Sunday, December 6, 2009

Birthday Girl Grown Up

Yesterday was a day of firsts.

Until yesterday, I had never woken up in Nashville and went for a run around the Grand Old Opry. I’d never watched my Gazelle run in a national cross country event and I’d never been so happy for my Sweetness, Matthew, whose writing was on display back in Columbia.

Until yesterday, I’d never turned 38. And until yesterday, I had never celebrated my birthday without my mom.

Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the “first” holiday season without mom. In my family, the holiday season has never just included Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. It is also our birthday season. I was born on December 5, 1971 and went home from the hospital three days later – on December 8th, my mom’s birthday.

As an adult, I never got tired of hearing the story about the night my mother went into labor with me. She had her first hint of labor in the evening, went to the hospital around 9 and I was born at 1:09. After we made it through my teenage years, she joked that raising me was almost as easy as giving birth to me.

The truth is that raising me was anything but easy.

At 26, my mom celebrated her birthday on a bitter cold day taking her second child home from the hospital. She never said so, but it must have been bittersweet. It was my grandpa who carried me into the house – his house. Divorced, pregnant and alone, my mother was forced to humble herself and had moved in with my grandparents. Despite my grandfather’s initial disappointment with her pregnancy, mom said my grandpa was smitten with me from the first moment he saw me. It was a feeling that would soon be mutual. My grandpa was my first hero.

In spite of all these less-than-ideal circumstances, mom always said I was the best birthday gift she ever received.

Eventually we moved out on our own and life went on. But as the years passed and things changed, one thing remained consistent – we always celebrated our birthdays together. As an adult, I came to realize that these days were especially meaningful because they brought a quiet celebration of life. I believe my mom celebrated my life – my happiness, my family and my faith – that brought her overwhelming joy and an incredible sense of accomplishment. I celebrated mom’s life as a symbol of selfless dedication and tireless love. She gave birth to me, raised me alone and later was willing to share me with my dad. Her conquering strength in the midst of her fear reminds me that she overcame difficult challenges that I’ve never had to even imagine.

Although her body left her weak, my mom was a pillar of strength and love. It’s her legacy, one that lives in me, my children and hopefully all who knew my mother. I felt my mother’s joy in yesterday’s events. I thought of her as I felt the warmth of the sun on my face as Tom and I were running. I took joy knowing she would be so happy Prince Charming and I were enjoying the promise of the new day together. I yelled extra loud as my Gazelle ran a personal best, knowing her Grandma was willing her to the finish line from heaven. And I thanked God and talked to my Sweetness about accomplishments that don’t come easy, making their success all the sweeter.

Today I was reminded that mom’s life may have come to an end but the beauty she left behind is magnificent. It was a great day filled with birthday wishes and the making of new memories.

As we grow older, we often do or say things that cause us to realize we are turning into our parents. According to this letter I received yesterday, I guess that’s true for me too. And on my first birthday without my mom, it brings me happiness and peace.

Happy Birthday! I hope that today is wonderful and a real joy. I know it won’t be the same without Grandma here, but like you said, it’s part of our new routine and so it will get easier.

But today, without Grandma, I want you to know you make things easier. My Grandma is gone yes, but you are almost a “spitting image.” No, you don’t make every church dinner, wash my grapes separately or wash my tennis shoes every time I go outside. But those are grandma things that I would only ever expect my Grandma Vi to do. But in other ways I see her, through you. When I tell you I got an A on a test and you yell for joy and look at me like I’m the prettiest star in the sky. That is Grandma through and through. When I’m sick and you call every thirty minutes to make sure I’m drinking liquids, I can only help but smile.

You care for your church just like Grandma, always trying to make a difference in some one else’s life. You seem to be the one all of your friends go to when they are experiencing something tough or difficult and need advice, love, and the promise of a prayer. I’m pretty sure that was Grandma too, because that phone was ALWAYS ringing!!

You are loving, kind and gentle. I love you and I know you love me more than words can describe. You are my role model, the one I wish to follow. Thank you. Because you are beautiful in every way.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heart of America Marathon Memories

After running the Heart of America Marathon, I’ve decided running marathons is similar to raising children; each one is complete with its own unique challenges.

This was my third marathon. The first one I ran in Columbus, Ohio in 2007 with complete euphoria. Every mile was this surreal, amazing experience. I remember the sight of the finish line taking my breath away. It was unlike any other experience of my life. I was a marathoner and was completely amazed that God helped me accomplish something I thought was impossible.

A year later, I went back to Columbus to run the same marathon – only this time I went with a goal in mind. Funny how only a year before I was more than content just to finish the race. But this time I was going to break the four-hour mark. Months and months of training, which included countless speed workouts and long runs, had all been geared for breaking four hours. When I crossed the finish line at 3:57, it was a different kind of satisfaction. I had come to do business and I had done it well. While I had run the same marathon course, these marathons were completely different.

With these marathons under my belt, I began considering a marathon for 2009. A part of me thought I might just take a pass this year. The year had been filled with uncertainty. I was learning to live without my mom’s love and encouragement while Tom hurt his knee and running our fall marathon schedule looked doubtful. So when my “friend” and training partner, Jaira Grathwohl, announced we were going to run the Heart of America Marathon on Labor Day, I laughed quietly. I was ready to use the pass card, but deep inside found myself intrigued with the idea. Me, run Heart of America?

