely nothing left that we can do for ourselves, that is where God shows up–in our weakness, in our frailty, when we can be neither kind nor patient, when we cannot be anything positive at all.

But we hear ourselves at work or the grocery store, saying, “Good morning, Sarah, that’s a pretty shirt.” “Hi, Whitney, how are you today?” starting the day’s cycle of kindness, the process of reaching out, of being God to others–in this gentle patching, we lose a little bit of the pain. A little bit of that rage. We can forget the hurt temporarily and see, instead, God–I see Him in the student giving me  the candy craft he has made–marshmallows on a stick–embarrassed at 15, but still reaching out, being Jesus to a sad, tired teacher.


Ultimately, no matter the emotional shape of our house, no matter how close we are to the edge of the pit, we are all still together.


August 10, 2021, our 30th anniversary 

Since that day in May–the day of Greg’s brain bleed, the day of the strokes, the day the woosh of the pit was the only sound I heard, when we were all, once again, engulfed in it–I have told myself, On August 10th, I am going to pull in his driveway and say, “Let’s go be glad you’re alive.”  


I thought, really, it wouldn’t happen after thirteen months of living apart.

I thought it would be too big, remembering the land of before. That land is a place we no longer know–and it’s a place few people here have ever seen us be. We have spent two decades in a land of burst and wasted balloons with little and faint music; we have only remnants of ribbon.


Tonight, my younger daughter and I were in her bathroom–she was twirling in a little black sundress and her favorite cardigan, twisting her hair into mini buns, a preparatory post-pandemic collegiate dress-up. We were prepping for one last trip to her favorite Goodwill, forty miles away. “Let’s take Dad,” she proclaimed.


Abby had collected stories for the car–the eight-year-old she tutors who hates “baby TV” (Paw Patrol), her roommate’s cactus scandal (the cleaning service threw away $250 worth of his plants), vegan adventures (recipe plans involving artificial eggs). She was opinionated and funny, just like we’d raised her, and we were already missing her, although she was right there.


On the way home, we went to Burger King–I got a real Whopper;  Abby, an Impossible Whopper, and Greg, cheese sticks.

Abby’s vegan Whopper was a little burnt, and I rolled down the windows while Greg made Dad jokes: “It’d be impossible for me to eat that Whopper.” Abby ignored us, munching happily, saying, “It makes me feel included.”


We whizzed down the highway, the sun setting pink in the distance, the sky cloudless through the pine trees. 

Abby, her mouth full, mumbled something about deer.

“Deer?” I asked.

“Did you see all the deer in that field? There were like a ton of deer. Like twelve. There were mothers and babies. So many deer.”

We hadn’t seen them. Not even one.


We told her the story together, one of the foundational stories of us, of our family in the land  before the pit:

On the night we got engaged, while driving home, I saw two deer standing in the dark at the roadside. 

April, when she came to us in foster care, had the last name of her legal father: Roe–meaning deer.

And when we found out we were pregnant with you–when I was desperately afraid–we drove the next day to the fertility doctor in Woodstock, in Town Center, and as we left the parking lot, there stood a deer in the parking lot, looking at us, then leaping away.

“Abby, it was near a highway like the one in Jacksonville. Near a mall. Lots of stores. There shouldn’t have been a deer,” Greg said.

And we marveled as we rode in silence, remembering the deer.

 

Day #282 (at the Pandemic Day Spa)

Watch this on HBO

Sunday 

It’s a rainy pandemic afternoon, and I’m lying on the sofa with Little Dog. I’ve been here, honestly, most of the day, and I’m rather proud of myself. When I woke, it was rainy and cold–there would be no backyard time today. No feigned normalcy, reading under the pecan tree, pretending that I could meet a friend for lunch at Ruby Tuesday’s, then while away the afternoon at Belk and t.j Maxx. 

I have been in Belk once–for less than twenty minutes–this year. My younger daughter and I have spent the days since March 13th isolating more than most. Our shopping trips are timed strategically; we have only eaten in a (very safe) restaurant twice–the booth walls are high, and the cleaning is impressive; we are diligent mask-wearers and social distance as much as we can–though in-person teaching makes it difficult for me. COVID has killed two people I knew well, and it has sickened dozens of my family members and friends–so, most of the time, I am content to sit here on the sofa.


But, as I’ve mentioned before, my brain is yearning to do Things. Go Places. (At this point, I think it would even consider attending a three-day barbershop quartet competition.) It is so bored. And this morning, at the sight of the rain, I had to combat its petulance, reminding it that we are staying home heroically.

In the Oscar-winning documentary One Survivor Remembers, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein says that while in the concentration camps, she spent entire days imagining the parties she would attend after the war–and attempting to decide whether she should wear a red dress or a blue one. She says that if you could occupy your mind, you would survive. That imagination was essential.

Much of my life’s philosophy has been impacted by this documentary–I have shown it in my classroom at least thirty-six times, and it has seeped into my soul. Ms. Klein has helped me appreciate the magic of a quiet evening at home, the taste of strawberries, and the infinite power of imagination.


My twenty-one-year-old daughter and I have always played elaborate games–when she was a sophomore in high school, she invented a car-ride game that was insanely difficult but very simple. She’d say, “Tell me about the time you became a circus acrobat in China/saved eleven children from a burning building/played NFL football and scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.” I would authoritatively improvise my fictional memoir.

Now, we are imagining our way through the pandemic–in fact, we have now spent months pretending that we are at a day spa. 


