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Teachers’ Hearts: On the Loss of Students

50264375_366084627277340_1670165120438763520_nNovember 22, 2016

Before they left for Thanksgiving Break, my eighty-two tenth graders and I made a promise to one another–we would remain safe, make wise decisions, and return alive on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

The understanding is established on the first day of school: My students are told an unusual rule: They are not allowed to die.

I tell them that I cannot be the teacher who bravely greets her devastated class, despite her own irreparable, sorrowing heart, who is somehow expected to guide students who are even more broken.

Expected to say words when there are none.

Greeted by an empty desk–then stoically watching as it is covered by construction-paper cards, grocery-store flowers, and beloved stuffed animals.

Tasked with cleaning out a desk or a locker, returning half-read library books and thumbing through composition books full of doodles and daydreams. Taking one last smell of a sweater before packing up a backpack, grateful that the classroom cameras can’t record her sobs.

Forced to endure visitation at a funeral home full of gawkers and grievers. To be kind and say the right thing to so many when so much is so drastically wrong. When a piece of her own world is gone.

The teacher-student relationship is precious. Teachers don’t often talk about it because we fear that we may misspeak or be misunderstood and pilloried when we are people who know that what we do is holy.

We work in rooms full of shared life–rooms where there is magic, where there is community, and where there is love.

The American public doesn’t want to talk about, much less acknowledge, this love, preferring instead to attempt to recast the teacher-student relationship into a business relationship, efficient and cold, but one with less risk of lawsuits.

Despite this, teachers continue to love. It is, perhaps, what we do best.

As the November bus crash in Chattanooga reverberated throughout the nation, three million educators mourned with the teachers of the five dead students. Imagined the agony. Lost sleep as they role-played, wondering how they themselves would cope.

I had not cried about the bus crash until I read, “Late Monday night [the night of the crash] teachers from across the district gathered at Woodmore Elementary School painting a colorful mural of encouragement and support.”

I pictured them–men and women lost in grief for children who were not theirs, yet very much theirs. Teachers anguished and wondering, wanting to do and to heal, to start immediately stitching up the unfathomable, unexpected wound.

And then thinking beauty. Thinking love. Thinking unity.

Driving to Woodmore in the dark night to create. To encourage.  For their children, who would need so much reassurance.

I imagined these teachers drinking coffee and crying into Kleenex as they painted, while swapping stories about Zoie, Cordayja, Zyanna, Zyaira, and D’Myunn. (Keonte would later die of his injuries.) Maybe they shared stories of how they had worked on Thanksgiving art earlier in the day. Written poems about the Pilgrims. Talked about their family traditions.

I could hear them saying, “The last time I saw her, Zoie . . .” and I hear the laughter. I imagine Cordayja’s teacher talking about her jangling bracelets; Zyanna’s teacher talking about her writing, and Zyaira’s about her helpful attitude. I picture them talking of  D’Myunn, how he was the heart of the class, a joy to teach.

I saw them painting into the early morning hours. I imagined them there in that building, laughing and crying, renewing their hearts so they could begin to restore their students’.

I saw them.

January 16, 2017

I wrote that beginning of a blog entry on November 22, 2016, then filed it away, dissatisfied. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t enough. It went nowhere.

Now, in January on Martin Luther King Day, I am alone in my classroom listening to Kid Rock and making art because, like the teachers at Woodmere, I have lost a favorite student, Hannah. Like them, I am wholly brokenhearted, yet tomorrow, I must face children because that’s what teachers do. 

One of the most important things we do is face children when worlds are falling apart. We look into their eyes, touch their cheeks. We say, “Your grandma may have died, but it is wonderful that you got to love her this long.” “Your father may not care about you, but that is his loss because you, child, are incredible.” We escort them through losses, striding alongside them on our sometimes-weary legs.

Teachers can’t quit marching. They can’t give up. They can’t say, “This is too much. I am staying in bed.” Every day their students bring their jumbles of sorrow and joy, and teachers try, amid algorithms and adverbs, to also teach students that they are strong, that they will endure, and that they will survive. We delight in the joys–the day that the kids get their letterman jackets, the senior march at Prom, and, of course, the jubilance of graduation. These are such sweet days, and we bear close witness.

But there are other days when it is necessary to wade willingly into sorrow, our arms outstretched, holding twenty-eight pairs of hands as our students trail along behind.

Tomorrow, we will begin the wade.50407348_1014545712061835_3352859171581067264_n

January 17, 2019

It has been two years. Two years since the night I showed up wordless at Hannah’s home, having never before met her mother and stepfather, apologizing because I knew I could not stay away. Two years since I stood in their starlit yard with my grieving students, listening to their cries. 

I have lost two more former students since then–their names in a sad list on a small sheet of paper on my desk at work.  I see it every day. I want to remember them.

They were in my classroom–I saw their smiling faces when they understood, finally, where that stupid comma needed to go. I heard their stories about the bus rides with the band. I read their bad poetry, their angsty journals, their narratives of beach trips.

That they are gone is incomprehensible.

In the movie Cry, the Beloved Country, Jarvis–having just been told by a police officer that his only son was dead–staggers backward, props himself on his truck, and says, his eyes blank, “Dead . . .  Shot dead?”