My first and probably most enjoyable marathon memories have been made at this marathon. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the fourth oldest marathon in the country and is considered the most difficult non-mountainous course in the country. Yes, in the country! Watching it year after year, I have learned to deeply respect the course and anyone who conquers it.

My first memory of Heart was in 1995. It was the first year Tom and I were married and it seemed like he spent most of that year running. He had run his first marathon in 1994, just before we got married. With only one long run – of 16 miles – he and his buddy Darrin Young set off to see the streets of Chicago. I was so ignorantly proud at mile 8 when they were way ahead of their planned pace. By the time they crossed the finish line some 25 minutes behind their goal, I was worried sick. But the lessons were learned. Tom trained hard and was ready for his first Heart of America marathon.

Tom finished second that year – his highest and fastest (3:02) finish to date. What a day that was! Darrin, our buddy Max Lewis, and I chased Tom over every mile of that course and we couldn’t have had a better time watching it all unfold. From that moment, it was clear to me that running a marathon is like writing a wonderful story – some with triumphant victorious endings, others with tragic defeat, each with a fair amount of pain and suffering.

Since that first HOA experience, Tom has run it three more times and chasing runners along the course has become an annual experience. As I too have become more and more interested in running and know more and more people running it, this race became all the more exciting.

Two years ago I ran 13 miles of this course for a training run. Last year I ran 20 of it. This year, I decided I would conquer my fear and run it all.

But this race was difficult for reasons other than the three H’s: hills, heat and humidity. I dedicated the run to my mom and wanted to run this in honor of her. I also wanted to honor her in the way I ran it. Like I’ve done the past two years, I asked 26 people to take a mile of the race and pray over it. I also asked them to pray for someone battling cancer. In my mind, this was a way for my mom’s legacy of love to live on – and I was keeping it alive.

Race Day

By race morning, I was already overwhelmingly appreciative of the well wishes I’d received in the mail and via email and was bursting at the seams with the Monster Cookies that had been left on my porch to help with carb loading.

We got to the start of the race at 5:25 – already 10 minutes late to meet our massage therapist who had graciously agreed to give us a pre-race muscle rub. He was there waiting for us and we took care of business. Then like clockwork, Jordan Alexander and John (and Sarah) Yonker surprised us. Jordan and John ran the Columbus marathon with us last year and it only seemed fitting that they be a part of this experience too. Before we head to the starting line, Tom led a bunch of us in prayer, including Kathy Lee and Phil Schaefer. He thanked God for healthy bodies and asked Him to keep our feet moving swiftly. I was really proud of his bold display of faith and his eloquent prayer – especially with a minister on each side of him!

I lined up with Jaira and Kathy for the 26 mile jaunt. I’ve ran so many miles with these two that I found some comfort just being beside them. There in the dark and the 100% humidity, we all took off. The first few miles were faster than I thought I should be running, but I was feeling fine and wanted to experience it with them – at least for a while. My goal for this race was clear – to find the joy in the journey. Running with them for the first 12 miles gave me that joy. Leslie Bayer, Maria McMahon and Darrin, his wife Melanie and Khristina Adams also met me at mile 6 – gel and Propel from my people! I was beginning to feel like a rock star.

As the miles clicked off, so did my prayers. I had my list of the 26 people or groups of people I was praying for and praying for them helped me keep my focus off of myself. I had written the names on the back of a picture of my mother. I wanted to be able to see her smiling face and I wanted something tangible to represent her presence with me.

At the bottom of Easley Hill (a 200-foot, ¾-mile climb), I told Kathy and Jaira to go on. There, just as planned, was the second of my sag crews – Michele and Alberto Diaz-Arias. They had my gel and special electrolyte drink ready and Alberto headed up the hill with me. I took my gel and tried to drink and relax my breathing. Alberto was encouraging and told me there was no shame in walking up the hill. His words made me feel better as I watched Kathy and Jaira quickly fade out of my sight.

Madison was about two-thirds the way up the hill and I was thrilled to see her. She walked with me for a bit and then she and Melanie ran with me for a bit. I saw Matthew through there too and he always makes me smile.

Content to run by myself for a while, I pulled out my iPod and hit random play. The first song was “Beautiful Day” and I thought that was appropriate. Then Mariah Carey’s, Bye Bye started to play. This was one of two “sad” songs on the entire playlist. Instead of digging in my race belt pack to change the song, I decided to suck it up and try not to get emotional. About that time, the car load of my supporters pulls up beside me with more encouragement. As they drive away, Madison yells out the window, “That’s my mom.” The combination of emotions overwhelmed me and I began to weep. Crying and running isn’t a good combination. It was only mile 14. I knew I needed to preserve my energy so I was able to suck it up. Ironically, the next song was “Whip It” and it helped me charge up the hill.

When I got to the top, I was surprised to find Karen Sutterer, Maria and Leslie. Armed with everything I might need, Karen and Maria jumped in beside me. Leslie, getting very pregnant, was the official “mother” of the race. Judging by her performance, she’s going to be a great mom.