Each day, our pandemic spa has “spativities,” some of which are mandatory–the dishes, laundry, and vacuuming–and some of them are optional–like walking the dog or writing this blog. We consult the imaginary spativity schedule on our phones throughout the day: Is manicure time before or after the afternoon Uno game? What time is the Dairy Queen field trip? Are dogs allowed to attend? 

“Announcement Pronouncements” are made throughout the day.  We make them loudly and succinctly, usually after dramatically bursting into a room. “I weeded the garden.” “Little Dog likes the new fuzzy blanket.” 

More sadly, there is The Daily Violation Report. (The spa has stringent behavioral expectations, and our seven indoor pets often miss the mark.) The forty-five-pound “teenage” puppy is the most frequent offender: yesterday, she ate a more than hundred-year-old telegram from the day my great-grandfather was born. The cats, her accomplices, are no innocents, and Violation Report often includes their escapades. (Edgar drank rainwater from the pot beneath the leaky plaster roof, then sneezed and gagged dramatically. As a Violator, he was given no sympathy.)

In addition to general violations, there are more severe Code Violations. And they are written up on Forms, sometimes by an (imaginary) enforcer named Gladys, whose very name inspires fear. 

At the spa, you can interrupt anything–including an Ivy League Zoom session–if you see a Code Violation. You just say brusquely, “Excuse me, but we have a code 73A violation.”

This is always greeted with horror: “Not a code 73A violation!?! Just yesterday, we had a code 48Q.”

“I know, I know. Gladys is writing it up on a Form 37B. She’s canceling all spativities this afternoon.”

“Well, at least she’s not using a Form 9H.”

This has been our schtick since March. Last Saturday, as we were sitting in the den intently discussing various violations and upcoming spativities, I looked at Abby and said, “Do you ever wonder what people who don’t play these elaborate games spend their time talking about?”
It is an absurd farce, silliness of the highest order. But it has been our own personal Tiger King–a little much-needed joy in these 283 long days.

You Could Not Have the Cat

You don’t have to have the cat.

(You nearly didn’t have the cat.)

Anyone knows that a kitten doesn’t come at midnight,

generally.

Isn’t delivered by an anxious (yet hopeful) teenage boy.

It is a miracle that the cat made it to you.

He hissed. Spit. Even fought off a dog.

One pound of black and white fur. Toothpick ribs. Requisite pink nose.

(Part peace offering. Part bribe.)

The cat is in your house.

Where he climbs your (wholly forgiving) daughter like a tree

Scatters his catnipped mice like calico acorns

Breaks antique china plates, shattering their faded violets.

But tonight, when you foolishly list the things you don’t have,

Remember, always, this–

You don’t have to have the cat,

The solace of his soft weight when all else is lost.

When understanding cannot–

will not–

is not ever to–

be found.

A 2020 Resolution: To Lose (my) Hope

82141398_2039554759523830_1921538234739851264_nMe, to Abby: “How would you start a blog about hope?”

Abby [crocheting]: “I guess I would get some hope first . . . I’m funny, huh?”

We are a family who knows what we have and what we do not–and we are not afraid to name those things. Right now, we most lack hope, patience, and energy.

It is not as if we are particularly concerned about lacking these things, either. We have been without them before, and we can do without them now. I was crying in the car one day and Abby turned to me and said simply, “I am sorry you are distressed, and I wish I could help you.” We are honest in our recognition of our powerlessness.


This morning at church, the greeters gave everyone two index cards. During the sermon, our pastor asked us to write one thing we wanted to see happen in 2020 on one card; on the other, he said to write something about 2019 that we wanted to leave behind, to forget about forever.

And the thing I wanted to forget about, to put entirely behind me, to give up on, the thing that I wrote on the card was HOPE. 

I showed the card to my seatmates with a wry grin, and they didn’t even bother to admonish me.


I hadn’t been to church in a few weeks. We didn’t go to Christmas Eve service anywhere;  we didn’t load in the car to look at holiday lights; Greg didn’t read us the nativity story–he just went to bed; at 11:00 PM, Abby came home with her boyfriend and demanded, “Am I going to open one present and an ornament, or have we given up entirely this year?” so she and I at least did that.

But I decided that church is going to be optionless in 2020–it is going to become a “thing I do,” like grading papers or going to the YMCA. There’s not going to be any choice. On Sunday mornings and Sunday nights, I will be there. (On most Wednesday nights, I will be at the YMCA doing yoga.) I will grit my teeth and go alone and be among people and listen to the music and hear the Word, not because I want to, but because, to survive, I know that I must.

Today, I took a cookbook with me. I suppose it’s rationally indefensible, but I guess I grabbed it because my brain cannot be allowed to idle–though, really, it will not idle, since October 23, it is always thinking at least three things simultaneously, one at a low hum: “myfatherisdeadhekilledhimselfhediedalone.” I cannot allow my brain to shout that truth, because then it may also shout the others:

mygrandadughterwasbornwithoutherskullsheneversawtheskyorfeltakittensfur

mydaughtersbothlive1000milesaway

myhusbandhashadcancercancercancerheartsurgeryheartsurgery

weareallsosad

It is not denial that keeps me tamping these truths. These are too much right now–if they are stacked near my father’s death, if Stephanie Grace’s death touches his, well, that is an edge of sorrow that I choose to avoid.

