Day #282 (at the Pandemic Day Spa)

Watch this on HBO

Sunday 

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirty Dishes: The Nine-Minute Principle

Written on Friday

One of the smartest things I did as a teenager was to build relationships with the parents of all of my friends. If I was at your house and you were in the shower, I wasn’t in your room listening to Billy Joel. I was in the kitchen bugging your mom. If the youth group had a pool party at your house, I certainly wasn’t in the center of the horseplay in the pool. I was in the kitchen with your parents talking about couponing and egg salad.

One of my better friend’s mother was a single parent. She was, and is, one of the calmest women I have ever known. I loved her placid demeanor and the matter of fact way that she lived her life. I spent at least an hour of my life simply reading her refrigerator door. It was covered with inspirational sayings and Dear Abby clippings that oozed self-acceptance and positivity, and just standing in that kitchen and reading that you could buy your own flowers encouraged me.

When she got married again, I was surprised, but she settled into her wifely role very smoothly. One day, several years ago, I went to visit her, and we talked about marriage. She said something that has stayed with me: “Once you figure out where the lines are drawn, it’s really very easy.


I had never thought about that, the fact that we, in our marriages, draw lines. We have them, really, in most of our relationships, even those with coworkers and grocery store clerks. I will be polite to you if you break in front of me at the copier but do not take my food from the refrigerator. I will make small talk with you while you scan my groceries, but please do not lick your fingers while touching my grocery bags.

In my marriage, two of the major lines were fairly clear–for me, no chit-chat in the morning, and certainly, no loud 6:00 AM Fox News. And my husband wanted the right-hand side of the sink empty. Clear always–for the filling of the water pitchers and dog bowls and, of course, for the washing of hands. (When the pandemic began, my younger daughter noted, “Now everybody gets to live like we have lived for 19 years .”) The empty sink was of utmost importance–and loading the dishes was my nightly responsibility.

I like loading them, generally. I like looking out the window, I like the warm water, I like the pets wandering into play with the soap bubbles and sneak licks from the forks in the dishwasher. I like the solitude–the dishwasher door takes up almost a third of our kitchen’s floor space, so if you are loading dishes at our house, you are guaranteed privacy.

And, honestly, I like the time to reflect at the end of the day. To stand there in the kitchen looking out at the Japanese magnolia in the twilight. To be alone after a day with 120 teenagers. To listen to Eric Church and feel the nostalgic hope that music brings.


But, sometimes, I was exhausted. I didn’t want to do dishes. Three from scratch meals a day meant there were always so many. It was late. I was tired. Sometimes, I just felt like they could wait.

When I felt that way, this is what I would do, this is what I thought: Surely, I love him nine minutes.

And, with that, I would set the stove timer. Always nine. Never more or less. Nine was both the minimum and the maximum.


Sometimes, as I worked for nine minutes, I thought contented thoughts–this kitchen will look good, he will be pleased, I am grateful that he is still alive to do dishes for. Sometimes, I was sullen and far from Christlike–as pastor Mark Rutland once remarked, “There’s nothing louder than an angry woman doing dishes.” I proved that maxim true. But always, I made it nine minutes.


Now, my younger daughter and I are living alone, trying to negotiate the switch from mother and child to roommates, a relationship neither of us ever wanted–or expected–to have. She is supposed to be at Yale, and instead, she has been on the sofa in our den for 266 days. She and her laptop have rarely left it–because Yale is still Yale. The insane workload was, no doubt, more bearable in the silent and beautiful Sterling Memorial Library. It was easier to watch a three-hour lecture in Maison Mathis with hot coffee and a fresh croissant. Midnight snacks of raw cookie dough and Nutella quesadillas in her dorm’s buttery (with actual people) were so much better than month eight with Mom.

It was easy to be away, and it is so hard to be here.

But she is here.


Today, I came home from work tired. Whatever ailment I have–fibromyalgia, hypertonia, just plain bad luck–I am in a horrible flare. For the past few days, I have screamed getting in my car.

Screamed.

I’ve done yoga and cried.

Hot baths with Epsom salts.

And there just hasn’t been any relief to be found. None at all. So, when I make it to Friday at 3:00, I’m so happy. So ready to come home and start the weekend.

But Friday at 3:00 at Yale is so very different from Friday at 3:00 in South Georgia. And she is at Yale.


