This week used to be one of the happiest of my life.
The children would be at summer camp, and Greg and I would, to use Grandma Williams’s term, gallivant.
It was all her husband’s fault.
Grandpa Williams, who was a translator and reporter in World War II, didn’t talk much about his life or the things that had happened to him. He did, however, make pronouncements. We grandchildren knew what he valued and what he believed to be true. Grandpa thought you should turn out the light when you left the room. He dismissed watching TV reruns as utter foolishness (“You’ve already seen it once.”). He believed if key lime pie was on the menu, you should always order it.
His primary tenet–aside from his unshakable faith in Christ–was that two things were always worth spending money on: education and travel.
Grandpa said no one could ever take them away–no matter where you were, you would always have the memories of what you learned and what you saw.
And so, every summer, when the girls were at camp, Greg and I traveled. We couldn’t really afford it, but with his long illness, what else was there to do–”sit home and look at [medical] receipts?”
So we would find the least expensive hotel rooms (often a family timeshare), activities we could do for free, nature parks and wilderness areas. While the girls were at camp, we would try to approximate our pre-cancer selves.
My Facebook and Google Photo memories for the past two weeks have been as full as these weeks were. Greg and I on birding trails in Orlando. In Las Vegas at Cirque du Soleil. At Cedar Point. At the Grand Canyon. In Sky Valley.
We went places. We did things.
We had some laughs.
(My mom and dad always placed great value on “having some laughs.” After a dinner date–or after an hour-long phone chat post-divorce–one of them would always say with (sometimes wistful) satisfied happiness: “We had some laughs.”)
A soul-draining, marriage-challenging long illness gnarls your thoughts. You, your spouse, your children–everyone can forget that you had some laughs.
A few weeks ago, I asked Abby if she remembered her Barbie with the color-changing hair. She didn’t. I told her how Greg was always in charge of the bathtime routine. How carefully he would pick out the toys, check the water temp, and get the hooded towels. Greg would sometimes get the toddler stacking cups, readying them before the bath–a cup of hot water, a cup of cold, cold water, a cup of hot water, a cup of tepid water. Then he would grab the Barbie whose hair changed colors depending upon the water temperature. And my husband and our daughters would dump water on the Barbie’s hair, changing it from pink to blue to green, and they would laugh. The girls with delight, their father, at their happiness.
The girls have no memory of this. Of all that laughter, that sunshine in our house.
Greg has been gone for six months today.
It is an impossible sadness.
The peculiar, brutal horror of his hospitalization and death has stolen our sleep, and the void he leaves shatters us daily.
And the fifteen months–the in-between of separation and reconciliation–the time that we practiced living without him, tripping along in broken shoes–that time, that container of pain, is unrelenting acid on ulcers.
There is no sleep, no comfort.
But then the Greg of twelve years ago appears in my Facebook memories, holding a pink balloon poodle.
I marvel and remember: there was a time when my husband and I wandered in mountains and canyons, suppered on shrimp, crab legs, and key lime pie, and watched clowns shape balloon animals amid the happy clamor of the boardwalk, as we ignored the quickly setting sun.
I met my one hundred current students only three weeks after my husband’s death. I knew nothing about them–they were my January fresh crop–and, somehow, at the lowest point of my life, I was supposed to craft relationships with these teenagers–and teach them. Thirty-nine days ago, that seemed impossible.
My class orientation PowerPoint takes two days. It covers everything I believe kids need to know about the realities of being high school students and everything they need to know about me. Former students pop up in videos to say, “Mrs. G is bad with names. My name is Carlton, but she calls me Clarence . . . My name is Jacob, but Mrs. G calls me Joseph.” “If you come into this classroom with a bruise, Mrs. G is going to report it, no cap.” “If Mrs. G says she is coming to your house, she’s going to pull up.” I tell them about my migraine triggers. I tell them about the former students whom I’ve helped get counseling, glasses, food. I tell them stories of others like them–kids with dead parents, single parents, sick parents, drunk parents. I talk and talk and talk, laying the foundation: I’m approachable. I’m an ally. You’re safe–and you’re dang sure going to behave.
This year, I did that. I wasn’t zingy, my monotone voice even flatter than usual, but I told them: I am here for you. This is your space.
And, since my husband taught right down the hall from me–and some of the kids had been his students as well–since they truly understood how astounding it was to think, “Mr. G walked out of this building on September 23rd, and he never came back,” and they could also feel the weight of that, they somehow decided very quickly that they were also there for me.
They made space for me. And my grief.
Three weeks into the semester, when I faced my husband’s birthday, one of the girls (who is sure to be a hospital manager someday) assured me, “We are going to take care of you this week.” The next day, a basket of goodies was on my desk. Cashews, shortbread, a journal, and a soft blanket. That day, together, we ate Greg’s favorite snack –Little Debbie honey buns and chocolate milk –while we watched Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet.” We listened together as the friar cautioned the young lovers to “love moderately,/long love doth so.” We watched Romeo try to do everything right, and then we watched him die. We talked about universal themes and universal truths, the transcending of time, place, and culture. How no one wants to die, and it is so sad when they do.
