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Time and Tiaras: On the Death of my Best Friend

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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Your Broken Pots: His Glory

71021017_2747127791987277_3629301193945120768_nToday, I spent silent hours in the car with Greg–we were going, again, to the doctor’s. We don’t even pretend anymore; this morning, we didn’t want to be in the car, didn’t want to be spending our day in waiting rooms. We did not buy Chick-fil-a biscuits on the way out of town, didn’t discuss going to the arboretum after the appointments–there was no attempt to make this into a fun trip.

He got into the backseat of the car–he can’t ride in the front seat near A/C with his dry eyes. He played Dig It for ninety minutes while I listened to Jason Aldean on Pandora.

We were alone, together, absolutely silent, so weary of it all.


The drive home was slightly better–he’d gotten bad news about his heart, but good news about his eyes, and, besides, the Braves were on WTBS.

Distraction is good in a crisis, and October medical setbacks are splendid, really–there’s always baseball to watch, to pretend to care about. (Faking interest in every round of Wimbledon is much more difficult, but we managed to in 2001.)

When we got home, we continued watching, and I idly scrolled through Instagram–cats and triplets cheer me up when nothing else will.  And, there, mixed in with the jumble of cheerful pics, there was a wedding picture of  Juli Wilson, pastor Jarrid Wilson’s young widow. Her husband died by suicide a month ago–it was national news.

As I looked at the sweet, hopeful wedding picture, with its 37,000 likes–pictures taken just twelve weeks ago had only 527–and I thought, “This woman didn’t want this ministry.”

Just weeks ago, she was posting pics of her young sons on the ball field, silly shots with her husband at a barbeque, the whole family piled in the pool. Thirty days later, not only has her whole world changed, but she also has 161,000 followers.

She didn’t want them. That. 

She wanted something else entirely.


That’s the whole problem, really: what we wanted is so far from what we got.

That sounds so simple that it’s almost moronic, but think about how far what you have right now is from what you wanted.

I wanted to be a stay at home wife, a homeschool mom, to have scads of children who had my eyes; I wanted to quilt and create. I cannot even confess all of the things that I wanted that I do not have because doing so gets me lost in a world of sorrow and lack.

Balancing the loss of what we wanted and the reality of what we have–and finding a bearable place to put all that pain–seems, at times, to be the bulk of adulthood’s mental work. There’s still a part of each of us that stands and screams, “This is not what I wanted!” and we have to try to silence the shouting, have to try to convince ourselves that this–though unwanted–is good.


Three weeks ago, when Greg was having his mitral valve replacement, we were told multiple times that he could die on the table, that–due to the calcification on his annulus– his heart could break in half.

My father, my brother, and friends in our inner circle offered to sit with me in the waiting room. I told them all no.

I wanted no one near.


I can’t help but think of my own desire for solitude and space when I consider Juli Wilson.

I cannot imagine my husband’s death making national news, my reeling family in the media spotlight, TV commentators dissecting his final hours, YouTube pastors and laypeople pontificating on his ultimate destiny–heaven or hell? And lost is the fact that Jarrid Wilson was a person, that there are people whom he is known to whose hearts are breaking.

And faced with this–the reality that she knew her husband, his heart, and their mission, Juli has decided to publicly walk forward on a path she did not choose.  To accept the mantle she did not want, could not have dreamed of.

And that’s what we as Christians do–it’s what we must do to make sense out of this messy and chaotic earthly life.

We must hold up our broken pots, show them to each other, say, “This is what I have over here, and this is what I have learned so far.” 

The beauty of our brokenness is that we don’t even have to create one perfect clay pot. We don’t have to have one single part of our lives together–not one single part–because we are covered by God’s grace, and people can see that light inside of us.


On Facebook this morning, after our long post about Greg’s rapid AFib and expensive eye medicine and weariness, there was a comment from an old friend: “It’s very brave for you to share your lives with us. At the risk of sounding trite and cliche “your tests are testimonies” to everyone.”

Greg and I are surprised by messages like these. We know we are deeper in the mire than we have ever been Despite this, God is using our walk.

Isn’t that amazing?


Greg and I cannot fathom how this will all end, or if it will end, ever. We are honest when we say this to each other.

Today, I told him, “What I miss most is having hope.”

And he reminded me that there is still, deep within me, light. “Aren’t you the one who says it will all work out, that it will be okay?”

“Oh, that?” I replied, “That’s faith. I have plenty of faith.”


Faith is my one clay pot, over in the corner, a little chipped but still unbroken.

I suppose Juli Wilson has a pot like mine–one she can’t put down, won’t give up, even if too many people are watching her carry it right now, even if she wants to rest.

Because once all of your pots are broken–once you have given up forever on finances and family and ease–you see the beauty in the few pots you still possess, and you want to show them, to share them, to say, “I can count the things I still care about, the things I am still sure of, on three fingers. But let me show you this beautiful pot that God gave me.”

Your remaining faith: His eternal glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emptiness (is a) Testimony

70603464_431735304402275_6081406836227964928_n.pngWhen I was younger, there wasn’t anything I hated more than blow-drying my hair, and in the hot summers of South Georgia, I saw no reason to do so before bed. This distressed my grandmother with whom I lived, who was a true saint. Each night, she would beg me to dry my hair. And when Greg and I were dating, she would still continue her bath-drawing lecture.