She is helping to design experiments for the psychology department at Yale. She is working in the lab there. She is writing papers and doing important work, but it sometimes feels like she is just hanging out in our den.

I want to tell her the minutiae of the day. I want to send her to Walgreen’s, ask her to do extra chores.

Almost daily, I have to remind myself that, right now, there is an Ivy League institution meeting at my kitchen table. (Certainly, some of the lectures I have overheard have been mind-blowing. Brilliant. I’ve listened to class discussions where I have barely comprehended a sentence. She says things to these people, her peers, and I marvel at who she is when she is with them and who they are now, and who they all will be.)

Yes, there are times when I am able to say, “That might be the future President of the United States who is saying hello to my dog on Zoom.”

There are days when I can understand that she has papers due, question sets, and quizzes.

But there are other days, like today, when I don’t want to do anything and so much needs to be done.


Tonight, I wanted her to take out the trash. I wanted her to sweep. I wanted her to dump the rags, and I certainly wanted her to unload the dishes.

I didn’t want to bend. It hurt. I hurt. But my daughter had work to do on this, the last day of classes. She had lots of it–she would, I knew, see 2:00 AM again.

I thought about the nine-minute principle, about how it applied to her.. And I went into the kitchen, turned on “Holy, Holy, Holy” and began to unload the dishwasher–because, really, you can do almost anything when the music is right.


Sometimes, the people we love need big things–chunks of money and time and work that are hard to give, that require truly gutting sacrifice. Ironically, these things be easier to give than the small continual tasks that seem so very burdensome.

Letting the dog in; retrieving a forgotten towel; refilling a glass of chocolate milk; fetching a bookbag from the car–these tiny acts of grace are ultimately redemptive signals of grace, reminders of love. They are so much more than simple minutes.

Thankful for the Good (I wouldn’t even tell me what would happen to me)

For almost twenty years, I have had a Mary Engelbreit calendar hanging in the same place in my kitchen. Tonight, as I stood washing dishes, I looked up and saw her succinct command: Give thanks.

And I thought about the fact that I do give thanks.

I know, I know, there are those of you who call me Eeyore, who wish I were a little peppier and forced some oomph into the monotone, but, in general, the Lord and I know I’m grateful.

And as I stood at the kitchen sink tonight, I thought about last Thanksgiving, when my father had been dead only a month, and my husband was still my husband–and recovering from his second heart surgery in 55 days. He was in our house, in his recliner, Andy Griffith and Barney Fife his constant companions.

And tonight, for a just second at the sink, I cracked open a door. I let myself think about how much my world has changed since last Thanksgiving.


It is the most astonishing thing–to be without your husband, to have declared null the words you spoke twenty-nine years ago on an August day, to negate them, to take every one back, especially when, for so long, you clung solely to those words. You meant them.

To have them taken away: to have your words taken away when words are everything . . . To watch them disappear and–after months, years, of crying–say, “That is fine with me,” to stand and watch yet another chasm open, knowing that if every cliff gives way, you will, in fact, survive–is a Red Sea moment.

That seems an overstatement—hyperbolic drama. A simple divorce does not compare to the parting of the Red Sea and the sparing of the Israelites. Who must I think I am?


I stood in church on Sunday night–Sunday nights in South Georgia are when the “real” worshipers attend (for those who don’t know me, the sarcasm oozes), when the facades fall off, when the congregation gets loud–and some of the adults were truly free in Jesus that night. They were, some would say, losing their minds.

And, in the back of the church, I noticed some teenagers laughing. Eyebrows raised, hands over their mouths, they whispered to one another, grinning at the fools.

And, for a minute, I admired their innocence, their complete lack of understanding of the reality that, truly, God is the only thing that matters; Jesus is the only thing that gets some of us through, that grace and mercy are truly sometimes our souls’ only sustenance.

There was so much that they had yet to endure, and I loved that.


I have a casual friend who is a sister in loss. I have never been to her home. I do not know her phone number. I cannot tell you what kind of car she drives, but we know loss, and we are sisters in faith–our bond is beyond texting and pool parties. 

When we do see one another, we tighten the knots.


We bumped into each other one day in a Walmart parking lot. One of us, I can’t remember who, had recently celebrated an anniversary, had looked at a picture of her young, naive self, hopeful on her long-ago wedding day–and posted a picture on Facebook.