It’s hard to express how I felt at that moment, knowing that those two were there to “carry” me home. Home was a long way off yet – 10.2 miles to go. They came completely selflessly; not for personal glory or gain, just to help me accomplish my goal. Whatever I needed, they supplied it. Water, propel, an opened gel, or the invaluable words of encouragement – they had it all. They were amazing.

Before I knew it we were at Pierpont, and 18 miles were in the books. We walked up a portion of the hill by Rock Bridge State Park, which must have helped for the long incline to Rock Bridge Elementary. I was so excited when we rounded the corner and to my surprise, there was the school. And there in the parking lot to cheer me on were our friends Gary and Holly Wipfler. Seeing them and getting onto Providence gave me a renewed confidence that I was going to finish.

Despite some cramping in my left foot, I really felt pretty good going down Providence. I was praying for Judi – thanking God for the monster cookies she left on my porch – and then for Michelle Cuervo, one of my very first running partners. Then at mile 23 there were four spectators near the new Hy-Vee – and they were all there for me! John and Sarah Yonker (whose prayer mile was 23) and Sherry Southworth and Debbie Schluckebier (who had Mile 1) met me with cold water and towels and lots of smiles and love.

Just before heading up Providence to Stadium, Madison jumped in to get me to the finish line. We had planned for her to do so and I knew there was nothing that was going to keep me from finishing now. She, like Maria and Karen, was so encouraging and positive and I got strength from having her alongside. Someday, we’ll do the full 26 miles together. Until then, this was incredible. This is part of our legacy and it fills me with joy.

Once we turned onto College Boulevard, I felt a huge relief. “You made it to mile 25 for Bobby,” Madison said. Bobby Hall was my inspiration for this race. He is a runner, who would have given anything to be out there running. Instead he is battling cancer. I asked him to pray for me on Mile 25. He agreed to do so and I agreed to run mile 25 for him. I kept thinking that if he can make it through surgeries and treatments, then I can make it to the end.

About that time I saw Joe Greaves and my friends from Missouri Cancer (Denise Swenson, Gaye and Mark Vellek) and I couldn’t help but high-five them all. It seems like they have been there every step of the way this past year and there they were again- holding me up and making me strong.

“You can’t help but feel the love,” Karen said as we left them to head for the finish. She was right, it was undeniable.

A few blocks ahead I saw Max Lewis – the embodiment of love. Then we turned on Broadway and climbed the last incline to finally see the finish line in the distance. “It still seems so far away,” I told my girls. Maria encouraged me to run faster and get there quicker and so I tried. As we got closer, Karen kept getting more and more excited. She told me she had goose bumps. Her enthusiasm was contagious.

As the three of them pulled off to the side and I continued to the finish line, it seemed like the crowd started roaring my name and willing me to the finish. I remember thinking that I wanted to somehow capture the picture in my brain so I could come back to it later and see who was there. I saw Matthew’s smiling face and gave him a high-five on the way to the finish line.

From there, I was surrounded with other runners, spectators and friends all sharing in the moment. About that time, a nurse from Boone Hospital who had helped take care of my mother during the day of the biopsy – the last day Mom was able to speak to me – passed by. Seeing her made me weep, mostly tears of joy. The “coincidence” in the midst of all the excitement was simply Mom’s reminder to me that she too was right there celebrating.

Upon reflecting on the experience, I’ve realized Mom wasn’t just celebrating the physical accomplishment of the marathon. I’m convinced she was celebrating the love that was shown all because of this marathon. From those who prayed, sent cards or messages, called and encouraged to those who showed up on the course with whatever I needed, I was covered in love.

It turns out running this marathon wasn’t as much about pushing my body as it was opening up my mind. And when I did, what I realized is just how lucky I really am. Sure, life without Mom is difficult. But life without each of you would be unbearable.

On September 7, 2009, the joy was in the journey. Thanks for sharing it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Marathon for Mom

“I believe God made me for a purpose. …And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

I remember the evening well. It was the Monday after Christmas, Dec. 27th. Mom had been in the hospital since her stroke on the morning of December 19. We knew she had cancer and we knew we had to be aggressive in trying to find the best way to treat it. Together, as a family, we had decided five days earlier to discontinue the blood thinners that she was taking in order to stabilize her for a biopsy. Although Mom steadily declined and became more and more uncomfortable during the passing five days, she was able to get the biopsy on this morning. What a relief.

When my step-father, Wayne, arrived at the hospital late in the afternoon, without hesitation I put on shorts and a long-sleeve T-shirt and went to take advantage of the unusually warm winter day. I needed the fresh air. I needed to just go – to get out of those walls that seem to be closing in on me. And I (and she) needed him to care for her, just for a few minutes.

I remember the sunset. I remember the overwhelming sense of worry. Why was she in so much pain? What would the biopsy show? Would the doctor be right… would she probably only survive 4-9 months? What was happening at the hospital while I was running? Was she OK? Did she need me? I need to get back, NOW.

When I got back to her hospital room, she and Wayne were having difficulty communicating. She was in so much pain that talking loud enough for him to hear her was nearly impossible. They were frustrated – at each other and the reality that was sinking in. Mom was sick, really sick and none of us could deny it. Wayne left shortly after and she and I were left in the quiet. She asked me about my run and I told her about the beautiful weather and how thankful I was to get to take advantage of it. She smiled and took pleasure with me.