Every time we watch it in my classroom, I rewind the scene. I make my students look at actor Conrad Harris’s eyebrows, how he lifts them, wordlessly conveying the shock. They watch his hand over his face, his open mouth, his empty eyes, his collapse onto the bumper of the truck. His collapse. 

I tell my students that sons matter that much. That they, too, as sons and daughters, matter that much.

Today, in leadership class, we began preparing next month’s bulletin boards. Volunteers were heading to the library to cut out hearts on the Ellison machine–the idea was that each of our 1,000+  students could then get one heart and write down something they love about our school. 

As I turned to get the pink paper from the cabinet, it hit me: just before she died, Hannah, too, had cut out hearts in anticipation of a February bulletin board–she had bounded into the room, her hands full of hearts, yammering away about how she cut out extras for her boyfriend, how she was going to put them in his truck. How she had saved the scraps because she knew me, and I saved everything, so I would use them for something. She had stuffed them in a cubby hole where I found them on that MLK weekend after her death, when I carefully hung them, not on the bulletin board, but on my classroom door in tribute to her, the student who made me so much better.

Tears filled my eyes as I got the pink paper, and I explained that I was thinking of Hannah and her hearts and all that yammering. I told the kids, “At least you know I love you.”

They grinned, heading off to cut out hearts like Hannah had, taking a piece of my heart with them.

Just like she did.

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The Comfort of Love (Why You Should Just Shut Up)

46358135_10218665678539673_3012786469992398848_n(This blog contains references to suicide.)

My husband and I were foster parents for the first ten years of our marriage. We fostered 93 children whose names are still listed on a stained and wrinkled sheet of notebook paper that is taped inside a kitchen cabinet. Sometimes, standing in my classroom at the end of the day, after my 82 current students have paraded through the classroom with their tales of sorrows and joy, I think You lived with more children than that.

And these children were strangers. They were not flesh of my flesh. They were little people who had been ripped from their homes–flawed though those homes may have been, they were still places where primal bonds endured–and forced to cast their lots with strangers.


These were not children whose hurts could be cured by Legos, cotton candy, and shiny bicycles. These kids had endured unspeakable things. They had been beaten, molested, gone unfed. They were children with “issues.”

In social worker lingo, a child who steals a roast beef from the kitchen and hides it under his bed has “food security issues”–what this means is she was annoying the neighbors by eating their dogs’ food.

Yes: we kept children in our home who had been found while foraging for dog food.

And the logical thought that follows reading that is something like: I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t help those kids, I wouldn’t know where to start.

And that would be true.

There were children who had been beaten so badly by their parents that, after carefully documenting their bruises, the teary-eyed pediatrician hugged them. Their father worked for a national company, and twenty-two years later, I still almost vomit every time I see the company logo. The beatings were that bad. That brutal.

Bundling those children up and taking them to Disney World wouldn’t have solved their problems. There was no quick fix.

Occasionally, DFCS workers called before they brought a child and said, “I forgot to tell you: you may want to hide the knives and scissors before we get there.”

Hide the knives. Hide the scissors. Oh, and sleep well.

Of course, we couldn’t go to church on Sunday and say, “Gee, guys, the reason we are a little stressed right now is that at night before bed, Lizzy tells us that she hopes we die–did you know her uncle molested her?” We were bound by DFCS rules–and common decency–to protect our foster children’s privacy.

Even after our elder daughter’s adoption, we kept a great deal of her background private. No one knew that she had relatives who could have taken her from us in 1998–and chose not to. So, in 2016, we found ourselves judged for sending her to visit them–despite the fact that two state governments said she could have been with them all along.

The most valuable thing about years like those we have just endured is the clarity they bring. Amid the garbage, beneath the flames, there it is: the distillation. We are certain about things that once shook us.

Among the revelations, the clearest is perhaps the most unsettling: I now realize how little we truly know about one another, about even our closest friends’ journeys. At Stephanie Grace’s memorial service, the pastor shared a scripture I had never heard: “The heart knows its own bitterness and joy; he will not share these with a stranger.” (Proverbs 14:10 WEB)

That day, I felt again the clarity and truth of scripture; I knew with a certainty that I had no true insight into the hearts of even my own husband and daughters. None at all. I had never before known such loss and brokenness, and I knew that none of us could verbalize our anguish. In sorrow, they were strangers to me. Though much was known, more was unknown.

We don’t go around telling others our deepest secrets. We don’t show our worst hurts. In adulthood, we learn that few people really care, that others will twist our words or–worse yet–mock us with them later, parading our pain for fun. So, we don’t share our fears. We repress and self-medicate, but we don’t say, “You know, I’m in such a rut–every single day of my life is the same.” “I can’t get out of bed in the morning since my husband left.” “I drink a twelve-pack every night.” After all, who would we tell that to?

And what could they do, anyway?

Braxton Cromwell Stewart

I have spent twenty years teaching; I have also spent twenty years reading about suicide. I know, I know: suicide is so stigmatized that I’m not supposed to even admit I read about it–despite the fact that I teach Antigone and Julius Caesar, plays in which suicide is featured prominently.