I will not think about my father’s solitude in his office. I will not think about my sweet granddaughter’s footprint. I will look at pictures of chicken instead. I will carefully consider the ingredients of “whoop whoop soup.”


82130887_527182108007295_5360198105432064000_nAfter I wrote “hope” on the index card and my friends and I chuckled, I crossed it out, and I started thinking–why was that my instinct? Why not write “my father’s death” or “our financial and marital struggles” or “the doctor’s mistakes”? Why not start fresh in one of those areas?

There are, I think, two reasons.

The first is this: I believe that our losses count. That they are valuable. That our testimonies of loss and restoration build others’ faith. And, so, if I forget the pain of my father’s death, if I forget what it felt like to see my granddaughter lying lifelessly on that hospital chuck, I cannot look into your brokenhearted eyes and say, “God will get you through your sorrow.” Therefore, I cannot put these things behind me–but neither can they be always in front of me.

The other is this: it may really be time to give up on my hope. My hope may not be His hope. My hopes–for a happy home, financial stability, a healthy husband, a pain-free body–may hinder His plans.


I sat in church and thought: what if I am only whole enough to persevere? What if that is all hope looks like in my life?

What if I don’t get better? What if I only get stronger?

Is there value in my testimony if it is only one of the valleys? If I never again see a mountaintop?

I do not understand this seven-year season–but I trust Him. The Bible tells me that His thoughts are not my thoughts and His ways are not my ways; that His thoughts are much higher than mine; that now I see through a glass darkly; that now I see in part, but I shall someday see in full. (Isaiah 55:8; 1 Cor 13:12)

God is with me–and my family. He is so very close to us in our distress. We know this. We know we are not abandoned. We know we are not abandoned.

And we believe we will someday see. In full.

Things God Did For Me on the Day My Father Died by Suicide

This is a Facebook status from October 27, 2019. I am posting it on my blog because I think it is an important part of my father’s suicide narrative.

81468683_2577956252452789_5385749939617792000_n

Things God has done for me in the past five days, in order:

  1. Every part of this testimony hinges on this very first thing: I was in town on the day my father died by suicide. I was supposed to drive my husband to Jacksonville on Wednesday–he had a doctor’s appointment to find out if he needed a second surgery. He called me at work on Monday and announced that he was going to drive himself. My first block heard us squabble about it–I didn’t want him to drive with his eyes so bad, but I also have no sick days– and when I hung up, I told the kids, “Something’s going to happen on Wednesday.” I even added, “By Thursday, we will know if this semester is just in the toilet.”
  2. Wednesday morning, one of my students told me that her brother, a favorite student and long-time classmate of Abby’s, was in surgery having an emergency appendectomy. It sounds bizarre just say that this might have been used by God, but, like I told his mother, it kept 10% of my brain occupied most of the day–there was a thought I could go to when everything else was too much, another place for emotion to go.
  3. I did not answer my brother’s phone call. I looked at the caller ID for at least 15 seconds and really considered it, told myself, no, and went on with class. I learned that my father was dead via text–it sounds like the worst way possible, but it was 100% my merciful and loving Father watching out for me. If I had heard my brother’s anguish, I would have become hysterical, and my students would have endured that–and my daughters would have as well. Instead, I calmly said something along the lines of, “Guys, that text said my father just died . . .” and I stepped out into the hall.
  4. My administrators did not reach me. They were coming to break the news–and, honestly, the team was impressively made–and when I saw them coming down the hall, my heart was just so grateful that they had not made it to me. If they had, the high school would have become a place of trauma, and my friends/co-workers would have become part of that trauma, and what it is to me (a place of contentment) would have been forever destroyed.
  5. My childhood choir director, who is like family to me, was nearby. The administration firmly told me that I was not going to be driving myself anywhere, and I was adamant that I was not getting in a car with anyone whom they offered me. (By now, I like to orchestrate the details of Terrible Days of My Life.) We were able to locate her, and she swooped in and got me.
  6. My daughters are strong. My brothers certainly got gold medals in parenting for the ways they told their children, but I just broke my girls’ hearts with one sentence from 1,000 miles away. April was with her fiance, while Abigail was totally alone, leaving class–but I knew social media was going to get to them before I could if I wasn’t both quick and forthright.
  7. People offered to buy plane tickets for my daughters, and they got at least one of them to me. I cannot imagine going to that funeral without Abigail. (Greg’s heart rate and blood pressure have been elevated since my father died, and we felt that he could not safely go to the funeral.) I was so grateful to have my baby girl there. I am also grateful that April is strong enough to miss the funeral–it takes a special kind of fortitude to make that kind of decision, and she has it.
  8. I say a good good-bye. Teaching Julius Caesar for thirteen years taught me the value of “a parting well-made.” My co-workers will say I am better at good-bye than hello. Former students will tell you that my Friday and holiday good-byes are thorough (since weekends/holidays can be dangerous). One Friday, as I started my good-bye speech, a new kid asked, “Is something special going on this weekend?” and a long-timer said, “No, it’s just Friday, and she does this.” I’m so glad I do. My good-bye with my dad on Friday, the 18th, was loving and warm, and that gives me some peace.
  9. God allowed me to discover the song “There Was Jesus” and use it to get myself in a place of stability before this tragedy. A former student’s death the week prior to my Dad’s–stacked on the top of everything else, all the other losses–left me desperately sad, and I listened to that song on repeat for hours.
  10. My inner circle showed up (and every outer circle did, too). Four adults watched me slowly eat a sandwich, and the house filled with people who wanted to see my face, and I needed that solicitude.
  11. God has allowed me to read about suicide for more than twenty years. I understand things that I am certain many people do not, and there is so much grace in that. (See the previous post on my wall with blog links–the subtitle of the blog is “Why you should just shut up” because, truly, you should.) There is a peace in knowing that there is nothing any of us could have done. (There is also a world of pain.)
  12. Finally, I have full confidence in the mercy of a loving Father who sees Jesus when He looks at me and when He looks at my dad. I know my father is with Him.