I began running in 2000 and lost 45 pounds that year. During 2008, Mom had been faithful in her exercise and careful with her diet. She had learned to appreciate a whole new lifestyle of fitness and wellness and daily we would encourage one another. I’m not sure how much weight she lost all together, probably around 35 pounds. The day her hand started going numb, she had gone five miles on her elliptical machine. She understood my passion for running – she was experiencing the passion for herself.

My runner’s log (journal) for the day simply said, “Ran from the hospital.... things are not good. This was by far the best part of the day.”

This was the best part of many, many days to come. She told me to go home about 8 p.m. or so and by 8:30 I left. My heart was heavy. I was beginning to wonder when she was going to turn the corner and start feeling better. I was beginning to worry that she might not.

By the next morning, she had lost her ability to speak. She was writhing in pain and had a tortured look in her eyes. The first sight of her that morning took my breath away. As it turns out, my sweet, dear mother left me somewhere in the middle of the night. The cancer had ravaged her body and caused clots to form all over. All we could do was make her comfortable, say our goodbyes and wait. She died two days later.

Learning to live without her has been a struggle – one that is made easier by lacing up my shoes and hitting the streets. Running has helped breath life into me again. It is on my runs that I talk to God, search for answers, and look for any visible sign that Mom is near. It’s also where I find the comfort of many of my closest friends, who – thankfully - have traveled the dark path with me.

So it will come to no surprise to you that I am running my third marathon on Labor Day, Sept. 7. Some days I still run with little purpose, knowing that it won’t matter if I run two miles or 26 miles. It won’t bring her back. But most days, I run with a new thankfulness for the health to do it and I do so remembering how my running brought so much pride to my mother.

The marathon is going to be here in Columbia and starts at 6 a.m. This is the 50th anniversary of the race, which reminds me fondly of mom’s 50th birthday when she announced to everyone that I was going to give her a grandchild as a gift (I was newly pregnant with Madison). Ironically, the race is called the Heart of America Marathon. And I will run it in memory of my heart, my love, my mom. And I will do it proudly and victoriously in her honor.

Just as I have done in my two previous marathons, I am asking for prayer for a successful marathon. During this week, please remember me in your prayers and ask for God’s divine strength to blanket me on every one of the 26 miles. Pray that God will keep me healthy and strong and that He will be glorified through the effort.

And as a final request, this year I am also asking that in addition to praying for me, that you pray for someone who is currently battling cancer. Each one of us knows someone whose life is being touched by this disease. This week, please be committed to praying for this person, his/her family and for God to work in their lives. Great things can happen when we come together in prayer. To do so this week honors my mother’s deep faith in the God she served with great conviction.

Thank you for taking this 26.2-mile journey with me and for bringing someone along with you.

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race." (2 Timothy 4.7)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Legacy Project

Aug. 29, 2009

I had a great surprise yesterday morning. It was the kind like when you put on a pair of jeans and find $20 – but better.

Several years ago my mom gave me a pair of silver hoop earrings for Christmas. I loved them. They were unique. They went with everything. They were the perfect size – not too big or too small. They looked good with a black dress or jeans and a T-shirt. All jewelry should be so versatile.

But obviously, above all, the earrings were special because they were a representation of my mother’s love for me. She had picked them out, wrapped them like only she wrapped a gift and blessed me with them. Blessings like these won’t ever be under the tree again.

A few months after Mom died, I began to think more clearly and I realized I hadn’t worn the earrings in a while. When I went to find them, they weren’t where they should be. So I looked in my travel jewelry case and in the drawer in the bathroom where I put jewelry that I’m too lazy to put back in my jewelry box. The earrings were no where to be found. After a few weeks, I disappointedly chalked the jewelry up to a tangible representation of my loss.

Losing the earrings also helped remind myself of my pathetic organizational skills. I could hear my friend, Michelle, (who has the gift of being extremely organized) telling me, “Everything should have its place. That way when you want it, you know exactly where it will be and there will be no time spent searching for it.” This made me laugh out loud at myself and to ease my guilt, I decided that if Mom wanted me to be organized, she would have passed that gift along to me.

Fast forward to Friday morning. Most mornings, I get an idea of what jewelry I think I want to wear when I’m standing in the bathroom putting on my makeup and doing my hair. Not today. I’m going to Chillicothe – not always my favorite destination – and I am dreading the drive a bit. There’s something about the drive that makes me vulnerable. Through the last nine months, if I am going to break down in tears while I’m driving, it has mostly been on this stretch of road. My mind was distracted, wondering what the drive would bring today.

So without any ideas, I went to my jewelry box and pulled open the earring drawer. I yanked a little harder than I intended to, and the drawer nearly fell out. With all three rows of earrings full exposed, I realized there’s a full row of earrings that I had not been wearing and overlooking. And yes, right there in the right back corner were the earrings. My heart jumped. I smiled. Mom was going to Chillicothe with me today and she wanted me to know it!

I left the house early and was anxious to get through town to the quiet of North Highway 63. There is something comforting about the road and the familiar landscape that I drive so frequently. And on this particular morning, there was something undeniably drawing me to that familiarity and peace and the quiet the road offered me.