But I do read about it. I know things like:

  • People who die by suicide sometimes see it as a rational act.  Susan Rose Blauner, in her book How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill Me, says that the person is drawing a line in the sand, saying, “The suffering stops here.” (That’s a paraphrase–every copy I have ever given away has been kept, and rightfully so.)
  • I know that suicide is contagious–so much so that institutions and the media are asked to follow protocols in the aftermath, that whole towns must try to cope.
  • I know that the time period from the decision to attempt suicide to attempting it is only twenty minutes for at least half of the people, a much shorter time period than period previously thought.
  • I know the rate of suicide is rising.
  • I know that suicide is the second or third leading cause of death among young people between 15 and 24.
  • I know that LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide.
  • I know that Christians who love Jesus can be truly depressed. (Click that link!)
  • And, thanks to Mark Rutland, I know that there is hope in Christ, even for those who die by suicide. Years ago, I heard the pastor’s explanation in a sermon on cassette, and it has stayed with me: He said that he was confronted by a brokenhearted mother, hysterical over the loss of her beloved child, and he assured her that he believed there was a millisecond between the initiation of the attempt and its finalization in which her child could have thought, “My Lord, what have I done??? Forgive me.”

I was once on an elevator in Town Center Mall with a beautiful blonde young mother. She was impeccably dressed; her bubbly toddler daughter was in an expensive stroller. Abby was two, and she and I were ragtag and exhausted, still consumed by Greg’s leukemia battle.

As our daughters looked out the glass elevator together, I made some offhand remark about our struggling air, my husband’s bone marrow transplant, his leukemia.

I remember her matter-of-fact tone, even now: “Leukemia? That’s an easy cancer. I lost my first daughter to —————. There’s no cure. You’re lucky, he has an easy cancer.”

She meant her words to be reassuring–and they were–but they were also jarring.

She looked magazine-perfect, but she had lived horror.

When we had boarded the elevator, I wanted her life–but by the time we got to the basement, chastened, I was so grateful for my easy sorrow.

Four minutes had changed my perception irrevocably. Just four minutes.

I do not understand much–but I do understand suffering. I do understand pain. And I know what those who are suffering the most, who are enduring loss and heartbreak and despair and hopelessness need more than anything, and that is someone to come alongside.

The unexpected death of a child, the failed adoption, the divorce, the loss–these pain of these things will never totally go away on this earth. It will always be there. There is nothing you can do about the pain of these losses–these things that they don’t even make greeting cards for.

It’s hard to accept that sometimes, nothing can be done, that there are no words to say, that some losses are truly so savage that even the comfort of words is lost.

Do what Jesus would–in the middle of the pain and sorrow–show up.

In Seattle, we watched twenty-one people die of cancer. Friends on the ward. Neighbors in patient housing. Young fathers. Toddlers.

It was so awful.

On one of the worst days there, my best friend, widowed under an hour, raged at the front door of the apartment building, having forgotten her key. Abby, who was 18 months old, went with me to open the door.

My friend was unrecognizable, such was her grief.

Abby was unfazed by her wails. Looking at me for clarification, she said, “Ria’s heart is broken?” and toddled over to her, arms open wide, offering the only comfort she could: the comfort of love.




What You Did RIGHT in 2018

48914113_1969712729742522_7622048185539624960_nAs a teenager, I was a part of a dynamic youth group–it was large and fun and truly Christ-centered. There were men and women who invested in me tirelessly, who were devoted to my health and spiritual growth with an intensity I have not experienced again. They “got” discipleship. They planted seeds, they watered them, and they brought forth a harvest.

Their harvest–now middle-aged adults–includes a number of pastors and pastors’ wives, children’s and music ministers, missionaries, a successful Christian drummer (with seven Dove Award performances), a 700 Club producer, a “Senior Director of Digital Ministries” for In Touch Ministries, and homeschooling parents galore.

I am among another contingent, a contingent that sometimes seems less than.  Friends who once sat with me on a sweltering church bus now lead hundreds to Christ, while my biggest Christian victory is being nice to a Kroger cashier. The kid whose parents hosted “Fifth Quarter Fellowship” rubs shoulders with Andy Stanley, while I drop off bags of secondhand clothes at students’ homes.

My friend Tasha and I were headed to Walmart last week, and she said, “Do you ever look at the other people from our youth group and think, I missed it somehow?”

I chuckled and replied. “You’re my personal minister.”

We have been friends for over thirty years, longer than I’ve known my husband. We are the dullest of friends. We do a lot of sitting in silence. We never take day trips; we don’t go shopping or see movies together; there’s not even a lot of eating out, except for a birthday dinner–ours are a day apart.

Most of the time, we either sit in my backyard or we do jigsaw puzzles. Either way,  have the same conversations we have had a thousand times before about birds and marriage and kids and heartache and work–and the things we would do if we had the money.

Sometimes, I go to her house at night. I sit in her grandfather’s chair and pet her cat and eat Nerds.

It is all so plain.

It is so far and different from Michael W. Smith and women’s conferences and refugee ministry.

But Tasha–and friends like her–have stood close during my husband’s three battles with cancer. Have come alongside during the sorrows of our lives–miscarriages, failed adoptions, the stillbirth of my granddaughter. Have sat silently comforting us with their presence, bearing witness my family’s implosion.