Of course, we have carved out spaces for laughter. We eat. Chips and Gatorade on some students’ birthdays. Bananas and bottled water almost every day. Chupa Chups and atomic fireballs. After lunch, while some of the kids go to the bathroom, the rest of us watch football montages in amazement. The kids agree: when we watch spectacular athletes, there is no room for the pandemic. We forget, for a minute, that five to seven kids are out of almost every class on any given day. We focus just on the athlete and the ball. There is just the goal line. There is nothing else.
Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day–a day I had once awoken to a bowl full of paper hearts upon which Greg had written things he loved about me–I found my school mailbox full of index cards upon which students had written things like, “You have changed my life for the better” and “Thank you for being an amazing teacher even on the bad days.” They gave me dishcloths covered in smiling kittens. They gave me Valentines. One boy gave me a Ziploc bag of chocolates, and I joked about their origin story. (I was right: They were a regift. We shared a laugh.)
But my favorite thing, truly, was a slightly battered plain piece of notebook paper upon which twenty-five or thirty kids had written a few words each. Honestly, I think it’s the most poignant gift I’ve ever gotten at work–because, on the surface, it was nothing special. No bright markers. No curly lettering. No carefully drawn flowers. Just dozens of teenagers reassuring a teacher: We see you. You matter.
Being seen is so important.
Being reminded of your worth is perhaps even more so.
In the weeks immediately following my father’s death, people surrounded me. They propped me up. They watched me eat. They made me laugh.
And then, everything was quiet.
I was alone with grief.
And during that time, in those latter, lonely days of solitary heartbreak, I received two letters. Long letters, real letters–the kind everyone over age fifty once wrote after lunch. One letter was from a friend of my brother’s who later became a friend of mine. The other was from the adult daughter of one of my father’s friends. I would not recognize her by face or by name, but she took paper and pen and wrote of my father’s importance and the depth of my loss. And, in allowing me to see her grief, she lessened mine.
In Greg’s final days, his students sent him index cards with words of comfort. I read them to him as he lay with his cats in his hospital bed in our bedroom. He couldn’t talk, and I don’t know that he could see, but he knew the cards were from his students and that they were for him.
I go back to work in 36 hours, returning to the school where my husband and I both taught tenth grade, right down the hall from each other. This was a good thing, even a fun thing sometimes. We would send candy or sweet tea to one another, our students the carrier pigeons. Sometimes, if an argument at home made it to work, being together wasn’t cozy. And when Greg moved out of the family home, things would have been more awkward except for the fact that each of us was determined to out-professionalize the other. Our school is an exceptional place for us, and our co-workers and students are among the kindest around.
It is to them that I will be returning on Tuesday. People who cared for my pets, created my lesson plans, sent me money, food, flowers, texts, emails, and memes. I will be returning to 1500 people who love me–and loved my husband and my family. And I am terrified.
It will be three weeks since my husband’s unexpected death. He had a stroke in the hospital on my birthday. After surviving cancer three times, two heart surgeries, eight strokes, skin and bone marrow transplants–after enduring endless indignity and sorrow–when offered a feeding tube, Greg refused. He elected to return home to die on his own terms–with his family, friends, and cats.
Tuesday, when I am again in my classroom, will mark three weeks since his death–seventeen days since his funeral, where our high school’s honor choir sung to our family, my husband’s ashes on the credenza between us. The science department–in its entirety–was there, despite it being the first day of Christmas break, their sad faces filling the front pew. And it’s these people, these kind, much-beloved people, to whom I am terrified of returning.
It is nearly six years after the loss of my granddaughter to anencephaly and more than two years after my father’s death by suicide. I have learned, over these years, that the dread of the anniversary is worse than the day itself, the anticipation of remembered sorrow worse than the quiet sadness of a difficult day.
And I have had practice grieving deeply in front of teenagers.
I learned of my father’s suicide in front of thirty students. And, because we knew that Stephanie Grace would likely die at birth, I endured that sorrow in front of students as well.
That year, my tiny fourth block, only 13 students, prayed almost every day–they initiated this themselves, complete with a time for prayer requests, and they said they could tell the difference when we forgot to pray. Some of those students asked to see pictures of Stephanie Grace without her bonnet, and I let them. I allowed my students to feel my pain.
But this loss, of a husband and a co-worker, of a man who taught them, to carry that pain in front of a student body seems impossible. Greg and I have probably taught 900 of the school’s students.
So, this afternoon, as I sat in my yard planning lessons for Thursday and Friday, looking up at the wind in the cherry laurels, I found myself dreading the day.
In the past few weeks, I have broken down in Walmart in a student’s arms. I have read the sad two-line condolences from teenage boys, read the Crayola-ed sympathies of sweet cheerleaders. Students have appeared at my house bearing Dr. Pepper and popcorn; when I went out to the high school briefly, I found a card from my second block centered carefully on my desk.
There is no doubt of their love for me, of their genuine concern.
So why the dread?
I think maybe it comes down to self-trust.