Now for those of you who know me well, I know you are surprised that I – the one with a seemingly endless supply of words – ached for quiet. But there are times when God calls me to the place where only He can fill my heart and meet my needs. Where I can hear him and he can hear me.

As I drove, I reflected on the earrings and how losing them and then finding them proved to be a blessing. On a tired Friday, made weary by the kids both starting new schools, God knew I needed the reassurance that he would never forsake me. Today, I needed those earrings. I needed a tangible reminder that my mom’s love lives with me everyday, not just on special days when I find a gift she’s left behind for me.

Oddly, this experience gave me another reassurance that God is calling me to help others leave gifts behind. I’m not suggesting that every child left behind after a parent’s death needs a pair of earrings. What God is stirring in my heart is something much bigger. So big, that I am scared to even write about it.

It’s an idea that I am now calling the Legacy Project (I named it, isn’t that exciting!) Honestly, I can’t take credit for the idea. It started with someone (Ms. Judi) passing my blog along to someone (Mary) in the health care industry who provides end-of-life care to patients and their families. Together, these two caring ladies did a little brainstorming and asked to meet with me. And there we were, sitting around Ms. Judi’s pool, sipping wine and discussing how my passion for writing, a new awareness of the grief process, and the needs of those in palliative care could be combined to accomplish something good – something really, really good.

I was emotionally overwhelmed after the meeting. The idea of using something so painful in combination with my God-given talents to help others seemed like the perfect opportunity for my mom’s legacy of love to live on. Our idea was simple yet fuzzy; help patients leave their own legacy through writing.

I mentioned the idea to Dr. Mark Vellek and Dr. Denise Swanson. Mark was mom’s oncologist; Denise, the grief counselor who helped me get through to today. They work at Missouri Cancer Associates. They loved the idea and were very excited. So excited that they passed the idea along to some of their patients who might be open to the idea. And then my phone began to ring and just like that, I had the opportunity to put this idea to work.

Since that early summer day, I’ve met with Mary again, as well as with Dr. Clay Anderson, from Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. With their encouragement and support, I believe this idea of narrative therapy has potential far beyond me. I’m excited that this project can be bigger than me. And I’m scared to death that it will be.

Despite my fears, I am moving forward. I’ve met with one patient a few times and can’t wait to tell you more about him. He’s amazing. Together we are exploring how we can use the written word to leave his legacy. Our goal is that the process be therapeutic for us and the product be therapeutic for whom he leaves it behind.

Whatever writing the process produces, I’m convinced that for whoever reads it, it will be a gift like me finding my earrings – only better.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Finding Hope Where I Least Expected

July 24, 2009

Something amazing happened last week. To tell you about it means I need to introduce you to my brother, Buddy.

Buddy is my youngest brother. He is 4 ½-years younger than me and consequently, I have always been his second mom, whether either of us liked it. Buddy is caring and kind. He is smart and handsome. He’s funny and talented. He’s also a convicted felon.

Incarcerated since 2002, in many ways, Buddy has grown up in prison. Watching him being convicted and sent to prison was – until my mom’s death – the most painful experience of my life. But we’ve survived it and this week I realized just how much Buddy has grown from it. In fact, I am not sure I have ever seen him more excited than he was when I saw him in prison on Thursday night

After Mom’s death, Buddy was transferred from the Southeast Correctional Facility in Licking, Mo., to the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green. Upon his transfer, Buddy was reunited with a friend, Rodney, who thankfully was acclimated to NECC. As far as I can tell, Rodney has been an incredibly positive influence in Buddy’s life. With his encouragement, Buddy became active in PPF (Prison Performing Arts - check it out online).

When Buddy first told me that he was going to take part in the program, I was shocked but thrilled. I grew up in theatre, speech and debate, but as best as I can remember, Buddy never had an interest in any of it. I loved the idea that he was trying new things and taking advantage of the few growing opportunities provided to him through the Department of Corrections. What neither of us expected was that he would love it too!

This semester-long program concludes with three live performances of a play. Early in the semester, Buddy told me he only had a small role in this Shakespearean play and that it wouldn’t even be worth me making the trip for the "public" performance. But as the curtain call got closer, I began to hear an excitement in Buddy’s voice that was contagious. He was alive in a way that I hadn’t seen him be in years and it was incredibly exciting. You couldn’t have kept me from seeing for myself what had caused this intellectual awakening and personal exploration. Deep down, I don’t think Buddy wanted me to miss it either.

I had no idea what I was in for. I never could have imagined. It exceeded every expectation I had and then some.

I arrived in the normal waiting room and found it filling with other cast member’s family, as well as others that I eventually determined are likely financial supporters of the program. Everyone was friendly and excited. As we made our way through the prison yard, I got to see for the first time where my brother lived; where he runs, plays softball, handball and basketball. I saw the cafeteria and his housing unit. Just being allowed to have this insight into his life was the worth the trip.

I quickly recognized Agnes, the director of PPF and the play. Although I had never seen her, I could tell by her demeanor that she was the woman in charge. Once we all got seated, Agnes called her company to the stage and my heart began to pound. There he was! Dressed in a Hawaiian print shirt and black pants, it was wonderful to see him in something other than his gray jumpsuit that he’s required to wear when I visit him. What was even better was this HUGE smile on his face. It was a smile filled with pride – a pride I haven’t seen since before the arrest that turned his life upside down.