If there is someone sitting placidly on your couch, no one can become totally unhinged. No one can throw china against the wall to hear its satisfying crack. No one can say mean things if there is someone calmly petting a cat in the recliner. On one of the most wrenching days of our lives–when it seemed the whole family would surely go, the ship would finally, this time, sink–Tasha and her son sat at our table eating pizza wordlessly, chewing and swallowing, sitting shiva.

49206199_289550865245574_5565538378729914368_nAfter Stephanie Grace was stillborn, the days were long stretches of sorrow. Greg’s third cancer stretched them further still, endless hours and minutes to be endured.

And there were people–not a lot of them, but enough–who made those days bearable. Who dropped by and sat and told Greg funny stories. Who brought him egg drop soup and ice cream. Who cleaned his wound with me. Who were present.

That, sometimes, is the most important part of the Christian walk: showing up.  Coming alongside. When the cancer comes back; when the baby dies; when the adoption falls through.

Because all cannot truly be lost if your friends are still there.

So, when you are evaluating 2018, when you are looking back and seeing all your nots--the weight you did not lose, the money you did not save, the daily Bible reading you did not do–I would encourage you to see the things you did do.

You were a friend. You went to a funeral. You wrote a note. You sent a check. You answered the phone in the middle of the night and then, you listened until dawn.

You sat at a sad family’s kitchen table and ate pizza.

You were a personal minister, a reminder of the love of our real and living God.

And that’s a pretty spectacular thing to be.



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The Teenager at Your Thanksgiving Table

46503992_918579165008420_2801454627122315264_nThe area of my life that I am good at–the best skill I possess–is a non-monetized sector of our economy. I am good with teenagers. I get them, and they appreciate the fact that I do. We actually enjoy our time together, mostly–they will say things like, “I mean, if I have to be in this school building, I guess I would rather be here then anywhere else . . . but I wish I didn’t have to be in this school building.”

Tomorrow, they are going to have to be somewhere else that they do not want to be: at your Thanksgiving table. And the reasons that they do not want to be there are many:

  1. It all feels fake: they are wearing clothes they don’t normally wear. Yes, we parents would like our children to always look Christmas-card worthy, but, after all, we aren’t parading around our prized show goats–we are just taking our kids to Aunt Helen’s. If your son wants to wear a UGA hoodie, ask yourself–are you more concerned about what Great Aunt Mabel thinks than what your son feels? Your son needs to have his autonomy respected at Thanksgiving among his relatives so that he can maintain it down by the river with his buddies on a moonlit Friday night. For teenagers, clothes are personhood. Trust your teen to be a person.
  2. It all feels fake: your nuclear family is (perhaps) pretending to be happier than you truly are. If Mom hasn’t spoken a kind word to Dad in two weeks; if elder brother Bobby Joe got arrested last week for breaking and entering; if Sis just told everyone she is pregnant–if there is any sort of ongoing family crisis at all and you are all in a tacit agreement to pretend otherwise, then you are asking your teen to participate in “finessing” everyone at dinner. And teenagers generally prefer authenticity.
  3. It all feels fake: distant relatives are acting elated to see them. I’m a fairly terrible long-distance aunt. So, when I am around my nieces and nephews on holidays, I do my best not to act as if I am World’s Best Aunt material. I am genuine and warm with them, sure, but I do not gush over them because that would be patronizing. If you see your nephew only twice a year, to pretend that you are devastated that you don’t is just wrong. As an adult, you either need to do better and see him more or tell both of you the truth: you are happy to see him when you do. He will appreciate your honesty and attention.
  4. Relatives keep asking the wrong questions–and putting teens on the spot. In one of my favorite speeches, Paul Graham tells teens, “People are always asking you [what you want to do with your life] . . . adults ask this mainly as a conversation starter . . . They ask it the way you might poke a hermit crab in a tide pool, to see what it does.” Resist the urge to poke the teenager at your Thanksgiving table–because the last thing any fifteen-year-old wants is five adults waving their forks at her while offering friendly advice. Ask her instead about books she is reading, movies she has seen–anything the two of you could talk about quietly together. Because . . .
  5. Teenagers are generally embarrassed to be alive. When my students enter my classroom on the first day of school, I herd them in while hollering, “It’s okay, I know you are embarrassed to be alive,” and they always chuckle–because they are, they really are. This is why the same kid who wins a public speaking contest can’t give his order to the waiter or talk to the cashier at Wal-Mart. It’s all just too much sometimes. And for some teens, Thanksgiving is one of those times. So, let it be. On the ride over to Aunt Helen’s, ask if there’s anything they would rather not talk about, and then don’t talk about it. While you may be ecstatic that Johnny won third place in the hog show at the fair, if he doesn’t want to mention it, just don’t–even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
  6. Some relatives play favorites, and teenagers have begun to realize this. If Grandma calls Cousin Sally “honeybunch,” buys her Dr. Pepper, and only invites her for sleepovers, then Cousin Sally has it a lot better than your teen–and you should acknowledge that. If Pop-Pop bought your brother’s son a Bobcat ATV last  Christmas and only gave your son a Carhartt beanie, well, there’s a problem–and you shouldn’t pretend otherwise. (Our family is unique in that our older daughter, who is adopted from foster care, was taken back to her birth family when she was eighteen months old–and when DFCS returned her to us four months later, we all spoiled her. Her younger sister has had to recognize and live with that: “She was given a car on her birthday, but you weren’t” is much more difficult to process if no one tells you why.) Acknowledge the why; remind your teen that Cousin Dale had three heart surgeries at birth and that’s the reason everyone dotes on him. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere; help your kid to find it.
  7. Some relatives are awful. If you have a sister who calls your child “fat,” do something about it. If there is a drunk uncle who hugs your teenage daughter for a millisecond too long, deal with him. Confront, confront, confront. Don’t put your sister’s self-worth before your child’s. Don’t dismiss your daughter, saying, “Uncle Fred is just that way, he didn’t mean anything by it.” When you make excuses for an adult’s behavior, your teen learns that other people are more important than he is: and no one else should be more important to you than your child.
  8. Some relatives are racist or sexist or homophobic. (Some parents are too.) My elder daughter dated an African-American man in college, and they were not always treated well by outsiders–watching their struggle was difficult. My younger daughter is a member of PERIOD: The Menstrual Movement at her university. Providing menstrual products to less fortunate women is something she has done for three years–but bringing that up at Thanksgiving in the South might be “too liberal”–it would definitely be too something. If your child can’t talk about her boyfriend, her interests, or her friends, why should she be excited about lunch? She is eating with people who are supposed to love her–but they can’t even accept the things and people she loves.
  9. They are made fun of for their dietary choices. If they are vegan or gluten-free or Ovo-vegetarian, please don’t mock them. Just let them eat in peace. There are toddlers in the kitchen eating only macaroni; there are adults who are just gorging on pigs in a blanket and swilling their beer. Leave Grace alone if she doesn’t want turkey. Or bread. Or milk. It’s called autonomy.
  10. Their maturation can go unacknowledged. They are seated at the kids’ table or put in charge of meaningless chores. After lunch, they are sent out of the room or even told to go outside. This wholesale dismissal badly hurts teens. If they aren’t worthy of time and attention, why should they come to dinner at all? After you eat, invite your niece or nephew to sit and talk to you. Look them in the eyes and really talk. Tell them stories they have never heard before–mistakes you made, adventures you went on, how things were when you were fifteen–and then listen, really listen, when they respond. Resist the urge to check your cell phone or to check the score on the TV: focus instead on the teenager talking to you: he’s a person, and he just wants someone to see that. Make sure you do.