We stood between shopping carts talking about that picture, about the days when we hoped for bright futures, when we thought that they were assured. And my friend looked at me and said, “You almost want to say, ‘Don’t do it.'”

You look back at the young girl you were, at all that was ahead of her, and you want to say, “Don’t walk. Don’t take that step or that one. Don’t move ahead. Because the path is one of pain and sorrow. The losses are stacked like cordwood.

But on our wedding days, so full of joy, most of us are ignorant of the sorrows to come. Like the teenagers in the church, there is so much we do not know.

On our wedding days, we anticipate unity and joy—the relational richness of Christ and The Church. 

But within marriage, we also learn this: the losses in our lives reveal to us the character of God. Behind each loss, there is an assurance of His presence. He is present in our horrors.


In the loss of my granddaughter Stephanie Grace, I have seen the hand of God more mightily than I have in any area in my life. When I stood in that hospital room and held that lifeless baby, I could not have known that her story would reach–literally–throughout the world.

We cannot see the heavenly scope of our loss; we cannot know the extent of what God has planned when our treasures are taken from us. But when much is taken, when you lose babies and jobs and houses and money and health, when it is all discarded–that is when you know that there is only God. 

There is only God. 


He is our only hope, and even as a cleansed sinner, as someone who does MUCH wrong, I can say that He is faithful, that He has restored much in my life, that He has blessed me abundantly, through every loss that I have endured. 

So, even in the loss of my marriage, in this stripping away, I trust in this: He is there.


I talk about cordwood a lot in this blog because that is how I see my losses. Stacked, heaped, piled high. 

An elderly reader who knew me in my childhood once messaged me, saying, “Even from infancy, you have not had it easy.” 

I cried that day because I had never considered it that way. I see myself as having endured much from first grade on, yes. But I had never thought: Even as an infant, even as a toddler, I was enduring. Brain surgery. Leg braces. Months-long pneumonia. 

Even as a small child, I was suffering.


My brain tells me to count up the suffering, to count up the loss, to evaluate and contemplate and think about all that I do not have. 

And I am without much. 

I rearrange the things I have lost, these logs of heavy sorrows. I pitch a fit and try to throw them. Behind them, all I find is God. 

All I find is God. 


Five years ago, Thanksgiving meant dinner at my father’s. With my husband and my daughters and twenty other people. This year, there is no one. This year, a neighbor is making me a plate. 

In the natural, it makes no sense.


As recently as seven years ago, I would have wanted to make this make sense.

But tremendous, all-engulfing loss makes it impossible to have anything other than God. Past a certain point, there is no comfort but the assurance of God’s presence and the fact that He will do good.

Lose enough, and it becomes easy to live in the day, to do that which is set before you–and on good days, you can even work with all your might. Endure enough, and it becomes twisted into your core that tomorrow is not promised, that all is dross.

You take out your scales–you weigh everything while simultaneously letting so many things go.

And it’s not trusting the process; it’s not time heals all wounds, it’s not relentless forward progress. Rather, it is simply this: You have seen everything stripped away, and you have seen what remains.

He remains. 

He is faithful through our pain, through our loss, through all our suffering.


The 21-year-old bride who stood in that church on that August day 29 years ago would, I know, be stunned to learn she’d spent two decades consumed by caregiving–and she never homeschooled–but her husband did. She would find it amazing that she was, in fact, the primary breadwinner twice. She’d be dumbfounded that she lived within a mile of her childhood home, taught for the arch-rival high school, had only one birth child–and only adopted one. The yoga would be hilarious to her. The pets, oh, what a surprise they would be.

I wouldn’t tell her about the losses. I couldn’t do that to her. I realize that, sitting here now, staring into the darkness of my yard: in the Walmart parking lot that day, my friend and I agreed: we would tell the young bride to run.

We wouldn’t tell her what would happen.

That is stunning: I wouldn’t even tell myself what would happen to me. I wouldn’t recite the litany of the things that I was going to lose. I would let myself be ignorant.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose this man.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your father.

I could not say to myself: You are going to lose your granddaughter.

But I could grab that bride’s hands, clench them tight, look her in the eyes, and say, “God is going to sustain you in the days to come; He is going to be faithful, and you will stand strong in Him.”

There is so much pain in this confidence, but there is also so much confidence. Beneath the cordwood, there is this bedrock: Good will come. 

And for that (and sometimes that alone), I will always give thanks.