Standing in my classroom last Wednesday, what it came down to was this: my faith is either real or it’s not. He’s either who He says He is or He is not. And I think God did an affirming work in me right then, and He spared me more dark sorrow, more anguish, more wailing and despair. And I am so very grateful.

The Grocery-Store Spectacle: Grieving my Father’s Death by Suicide

This blog was begun on December 19, 2019, and finished December 31.

In early October, you couldn’t have told me that it could be like this. You couldn’t have told me that there was another realm of suffering: that past holding my lifeless stillborn granddaughter, past all the other suffering my little family has endured, there was an even deeper grief. You couldn’t have told me there was more.

But today, I was wild-eyed in Ganas Pecans–the decision between pecan pieces and pecan halves too much for me. I can barely order eggs at Cracker Barrel or choose an exercise band at the YMCA. I cannot decide anything.

Instead, my body wants to flee. I have been bathed in adrenaline for weeks now, a pure, steady flow that made me grateful to catch a virus, for two weeks of respiratory weakness to tamp this constant fight or flight.

I can feel the hollows in my forearms, empty spaces yearning for movement. My head aches constantly behind my left eye–my neck and shoulders tight and immobile, jaw clenched, my facial muscles now individually known to me. My nose has muscles, I know this, too–suicide has brought them to me. Even just sitting in a chair demands my entire concentration. (It’s so amazing, really fascinating, how much sitting in a chair requires of those deep in grief.)

I didn’t know how fragmented attention could be. That I could forget to make a phone call–remind myself, then forget again–a dozen times in one afternoon. That I could open Facebook messages to send a note, forgetting to whom and for what in that brief second.

I did not know that a fifty-year-old woman could cry the despairing wails of the four-year-old. (I also did not know that, when the fifty-year-old cried, no one would come.)

There is so much I did not know.


There have been so many times in my life that words have been useless to me. (In the early blog’s about Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly, I did not use English in the titles because there were no words that fit.) But here, at this time, when my father has abandoned us, left abruptly, firmly closed the door, well, there are truly no words at all.

We are not people drowning in grief, occasionally coming up for air and seeing sunlight. There is no screaming of hopeful words over cresting waves. There are no motivating life preservers flung just out of reach–not is there a distant, but reachable, shoreline.

We are crushed like acorns. We are small, and we are broken into tiny pieces. We are stomped-upon and powerless. There is no possibility of reassembly.

Our lives will never be the same. There will be no return to baseline, no new normal. The word “normal” will never be used to describe us again. We are a grocery-store spectacle, the gossips’ pitiful feast.

We are “those poor, poor people.”


But we are not only pitiful–we are mad, too. There is anger that we can tap on the days when we refuse tears.

It is an anger unlike any other I have felt. It is not rage–because rage takes an object, and my father is gone.

It is not annoyance, that mild daily anger at long lines and stubborn traffic lights. It is certainly not the helpless anger so familiar to those of us who watch our loved ones self-destruct.

Neither is it the perpetual, disappointed I-can’t-believe-this-is-my-life anger known to those of us who got the wrong LaLa Land ending, though that is the anger it is closest to.

The anger is something akin to “what’s the point” or “why even try”–and it’s both cosmic and earthly–both with the universe and with my father.

82068945_477541166456581_5676904703166775296_nIn my carport and my sitting room, there are Rubbermaid containers filled with memorabilia–forty-year-old amusement park photos, elementary school report cards, “World’s Greatest Dad” trophies, letters from summer camp, tiny plastic Cracker Jack toys, greeting cards that all say, over and over and over again, “We love you. We appreciate you. You are wonderful.” And I look at that–all that written attestation, all that Crayola-ed love, and I think, “It wasn’t enough.”

That’s the source of the anger, really–the fact that none of us will ever truly know one another, that sometimes, there is no way to reach past the pain. Our ultimate impotence makes it seem pointless to even attempt to reach across the chasm–but love demands that we try.


On the last day of 2019, Abby and I took a five-hour road trip. The two-lane roads were littered with dead animals–I don’t understand how, sometimes, there are so many. Amid the dead possums and raccoons, there was also a dead Yorkie and a tabby cat.

In Milledgeville, we were driving in a pack of about six cars when one ran over the carcass of a dead hawk, and matter splattered on my windshield.

I just wailed. Just wailed and wailed.

 

 

Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255

25 Things I Do To Survive Really Bad Days

78950667_441755543206868_8212969989649465344_nSix weeks ago, I joked with a friend that I wanted to write a blog on 25 ways to survive a bad day. We agreed that it was “too morbid” for South Georgia–small towns being what they are, no one should ever admit that, sometimes, simply enduring is difficult. Now, of course, with my father’s death by suicide, people can think what they will.

I am happy that I now have a “toolbox” of things that I know will work to help me find my way out of a funk. It took me a long time–and a lot of research–to get to this point. 