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Should Church Really Stress Us Out? (Living on the Verge of Falling)

46459316_514541725729785_8217113980255076352_nDuring my teenage years, I was in church almost every night. It was a better place to be than home, where chaos ruled and supervision was lacking. Church gave me a loving God, caring adults, funny friends, and a place to be me–just me. It gave me a place away from my family, away from school, away from everything–but close to God. I could focus on His plans for me and His plans for my life.

I loved it.

Now, though, as an adult approaching fifty, my family has been drifting away from the church. Church has been hard because it’s been difficult to be around people. Some days we don’t want to talk, other days we do. Sometimes it’s just hard to sit still and listen and not do. Our minds wander too much when our hands are not busy.

I have a lot of Christian friends–friends who are smart and holy. Like me, they post a lot on Facebook because we live in South Georgia where there’s not a lot to do. These well-read people post interesting things–and one recent fad seems to be writing articles about the theology of worship and whether or not contemporary Christian songs are even Christian at all. So, now, when I’m at church and hear songs like “Oceans” or “10,000 Reasons,” rather than using them to focus on God, I think of Facebook articles I read about the “ad nauseam repetition” and whether the songwriters are truly Christians.

Not only do I have to wonder whether my clothes are appropriate, whether I’m sitting in someone else’s pew, whether I was polite enough to the old lady who greeted me so nicely in the narthex–now, I have to wonder whether Matt Redman is theologically sound.

My father-in-law always says that too much information is a bad thing. I think the current emphasis on worrying so much about so many things–the lighting, the sound of the drums, whether ear plugs are necessary, what kind of coffee to get, set decorations, the ambience, and, now, the theology of lyricists–all of these things distract from the one thing that we all need most in every church, and that is the presence of the Lord.

By obsessing over so many things that do not matter–and so many things do not matter–we are losing sight of the things that do. It is easier to read ten articles on Facebook about Christianity than to read one page of the Bible. It is easier to post six scriptural illustrations than to show Christian kindness to one person who smells really bad. And it is easier to psychoanalyze songwriters than to look at our own hearts and see our filthy rags–our hearts made righteous only by Christ.

I really don’t know when everything became an ordeal and nothing could be simple 46522727_573206093108602_3026601700451418112_nanymore. Maybe our parents also felt this way and had these struggles–I don’t know–but I don’t think church has to be hard.  Church doesn’t have to be a place where we dwell on all the wrong or, conversely, pat ourselves on the back for all the right that we do. Church is a refuge, a place where we are safe and we can forget about this world and how lousy life can be and focus on God, who heals and restores.