Agnes explained the play and then called her company to their places. The set wasn’t elaborate but it didn’t matter. Once the actors began filling the stage, I was mesmerized. Even with Shakespeare’s challenging language and dialogue, these actors brought their roles to life. They weren’t just good – they were incredible. Obviously Agnes’s company was full of talent and Agnes knew what to do with it.

And then my reserved brother who rarely draws attention to himself, stepped out on stage singing and dancing. Then he was juggling! Then he was leading the crowd in a hilarious rendition of Who Let the Dogs Out (you needed to be there!). He was the comedic relief of the play and was able to take a smaller role and leave a huge impression on the audience. Last time I checked, that’s the sign of a good actor!

A good actor… my brother… a good actor. Wow.

After the play, the company fielded questions from the audience. Being new to the experience, I had a million questions but didn’t have the nerve to even open my mouth. I wanted to ask simple questions like, “How much fun was that?” and “Don’t you love being treated with dignity and professionalism?” Instead, audience members asked compelling questions about how the actors developed their characters and how they enjoyed interpreting Shakespeare. They answered eloquently and freely with confidence and passion for the art.

Afterwards, I got to meet Agnes, Rodney and other cast members and their families. It was the best cast party I have ever attended. As I said goodbye and started the drive home, I let go of the tears I’d been holding back. They weren’t tears of sadness, but of pure joy. I saw my brother with a restored sense of dignity, with a new awareness of how drama can awaken parts of one’s soul that we don’t even know exists. I saw him united with a group of talented men for a common purpose. I saw him excited about giving of himself.

I also saw a group of theatre professionals, led by Agnes, who looked at these 25 men not as convicted felons but as her professional company of actors. They have a heart for these men. They have a heart for my brother and this immediately made me have a heart for them. To them all, I am incredibly thankful.

Thanks to them, I drove to Bowling Green expecting to see my brother in his first play. What I saw was a performance that defined hope and gave everyone present inspiration for the future.

“We are full of joy even when we suffer. We know that our suffering gives us the strength to go on. 4 The strength to go on produces character. Character produces hope. 5 And hope will never disappoint us.”(Romans 5:3-5)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Parent-Teacher Conference to Remember

July 14, 2009

I am crazy about my son. CRAZY! Sitting here thinking about him makes my heart swell with emotion. It’s amazing that I could give birth to him, spend nearly every day of his life with him and yet still feel like I have so much to learn about him. Matthew is complex and tender – and in many ways still a complete mystery to me.

Although we had just celebrated Madison’s first birthday when I realized I was pregnant, I wasn’t shocked. My stallion and I had discussed birth control and decided he would be responsible for making sure we didn’t irresponsibly add to our family with one of those passionate heat-of-the-moments that rarely come along with a toddler in the house. Instead, we wanted to wait until we were ready for another child, plan accordingly and responsibly.

It’s a good thing I wanted a second child and I wanted them to be close together in age, otherwise my stallion might still be in the doghouse.

I was thrilled to be blessed with a second child, but there was a part of me that felt sad for Madison. After all, her time as my baby would be short. I would soon have to divide my time and effort and I worried she was getting short-changed. I also worried about my abilities. Could I handle two babies all day alone by myself? Selfishly I wondered if I could manage the household and continue to pursue my master’s degree?

But it was in the dark and quiet of the nights that I faced my worst fear. As I watched Madison sleep, with a heavy heart I worried that I couldn’t love this child I was carrying like I loved her. I felt terrible for even the thought, but it was real. I wasn’t sure I had the capacity to love another child with the same overwhelming love that I experienced with Madison. I prayed for God to bless me with a healthy child and a heart like His.

I laugh now thinking of those feelings. They didn’t last for one minute – not one. The second the doctor put Matthew on my stomach, I was completely and totally in love with him. I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine life without him. Being his mother completes me.

It’s a good thing I was totally smitten with Matthew because he made it challenging for anyone else to love him. He didn’t really like anyone much other than me. He didn’t like the bottle. He didn’t like the red sippy cup. He didn’t like to nap. He didn’t like the line across his socks to bunch up across his toes. And he definitely didn’t like to poop on the potty.

With the help of some good teachers and my co-mom (code word for babysitter, but so much more) Tracy Paloucek, somehow my anal and uptight preschooler evolved into a completely laid back youngster. I’m not sure how it happened, I’m just thankful it did. Today, I rarely hear Matthew complain. He’s easy-going and is typically more focused on others than he is himself. He has a beautiful heart and a gifted mind. Sometimes our conversations truly amaze me.

Now for those of you who read my post on April 28, you know that Matthew is human. I’ve also explained my worries related to his progress in writing. This concern prompted us to come to a family decision that Matthew needed a writing coach for the summer to help him be prepared for sixth grade. And so it has been; Matthew’s summer has been structured around his tutoring with Mrs. Rutter.