On sad firsts and painful anniversaries, we don’t trust ourselves to carry our own agony, to bear the weight of remembrance. We fear these days because we fear for our very selves. And as we near the familiar whirlpools and maelstroms of sorrow, we are terrified–certain we will once again get lost, plummeting again to the bottom of the ocean. We are desperate to escape without saltwater in our lungs.
I am too mad, still. I don’t want to write the words that must follow:
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 singletime 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 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.
I have always been a witching hour girl. When the evening lulls, in that silent cradle from 7:30 to 9:00 PM when others read books or idly watch Jeopardy, I am internally at war. I am–always–in a fight. The peaceful early evening is my 2:00 AM, my time to reconsider every life choice I made; instead of staring at my bedroom ceiling, ruminating in the dark–there is open-eyed consideration: this is where I am. This is what I have,
That ninety minutes is hard for me to fill–perhaps I spent my whole life thinking it would be one way because, for all of my childhood, it was. At my paternal grandparents’ house, where I spent every moment possible, there was a definite routine. Dinner, kitchen cleaning, bath. Then, some sort of loose family time, often followed by prayer in the “TV room.”
The upstairs hub, the TV room, featured an upholstered spinning chair that–to the grandchildren’s delight–leaned too far back, an ancient scratchy brown sofa, and two plain recliners. There were, by today’s standards, no toys. For the youngest grandchildren, there was a wooden bowl of plastic oranges. While a grandchild sat on a three-legged stool, Grandpa tossed him oranges, and everyone else watched. Night after night after night. I can recall, even as a child, thinking that everyone’s interest in this was both stupid and special: The baby’s only catching oranges. The baby’s catching oranges. It was the first dichotomy I held.
The second toy was for the older grandchildren–a small flat box in the end table held “The Village,” a miniature wooden playset from Sweden, or maybe The Netherlands. Blue cows, smaller than our fingernails. Christmas trees tinier than matchsticks; “roads” like popsicle sticks and “fences” like shaved carrots; sugar-cube houses with interchangeable triangular roofs. There were a few men and one woman, and I resented her–she was pink and round, while everything else was bright and angular.
My grandmother was the most gracious and lenient of women–every grandchild’s friends also called her “Grandma Williams,” claiming her with the assurance that the young do their favorites. Like most grandmothers, she was the embodiment of love. Soft and kind, she had few rules: never use her sewing scissors on paper; wash your hands (you could gain favor by using the fingernail brush); always blow-dry your hair.
Her largesse did not apply to The Village, which had more rules than there were grandchildren. Some:do not lose pieces of The Village. Do not take The Village home, even for an afternoon. Play with The Village while seated at a desk. Do not get food or drinks near The Village. And, finally, enjoy The Village.
The moment we children declared our boredom, we were told, “Go get the village.”
Even in play, there was powerful predictability at Grandma’s, security in their routine.
Love. A snack. A warm bath. A prayer.
That is what I wanted for my adult self, for my children, for my home–and that is rarely what I got.
It is amazing, isn’t it? A few families get plain lives: healthy families, ordinary children, ample income, regular summer vacations. Predictability and security are theirs,
And I don’t begrudge them this: I love their refreshing joy, their true smiles, their ease.
I am in the other camp–the group that suffers, sometimes experiencing tragedy after tragedy.
The group that stumbles in the dark, that weeps with loss, that presses on, cynically anticipating more sorrow or valiantly battling their own minds, spending their days attempting to expect the good, believe God’s promises, seek the joy.
Here’s the surest truth about tragedy–those who have endured it are quickest to recognize joy. To feel–intensely–that split-second lift in the heart. The unexpected chattering cardinal at the kitchen window, the grasp of a toddler’s hand around your finger, even the cold tomato on a hot Whopper Jr. Days spent in numbness and sorrow amplify the later joys; hours spent in anguish ensure an appreciation of subtle comforts.
Three weeks ago, my family was rattled by another medical crisis. I’ve spent forty-one days in the hospital as a caregiver, and that late May Monday was the first time I’d known the true terror of calamity, felt empty, hopeless horror enter the core of my bones.
All that I was sure of collapsed.
My powerlessness was complete–in the worst moments, there was so much Nothing that I didn’t even have children. (Abby said, days later, “Mom, I could have gone.” I told her, “You did not exist.”)
I did not feel God’s presence in that ER, but He was not absent, either. Too much was happening to feel Him–there was just a cascade of horrors that left even the ER specialist in tears. “This never happens. This shouldn’t have happened.“
For us–and others like us–the Shouldn’ts have always happened.
Sorrow’s unrelenting onslaught has made us paradoxically steadfast, more certain of our faith.
Ten years ago, on a perfect June day, my husband and I hiked through Red Rock Canyon, and I lived my last pain-free moment. In a horrific fall, I broke my leg badly–a compound maisonneuve fracture. I spent months in a hospital bed in our den–and during those months, my husband was diagnosed with his second cancer.
That same year, Laura Story released her song “Blessings.” It was everywhere, and I hated it, dismissing it as so much treacle. “Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops/what if Your healing comes through tears/what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near. What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise.”