One summer day in 2001, I sat in a  hospital conference room desperately praying with a Jewish woman as her husband was dying. Later that month, I held another hysterical friend in the moments after her own husband died. In both instances, my prayers were very repetitive.  I prayed very simply because life had been stripped to its core.

Perhaps some praise and worship songs come from such places of simple truth.

When Greg was flighting his third cancer, as I walked through the house one day, I heard, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.” And then I realized I was saying that. Those were my words. My spirit man was crying out repetitively. The need for prayer was so great that it was coming forth, that it was filling the house even though I was in a wretched state, beyond prayer myself.

God was there. God was present. In my distress, He came to me.

I think people who parse lyrics, who search for nuance and subtext and sin, who subject them to “The Berean Test” and numerically rank their theology miss this: God can use anything, anyone. God can touch and heal at will, using tools that you and I would not understand or approve of.

Because He’s God.

After my granddaughter was stillborn, missing part of her skull, missing her leg, after our world was destroyed and there was nothing but loss and sorrow, every single day I spent my entire planning period listening to “He Knows My Name” and “Didn’t I Walk on Water” on a loop–those two Joseph Larson songs over and over. Their strong reminders of God’s love and presence allowed me to function.

When I Googled their singer, I found a site that talked about his alleged marijuana use and labeled him a “lascivious fornicator.” For a second, I thought I couldn’t listen to his songs anymore. I thought it would be wrong of me, to choose to listen to a “bad” person.

And then I remembered that we are all, at our cores, bad people–there are none righteous. There are none good.

Christ is, truly, for all of us, our only hope. We may rank sins, forgiving some and condemning others, but our judgment is only an attempt to soothe our own souls. The truth is, I don’t know the hearts of Joseph Larson or Matt Redman or Lauren Daigle.  I don’t know if they are singing for God or mammon. I don’t know if they have drug problems or are squeaky clean. But I do know that, through Christ, God can use them no matter their sins.

Have you ever stood in a church service and sung “Awesome God” in a loud, true chorus with everyone singing as one? Wasn’t it wonderful? You felt either complete or strengthened. You were pushed forward in your faith.

On Pinterest, you can choose your “Awesome God” imagery. There is Jesus holding the world in his hands; there are men and women with their hands upraised; there is a small child in a snow cap; there is a woman in a field–and all of these images declare, “Our God is an Awesome God.”

The song-turned-catchphrase was written by Rich Mullins, who also wrote another, less well-known song entitled “Hold Me, Jesus.”

He wrote it when he was in Amsterdam, where everything was legal, and where he was tempted by sin–even though he was a contemporary Christian artist who knew better.

He was so tempted.

Of that time, he stated, “You think you’re getting somewhere, you think you’re growing as a Christian . . . and all of the sudden, you’re in a situation where you go, ‘I am just as susceptible as I was when I was 16 to a lot of things.”

When I was sixteen and susceptible, what resonated with me about Mullins’ music was that it sounded true. The faith that he presented was accessible and human, not mysterious and complicated. His self-acceptance helped me then, and it helps me now.

He is right to say: “Whether or not I like who I am, that is who I am . . . People are gonna judge you, and there are I think actually people who look for excuses to condemn you and look for excuses to say bad things about you, but God doesn’t look for those kinds of excuses . .  . the conclusion of the matter for me was that I think I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God than to live in some kind of pietistic illusion of moral excellence. Not that I don’t want to be morally excellent. But my faith isn’t in the idea that I am more moral than anybody else: my faith is in the idea that God and His love are greater than whatever sins any of us commit.”

I live on the verge of falling. I live among people whom I fail every day, who list my shortcomings in a litany, a continual screed of my inadequacies and failures. For some of them, I will never be enough.

Yet in spite of my flaws, through Christ, I can write this blog.

In spite of his failings, Rich Mullins wrote powerful Christian anthems.

Because in our miry pits, places from which we desperately need comfort and rescue, we know our only hope is Him.

We know that God and His love are greater than sin. Than my sin. Than your sin. Than our sin.

These days, there are few things in our adult world that make us want to “take a lap.” To get up and run and dance and shout for joy. Church, in my opinion, should be a time to focus on that amid such rubble and ash.

God’s grace is a shoutable thing.

We know how awesome that is.


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Self-Comfort: My Israel in the Wastelands

46362233_259261271386451_1887850289386487808_nI’m a teacher with two sick days. That’s a bad enough state to be in when it’s late November and teachers are exhausted, stressed, and frazzled. It’s even worse when you need to have an abscessed tooth pulled.

Fortunately, we have been studying World War II, and there are plenty of World War II movies that relate directly to the GSEs–so my plan was to drive to school and stay there until 8:10, let my husband cover my first class during his planning. and then dash back (sans tooth) by 9:50. Dunkirk was the order of the day, and I would gut my way through with the cooperation of 107 teenagers.

When I left the house, I still wasn’t thrilled–the kitten had stolen a slice of my breakfast bacon, my tooth hurt badly, and the day was cold and gloomy. Still, as I do most days, I stopped before getting in the van and stood in the carport and looked at the pine trees across the road–the sun rises behind them, and some days, the brilliant orange makes it look like they are afire. This morning, they looked as they never had before, the sky a brown misted pink.