These tips do not depend upon my family members–they have been enduring the same traumas, and they cannot throw me life preservers. This fact used to make me sad, but now I see it as part of the traumas themselves.

None of these may work for you–just know what does work for you and take the time to do those things without feeling guilty.  (This includes getting medication if you and your doctor agree you need it. Not you and your spouse. Not you and your great-aunt. Not you and your pastor. You and your doctor.)

78668098_2393388500916043_3759123701522497536_n

This is my list:

  1. Getting outdoors and getting quiet. I decide where to look, what will help me most. If the wind is strong, the pecan tree will be the most beautiful part of the yard; if the bees are in the wildflower patch, the patio may be where I want to be. If the sky is blue and cloud-dotted, I will flop on my quilt and make myself look at the clouds float by. And long-time readers will know that the drake elm is, of course, always healing. (Looking at trees is research-based, by the way.)
  2. Taking a bath is a good thing, always. (Sylvia Plath famously said, “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”) One of the first things my husband does when we move in a house is defeat the tub’s overflow valve so that I can fill it to the brim. (And, truth be told, the hot water heater is also set a little higher than it should be.)
  3. Making the bed. For me, clean sheets are a front-loaded reward for an anticipated bad day. I will wash sheets and make the bed before a hard day of long drives and doctor’s appointments. Homecoming is that much more wonderful.
  4. Getting on Facebook chat. There is always someone just a click away, and I take advantage of that. Whether it’s a new anencephaly mom or a former student, someone is usually up for small talk. (Wednesday morning, Abby and I Facebook videochatted with a friend from Arkansas for 38 minutes. Today, a friend from Nashville and I traded recipes.) Seeing a smiling face is often all the antidote I need.
  5. Vegging out–Instagram triplets, pregnancy reveals, and cat videos will get my mind out of a loop every time.
  6. Listening to “Hallelujah Chorus.” (On one particularly bad diagnosis day, I sat in the darkened den and listened to it while eating tres leches cake, and those ten minutes diluted some of the horror of the previous eight hours.)
  7. Watching familiar movies. Grease if I’m sick. Notting Hill if I’m sad. Silver Linings Playbook or Lala Land if I’m nostalgic (but never if I’m sad). Manchester by the Sea if I’m feeling honest. (Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler, confesses of his pain, “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.” It might be the most honest moment ever in a movie.)
  8. Inviting myself over. I have several friends who have an open-door policy for me. I’m allowed to come over in my pajamas and sit on their sofas and watch the Braves or pull up in their driveways for a pep talk. And, on bad days, I do.
  9. Listening to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones and singing along, loudly.
  10. Looking through my “treasure box.” I only do this about once every four years; I save it for the worst days. In my nightstand, there is a purple striped box filled with comic strips, notes, and mementos, generally of my life before All of This. Younger Me is, of course, gone, but there is still power in visiting who I was. There are both comfort and validation in remembrance.
  11. Reading poetry. Poets have an ability to perceive things that others miss, so on sad days, seeing through their eyes can be reassuring. (Carrie Fountain has helped Abby and I survive entire years.)
  12. Going to the YMCA. I started going this summer simply because I was emotionally unable to sit in my sad house any longer. I gave myself absolutely no choice, and almost every entry in my Under Armour Map My Walk journal is dismal. Initially, had an awful attitude and hated every step–now, I have new friends, go to classes. and can carry a 42-inch screen TV alone. (Also, the gym is a societally authorized place to be, especially since I am overweight–everyone is always glad I am  exercising; no one can tell me that I shouldn’t be, and so I can go as often as I’d like.)
  13. Visiting the nursing home. Everyone there is always happy to see me; I can sit and do a word search or a jigsaw puzzle with a content companion; I always leave grateful for my home, my mobility, and my pets.
  14. Taking the dogs on a road trip. If I’m posting pictures of the sunset from Swamp Road, it’s a sure sign I had a terrible day that I’m redeeming the best way that I know how. Good music, happy canines, a sunset, and some Bubble Yum will keep me from hitting rock bottom every time.
  15. Listing to music on Alexa–buying an echo dot for $22 and getting Amazon Music Unlimited has been more life-changing than I care to confess. I am not technologically inclined, and being able to say, “Alexa, play Zach Williams’ “Rescue Story,” and then say, “Repeat that,” without ever having to make a playlist has been wonderful. (This also works with Lady Gaga’s “You and I.”)
  16. Reaching out helps–whether I make a coworker some banana bread or write a little note to a far-away friend, I usually feel better. (This is based on research as well.)
  17. Petting a cat or dog. We have three indoor cats, three outdoor cats, and two dogs, all of whom found us, and these animals bring us more daily comfort than anyone can know. Abby jokes that Edgar and I might as well be “surgically attached,” and Baby is rarely out of Greg’s reach. Pets have health benefits for their owners, and I know that they improve our lives daily.
  18. Accepting social requests and attending community events–even if the rest of the family stays home.  Getting out of the house does me good, even if I sometimes have to force myself. If I’m invited to supper or a former student’s kid’s birthday party, I will go. If we haven’t ever talked but once in the grocery store, I will still meet someone at Rodeo with a smile. I have never regretted saying yes to an invitation.
  19. Watching a church sermon I missed. My pastor always challenges distorted thinking and reminds us of the goodness of God, and his sermons are only a Facebook click away.
  20. Doing yoga. I like Amazon Prime’s “Beginner Yoga: Morning Stretch and Flow.” Drinie Aguilar is not too perky, and the first routine is better than any chiropractic session I have ever had. In her spiel, she says something like, “Good for you, starting your morning doing something to help your body,” and I always think, “Yeah, Drinie, good for me.”
  21. Writing. Obviously, this blog helps me–anencephaly, three cancers, two heart surgeries, now a suicide–it’s way too much to keep internalized. I have over 100 non-published drafts–but the thoughts are down on paper.
  22. Talking to a friend who is going through something worse or more interesting–listening to someone else unload will often stop my spiraling. Several of my friends will say, “But why am I telling YOU this??? You have it worse!” without ever knowing how helpful they are being in sharing their own stories.
  23. Meditating with the free app called Headspace. I don’t do it enough, but that app has calmed me down quickly several times–it is so soothing.
  24. Crying. One of the kindest things Greg ever did for me was read research about crying aloud to me for the last thirty minutes of a long drive. It is so beneficial biochemically that I no longer try to stop myself. The benefits of a “good cry” are felt for weeks afterward. (And yes, there’s tons of research. I am only linking one.)
  25. Remembering that “His mercies are new every morning.” This verse from Lamentations 3 has been true in every trauma. Every morning is better. Every morning He is there, with me. And that assurance continues to comfort me through these dark nights.