One night, Greg heard her say, “Rachel, if you blow-dry your hair, I will give you extra money for the trip.” Something about that rubbed him wrong at the time, but it didn’t bother me, and it doesn’t bother me now. She was trying to get what she wanted, a granddaughter with dry hair, and I was trying to get what I wanted–and have wanted since the age of five–away from the blow dryer.


I was fully confident in my grandmother’s love. I knew her well, I knew the sacrifices she had made for me since my birth. I had always been told that she loved me from the moment my mother told her I existed, and I know that to be true. When I was a very ill toddler, hospitalized for hydrocephalus in Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, Grandma would drive all over Atlanta hunting for Gerber Blueberry Buckle, the only food I would eat.

She loved me with that desperate love with which you love a child who might die.

I loved her equally. But Greg, who was an outsider, viewed our interactions with a different eye, and he thought that in offering me an incentive, she was actually offering me her love.

This was not the truth, but it was the truth as he saw it.


I’ve had a lot of time lately to think about the tit-for-tat economy and the conditional nature of most daily love. Everyday love. Our earthly relationships are meant to mirror Christ and the church, the Heavenly Father and His children, but what they often mirror are Walmart transactions: you give me this and I will give you that–and if you do not give me this, I might give you something, but it’s not necessarily going to be what you want or need.

We become very accustomed to these conditional reciprocal interactions, engaging in them over and over until suddenly, one day, they have lost their appeal.

Doing something just to get something seems, finally, wrong.

It may take years, but work-based worth-proving loses all of its appeal. We simply don’t care about getting anything anymore from those people. If we have to play baseball to win our parents’ love, and we start to hate baseball, we start to hate our parents. If children have to make A’s for Grandpa to be happy, when chemistry class gets really difficult, and then geometry does too, and they’re doing the best they can but have B’s, they begin to dislike school–and feel differently about Grandpa.

I don’t know what it is about us, but we get tired of the if.

We just want love.


Most of the C.S. Lewis that I have read comes from short tweets, inspirational art, and quick glances at underlinings in my grandmother’s books. but I know that one thing he says over and over is that if we yearn for something else, then something else better must exist. And I think that if we yearn for a love that is not conditional, we are in some ways proving the existence of heaven. A loving God would not create us with such a deep desire to experience true love if it were not possible. And in giving us Jesus and freeing us from the “works mentality,” He still did not erase the longing for love.

You may, after a good day–one with blue herons and sunny lakes and icy lemonade and happy children–feel awakened and relieved. For that moment, you may feel all your burdens lift. But eventually, they will settle back upon you, and your heart will once again be weighted and grayed–and you will again feel fear and tremble.

It is in this time that the promise of heavenly love is so powerful. To know that God loves us even if we leave dishes in the sink. Even if we get every orifice pierced. Despite our tattoos, despite our sin, despite the horrifically poor decisions that we made when we were fourteen or thirty-eight. In the face of all this, His love is unchanging. To live, then, with the changing love, of our parents, partners, and children, is particularly distressing.

We want heaven, but we’re here. We want full souls and spirits, but we are here.


That longing for more, those jostles in our souls that remain even after the best of earthly days, is, then, a reassurance, a heavenly reminder that if you cannot be filled here, there must be a there. 

And so the feeling of emptiness, of disconnect, can become a glorious reminder that elsewhere, there is more.

In this way, emptiness becomes hope.

And because we know this, because we understand that knowing our emptiness means knowing His fullness, we can go forth. Without earthly understanding. Without earthly love. Without any single thing our soul thinks we need, we can go forth–even on the days we dread.

In our lack, there is His abundance.

Glory.

Things God Allows

70166908_2269409233371506_8850290329752961024_nThere is something that God does for me before a crisis–when I can see the giant, dark waves coming and feel the sand beginning to wash out beneath me. He allows me, always, a brief time with friends. The quickest of rejuvenations–not weeks on a beach, not even lingering dinners–just quick reminders: You also have this.

You have someone who smiles the second they see you. Who rearranges their schedule, welcomes you with snacks, wakes their slumbering kids, sits everyone in comfy chairs and lets you, for a moment, forget that offshore the waves are rising, and soon enough, they will be crashing.

I did that in August–sat in my favorite chair in my friend Lynn’s house, some 260 miles from mine. I petted her dog, joked with her kids, ate a donut.

Then it was time to go home.

I didn’t want to, really. Major medical crisis #4 was at home. I wanted to stay away, to wander around Atlanta, to go to Lenox Square–just as I had in college–and look idly at every single purse in Macy’s. To stand there and  feel their leather, to peer inside, looking for those with quality liners–because a cheerful purse lining is one of life’s unnoticed and unmentioned little pleasures. I wanted to eat a pretzel and people watch. To distract myself with the whorls of people and the chortling children.

I was still deciding–home or the mall?–as Lynn walked me to my car. “Go home and go to the Y–walking at the Y will be better for you than looking at purses,” she said, patting the roof of the car.

And I obeyed.


I tell Greg that I wish I knew how many times I have ridden home from Atlanta, taken I-75 to US-82. I want a count because I love that drive–a few times, I have even taken it as a 500-mile day trip, running up to visit museums. For me, those miles are full of good memories with family and friends–now, almost a half a century’s worth. There are places between Cordele and Tifton where there is big sky. There are cows on low hills. There is my favorite pond near Alapaha–at sunset, with the wading birds and cypress trees, there’s almost nowhere prettier.