The drive to work is four miles through a downtown mostly unchanged over my forty-eight years. I drive past a park named for the great-grandfather I never met; past the empty building that was R & R fabric shop, where Grandma and I spent many hours when I was a child–she visited while I organized the patterns by number in their metal drawers;  past the bank-turned-furniture-store, where I took my young second cousins to see the antique safe in the first hours after their grandfather, my uncle, died; past the brick gazebo where my elder daughter had her prom pictures taken on one of her life’s happiest nights.

But these are not the sights that move me. In the fourteen years that I have made that commute–the 2,660 times I have driven that road–it’s the morning sky over the CSX Rice Yard that is my favorite. Mind you, I am neither a morning person nor a joyous soul–so my looking at the sunrise is not Instagram-worthy. It’s more a desultory, at-least-I-have this moment. My consolation for all the else.

Today, there was a patch of blue sky through the gray. Fluffy white clouds peeked beneath the haze, cornflower blue behind. I stopped in a parking lot to take a few pictures–I had often told my daughters, “When I don’t have you guys with me, I’m going to take a picture of the sky here every day”–so, today, I did. But, by the time I stopped–in just those thirty seconds–everything about the sky changed. It was gray.

I drove the last mile unthinkingly. Stopped at the red light beside the high school, I sat listlessly looking at the trees; in the silvery morning light, their leaves were layered in a stony effect– it was as if I were looking at a rock wall made of trees. And then, I heard from deep within, “This is your Israel.”

It was weird, jarring.


Three of my friends have spent the past week in the Middle East–two, married Christian pastors, have been in Israel, and one, celebrating her fiftieth birthday, in Egypt. Their photos have filled my social media with camel rides and tomb visits and distant sunsets. I have viewed these photos with a sort of quiet satisfaction–happy that people whom I have known since my teens are across the world, now far away from rough beginnings and old heartaches. I’ve enjoyed seeing the shine in their eyes and instinctively prayed for their refreshing.

46313345_537456686678946_5818458578905726976_nI’ve never wanted to go to Israel or Egypt. I don’t wish I were with there. I haven’t thought about the pictures for even a moment after I pressed the heart or thumbs-up. But there it was, that voice: “This is your Israel.” 

Sunlight and rocks and sky and trees.

(And Ware County High School.)

They are my everyday, plain places. Regular and ordinary. But they restore me. I stop to look at them, and on some days, I am refreshed. Like a child running his hands over every spindle on a banister, I pass my touchstones. Are the turtles in the canal on City Boulevard on their log today? Is the sun shining perfectly down on the palm tree centered at the end of Euclid? Are there fluffy clouds in the Big Sky near Reid’s Pasture? Are there wildflowers blooming on the railroad berms? Is the sunset view better from the overpass or from Wal-Mart’s parking lot?

It seems absurd, doesn’t it? To think: the sunset from Wal-Mart is sometimes my Wailing Wall.

46459310_437930890069369_6606997772539265024_nIn the months after Stephanie Grace was stillborn, I can’t tell you how many times we checked on the canal turtles. We would drive down and sit in the van on the bridge and look down at them, eight turtles on a log, offering us solace simply by their existence, pushing us on. There was just enough beauty in the sight of them–solid and scattered on the log skimming the water–to remind us of Him. Of somewhere, goodness.

I recognize, after my husband’s three cancers, after my granddaughter’s death, that my only hope is in the outdoors–the Drake Elm, the stars over the driveway at night, the feeding of the garage opossum–in these reminders of God.

My little family has been endured much, and we are all in various stages on the journey to repair. We sometimes bravely say “ifs” to each other, almost wishing aloud.  On hopeful days, we say “catch a break” as if it is possible. On other, worse days, we find solace in our own healing Israels–the snows of Connecticut, the hills of New York, the pines of Georgia.

When Hurricane Michael brushed past our area, I was home alone.  I intended to sleep in the hallway under a table, and when the winds came I wandered outside to watch the trees in our backyard–wanting to see which were holding up, planning to sleep near the sturdiest. I was transfixed by the roar of the wind through the trees, by their swaying silhouettes against the orangey gray sky. I lay in the grass and sang the doxology, something our pastor had done sixteen years ago when my husband was first declared cancer free. It seemed fitting when he did so, and it felt appropriate on that October night, in the face of such majesty.

As the feral cats wandered around me, I lay on a quilt for an hour and sang and prayed and thought about how hard it all is, how hard it continues to be, how unholy I am, how holy and powerful He is. I got neither revelations or relief–we seem to have ordered lives that are without them. No hope sprang anew.

I was just alone in the wind, watching. I was just still, and I knew.




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[Dabbing:] Recognizing the Wanting

IMG_20181020_145034The past six days in my classroom have been days in which I have had to fight myself to do the right thing, to be the right teacher. My fibromyalgia flared right after fall break, so I came into the classroom in a position of weakness rather than rested strength. I didn’t want to have enthusiastic conversations about cruises and car rides and long naps and Netflix. I wasn’t up to greeting forty students by name between classes and then teaching one hundred and eleven for seven hours.