Photos by Magen Lindstrom

1.494 Million Thoughts: Our Brains and the (Unending) Pandemic

Last week, I was standing in the hall at the high school, Thursday Exhausted, the type of tired teachers understand, feeling like a failure.

It had been a ledger day–everything felt tallied. I’d had some successes with virtual classes–Google Meet, evidently aware that worldwide morale was slipping, had released new backgrounds. Our Chromebook screens were joyous rainbows: one student was in a bed of roses; another surrounded by thundering horses; several were oceanside. It was a touch of absurdity, a smidgen of joy. A few students were eating candy–contactlessly delivered on a sanitized desk–and we all laughed, hard, when a football player turned red and started sweating because his atomic fireball was particularly atomic. It felt like a corner of normal.

But, always, during this pandemic, there is the reminder that nothing is normal–that normal is, for now away, having moved into the future, the smoke of a promise and a hope.

It is not something we now hold.



Sometimes, I miss it so. I miss college-ruled paper and sloppy penmanship and even bubble-heart dotted letters written in pink neon pen. I miss stacks of alphabetized papers carefully clipped together by a student helper whose hand-washing habits were of no concern to me. I miss dividing my weekends by sets of papers graded: three before the football game, two after church.

I miss the football game and the church.

My world is now isolated, so shrunken–it is my daughter, my pets, two friends . . . and my students. My COVID-avoidance world right now, truly, does not even include my coworkers. (If we infect one another, the dominos will certainly fall.)

My world is so small.


The halls had cleared, for there is no lingering now, and I was happy to spy a friend, a sweet coworker, the kind of woman I sometimes wish to be. It was homecoming week, and her costume was perfect–crisp, bright and joyful. Her hair and makeup, even at the day’s end, were both magazine-ready. (Me? I was wearing a black tee shirt that read, “Emotionally unavailable until 2021.”)

After catching up on a mutual student, I said I felt like I had done more wrong than right that day–it seems mistakes are easy, success is so hard.

She looked at me with kindness. And she reminded me, “That’s everyone right now.”


I think the hardest thing–the absolute hardest thing-about this pandemic is the mental living that we must all do right now

It’s a kind of hard that nothing in my life has ever been.

In this sterile, hugless world, where our backs are not patted, our hair is not tousled, where our hands are unshaken, unheld, we are–all of us–aware of our minds like never before. Because our brains are bored (so the scientists say) and absent of our usual distractions (restaurants, outings), our thoughts are unrelenting, their staccato pounding constant. Our brains dissect every action and analyze every word spoken. And, oh, how they criticize us.


And your brain will gaslight you. Your brain will say it is just you.


Our brains are bullies, liars, and cynics. They are programmed to remember the bad more quickly than the good. And they never stop: The latest studies indicate that we think at least 6,000 a day.

3,000 thoughts at work.

With 97 teenagers.

During a pandemic.

You would think that every teacher could be kind to herself. That no teacher would need to be reminded: it’s not just you.


A wise friend–who is not in education–said yesterday, “Step back and see the forest.”

Step back and see the forest.


It is the most confounding of conundrums. We are in a pandemic that we cannot quit thinking about, but we simultaneously never consider the fact that we are in a pandemic.

Somehow, the pandemic everyone else is enduring is–mentally–an entity separate from us. It is 9/11 massive, and our worlds are church-bulletin small.

Because of this dichotomy, we want our own own worlds to be unaffected by it, striving to maintain pre-pandemic standards for ourselves, to have our papers graded, our beds made, our hair done, and our meals homemade.

We demand so much from ourselves, despite the pandemic.


Everyone in the world is emotionally low right now. But still, our inner critics demand that we, ourselves, be unlike them. That we get more done, that we remain unchanged in our performance. At work. At home. As friends. As spouses. As parents.

It’s as if we think there will be a medal ceremony at the end of this, and we are determined to reach the highest podium, medalists all.

There will be prizes our brains insist, refusing to think of dead and hospitalized friends, dismissing mask mandates, ignoring CDC holiday-planning advice, rejecting all things Covid. Prizes.


Last night, for only the second or third time since March, I crawled into bed with my twenty-year-old daughter. I had to touch a person. The dogs piled atop us, reveling in the novelty. We lay in the dark, Jennifer Hudson’s voice filling the room, a certain comfort, a firm declaration.

There are no prizes. But there is this.

That, we recognize.