77278276_700391147037101_2551750051781148672_n

 

All artwork by Tori Press @revelatori. Used with permission.

The Grand Mistake; The Minor Miracle (Cancer Number Four: Really???)

IMG_20191111_094530Last Saturday, I went to the mall, and as I was leaving, I bumped into a former student and her mother. They are the kindest of people, and I was wild-eyed and sad–it was just sixteen days from my father’s death by suicide and thirty-six hours before my husband’s second heart surgery in eight weeks. It was just too much, and they could tell.

“How can we help you?” the mother asked; I mumbled that I didn’t know, that there was vague talk of a fundraiser and that we had a Boston butt–I’d just eaten some for breakfast, in fact.

“We do food,” the mom said. “I’ll bring you a frozen crockpot meal later–that way, you can just pop it in whenever you want.”

I can’t even be sure I was appropriately grateful–tired and overwhelmed, I was mainly just glad to live in a town where people will feed you if you don’t even know their first names.


On Monday, Greg had his surgery/procedure–we had been told it had a 50/50 chance of working, so when I saw the cocky strut of the surgeon’s assistant, I was relieved. It took two plugs, but his heart was not going to be a problem anymore.

They moved him to a room overlooking the water, and we prepared to settle in for a quick overnight stay. I was hoping for an overdue lunch and a catnap–I had only slept two hours the night before and, worried, been unable to eat much that morning.

But then the nurse said, “And you have had ————recently?”

We were confused–and then she added something like, “For the ———- cancer?”

Met by silence and sputtering, she showed me the record. She pointed to his name and birthdate, she pointed to the name of the cancer–he had cancer in a vital organ. It had not metastasized–I remember being grateful for that. My brain jackhammered simultaneous thoughts, over and over saying, above all the others:

Cancer #4 has been here for weeks? And we hadn’t been told at all?

We have wasted so much time.

Cancer #4 is here.

Shaking, I immediately called his oral oncologist and left a message–I thought that the OSCC would have gone to his brain, not traveled south–that was my only stopping point, the only hinge holding me: I’d never read that it could go where it evidently was. I called the hospital’s patient advocate, got no answer; texted my cousin, a malpractice attorney, and even called the hospital’s attorneys–because someone needed to get in Greg’s room and answer questions.

Because it was there in print. He had cancer.

We asked for the charge nurse, and a cluster of people gathered–all appropriately concerned. My lawyer cousin called, and he made me laugh in the way that cousins do, offering colorful language and good advice, suggesting an X-ray.

Greg, still required to be immobile, lay on his bed. “I had an X-ray in October,” he said, “Can you look at that X-ray, too?”

They did. And, in it, his vital organs were intact.

There was still so much confusion–but there was enough relief that as the X-ray tech arrived, I said, “I’m going to dash down and get something to eat.”


I stepped off the elevator, my mind flying–we still had ninety minutes in the business day–a lot of time to pursue answers. Greg had told the nurses that he would have answers before he left the hospital Tuesday–we were not waiting until Wednesday and then driving back to talk to so-and-so–we were not going to be patient or polite. Cancer #4 left no time for that. I was strategizing–who would best help us? Who could sort this out?

Then, halfway to the cafeteria, I spied them–in resplendent businesswear, tags bearing credentials I liked: there was The Powerful Person (TPP), involved in conversation.

And it wasn’t rest that hit me, but there was an immediate sense that now, the puzzle would be sorted.

I took a second to calm myself, tried to remember my cotillion skills, stuck out my hand, introduced myself and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I can assure you that the most important thing going on in this hospital is happening in my husband’s room right now. Can you please come there with me?”

And The Powerful Person did.

On the elevator, I gave them the litany of medical tragedies, the testimonies of Greg’s stoicism, the story of my father’s death–and I said, “We have to know if this is cancer #4.”


TPP stopped at the nurse’s desk, then went in and met Greg.

Even now, I just remember how much better I felt: there was an authority present, someone who could help. TPP said the right things, shook Greg’s hand, distributed business cards. Cared–and took control.

So, I left to go eat.


The end of the story is simply this: he didn’t have cancer. A machine or a human had erred. (We still aren’t clear which.)