Mrs. Rutter and Matthew have a cool connection. It’s not one that I could have planned for, but only hoped and prayed for. They meet three times a week and Matthew has daily reading and writing assignments to complete outside of their meetings. Much to my delight and surprise, Matthew hasn’t complained once about the task ahead of him. Instead, he’s committed and enthusiastic about this opportunity to grow as a learner.

After working together for a month, Mrs. Rutter and Matthew decided that it would be a good time to sit down with me and update me on his progress. Yesterday we met and I had the best parent-teacher conference of my life.

I arrived for my scheduled 10-minute meeting and set across the dining room table facing both Matthew and Mrs. Rutter. Much to my surprise, Matthew began the conversation and pulled out a page of prepared notes from which he referred. He explained to me how he developed goals for his summer of writing, what he needed to improve on, strategies he is using to become a better writer and then he showed me some examples. He was articulate, confident and empowered – and it was incredible! Several times during the meeting I found myself distracted from what he was saying and instead just marveling at his progress. Thirty minutes later, Matthew concluded his conference by asking me if I had any questions, comments or concerns.

I obliged Matthew and one by one, discussed my questions, concerns and then offered my comments of praise for his effort and progress. I have never seen him so engaged and in charge of his learning, particularly in a subject that he hasn’t typically enjoyed. It was amazing and several times I had to fight back tears of pride.

Today I was talking with one of my favorite doctors who I call on regularly (for those of you who don’t know, I sell pharmaceuticals to subsidize my writing habit). As usual, he asked me about my children and as I shared this story about Matthew, he articulated what I had witnessed but not yet put in words. With the tenderness of a seasoned father and grandfather, he got tears in his eyes and his bottom lip began to quiver as he said, “Girls need to feel good to do good. But boys – like your Matthew – they need to do good to feel good.”

Truer words may never have been spoken. And with that, I have gained valuable insight into this mysterious transformation into manhood that is appearing before my very eyes.

Monday, June 29, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

June 29,2009

On Sunday, Madison and I picked up our neighbor and friend Judi to go to the movies. Judi, having taken our Great Sadness* journey with us, suggested we all go to see My Sister’s Keeper as a “therapeutic” experience. You know the type of experience I’m talking about – when the sadness overwhelms you, makes you remember your own loss and then the endless tears come and come and come.

Yep. There were tears. Lots of them.

Madison and Judi had both read the book by Jodi Picoult on which the film was based so they had some idea of what to expect. On the way home from church, Madison gave me a brief overview to prepare me. People magazine gave the movie a pathetic rating and called it sappy so I went into the movie with mixed anticipation.

Don’t ask me about the quality of the screenplay adaption or if this will be a pivotal role for Cameron Diaz, who plays the mother trying to save her daughter from cancer. Ask me how it reminded me of the final days with mom. Ask me how it reminded me of how trying to control the life and betterment of my children can turn me into someone I don’t want to be. I’m no movie critic, but these are the questions I can answer after seeing this movie.

For those of you who don’t know, the plot of the story centers around a family with one son (the eldest child), and two daughters. The middle daughter was diagnosed with leukemia as a small child and the parents use genetic engineering to parent a third child to provide everything from blood, to stem cells and a kidney to her sister.

Despite all the surgeries and heroic efforts, there comes a time in the movie when the family has to make a decision when to terminate treatment and allow the inevitable. Like in so many cases, different family members come to this point at different times, causing painful conflict and dissention. And again, like in so many situations, the sick patient is the first one to say she is ready to embrace the hereafter, but needs those she loves to let her go.

This readiness is particularly slow coming for her mother – as you can well imagine. She had sacrificed her career and everything normal about her life to do whatever she needed to do to keep her daughter alive. I think most of us moms would do the same thing, at least to some degree.

There is a scene late in the movie that literally took my breath away. It shows the girl – now a teenager – holding her mother and telling her it was going to be OK when she died. As they both sobbed, her mother slowly accepted the fatal reality and was able to be fully alive in the moments of her daughter’s death.

On December 22, 2008, Madison and I had one of those moments with my mother in her hospital bed. The night before we had gotten what we thought was good news from a cardiologist who told us that mom had a severe cause of athersclerosis. The condition, according to the doctor, was likely the reason my mom had a stroke. He told us that with medication, this condition could be successfully treated.

So imagine our surprise when 12 hours later our oncologist comes in and tells us there’s something on the CT scan – something he feels certain will be cancer. CANCER. Is there another word in our language with such terrifying implications? Not for me, there isn’t.

Once the doctors leave, I sit on one side of mom’s bed and Madison sits on the other. She had heard it all and the look on my sweet little girl’s face articulated every fear going through my mind. And just like that, as if on cue, my mother swooped us both up in her arms. The physical-ness of this feat was amazing in itself, as her right side suffered partial paralysis from the stroke. Just getting her arm around me was a miracle, one that I didn’t even realize until later.

I saw the emotional strength of my mother in that scene of the movie. I saw, and remembered, how courageously mom comforted us, making us feel assured that together we could get through this battle, no matter the outcome. We didn’t talk about death, but rather about our God who would strengthen us through the battle. I felt weak in her arms, but yet strong because she was strong.

This was one of the last times that Mom got to take care of us – at least with her spoken words and actions. I felt like a helpless little girl and all I wanted in the world was to have my mommy with me. I knew this diagnosis meant I was likely losing her, but I had no
idea how quickly she would go.