Let’s Stop Layering Relationships: Thoughts on My Father’s Death by Suicide

A year ago today, on a Wednesday morning, my father took his own life. And everyone was shocked and had questions. One of the most pressing: when I last saw him. The answer to that was the previous Friday. So, within the week.


It was a normal visit. We sat on the overstuffed sofas in the living room, everyone in their usual spots–Greg and I on the loveseat, my stepmother on the sofa, my father in his chair. We talked about my daughters, his granddaughters, their successes. We discussed Greg’s health and the headaches associated with the closure of our family’s newspaper and Dad’s inability to sleep. 

We made small talk in a group for about an hour. Then, Greg and I left.


My dad and I always had a quick moment alone at the end of our visits. My stepmother generally stayed inside while he walked us to the car. Greg would get in the passenger seat, and I would stand out side the car talking with my father as he pulled pine straw from the windshield well and pried gravel from my tires with a car key or credit card. I would give him a big hug, always, and I would usually say I was grateful for something. Then, I would get in the car, roll down the window, and he would stay there, stopped over, his hands on the door frame, talking just a little more. There would be an, “I love you,” sometimes a, “I sure am proud of you,” and that would be that.


When my father died, I was 49 years old, and, as an adult, I had never been out for a meal alone with him. Never dropped by to play a game of Scrabble. Never even walked around the block together. Sure, whenever I called Dad, we had rambling phone calls full of happy laughter. Usually, when I hung up, I would remark, “My dad won’t call, but he certainly wants to talk.”

Still, even these phone conversations were usually held in the presence of others. Kids walking in and out of the kitchen, a spouse beside one of us on the sofa, chiming in from time to time.

And there’s not anything wrong with that.


This is not stone-throwing. It’s not a trip back in time to say, “If I could just remedy this wrong, everything would be better.” But it is a blunt recognition: I had not spent even an hour alone with my father in decades.

Society isn’t set up that way.

That’s not something we think about, is it? We are born into families–sometimes already crowded with siblings. They are always around. We don’t get our parents alone when we are young unless they are intentional about it. Wednesdays, little Johnny goes with Mom to the grocery store and to get ice cream while Susie and Dad watch baseball and eat PB&J at home. Maybe there is an occasional fishing trip, a morning in the deer stand. There may be snatches of time, but there are not whole chunks. There is family time, together, which is laudable, but there needs to be consistent solitary parent-child time as well.

I don’t mean the kind of one-on-one time that you post on Instagram for all your friends to see. A once-a-year Daddy-daughter date night with flowers and makeup and hairdos is not what I am talking about. I am talking about relationship building that says, “I know who you are and I value you apart from your siblings. Apart from your spouse. Apart from your mother or father. I simply value you.”


As children, my brothers and I had a bit of that with Dad. One of us just had to sneak into the kitchen on a night he worked late, and we could sit with him while he ate his supper. (Truly, sometimes, children are not trying to avoid bed so much as they are trying to get a little bit of one-on-one time with Mom or Dad.) Sometimes, if we were lucky, we could sneak into the den and watch a little bit of TV sitting on the chipped leather footstool. We could listen to him laugh at SNL or Carson.

But that was all there was. Tiny little tidbits.


A few days after my father died, I realized American society was like this–my friends don’t see their parents alone, either. Always, there are children, spouses, others.

And if we say to these others, “I want to go see my father alone. Honey, you and the kids stay home,” we may seem rude. There may be tears from our children, who want Grandpa Time. And  certainly, no one wants to say, “Mom, let’s go get coffee and leave Dad at the house.”

We can’t be frank. We choose gentility.


I’m here to say we shouldn’t.


A sister-in-law’s coworker once said, “I love, love, love, my son’s wife. But I sure wish I could see my boy alone.”

That mother couldn’t say that to her son. Because it of how it might seem. Because his new, young wife, might have her heart broken. But, surely, it is an equal heartbreak not to have your adult child to yourself, ever.


My father and I had a moment once. I think we were locked out at my grandparents’ house. Maybe we had met for me to run in and pick up something–I really don’t know. We were on the wide red brick porch beneath the four towering white columns, and he said, “The day you were born . . . I had just never known joy like that, you know? . . .Pure joy.”

His eyes were kind. His smile broad.

(I am almost sure he was picking at pine straw.)

That was it: one moment alone in 25 years. Yes, it was beautiful, and I have it.