Sometimes I just pull over and let myself look.


That Sunday, traffic was light. As I sang along with Jason Aldean on Pandora and drank my Dr. Pepper, I suddenly thought, “I am driving 70 MPH toward a place that I do not want to go.

But the reprieve, I knew, was over.


I teach school–I spend seven hours a day with teens who have not yet found their paths. They are still young enough to say things like, “I will never have a boss,” to think that eight dollars an hour is a lot of money, to believe that a fast car will bring them happiness.

But adulthood–especially when combined with tragedy, as most adulthoods are–will blow those illusions away. Even those we need,  the things we want to believe.

That’s amazing, isn’t it? We adults routinely do things we do not want to do, things that are so difficult. We go back to school at night; we relocate to help sick parents; we put our own dreams on hold for others; we face horrors–from bankruptcies to the deaths of children, things that are so terrible that we cannot even put them into words. 

We face things that we know are going to break and destroy us–but we keep our faces forward and we keep walking.

That is what it’s so insane to me about the Christian faith: we can continue to walk.

There’s no need to run away when we know that God is with us–when we have been assured that He is in the bottom of the ocean, on the rocky cliffs, in the low valleys–when we know to the very core of our souls that we are never alone, well, then we can walk.

(Note: I hate that some in the modern church make it seem like there is an epiphany-level of Christianity where everyone automatically feels perfect/better. Because I have never felt whole or complete, like my “God-shaped hole” (the one that the song says is “in all of us”) has been entirely filled. And the fact that I didn’t feel like holding my head high and shoulders back used to bother me–but I now see God also values the walking itself.)


There was so much blue sky that day. I love a blue sky, white cloud day, and on that drive home, I felt fed by it. Like God was saying, “Remember, I do this,” like He was painting pictures for me to remember on the long days in the hospital, letting me store up comfort for the walk I didn’t want to take.

There is, after all, nothing in us that wants to spend days 39-45 in a hospital. Greg doesn’t want to have his sternum “sawed in half” now–or again in twelve years. We don’t want to miss work. We don’t want the bills or the stress or the sorrow or the pain.

But in three days, we will be in our third hospital. The surgery will go better than expected. In ICU, he will do so well that the doctors and nurses will marvel, as they always do.  We will watch Fox News and I will make sure the nurses wash their hands and give him good pain medication and the CNAs bring him ice, and I will ask the custodians about their grandchildren and the cafeteria workers about their kids and thank the orderlies when they bring me blankets. 

When I am sad, when it is all just too much, I will go to the lobby where the exultant new mothers sit in wheelchairs cradling their sweet babies, waiting to go home. I will watch their husbands strap the tiny babies’ carseats in, then turn and carefully help their wives into the cars.

Again and again, I will watch as new families leave the hospital, and I will be so happy–because my God in his mercy allows that, too.

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A Tightrope in the Withered Places

69537022_502212617231981_586373691441414144_nAugust 8, 2019

I just really do not know how we are going to make it through this time. 

I think that at least three times a day, usually in the evening. I think it in all caps. I think it in italicized bold 100-point font, in bright red letters and underlined. I think it in a rage.

I am so mad that we have to go through something again when we have not even healed from the last thing, when the last trauma was so awful that we are all still wholly broken. Cleaning that throat wound broke Abby and me both, and having that throat wound broke Greg.

Yet here we are again, required to dance the same dance to the same song. And while we know that Greg will ultimately be okay, and that we will all survive, sustained once more by God, right now, this minute none of us know that we can, in fact, do this again.

It’s the most frustrating dichotomy: we cannot possibly do this, but we know it will be done.

We cannot make it. But we will.

After all, our little family does hard things over and over. 

And we know this. You know this. God has been faithful to us, and He will be again.

But I can also say with honesty that I think all of us would rather just take a pass this time–we would rather just skip the Hard Thing. Certainly, it’s not anywhere near a “take this cup from me” sacrifice that is being required here–but it is more suffering,and frankly, we don’t want to suffer anymore. 

And yet.

One thing we learned early on–almost twenty years ago in Seattle–is things could truly be worse. I could have been long-widowed. One of our daughters could have been the sick one. We could have gone bankrupt, lost everything. 

We know this so well.

So, generally,we walk the tightrope. Recognizing that, like everyone, we suffer less than some, but more than others. Grateful that we are still upright and moving, however slowly.

But there are times when we all just want a few days off the tightrope.  We want to leave it behind.


Abby leaves for college on Saturday. She will again be 1,004 miles away. 

She and I are spending every moment together–she is ensconced on the corner of the red couch–her spot, from which she has barely moved since being blindsided by this latest diagnosis. Tonight, as she and I sat in silence, a sound like none we’d ever heard–a long, low guttural moan–that of an agonized dying animal–came from the bedroom where Greg and his dog were both sleeping. I dashed in to check on the dog, but Abby knew instantly: it was her father, in his sleep.

I woke him, and he apologized for scaring her. He said he wasn’t having a nightmare, that he wasn’t sick.

Completely shaken, Abby sat,saying angrily, over and over, “I didn’t like that . . . I didn’t like that.”

That’s the crux of it, really: when all you do is fight battles, there’s not a lot to like. Sure, we take time out to admire nature, and the girls and I find things every day that bring us comfort–today, I watched an ant carry a moth’s wing ten times his size, and I looked at the pink sunset and called Tasha to make her look, too. 