As people do, our friends and family tried to figure out the why behind this happening: what were we supposed to learn? Was it so we could pray for the person who did have cancer? Why allow us to be shaken so?

I know, of course, that there does not have to be a reason, that things sometimes just happen. That this will one day be just a bad memory, a cosmic joke.

Then, I will testify that in a short 55 days in the fall of 2019, Greg had open heart surgery and complications; he had a second, chancy procedure; my father died by suicide–and, to top it all off, we were told that cancer number four had said hello.

I will remember how awful that felt–that the fear and the powerlessness were overwhelming.

And I will also remember how it felt to hand things over–to let go, to walk away, to say to someone else, “You fix it,” and feel absolutely certain they would.


Tuesday, as we left the hospital–after adding more business cards to our collection–I got a text. It was the mother, checking in–she would being dinner the next day,


I stayed home from work on Wednesday. I was still too shaken and exhausted by ourScreenshot_20191117-205144 near-miss,  and Greg was back on restrictions–couldn’t lift, couldn’t drive. I lay in bed until 11:00 AM then forced myself to do chores. Our normally tidy house was no longer so–I couldn’t do it all: work, grade, tutor, exercise, cook, and clean. I vacuumed, noting that somehow the antique marble coffee table was in the middle of the rug. I washed sheets and the duvet cover, going outside midway through the drying cycle to ensure that the duvet was not eating the sheets, not wanting to deal with that.

I tried hard–to rest and to clean. To keep a balance. I needed balance.

So, later, when I opened the dryer to find that the denim duvet had, in fact, eaten the sheets, I just brought the ball of linens in and set it on the kitchen table. I tried to unknot it, but I was getting nowhere. Greg came over to offer suggestions since he could not help pull. The knot only grew tighter–and, since all I wanted to do was crawl back into bed, and I had to have sheets to do that–I felt the frustrated tears threatening: this was all so stupid and unfair.

On top of everything else, I couldn’t even make my bed.

That instant, the doorbell rang.


The student’s parents stood on the stoop, bearing a frozen pork loin, some cranberries and green beans. Their car was running in the driveway. They smiled up at me, offering the food.

“I’m going to need you to come in here and move a table and help me with some sheets,” I said bluntly. (I hope, now, writing this, that I thanked them for the food, Please, Lord, let me have thanked them for the food.)

“A table??? Sheets???” they smiled gamely, confused. The husband went to shut off the car, and then we filed in the house, where, right after we made polite introductions, her husband helped me move the coffee table.

The sheets were still on the kitchen table. My voice quavered as I talked about them–I was still so upset–and then the wife said her husband was great with knots, and he was. Four grown adults stood there looking at sheets with such satisfaction.

As they left, I stood outside with them in the drizzle and tried to convey my thanks, the marvel of the timing–it overwhelmed me that the doorbell had rung just when it did. I ended up crying in her arms, as she murmured that it was all “too much, too much for anyone.”

I would have been embarrassed, had I not been so tired, had I not been so humbled at God’s grace and power.

He had shown me–in less than 48 hours–that he was in the Big–but he was also in the Small.

In that is my rest. In that is my strength.

Screenshot_20191117-205212

 

 

 

 

Please: Don’t Ask How I Am (When You Know)

74365767_3127903847279876_3203540282733756416_n
Follow @revelatori on Instagram

(Note: This is not to step on toes. This is to help me survive the grocery store. And any tragedy survivor’s inner circle should always ask–multiple times a day.)

Five weeks ago, after Greg’s open-heart surgery, when he was housebound and didn’t really feel well, I would pick him up after work and we would go sit at Ruby Tuesday’s and share an appetizer. It worked to fight cabin fever, and sometimes, sitting across the table from each other, I could feel the trauma start to slip away, could glimpse the people we once were.

One day, on the way back to the house, when I thought he had also briefly remembered, “Oh, I used to like her,” I said, “I think it would take more than a month on an island together to recover. More than a month. I’d need two weeks of just pure silence.”

And he agreed.


Of course, we did not get that. My father died by suicide days later, leaving us–once again–completely unmoored.

(If you have joined this blog for the suicide segment, but have missed the preceding anencephaly and cancer segments, you need to know this: the members of my little family are all too fatigued/wounded/calloused to comfort one another.)

Beyond encouraging one another to eat and suggesting, “Perhaps a hot shower would help?” we have little to offer in the way of assistance.

We can offer you little as well.


My father’s death has me exhausted by the simplest of questions: “How are you? I am asked this a hundred times a day by the kindest of people. It is, after all, the all-purpose American greeting.

It seems rude, then, to suggest this, but I believe that perhaps after tragedies that question should remain unasked for a while. These days, I can feel “fine” and five minutes later be weeping in my car. Everything is confusing; my emotions are ajumble–do I want to go eat with a friend, or do I want to lie in bed with my cat? Right now, I can’t decide between Mr. Pibb and Coke without crying–so I certainly can’t tell you how I am.

Saying “fine” after a tragedy is easy, but it’s a lie. Not only have I lost my father, but I’m watching my daughters and brothers struggle from hours (upon hours) away.

Saying “awful,” while more honest, necessitates a conversation that neither of us may really want to have–and it’s not entirely true because there are still bits of joy in each day.

Saying “sad” might make you pat me on the shoulder, and then, depending on the depth of affection we share, I might collapse crying in your arms at school or at Walmart.

And you know all this: you know I’m not fine. You know I am awful. You know I am sad. So, maybe just take a break from asking for a while.