It is a place that I can go.

But if your father is alive, you can go to breakfast tomorrow alone with him. You can leave your spouse and your children for two hours. Your dad can leave your mom at home watching Netflix and petting the cat. The deer stand (and even the football game) can wait.

And the two of you can sit Cracker Barrel eating biscuits with butter and blackberry jam. You can drink black coffee.

You can look, together, out the window at the blue sky.

 

 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

Words in a Room

I have been praying for weeks for a dear friend, one of the touchstones of my life. She is ill and weak.

And I am weak in ways I do not wish to be.

We are worn down by this pandemic, by the isolation, by the loss of all our props and distractions, all our coping mechanisms from nachos at the Mexican restaurant to picnics with extended family, gone. And so we are left, where we are told it is best, alone in our homes, with brains that are bored.

Between the loss of my father and the loss of my marriage, my disappointed heart can’t abide my brain.

All my brain does is throw out suggestions like a croupier tossing cards in a casino: we should go to a museum. No brain, we can’t. We could go to Skipper’s Fish Camp. No brain, we can’t. We could go and visit Aunt Harriette. No brain, we can’t.

We can’t go anywhere, especially now, when school is back in session, and I have at least 95 close-ish contacts daily. If I go to the YMCA, do I risk exposing patrons to the student’s germs? If I go to the YMCA, do I risk exposing children to the patrons germs? Everything is fraught.

And it seems like, too, my prayers are fraught. I know, of course, after all that I have been through, to keep praying. But tonight, as I sat on my bed, praying for my friend, I had this thought: It’s just words in a room.

And there’s no denying that, is there? All prayer is, really, is words in a room, you, talking to God. You, imploring and beseeching and thanking and praising and releasing. You remembering your friends, asking for help for your family, telling your Father what you need, and even what you just want.

You, talking in a room.

In the face of that simplicity, of the nothing that “room talking” sometimes seems to be, I am so grateful for the thousands of things I see outside of that room, things that confirm God’s presence and provision.

  • I was on a walk and prayed to find a rubber band; within one minute, a former student, home from Michigan, stopped her car to say hi–her gearshift covered in ponytail holders.
  • I noticed that I had lost a gold earring my grandmother had given me, and I prayed desperately to find it–when I returned home, it was in the driveway gleaming amid the pine straw.
  • At 3:30 one day, I thought that chicken tetrazzini would be good; hours later, a friend making chicken tetrazzini felt an overwhelming urge to bring me some.
  • We have been given so much: a dishwasher, a car, money for medical bills, and received scores of perfectly timed notes and phone calls and texts.

On the way home from a particularly terrifying doctor’s appointment last year, I found myself starting to really panic. Greg could die, have a stroke on the table. So much could go so wrong. And then, the clarifying thought: You are riding in a car someone gave you.

You can’t worry in a free car.

Or loading a free dishwasher.

Or eating chicken tetrazzini delivered after dark.

 

I’m a Writer, Finally

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

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


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

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

(Can I confess that I read etymologies?)

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

Everything was quantified and orderly, and I liked that.


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

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

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


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

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

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

This was going to be a blog about babies.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Ours is still art.


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

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

There is something in me that cannot throw words away.

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


Being a patient means needing a caregiver.

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

It means watching one another suffer, daily.

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

Often it is simply, endlessly painful.

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

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

And so you “live” in the loop.


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


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

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

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

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

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

I believe we both wanted to keep our words true.


I can’t type a but.

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

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

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

She told me I still have hope.

Even when talking to lawyers, I have hope.

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

Hope refuses to be cast aside.


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

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

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


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

He said it was time.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

In the day of my distress, He answered me.

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

And, so, here still, I swim.

107814143_782913412467215_4475237409146704096_n

Planting Roses in the Dark

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

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


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


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

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


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

She knew how rich she was.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

106556672_275754077027797_1134743659848164161_n


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

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

I explained.

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

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

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

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You Could Not Have the Cat

You don’t have to have the cat.

(You nearly didn’t have the cat.)

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

generally.

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

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

He hissed. Spit. Even fought off a dog.

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

(Part peace offering. Part bribe.)

The cat is in your house.

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

Scatters his catnipped mice like calico acorns

Breaks antique china plates, shattering their faded violets.

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

Remember, always, this–

You don’t have to have the cat,

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

When understanding cannot–

will not–

is not ever to–

be found.