We reach–daily–for the joy, but we are reaching past so much pain.


September 3, 2019

Greg is a week away from surgery, and today, I found last month’s forgotten words on my phone. That night, I had spat them there in five minutes using voice recognition, thoroughly disgusted with the fact that my husband was moaning, my daughter was weeping, that we couldn’t even enjoy a few peaceful evenings before she left–instead, she was going to be leaving carrying a new, tiny trauma. 

I read them with mild surprise, and I held their truth.


In the past weeks, we have been building bridges out of spiderwebs and toothpicks, talking on blue-sky doctor’s drives about the what-ifs. (There aren’t a lot of whys. There aren’t many what’s nexts? There’s just the simple acknowledgement that this is our now.) 

This week I realized that, in all likelihood, things will never be okay–at least not in the typical sense: I will not have the home, car, or marriage I want. 

I realized that, but I felt no grief. For a few minutes, I just sat on my bed and considered that fact: “It will never be okay.”

The prophet Habakkuk declared, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

That day, I realized this is my truth: I serve a God who is for me, who saves me and keeps me from starving in even this most withered of places.

I considered my God, a sustaining God–who answers my smallest prayers and shows me so much grace and mercy–and I thought about how much I trust Him, with my pain, with my sorrow, with my daughters. I thought of all the times I have seen His hand move on my behalf, of the good things he has built out of our sorrows, of the people whom we know solely through cancer and anencephaly, of all the good He has built from all the loss.

There is no wishing away the bad without also wishing away the resultant good.

And that, I cannot do.

 

 

Broken Hearts, Steeled Spines

14858674_10209851441695433_1909135423_oOctober 24, 2018

For seventeen years, we have lived with aftermath. 2000’s discovery of my husband’s chronic myelogenous leukemia; 2001’s allogeneic bone marrow transplant with total body irradiation; 2013’s oral squamous cell carcinoma and mandibulectomy, and 2018’s lymphadenectomy and skin grafts–six separate surgeries in one: cancer was cut out of his mouth, and skin from his arm was sewn back in its place. (And cataract removals too.)

There are never complaints. There is no, “Why me?” He is, and ever will be, stoic.


Today, Greg and I went to work for half a day. We gave the PSAT, then ran by Captain D’s and headed down to Jacksonville to Shands. We spent the trip wavering between terror and certainty that he would get cancer diagnosis #4–adjacent to the site of his skin graft in his mouth was a white area that the doctor thought was leukoplakia, which is often precancerous. For a month, he had been watching the spot. I had looked at it twice–the second time, noticing how close it was to the bend where his lips connect, realizing how much of his face would be gone.

I didn’t ask to look again.


I don’t think you can quantify that type of terror, but I want to: I want to capture it, to help you see it, to try to make you understand what it is like to be presented again and again with horror and terror and heartbreak and yet not be destroyed.

I think that there is something to be said for also quantifying the terror, for the full report, because when you say, “We thought we were certainly destroyed,” and you lay out the thoughts, the expectations for destruction, then the fact of the rescue is that much more powerful.

That is, for me, the great truth, the greatest mercy: the fact that we are not destroyed. That Christianity reveals, again and again, survival, perseverant faith–faith that is not of us, is not naturally within us, but is, truly, a supernatural gift of God.


Nurses empty the lobby of an oral maxillofacial surgeon’s office quickly so that the patients don’t have to look at each other for long. People with half of their faces removed, slitted mouths, oozing sores, tracheotomies. The first time we went, I was terrified, me with my normal-faced husband, thinking he would turn into that. Today, on the drive to the hospital, I was fairly certain we were advancing on the road to that, and I knew I had nothing in me–nothing at all–that would power me through the horror once again.

We made the first twenty miles of the trip talking about the quality of Captain D’s catfish–because it is mighty tasty–and our students and the news. We talked about our girls and the pets. We filled the car with chatter, only occasionally asking a “what if” question–opening and shutting that Pandora’s box with which we live.

The last miles, when we’d left the highway and were passing dilapidated houses and abandoned buildings, were the most serious–where, for a moment, we dared to say the word “terrifying” and think the unthinkable. We went “there” thirty seconds, maybe less, before regaining our resolve.


And then, the news: hyperkeratosis, a callous-like thickening of skin. Not leukoplakia. Not cancer.  

A reprieve.


July 18, 2019

My husband and I were tired, physically and emotionally. We woke at 4:40 and drove ninety minutes to the hospital where he would soon have his “horrible” mitral valve repaired. He needed a transesophageal echo (TEE) and a heart cath–procedures he’d had five years ago, almost to the day.

We were so much less weary then.

On our way, there was not a lot of chatter in the car–but neither was there fear or sorrow. There wasn’t even, anymore, a sense of injustice. (Certainly, there is not acceptance, but there are no longer howls and raised fists.) There is, after nineteen years, not any energy for that. We listened to Christian music for the last half hour of the drive, and as we neared the hospital, I offered a wry, “At least we have unshakeable faith,” and he agreed.