Just say, “I’m glad to see you.” Then–maybe–smile.

In the days right after a tragedy, just be glad that the survivors are coming through the door at work or are seated next to you at church. Acknowledge their presence, but don’t question it. It’s one less answer they’ll have to search for, and they will be grateful.

73275184_396366714605261_3057238406548422656_n
Follow @revelatori on Instagram and make your life better

Time and Tiaras: On the Death of my Best Friend

222888_1018767942182_6886_nThis blog was originally a Facebook note on September 19, 2009. (Today I found myself writing part two, so I thought I would post this, part one, tonight.)

This has been a hard weekend. A teacher from Center Elementary, Delilah Thornton, passed away suddenly—and although I did not know her, I do know Suzanne Bokor, who now has lost her best friend. Who writes on her Facebook page, “I can’t sleep or stop crying . . . I don’t know what I’m gonna do without her . . . Delilah, you will ALWAYS be with me . . . My heart is broken. I love you, Delilah.” And I know the land that Suzanne is walking into, because it is one that I have been walking for almost two years, since the death of my dearest adult friend, Stephanie Saussy. 

When you are a kid, friendships are almost prescribed: your seatmate on the bus, your softball teammates, your mother’s best friend’s kid. It doesn’t matter whether you like these people or not, because you are stuck: they are going to be on that bus, at that game, on that porch, playing Monopoly under duress while your reprieved, happy mothers giggle in the next room. Make friends; make do, take what you’ve got.


Adult friendships are different; they are based more on a choice: I like this person. A lot is at stake in the buy-in—as an adult, you’ve made mistakes bigger than dropping your lunch tray, you’ve got more water under more bridges, and you think really carefully about who you are going to show those long-buried skeletons to. Then there’s the time investment—something laundry and carpooling leave too little of. For mothers, especially, I think friendships carry an added cost: you know that your daughters are going to idolize your friends, just as you did Mrs. Campbell and Mrs. Fesperman in your childhood world. So, you hope to pick someone worthy of the time and the tiaras—and in Steph, largely, I had both. 


I didn’t move back to Waycross happily—we were broke, Greg was sick–I didn’t know or care who my neighbors were. Sure, I knew that behind us was the Saussy’s house, but I didn’t know a Saussy was living there. It took about three months for Abby and C——- to discover one another through the backyard bushes, and, truly, I spent the first sixth months of our friendship apologizing for my family’s intrusion. I was a teenager again—the uncool kid, the fat chick on the periphery, star-struck by the cheerleader with the great husband, the easy pregnancy, the monogram-wearing kid, and the perfect smile. She was and had everything I would never be or have, and why on earth was I now in her kitchen? 


I know now that God put me in that kitchen, that He lined up our lives—that my time in Cancer Land, complete with a 7 month-old infant, uncannily paralleled hers. Greg and I had lived it: we had counted the minutes until the next Kytril pill; we had shaved his head, worrying about what our children would think; we had struggled through the stupid marriage stuff (“Why can’t you put the milk up?”), while simultaneously struggling through the deep stuff (“All Mommy can tell you is, I really don’t think Daddy is going to die.”) 


And so, Steph and I had common ground on which we based an uncommon friendship: 224303_1018767902181_5896_nthe teetotaler and the gal who enjoyed the glass of good merlot, the mother whose kids were bedraggled and barefoot and the mom whose kids wore matching Crocs with their every outfit. I exasperated her with my total cluelessness about the feminine world of makeup and hair: “You send that child over HERE before that dance recital. Don’t you TOUCH her hair.” Steph was my girls’ biggest fan, and the stars in their eyes were certainly those that I expected. 


Now, I am left, holding that friendship—she is gone. One of the ways in which the loss of an adult friend differs from the loss of a childhood buddy is you know so much more. You can count the cost. You know the tradition of coming over “just before lunch on Christmas” is over. That there won’t be anyone else that you can lie in bed with on a rainy afternoon and watch “The Waltons.” That it will be years before another friend, a replacement, looks you in the eye and says, “I haven’t ever told anyone this.” You know your daughters will hold onto the bracelet that’s broken, the T-shirt that’s stained, and you will not be able to fight their insistent “Miss Stephanie gave this to me.”
There’s no more giving—you’ve gotten all you will get. And the instant you realize that, your heart is broken.

The heartbreak that follows the death of your friend is totally misunderstood. You have not lost a relative. You have not lost a child. You have not gotten a divorce. You have just lost a friend. You will go to work, not missing a day. You will be kind to the busybodies who stop you at Kroger, prattling about “her tragic death,” oblivious to the fact that part of you is now, forever, gone. You will cry at night alone, after your understanding husband gives up on understanding. You will wear her earrings her family gave you, touching them just to get through the day.

72908503_556953115076444_5325953699820863488_n


You will get through an amazing number of days, you and your broken heart. You will see a sunset, hear a song, smell her perfume—even, sometimes, hear her laugh like she’s in the room. You’ll even see her in your dreams: That is the best of all. 


And you’ll realize that an adult friendship is the best of all—it’s the hard stuff: marriage, kids, sickness, bills; the fun stuff—first birthdays, drinks in the backyard on a perfect summer night; the forever stuff: listening to music in the dark on a drive, looking at the stars, knowing all is right in the world, at least at that exact instant. You appreciate that someone with one true friend is rich indeed, even if that friend leaves for Heaven early.
You know this, because you’ve grown up.