I have spent more than twenty years in classrooms, and sometimes, I feel them all.

This year, I’m on extended day for the first time in my career. In many ways, it is the best thing that has ever happened to me–there’s nothing like forcing an ENFP to focus–but having no planning period is really difficult for an English teacher since essays take time to grade. (Don’t ever sit down with a stopwatch, time yourself grading one essay, then multiply the minutes taken by the number of students you teach. That math is soul-crushing.)

Last Monday, the easiest thing for everyone would have been for me to say, “Since we finished reading Antigone right before fall break, we are not going to write essays about it; we are going to start something new.” We all would have been thrilled. The kids didn’t really like Antigone (my fourth block dubbed her “Sad Incest Baby”), and not grading 52 essays was much more appealing than grading them.

It was win-win, a simple call–one no one would have known I had made. But it wasn’t the right call. They wrote the essays.

I spent Saturday in my younger daughter’s bedroom at her cactus-filled desk. Her vine-covered window overlooks a walled corner of the yard. It’s kind of like Mary Lennox’s Secret Garden of my youth, and if I have to spend Saturday grading in a garret, cats and cacti and walls with vines make the task bearable.

The thing about grading writing, really, is this: assuming the students have “bought in to the assignment,” it’s like they are parading in front of you, telling you what they know and what they don’t. So they were there with me with all things they’d noticed: “Mrs. G, Antigone knew what she was getting into, she knew she was going to die–but Creon did not know at all. And he lost his whole family in one day. And it was his fault, and he knew it. He definitely had it worse.” “Mrs. G, Haimon killed himself when Antigone died, so he must have really loved her–because you are not going to kill yourself after the death of someone you don’t love.” “Sophocles was a deeply disturbed man.”44520823_2261701637409170_2002534433109835776_n

Granted, it was a mixed bag–there were papers that lacked theses or text evidence; some were sloppy and rushed–and there were a few A+s that the [standards-based] rubric gave that I myself might not have, but the papers were, as a whole, mostly good, effort-filled work that the kids could be proud of.

We had all done something we didn’t want to do.

Saturday, as I graded in a rotation–37 minutes grading, 20 minutes playing Scrabble; 37 minutes grading, 20 minutes reading Daily Mail; 37 minutes grading, 20 minutes petting the cats–all I could think of was the empty Sunday, a true Sabbath. The rest I needed, the potential promise of a good week.

Though I had planned on church, when the kitten woke me, Greg wandered in the bedroom. He said, “If you can’t go back to sleep, maybe we could go over to Mallery Street Cafe. ” It is in nearby St. Simon’s and was a respite for us after Stephanie Grace’s death, as close to a “spot” as we have gotten in decades. We can eat potatoes and look at art and dogs–and we can remember or forget.44620881_484223005423710_312645439868370944_n

We drove over with no music. We have never needed music–not when I was nineteen, not now at (almost) forty-nine. We ate our eggs and potatoes, then wandered to the pier where we admired a fat chihuahua and a pony-tailed toddler. We sat at the pier’s end and watched a shrimp boat trailed by hundreds of birds.

We didn’t talk then.

We watched it for a long time and thought about alternate lives.

All that time we have spent doing things we didn’t want to do.

This morning, I was so sullen. (Surely someone who loved me in 1987 could have taken me aside and said, “Listen, if you teach school, you will get up before the sun for the rest of your life,” then shaken me and said, “Don’t do it! You need to sleep!“) It was awful, so bad that Greg even gave me a kind motivational speech: “You’ll feel better later.”

At 7:35, I sat at my desk and ate egg and mushroom muffins. I read Daily Mail about the Bloomingdale wedding. I looked at the bride’s mother in her navy blue-tassel covered dress and thought about how I could have had that life, drawn her straw.

At 8:05, the students were released from the gym and cafeteria. They came tromping down the hall as either half-asleep zombies or hyper puppies. There was no middle ground.

I stood beside my door, half-heartedly greeting them. Some students I taught last year passed me in the crowd, then hollered back over their shoulders, “Shavon wants you to dab.”

I looked at them blankly–feeling fifty, overweight, and tired–but, oh, their shining eyes.

I dabbed, deeply.

There’s a lot about wanting that you don’t understand until adulthood–when no one cares what you want anymore. Your childhood full of sandwiches with the crusts cut off, shoes tied just right, and evenings playing favorite games ends–and a meet-your-own-emotional-needs world begins.

We have so much power: to give peace at a pier, happiness in a hallway, to simply do right.  And while it’s awfully tempting to choose to say no and remain passive when our own needs are not getting met, it’s not right to deny others simply because we ourselves are being denied.

Late yesterday afternoon, my classroom door opened. The bright-eyed girl stood there, chuckling. “I just wanted to say, Mrs. G, your dabbing was the best part of my day!”

Her laughter echoed even after the door had shut.


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Taunted to Death (A Bullied Child Remembers)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Long Past Wedding Vows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have not left this life.

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

I am not his. He is not mine.

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

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

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

It is September again.

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Carrying Your Big Wet Dog (Thoughts on Cancer Survivorship)



June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One weekend, five people die. Children die.

You still remember the wails.

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

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

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

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

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


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