The tests completed, eleven long hours later, we went to 13 Gypsies, a tapas restaurant with so few tables that Greg was immediately worried about their profitability. We weren’t celebrating, exactly, because the TEE, according to the administering physician, revealed the “worst mitral valve prolapse I’ve ever seen,” so we knew surgery was imminent. But we were encouraged because the cardiologist said the surgery would not be invasive–that Greg’s chest wouldn’t be cut open eight inches, that another huge scar wouldn’t be added to the Hickman’s “bullet marks,” his left arm’s “shark bite,” or the slit of his throat so expertly hidden in the folds of his chin. 

We were hopeful. We ate cod and corn and thought about the promise of small scars.


July 22, 2019

Because we hadn’t heard from them, I’d called the cardiothoracic surgeon’s office on Friday just before noon only to be told that, because of a snafu at the hospital, they had not seen his chart, and they certainly hadn’t scheduled his surgery–in fact, we had to come in. I had begged them to work us in quickly, jokingly offering cinnamon rolls as an incentive. 

67488594_346642889560592_5477346752929464320_nThey scheduled him for Monday. We talked some on the drive down, hopeful that he could perhaps have surgery the very next day–to spend summer “free days” in the hospital would save some of his nine precious sick days. We were hopeful that we could get this behind us quickly.

We walked into the surgeon’s office with sixteen still-warm cream-cheese-frosted cinnamon rolls. The people in the waiting room went wild; the receptionists were equally enthusiastic. Things were fine. We were fine.

When we were shown into a room, we started planning our afternoon–we were going to head right back home after the appointment. Then the surgeon came in, gave us quick handshakes and then started talking about the terribly dangerous “worst case scenario” surgery that Greg would need.

We were too blindsided to even be confused. No cancer diagnosis had stunned us more. The surgeon kept talking. Greg had mitral annulus calcification, essentially rock in his heart. The surgery would be very difficult because of the location and the fact that even the best surgeons can’t sew into rock. 

Then, the stunner: he told us that during the surgery, Greg’s heart could “break in half.”

He said those words to us.

I can’t even begin to describe what hearing those words was like, the horror.

We just looked at each other from across the room. My mind was still, shocked and silent. My body wanted to flail and thrash, to hit and to strike. 

The first doctor had lied to us. The news was so bad, he just couldn’t tell us. (This happened, too, with Greg’s leukemia diagnosis–the on-call resident could not break the news while seven-month-old Abby babbled from her stroller beside Greg’s hospital bed.)

The surgeon was confident–he could do it–but he was also ethical. He told us to get a second opinion at a tertiary center–Emory or The Cleveland Clinic. 

If Greg could die on the table, he should get to choose which table.


We staggered out into the waiting room and back to the car.

Reeling. Reeling. Reeling.

Greg realized he had left his water bottle–his favorite water bottle–so he went back to get it, giving us a few minutes apart to try to sort the landslide of emotions and fear, to stanch the anger. So much anger: the doctor had lied.

Too, hadn’t Greg endured enough??? Hadn’t we all???


One consolation of a long, trauma-filled marriage is that there is even a routine for the awful. 

We go to Red Lobster.

67374406_2421612021460993_5155584437521481728_nPhone calls filled the drive over. Canceling out the calls of relieved news just four days before, this time we painted dark gray pictures, but did not repeat the surgeon’s words–we did not repeat them even to each other. We called both our girls, who met the news with typical resilience, unemotional but loving. Then Greg’s father and sisters.

At Red Lobster, I asked for a non-perky waitress; they sat us in a corner and brought us warm biscuits, and we ate them.


We are still good at these things: breaking bread and marching forth.

We can no longer comfort each other; it would be a lie to say that we can even comfort our children. 


Early in the summer, Abby had been invited to weekend with a college friend at her home–a place she had never been. They would kayak.

Four days after the heart news, I drove Ab to Middle Georgia, through watermelon fields and big sky, to a home on Lake Blackshear. We were greeted by exuberant dogs, fed pizza, and given cold Dr. Pepper. I left her there, happily distracted by strangers. 


64304014_2569899666581030_5038455022887632896_nDays later, when Abby returned, her eyes shone. The whole family was so nice. She marveled.

She stood in her bathroom, taking off her make up, telling me, “The dad got in the pool, Mom . . . he got on the beanbag with ——‘s sister–it was a big beanbag, and he just plopped down with her. He just plopped.” 

She went on, her voice high and happy, “And the Mom, she was the nicest person. She was super chill. She never got mad. The girls would be like, we are sorry our mom is so tense, and I was like, ‘What are you even talking about?’ Mom, she was so relaxed.”

Glancing over, she stopped herself apologetically. “She was what you would have been if none of this had happened. If you hadn’t been through so much.”

It is one of the sorrows of my life–that this daughter, an infant when everything began, will never know us as we were, before all this.  When we were joyous, relaxed, and, on some days, very close to happy.

She has never known our family to be this. 

But, like ours, her spine is steel. We are warriors, all.

There must be value in that. 


It is sometimes my only prayer: Please, let there be value in that.

 

 

 

 

That Which Sustains: Art and Amazement

In May of 2018, when all was absolute bedlam–because May is always crazy for teachers, my younger daughter was graduating, and my husband was emerging from cancer #3– Abigail decided she wanted to go to prom with her Duke TIP bestie in Saluda, NC, five hundred miles away. I was game for anything that would allow me to escape my life–the further away, the better–and my younger brother knew of a place in Asheville where I could stay alone and start, again, to regroup.