Raindrops bearing blessings? Sleepless nights as assurances?
Casting trials in a positive light was just too much for me–my family was enduring so much. It was our elder daughter’s senior year; our younger was in middle school, and they were once again sacrificing while their parents were suffering–and Laura Story was singing about how special it all was.
I wasn’t like her: I wanted healing, peace, prosperity. I wanted His “mighty hand to ease our suffering.“
Glorifying pain, saying a thousand sleepless nights was worth something–this rainbowy pablum incensed me.
At the opening notes, outraged, I would turn the radio off.
Ten years later, my house has an Alexa in every room; the devices are so close together that if I am standing at the kitchen sink and ask the time, the den Alexa sometimes answers before the one beside the toaster. And there are so many because I need music so much–I need my house to swell with sound, the concrete floors and walls to echo with song, with words of comfort and assurance that feed my soul.
One of the songs I need most? “Blessings.”
I don’t sing it like I do the others on my worship playlist. I absorb it, experience it, remember who I was then–a fool at forty-two. Then, I thought I had experienced sorrow and pain. Miscarriages, failed adoptions, my husband’s leukemia–these were only light etchings. In the decade since, I have been deeply carved and horrifically gouged by loss. My family has, too.
I wanted the “lesser things“: a predictable life–supper, chores, baths, and prayer.
Instead, God gave me his “mercies in disguise” and “ faith to believe.”
Tonight–609 nights after my father’s death, 1, 896 nights after my granddaughter’s stillbirth, 7,690 nights after my husband’s first cancer diagnosis–I know sleep will not come easily. But I have faith that does.
It is solid, absolute confidence, given in His mercy.
Mercy, I see.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
I am one of those middle-aged women: the chronic pain sufferers whom everyone wishes would either (a) buy the pharmaceutical they are advertising or (b) shut up.
I am on day 12 of a “fibromyalgia” flare–no matter what this is, on an intellectual level, its power is impressive. I can feel the insides of my bones; the pain is genuinely exquisite–my Grandma Williams’ favored description. I can feel the hollows inside my radius and ulna, the centers of my fingers. Every half-inch or so, my muscles are knotted; in some places, they are lengths of thick rope. Masseuses are always impressed–at an Omni Resort one marveled, “Your back feels like a TABLE!” Most days, if a surgeon said, “In five minutes, I’m going to biopsy your right thigh,” I would pay him cash money–and let him use lidocaine.
Thankfully, after a ten-year search for the right doctors and medicines, most days are bearable, with the ache at a friendly-hello pain level three. However, I’ve spent the past 48 hours at distract-yourself-by-going-to-the-beach pain level thirteen. Last night, as I took selfies with the full moon over my shoulder, the hypocrisy of my smile amused me.
The pictures are happy ones: My beautiful daughter and I are sitting at a high-top table on the back deck of mellow mushroom, our puppy at our feet. My daughter is agleam, adorned in gold chokers and necklaces, stars hanging from her ears, an ancient Egyptian princess come to life. In other pictures, the puppy is bounding in the surf, and I am sprucing up the local park–ripping stubborn vines off the cast-iron plants. Level thirteen pain is quelled by the yanking of weeds, the glimmer of the moon, the sound of distant voices–ghastly pain can neither rest in a bed nor sit in a chair. In those places, bones scream, and muscles snap. Hands grasped around Virginia Creeper and feet in baby-powder sand are distracted, more orderly.
It’s true in my own yard, too–beneath the Drake elm and pecan trees that the Paulks planted all those years ago, I lie beneath the blue sky with its circling hawks. I tell myself people are paying resort fees for my deck lounger and view, for this comfort.
I am talking with a stranger–life’s limbo necessitates tedious phone calls with them. Changing addresses, stopping service, clarifying account numbers, and insisting that there is no longer a need for cable.
Sometimes, the callers can hear the tears in my voice–eighteen months after my father’s death by suicide, there are still days of crashing waves, mouthfuls of sandy ocean-bottom; the ending of my marriage has its own whirlpool days–round and round in failure and sorrow. And in the whirlpool and the waves, there is Julie, the unluckiest of customer service reps.
She says, “That’s a lot at once, those things at once.”
We sit in silence, suddenly friends, looking at Big Things.
Then she says, “You have God.”
I have made it clear to her–I know I have God, I know He has not left me. The assurance of His presence is the blessing in this. But her echo back, the tone, the simplicity of belief in her voice, this assurance from an angel-voiced stranger: something in it is different and strong.
Finally, things are simple and factual.
I have a lot at once. I also have God.
Julie and I hang up–she has sold me nothing but given me much, and I bring the dogs out into the yard. We will stay here all evening to quiet my pain; the puppy drags around pieces of a black plastic welcome mat, tossing them with delight. The old dog lies panting in the decade-old pit she once dug beneath the azaleas, and Little Dog is at my feet on the patio. The bougainvillea is starting to blossom; I can’t tell which brown sticks to cut and which will return with paper flowers to cheer me. The never-pruned crepe myrtle is low, having been oft-climbed in lately.