It had a balcony and trees, he said with hope in his voice, knowing that trees have consistently offered me my sturdiest solace. There was a huge shower; there was good food; there was Tupelo Honey–he softly recited a coaxing litany.

He knew–as everyone knew–that I was lost and nearly dead. The third cancer had decimated us all. We could look one another in the eye and say, “I didn’t think anything could be worse than losing Stephanie Grace”–silently agreeing, disloyal though it sounded, horrific as it is even now to write, that this was worse. Our losses had already been stacked like cordwood–the third cancer set them ablaze.


We had been accustomed to powering through our various sufferings–with gallows humor (the worst: our family joke–if Greg or I die, the survivor can get married immediately after the funeral–a “weuneral”); good food (crab legs and baked goods, mainly); and mindless TV (after my mother-in-law’s heart attack, we watched Family Feud three hours a day).

But our usual formulas had failed.

Despite this, I knew that, in Asheville, I should return to my touchstones, do what the person I once had been would do. I looked on Tripadvisor for “best breakfast,” and I went where my phone told me to go. I ate a tequila donut, drank cold Dr. Pepper, made small talk. I looked at “Explore Asheville.com,” which highlighted a bread festival. I heard my late grandmother’s laughing voice saying, “That’s our kind of festival.” I went there.


Anything I write about my time at the festival is going to sound cliché–there is no way past this. But clichés exist because some human experiences are common, and that day, much of what I felt was: standing in a crowded room yet feeling alone; looking at the river and feeling left behind; envying the innocence of playing children; observing all the happy families, wondering how they stayed that way.

A certain measure of my numbness was my lack of response to the sculptures, to the bicycles in the archway to the brewery. I was in no mood to talk to the bakers about their local sourcing. I didn’t even want to pet anyone’s dog.

The word downtrodden doesn’t fit here, really–but it certainly fit me then, that day in my car. There was nothing I wanted to do, nowhere I wanted to be–I was alone in a beautiful city on a spring day, but it had nothing to offer me. It had all been too much.

Too listless to go back to the condo, I drove to a row of little art galleries, planning to wander around.

Instead, I got healed.


It happened in the third or fourth gallery of the day. There was a family shopping enthusiastically; the shopkeeper was in the back corner painting. I disinterestedly shuffled through some prints, thinking maybe I would come across something for Abigail’s dorm room.

It was on its side, a brown and white water color print–I nearly passed by it, but then, I saw the trees and lifted it up.

Bushes and trees were in line like soldiers from smallest to largest, left to right. But the painting wasn’t about them. The painting was about roots.

The small bushes had shallow roots. Just a few.

But, oh, the roots of the tallest tree.

Its roots were deeper than the tree was high. Twisted wildly, they were beautiful, deep, strong roots. There were so many, so deep in the ground.

I stood in the quiet shop, in its stillness, my tears hitting the floor, the message clear–my daughters’ roots were deep, as were mine.

If nothing else, we had roots.


In my pocket was a $100 bill a friend of my aunt sent to me months before–the accompanying note said it was good to have “pocket money” when things were hard, and I had held tightly to it.

I spent it that day, on the art that brought me back.


The thing is, when sorrow and loss swallow you wholly, you forget who you are. You forget what makes you happy, the things that make you laugh; that food is good and friends are necessary.

After the black pit of trauma and tragedy, for a long time there is a gray, emotionless space, and you are basically so relieved to have quit crying all the time that you don’t care that you are still in a void. You wander around there alone–and sometimes, on good days, you can even believe you may emerge.

You just can’t figure out how.


Art. Nature. Animals. Music. These are the things that can pull you out quickly.

(Not people with all their words–they think they have to use them–and words are not powerful enough against the void, the hopelessness. Certainly, a held hand and a touch on the cheek are helpful, but they aren’t jolting.)

A jolt helps so much. A reminder: this amazing thing is out here.

And, amazed, you find yourself somehow out there once again.


I marvel about this: the power of art and the element of the unknown it includes–think of it: W.H. Price painted some trees in 2014 and, in doing so, rescued me four years later. He will never know this.

Lately, Alexa is playing Luke Combs’ “Houston, We Got a Problem” ten times a day–because when the music swells with the first chorus, I am amazed. Every time. It’s like when those instruments come in, someone sews one more stitch into my soul, and I can take another breath.

I won’t even try to tell you about Eric Church.

It seems absurd doesn’t it? Two country singers and a painter who doesn’t even have a website got me to shore–and none of them will ever meet me or even know of their roles in my rescue.


There’s something in us that wants to thank a gift-giver–to give credit, to pay back. But art makes us unable to–because of the way it is flung into the unknown and appreciated there. That’s what makes it art–that you connect, that you share a secret with the artist. That you know what they meant–that your spirits can wink at one another.

“I see what you did there” is met with, “Thanks, I knew somebody would.”

An echo of heaven itself.


What We Still Have: Thoughts After Loss

60882335_273909896743594_6862763379958743040_nLast Friday was the last day of regular classes before finals, and in order to make an exemption list, pretty much all grading had to be done Thursday, no matter how much grading there was. So, I sat in my classroom for a few hours after school marking seventy essays about tragic lives in Ancient Greece.

Listening to Luke Combs didn’t help much, nor did Dr. Pepper. I wanted to be home. I wanted comforting hugs and mindless TV. But I told myself on the way home, “You’re not going to get those things.” (As Abby likes to put it, “We didn’t get that [life] version.”)

Even so, when I walked through the door, I still hoped. What I got was, “I was just about to call you to see about dinner.” Ab, who was busily painting a portrait in her bedroom, hollered a hello. I went immediately into the kitchen to start baking chicken tenderloins and chopping onions. I wasn’t angry or even disappointed–I was what we all are right now: resigned.


Lately, we have learned quiet resignation–the limbo between the glass half full clear-eyed cheer and the glass half empty doom-and-gloom. The past fifteen months have been a time of snail’s pace healing–it is amazing how numb we still are. Our thirteen year old cat died recently–likely of the same mouth cancer Greg had. (No, the irony is not lost.) None of us cried. All of us should have. Sophie was the sweetest, softest Gatsby cat–even if she chose never to leave her bedroom. She spent her days alone,  looking out the window at birds and hydrangeas. She was worthy of many tears–instead, the three of us sat in the den saying, “Um, we aren’t crying,” and agreeing: we aren’t healed.

That’s what we want to be, what society wants us to be–to follow the prescribed emotional healing schedule–to read a self help book titled something like Six Days to a Better You and see our traumas disappear in a poof–but, for us, it hasn’t been like that. Greg physically feels better; Abby wants to go places again; I can spend the night away from the house. These are ways we know we are moving forward.

But there is not yet joy. There is not a lot of doing for.  Your chore is still your chore, and I will do mine, thank you very much. There is not much spontaneity. The suggestion of going to a movie is vetoed forcefully–though we will venture out for Rodeos’ minichangas. And there’s not a lot of affection to be had–everyone still wants to be left alone. We’re not shaking hands at church, we’re not holding hands at dinner, and we entirely avoid being with one another in the kitchen.


But, last week in the kitchen as I chopped those onions, I wished things were different, noisier–that I had an effusive husband, that Abby was peppier, that I, at least, could make the full leap back into joy.

And then, I heard it–that still, small voice: “Someone wants this life.”

Someone else wants this life where her husband survives cancer three times–where he is a little grumpy and sometimes sad, but alive.

Someone else wants this life where the two old cars don’t have A/C but are paid for–a hot car is better than no car at all.

Someone else wants a house where everyone has their own bedrooms. Where the backyard has a drake elm so beautiful that it alone can heal you–again and again, year after year. Where the front yard boasts mimosa trees and a Japanese magnolia, with their flowers’ wonderful solace.

Someone else wants an intact family, with parents who can sit at the same table. Who can play a board game, go on a walk, watch TV together.

There is a natural tendency to look at the lack and the loss and not at the still having.

And all of us still have a few things


This is not Guideposts. I did not change immediately. When, at dinner, Greg said all he wanted was one tenderloin instead of the three I offered him, you could tell twenty-nine years have passed since I read Stormie Omartian’s The Power of a Praying Wife.

But, after these fifteen long months, I found myself grateful enough that he was in the next room. That he at least liked the potatoes. That he is still here to cook for, and I’ve stuck around to cook for him.

58375814_415783459005551_3344016680027160576_n

Small, Still Joy

56927359_2239554796124695_7525330126238646272_n (1)Three years ago yesterday, I was in the hospital room with my pregnant daughter April when she was told that her baby, Stephanie Grace, was dead. Last night, I stood in a kitchen while someone I loved talked about the baby’s death with the indifference of a stranger discussing football. I didn’t say a word. There was no chastising, no defending or explaining. I just sat and listened and thought about how much we say and how much we shouldn’t.

A year ago, I couldn’t have done that.


The past year, which was defined by Greg’s third cancer, has been a year of ceasing to strive. I no longer try to do more than live in the day. It’s not some noble carpe diem sort of thing, either. It’s the simple fact that I don’t have anything inside of me–there are no reserves left.


Prior to Greg’s first cancer, my Christianity was hopeful but passive–it’s hard to explain, but I spent a lot of time striving to follow the kind heart of the Holy Spirit, trying to listen and hear and then do.  (Like I was a much-loved pull-toy.) Just before Greg’s leukemia diagnosis, I started to realize how much a life of faith was also a choice–I will always be grateful to Pastor Herb Flanders and Jasper UMC for helping me to see that–and I started being more intentional about my faith. Striving to choose and to do.

I’d say there were twenty-five years that involved some sort of striving–then, there were two that were spent crying and wandering.

And then there’s this year–a year when I have just sat.

I don’t think I have been still and known. I picture being still and knowing as someone kneeling under a tree (or perhaps beside a river), as someone being holy and still.

I’ve been more resigned and still.

But stillness implies total lack of movement–I haven’t been going forward or backward. There’s been neither improvement nor further destruction, so, logically, I recognize this: I survived.

And, since it is true that I survived, there must also be this truth: I am no longer broken.

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This realization did not come in a warm and fuzzy “Mold Me and Make Me” moment, but rather in the bittersweet recognition that the life I had is totally over, the life I hoped for is not to be, and–to top it all off–I am someone else entirely.

I am far away from the person I once was. She was destroyed–both her positives and her negatives. I miss her joy in her humor and her effervescence and her energy because I no longer possess much of that. It is so hard to get excited about things, too hard to hope long for much.

That was once me–hoping for the future, making naive plans, relying on people wholeheartedly.

But I have watched things crash and shatter, and the more that things broke, the less sense it made to put them on the high shelf.