I call a friend, one of the wisest and kindest people I know. I tell her how much I want certainty–how tired I am of oceans and whirlpools, how much I would like land, hard rock beneath my feet, and a map in my hand. How much I would like to talk with my father. How that, at least, would help.
It is the first time I have said that sentence.
She tells me that when she is on her long walks, she prays, naming each circle of people she prays for–homeschooling parents, mothers of toddlers, teachers by school type. She says she prays for me—every day.
And, for a split second, I feel that bitter edge, the sarcastic reflex, the easy roll of, “Sure doesn’t seem like it.” Or, “Well, pray harder.”
But then, as I look at the bright gold sunlight on the cherry laurel leaves, I realize: Maybe this is what Prayed For looks like.
I want the Prayed For that comes with a clear plan–one in which I am well-groomed, clear-eyed, and sleep more than six hours a night. The Prayed For that wears earrings every day and can order confidently in a restaurant. The Prayed For in which Christianity looks more like victory and less like surviving.
But Prayed For doesn’t have to look like Joyce Meyer or Lysa TerKeurst or Beth Moore.
I tend to forget that.
Prayed For can be a made bed, a shower, brushed teeth. I now take satisfaction from those things. There is so much accomplishment in a vacuumed rug, a bag of trash taken to the road.
Abby and I bathed dogs at 9:30 p.m., smearing peanut butter on the sides of the tub for them to lick as we dumped water over their heads. Together, we laughed like fools at the absurdity of it, recording ourselves and our rollicking dogs.
We looked happy and fun–dog hair was everywhere; the bathtub water was grey; Abby’s running commentary was hilarious.
We were full of laughter. We were full of sorrow.
Abby crowed over her shoulder, “How did we get here? To this point? Nobody knows.”
The high school where I teach is undergoing a total HVAC renovation this year. The workmen, like shoemaker’s elves, appeared when the students left and then removed ceiling tiles, ductwork, and vents. On each wing of the school, there was one classroom that was Grand Central–every ceiling tile came down. The intricacies of light fixtures, the red stenciled signage for firewalls, all of the trusswork–in one classroom, everything was visible. On our hall, mine was that room.
Because my mother raised me to speak to everyone (and she did a darn fine job of that) and because I work late, I had built a rapport with the workmen. Before they came to our wing, they knew I really wanted my room left in order. And, every day, it was.
After about two weeks, their work was finished. All of my ceiling tiles matched–a satisfying, pristine white. Still, the grit from the ceiling, a fine dust, coated my desk and bookshelf, my Fisher-Price Little People collection and every student-given cat figurine. It was even in my microwave. Too, I’d moved things to accommodate the workers. A few vacant student desks were piled with stacks of folders, bins of markers, and piles of workbooks.
People who, like me, have suffered repeated trauma need order and symmetry in their environments. Because of this, my classroom has been essentially unchanged for seventeen years. (In fact, my desk is from my previous, now-closed school. Forced to abandon it, I left a plaintive note; months later, maintenance men snuck it over.) The mild mess of my classroom bothered me–a lot.
Finally, last Friday, eleven days after my second Moderna vaccine, I felt well enough to begin reclaiming my room. We cleaned the bookshelves. We scrubbed the counters. We threw a lot of folders away and returned books to the book room. We tossed out old markers and eraserless pencils–and used an entire bottle of 409. I stayed late that afternoon–though it was Friday–to make my room mine once more.
This morning, I walked into my classroom, and my desk was neat. My bookshelf was orderly. Only the stacks of folders and a jumble of papers remained. The rest of my room was as it should be.
It was a typical pre-Spring-Break Monday. The kids were tired, their brains already at the nearby sunny Florida beaches. We talked about Greek drama, about the death penalty, about parents who turn in their criminal children. After school, I tutored a student for an hour.
When I came home, for the first time in months, I worked in the yard, trimming the yellowed and broken cast iron plants as the puppy bounded through them. I chatted with a friend on the phone, then came inside and made two different batches of Mexican rice so my daughter and I could have a taste test.
As I looked out the kitchen window at the dragonflies and I took in the purple Wandering Jew, I thought about how much I had accomplished, how good it felt. I was fully vaccinated, finally free of side effects, and I had a clean classroom.
Two things–one, the vaccine, certainly major. The other, a clean classroom, decidedly minor. Combined, they left me a satisfaction, a new starting point.
One gift of repeated trauma is simple appreciation. I appreciate Clean classrooms. Hot water. A chocolate-covered frozen raspberry. Clean sheets. The green leaves of the pecan tree against the bright blue sky. When you’ve been traumatized, when your treasures have been stripped away, forever lost, you must reorient. Look again.
If you are to get out of bed in the morning, to do anything, to help anyone, you have to try again to see.
And at first, it is impossible. At first, there is no good. There is only the black hole of your loss. And then, one day, you notice the light on the lake. You hear the lilt in Luke Combs’ voice, and in your core, for the briefest of instants, there is a glimmer. An insight. A reminder that there is more than your loss.