So, I keep the things that I treasure both simple and close.

I treasure the trees–I come home from work and go into the front yard, dragging my younger daughter’s orange quilt behind me. I settle in, lie down, and look up. The arcing brown webs of branches up against the green of the leaves and the blue sky behind them comfort me, as do the warm sun and my three cats.56917800_810429569315455_7371662810637402112_n

I treasure friendship–when a friend brings me a little gift or sends me a YouTube video, I recognize the gestures for their true affection. When I laugh with a co-worker between classes and feel that momentary happiness, I relish it.

I treasure my family. We are all still, most of the time, at arm’s length–I think we all recognize this and are sad about it, but we at least know we are now all on the same shore–so, when the girls FaceTime us, when we see April’s rabbit or Abby’s new manicure, and we can oooh and aah, I am grateful to do so. When Greg and I share a joke, when he teases me, I see the glimmer in that split-second gift.


This is nothing inspirational–I don’t have three simple steps people can follow to survive trauma. I can’t even offer any hope of lasting joy. But I can say that beyond the shattering destruction, there is a far-off stillness, and there are sometimes moments of happiness, seconds of joy.


Three years ago today, I held my granddaughter, sweet, precious Stephanie Grace.

 

The Anguish Before The Joy

52420876_2227672550882773_5761755570260410368_nTwenty-four years ago, when April was eighteen months old, we lost her. We had been her foster parents for six months when she was returned to her birth family in New York. It was horrific–Baby Jessica played out in our own driveway–a social worker picked her up at dawn, we buckled her in the carseat after giving her last desperate kisses, she protested, ripped at the straps, kicked and raged.

It was a thousand-mile, permanent good-bye.

One of my best friends said to me simply, “Just remember God loves her more than you do.”

I wanted to punch her in the face.


When we are sorrowing, what we want is for people to see us, to notice our pain. We don’t want platitudes, seemingly hollow assurances of things we already know.

We want comfort, and when I was twenty-five, there was no comfort in her words. Because, then, they were just words.


I am not a good Christian.  I stay away from church during flu season and sometimes sit during the welcoming of visitors. I haven’t listened to Stephen Furtick in over a year, and I don’t know if it’s Lisa or Donna Terkeurst who has done more with her talents than I. Were it necessary, I could not recite too many Bible verses to you through a prison wall.

In fact, sometimes, I feel like the only Bible verse I live out is Romans 7:19, “I do not do the good I want to do.”

I feel my cannots stack up.

But I recognize now–and it has taken almost half a century–that there are no cannots for Him, this God whom I serve. This God who is ever-present, who is in the bottom of the ocean, who is at the mountaintop, who never grows weary. He is always where we are.

I know that now.

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On January 18, 2016, I wrote: “I may not survive April’s pregnancy.” This was before we knew about Stephanie Grace’s anencephaly–this was when I was a fool.

In the 1,145 days since then, I have held my granddaughter’s lifeless body. I have held her ashes. I have stood alongside my husband as his body was destroyed, as he was sewn together like Frankenstein. I have seen our marriage change and our girls move and joy all but leave our house. And I am still here.

Because I was rescued.


I don’t think we really get, we really fully understand, how little our Christianity is about us and how much it is about God. His might. His power. His plan. His will.

So very little is about what we want, and we don’t understand that until we go through the hard and ripping things–places where everything is torn away. Until we get to the place of total powerlessness, when we realize that there is absolutely nothing we can do.

We say that in conversation all the time: There’s nothing I can do. We throw it around just as easily as please and thank you. Usually, however, there is still something we can do. Some small action on our part that might improve things.

But a true tragedy brings us to a place that we have never seen before, a place where we see only our inadequacy and inability. A place where we understand: there is absolutely nothing but God.

There is beauty in that moment–it is different from the beauty of salvation, although it, too is salvation. In that optionless solitude, we see open-eyed: He is our all in all.

This is not some Hallmark-channel-worthy moment where there are rainbows and unicorns dancing in a conga line–no, He becomes our all and all in our brokenness. Where we are. When we can’t even lift our own heads. When we can’t be kind or patient or loving, when we are just destroyed. it is then that He begins truly revealing Himself.


For me, at least, there wasn’t an aha moment. There was just a little light, and then a little more light, and then I could finally see again.

I was so grateful just to see.


I think that’s what time in the wasteland does–takes everything away except for the one thing that cannot be taken away: Him. His love.

It is in the miry pit where we realize that He is truly our only salvation, our rescuer–and clinging to our one rescuer is such a comfort. We were lost, alone, without hope, and yet now, He is here. And, since we are no longer alone, it doesn’t matter when or how we will be rescued. We can rest, even in the pit, and wait to be freed.


There is something to be said for our pit time–for the resultant assurance we have after our rescue, for the confidence we have in our Savior. We were rescued when we did not deserve to be! And, having been rescued once, having felt His fierce grip, we know that we can trust Him to save us again.


52809970_750402708664562_8961140433480581120_nTwenty-four years ago before Christmas, April came back to us–the story of the prodigal son played out in our driveway. She ran through the house as fast as her twenty-one-month-old legs could carry her, shrieking in joy, rubbing her belly and laughing ecstatically.


I remember both those days–the day she left and the day she returned–with tears.

There was anguish. And then: such joy.

 

 

 

 

Photos: Ginger Holmes George