Today at lunch, I checked Snapchat. My friend recently lost his daughter after her eight-year battle with cancer, and the pain is still knee-buckling, fresh, and forever raw, but Snapchat doesn’t require words, which is handy when there are none.
His younger daughter has gotten two Easter ducks, Farmer and Princess, and his Snapchat story has been full of the pair waddling through the grass, floating idly in the birdbath. They were again in his story. Trailing behind him, beginning to imprint. So adorable.
And then, I clicked on my direct messages. Staring at me was a duck. Dark-billed. Yellow and tan fuzz. There was a sequence of Farmer, steadily gazing at the camera. I took in the duck for the longest time. Those eyes, the fluff, and feathers–handiwork that speaks of God, that demands acknowledgment of His power to create beauty.
Even from the blackest of holes, there is such beauty in a baby duck.
I called Ross tonight. He sounded weary, his heart sharded.
I asked if I could write about him, about the video of the duck.
“I thought you would appreciate that,” he said, his voice tight and tired, acknowledging the code, the solace found in webbed feet and yellow fuzz.
December 2021 My only C in college was in music appreciation (unless I also made a C in canoeing, which is, of course, entirely likely). I remember sitting in the hall before exams, index cards and highlighter in hand, trying to teach myself musical terms. It was impossible.
Nevertheless, I love music. My favorite Pandora stations were curated for over a decade, and I have Amazon Music playlists for every mood. My students know if they come into the classroom and hear Counting Crows’ “Long December,” it’s advisable to be compliant, while “Brown-Eyed Girl” signals joie de virve.
Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and Luke Combs are staples of my trauma-survival arsenal because music is sometimes my only comfort–filling me when I am empty and untouchable, beyond and lost, yet desperate for solace.
Saturday, my younger daughter left with friends, which meant I could blast my music on every Alexa in the house. (The acoustics in my forty-square-foot kitchen are excellent.)
I was standing at the sink as Kari Jobe sang “The Blessing,” and I told God that I wished I could feel the music again and truly enter into worship. Instantly, I felt inside me the response: You are allowed to try.
I stood at the sink, stunned at the powerful reminder–we can just try.
I had leg surgeries in October, and I am supposed to wear compression stockings forever. I’ve been making do with the single-use sets that they gave me in the hospital, but last Thursday, I drove to Jacksonville for a proper fitting.
The salesman took my prescription, showed me a glossy brochure, brought samples of the various colors, and started guiding me through the selection process.
What type? Open toe.
To every other question, my answer was: I don’t care.
Because I don’t.
If I am wearing taupe hose, my father is dead and my husband has left. If I am wearing black hose, I am starting from scratch, refinancing a house alone at the age of 51. If the hose are white, my granddaughter is still in Jesus’s arms instead of ours. If I am wearing opaque hose, I am still in year nine of chronic, unrelenting pain, the legacy of a complex leg fracture.
The weight of these burdens makes compression hose decision-making entirely inconsequential, and that day, I didn’t have the emotional energy to feign any interest in something so trivial.
Imagine grocery shopping at Kroger, mindlessly putting Cobblestone hamburger buns in your cart. Then, a stranger stops you and asks why you are getting Cobblestone instead of Nature’s Own. You would ask, “Why on earth do you want to know this? What does it matter? These are just hamburger buns.”
Trauma recovery, for me, feels like that.
The salesman picked the color, chuckling good-naturedly. He said, “You’re like, ‘You do your thing; I got my thing.'”
And that’s it: right now, I got my thing.
We have internal voices that tell us that we cannot have a “thing.” Especially in polite Southern culture. We need to be gracious, always. We need to put others first. So much of Southern Christianity is completely based on I am third.
God. Others. Me.
But, sometimes, the “thing” needs to register. Sometimes, we are carrying burdens that we have yet to lay at the feet of Jesus because they’re so big and messy that we can’t even find the edges to gather them. We are wandering in darkness, in the pelting rain, breathless in the downpour, dragging the thing that we want to give to God, that we wish wasn’t ours. We try desperately to gather up the pieces of our lives and present them again to Him and say, “Hey, could You please do something with this?”
I know that beauty comes from ashes, and I know that the only way out of a pit is helping others. I am baking banana bread for my five-year-old neighbor, mailing no-reason gifts to far-away friends, and buying board books for co-workers’ newborns.
Doing yoga and using Headspace. Drinking water. Eating apples and bananas.
In the first days of trauma, huddled in the haven of shock and denial, we do not have to try. Our friends feed us, bring us cheerful flowers, hold our hands, help us. But in the days that follow, even if we cannot soothe ourselves, we still must survive, leave our beds, brush our teeth, return to work.
And if we do those things, if we wash and dry and style our hair, walk on our sad feet into the office on time, and, for eight hours, listen to and help others, we still don’t allow ourselves to take pride in our endurance. We don’t acknowledge our perseverance, the victory of simple participation when we are so empty ourselves.
We need to see the strength in the attempt. To credit ourselves for the good that we do. In rushing our way through trauma and grief–in trying to get back to normal, when, in some cases, it is definite: there will never be normal again–we deny ourselves the chance to mend more wholly.
This morning, a co-worker brought me a bacon egg and cheese biscuit from Chick-fil-A. I ate it at my desk, scrolling absent-mindedly through the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and sipping Dr. Pepper.
Suddenly, the biscuit crumbled. Instantly, I was back in the hospital cafeteria beneath Shands in Jacksonville, my lukewarm biscuit there falling to pieces, back in the horror of aggressive cancer and unending suffering.
I looked at the crumbs, felt the familiar edges of panic, and thought, “Really?“
Five years ago, I was far more ashamed of who I was. It would have been embarrassing to sob when a biscuit crumbled, to be unable to summon social niceties, to be so messily human.
Back then, I exhausted myself trying to disguise my trauma and make small talk about Cobblestone bread.
Today, as I stood in the hallway chatting, I saw a friend approaching. We have worked together for thirteen years, and her family endured trauma this fall. My heart sprung; I wanted so badly to hug her, to celebrate that she is back at work, that she is trying.
Someone called my name, and I turned away from my friend. As I did, I felt a soft pat on my shoulder, the glide of a hand.
She was fifteen feet away when I hollered, “I wanted to hug you!”
Laughing, she replied, “I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to pat her on the shoulder.‘”
We wanted that contact. The press of a hand, the feeling that someone who understood was there, physically, with us.
In the Bible, the woman with the issue of blood knew the desperation of need–for twelve years, she pursued help; she did everything she could. She had to have been worn down, but she still believed in the power of touch and the reality of instantaneous healing. Suffering and weak, when she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him and touched him and was restored.
Jesus felt it when He healed her–the Bible tells us that “trembling with fear, [she] told Him the whole truth” (Mark 5:33). Maybe she kept things brief: “It was me–I’ve been sick for twelve years.” Perhaps she explained every previous agony “in the presence of all the people” (Luke 8:47).
She trembled–she didn’t cry, though–because she knew she was healed, knew her “thing” was gone, that the long struggle was finally behind her.
That’s what we are all waiting for, you know: our twelve years to end. Our twelve-year trials don’t look alike; things like infertility, joblessness, ill health, drug addiction, credit card debt, depression, and poverty all carry the same pain.
Amid the pain, there is a consolation: the ache is familiar. Universal.
We can stand together beneath the elms, look at lakes, take long drives, and talk about the “things” we have; we can encourage one another to try–again and again and again. We can make the twelve years feel less long.
I am, for better or worse, a prattler. If my burger was really good, the sunset was stunning, or the school’s egret was particularly beautiful, you are going to hear about it.
I don’t think I get enough credit for my happiness because it is different from other people’s. I am not a day-to-day happy person. I’m not going to (consistently) greet you with a sunny smile, and you’re not going to admire my festive clothing. I have never, not once, been able to go to a masquerade party or dance at a concert–I can’t pull off group happiness. Still, the things that make me happy make me profoundly so, and I snatch these soul-feeding moments, pocket them deep–moments others may entirely miss.
I spent Friday afternoon lying in my daughter’s bed, a cat on my stomach, a puppy at my side, and a dog at my feet. Ab was doing homework and mindlessly deejaying, and the comfort in that hour amid the pile of mammals and the space of the music was beautiful.
I have never liked the drive to Jacksonville–four lanes and a treeless median, all those tired houses and abandoned hotels. I hated it even as a child–the only part of the drive I ever found pleasure in is what my family has always called the “Dragon’s Tongue.” On the stretch right before the first Florida weigh station, there are three hills, and the cars disappear. I don’t know if my parents invented it, or if they humored my own imaginativeness, but those few minutes, where we pretended a dragon was ingesting us and while simultaneously spitting up rejected northbound cars was honestly the only pleasant part of the trip.
When my husband was ill, trips to Jacksonville were particularly grim. We drove down facing cancer, heart surgery, and stressful doctors appointments. There were no idyllic shopping trips or date nights. Everything was medical, always.
We would head out early in the morning, munching Chick-fil-A biscuits, light fog shrouding the pine trees around us, listening to Chris Stapleton and Eric Church, watching the sunrise through the patchy trees.
As we went over to St Marys River on the Georgia/Florida border, I would always slow to look right, the black river an alley between the trees. I would dream of boats, canoe trips, placid days.
And then we would be in Jacksonville, in the quiet, poor neighborhood near Shands, jolting over the litter-strewn railroad tracks, taking a right to face God knew what, wondering–would the next hours hold fresh horror or sweet reprieve?
On a heart day, we would be flying down the interstate towards St Vincent’s. I-10 East is its own brief Autobahn. For me, this was the more difficult trip, the harder unknown. We would leave the interstate, where we had been flying, speed so high I would question myself: do I run with traffic or obey the law?
We would whoosh into a neighborhood with wide avenues and organic vegan donut shops, bicyclists everywhere, our speed from 85 to 30, suddenly.
We would not point out favorite houses. We would not make plans for leisurely lunches. We would not wonder about the architecture of the church: Is that Doric or Gothic? It was, sometimes, like we were driving to see the hangman. We were so silent between the interstate and the hospital. Maybe a small prayer, a few mildly encouraging words–nothing effusive, nothing certain. Our lives were, after all, past that point. Past false assurances.
We spoke no cheap words, fed one another no platitudes.
So, in those final few minutes, there was never a lot, there was simply enough. The acknowledgment: here we are again. But, also, here we are again. We are together, in this, again.
Even that reminder in itself wasn’t comforting–because there was no comfort to be had.
I know–you don’t like that truth.
There are others who are living their whole lives with no comfort.
We don’t like to contemplate the fact of this space. We want there to be a world where self-care will, truly, fill in empty holes, where a fizzy bath bomb and retail therapy–and perhaps a weekend by the sea–will be enough to soothe the hurts, patch the wounds.
And, when that doesn’t work, we are powerless. We do not want to face our impotence–our inability to restore the truly broken. We want our casseroles to heal–our sympathy cards to mend. We want time to heal things.
We want the sayings to be true.
But some people know that they are not.
Some people know that there is a pain so deep that a spouse cannot cross it. That even a laughing toddler’s sparkly grin–the best earthly medicine–is but a BB in the chasm of the heart.
Some people can feel every drop in the bucket.
And, so, in this chasm-filled space where we were living, we acknowledged the canyon. We did not try, ever, to leap it–and certainly not in the minutes before these appointments, on the days where we were so afraid.
There are streets in that Riverside neighborhood where the melancholy is so profound. The places we were when nothing was good, The roads we drove with our world freshly-tilted.
Drive us home were more positive because at least we were going home. Some blanks had been filled in, some questions answered, a bit more was known.
Sometimes, we spotted a hawk over the fields between Callahan and Hilliard. Swooping down from the telephone wires, he always delighted me. And we would talk about birds, about him.
He was predictable, a touchstone of the drive.
Last weekend, my younger daughter and I woke up early on a Saturday to run to Jacksonville–to pick up middle-age necessities: support hose and pet food. It was, like the trips her father and I had made, a service run, a business trip. We didn’t even stop for lunch.
The music was good, and the day was sunny, and as we neared the field, I started chattering about the hawk. How even on the bad days, her father and I enjoyed seeing the hawk always perched above. I told her I hoped she would see him swoop, that he was such a clever hunter, a powerful bird.
I bragged on him as if I knew him, as if he were a treasured pet that she was finally getting to meet.
I drove slowly so that she could.
He wasn’t on the telephone wire. It was a cloudy day, so, initially, I thought the hunting was bad.
But then, as we pass the median, I saw his left wing flap in the wake of the silver truck ahead of me.
I saw his wing rise from the high grass, then collapse.
I doubled back.
I pulled over. I got out.
He was dead.
So beautiful, the soft yellow of his underbelly pointed towards the sky, only the slightest bit of blood underneath his beak.
He’s dead, I told Abby, It’s him, and he’s dead.
I started crying in the way that you’re not supposed to cry in front of your children, or, really, anyone, ever, anywhere.
All I want is a little thing. I don’t even want big things anymore. All I want is a little thing, a little bird, to just watch him fly. Is that too much to ask???
Losing my dad, losing my marriage, losing my granddaughter–If I have to have all those things happen, can’t I just have a bird???
I wasn’t raging. I was broken-hearted.
Abby has a new thing she says. She says it very simply: “That’s so sad.” And she said it that day, and, after a while, I didn’t want to kick out the windshield anymore.
After a while, the music was enough again.
Today, I drove alone to Jacksonville, waking early, my appointment timed to allow me a sunrise view from atop the Dames Point Bridge. But this morning was foggy, the kind my grandparents would have declared pea soup. (Once, my CRV “saw” a vehicle ahead of me before I did.) I couldn’t see the top of the bridge as I approached it, couldn’t see both towers simultaneously, even on the bridge. I was listening to Chris Stapleton’s wail as I peered up at the towers, and, for the first time ever I couldn’t see the top.
The doctor talked about neck fusion, about where the arthritis is, about the bone spurs and disc space, about the pain. I told him I would just never turn my head again, and we chuckled.
I went to Target and Publix.
I went to Freddy’s, Where I let them put mustard on my burger because they seemed to want to.
I drove home lazily, going 53 MPH most of the way, in no rush for this isolation, for this same house and yard.
I slowed near the open fields, but the bird’s carcass was gone–I’m afraid that I might have taken it if it had been there–and there was no bird on the wire, but flying in the distance and swooping to perch in a tree, there was a hawk, so small I could barely see him.
But knowing he was there, however distant, felt good.
Out of habit, I slowed entering Georgia. I was on the phone, so I didn’t even look at the river, but I was looking for blue herons in the ditches–I am always looking for blue herons.
And I saw brown fluttering. Up from the flooded ditch, a paper bag rustle, but then there was white, and my mind went brown and white.
Brown and white.
Pull over. Brown and white.
Brown and white means eagle.
It was impossible.
It could not be.
The hawk in the distance had been enough. Really, it had been the crumb I needed. It would have fed me for a while.
I pulled over, and the eagle perched above me as the semis whizzed past.