A week later, my mother couldn’t speak. The cancer had ravaged her body, causing blood clots to form all over it. The body was trying to battle, but the cancer was going to win. All we could do was make her comfortable and then, one by one, release her into God’s loving care. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but in the same sense, it was the only thing left to do.

She never quit fighting. I never quit fighting for her. We didn’t give up. We simply surrendered to God’s will.

Sadly, in this movie, there is no mention of God, His will or His plan. Instead you have a mother doing everything in the world, including sacrificing the health of her other child, to keep her daughter alive. I didn’t like seeing my controlling self in that mom; making everyone around me miserable all in the name of “doing what is best for my family.” It’s always that attitude of “I have to do it or no one will” that gets me into trouble too. It’s all about me taking control and telling the Creator of the Universe to take a back seat. It sounds ridiculous when I think of it that way, but in the heat of the moment I often feel like I have no alternative.

So what was the lesson in all of this? What did I take away from this movie?

Whether it is in dying or living, there is no peace when we try to control that which we weren’t meant to control.

(*I borrowed this term from The Shack)

Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18, 2009

Dear Dad (Part 1)

I woke my little gazelle up at 6 this morning. She decided last night that she wanted to get up and go for a run with me – a decision she was clearly re-thinking when I shook her from her sound sleep. To my delight, she got up and agreed to meet me downstairs, ready to go, in ten minutes or less.

As we took out the door, the freshness of the crisp morning hit me and I couldn’t help but get gitty excited. What a way to start my day – my week for that matter. I was going to get to experience my daughter’s first early morning run with her. The idea of embracing this new day doing something I love to do with my daughter was priceless.

While Madison can whip me in a short race, neither of us were sure how she would feel running first thing in the morning and running a longer distance at a slower pace than she was used to. We walked up the hill, talked about the route, our pace and learning to relax and enjoy the morning and the run.

She did great and I loved every minute of it with her. When she tried to push the pace, I reminded her I was running six miles, not three, and she eased back. Obviously she was made for speed. I, on the other hand, was not.

After I finished my run, I found Madison getting ready for school in her bedroom. I asked her if she had found her Daddy and told him about her run. She rolled her eyes disappointedly and told me that she had tried to tell him, but hadn’t gotten the reaction she was hoping for.

My heart sank for her. I could feel her pain. You see she got up to run as much to please her Daddy as for any other reason. Her Daddy is a runner; he’s built for speed and distance. She wants to be a runner like him. And don’t get me wrong, he would love nothing more than to be running with her if his knee allowed. (Soon – he’s now 3 weeks post-op.) But in that moment when she longed for a word of praise, her Daddy was stressed about his Monday and missed the opportunity.

After a brief conversation with the Man of my Dreams, I assured him that I didn’t want to hear any excuses for his lack of enthusiasm with his daughter. Nothing – not even his phone ringing at 6:40 am – should keep him from looking his little girl in the eye and telling her how proud he was of her effort this morning.

Like so many of our conversations, I am convinced he thought I was over-reacting. Thinking back on it, maybe I was. Maybe our conversation had less to do with Madison and her Daddy and more to do with me and my father.

When I was Madison’s age, I had never met my father. I knew very little about him, like what he looked like, what his name was or why he left me and my mom before I was even born. But what I did know was that I desperately wanted the love and approval of a man I didn’t even know.
I had these elaborate dreams (fantasies) about when I would finally meet him, how he would be so proud of me and ache for all the years he’d lost with me. I had thousands of conversations with him in my head, just like the one Madison had with her Daddy this morning.

During my teenage years, I became more and more inquisitive about my father. What was he like? Was he handsome? How did he make his living? Where did he live? How did he meet my mother? And what made him decide he didn’t want to be my father?

My mom did her best to answer my questions. She told me what she knew, probably what she remembered. They had met when they were working in Jefferson City. He was her elder by 12 years and he had several children from his first marriage. Mom knew that his oldest son wasn’t much younger than she was, but she knew nothing else about my non-existent siblings.

I have to give my mom a lot of credit. Despite the hurt and rejection of being left pregnant and alone, she never once had a bad word to say about my dad. She said she loved him and was devastated when she realized he didn’t want to be a part of our lives, but that she was sure he had a good reason for not being able to take care of us. She clearly loved him and she made it easy to imagine that he was a wonderful man who would indeed love me, given the opportunity.

All my life, my mother promised me that once I was an adult she would help me find him, if that’s what I chose to do. My senior year of high school was full of rights of passage. I voted for George Bush. I cheated on my boyfriend. I found my dad.

My mom called Kirksville and found out that he had moved to Colorado. She gave me the number and left me alone in our little kitchen. I don’t remember a great hesitation; I had rehearsed this a hundred times. I dialed the number, took a deep breath, and waited. When a woman answered, I remember thinking that she was likely his wife. As an adult, I now realize the pain and shock my call must have caused for her.

When he came to the phone, I asked if he was Michael Early and he said yes. I told him my name and who my mother was. Then I told him I was calling because I was sure he was my biological father. You can imagine the silence. He wasn’t warm and friendly. He didn’t know what to say and looking back, I guess I get that. When I asked if I could write him, he agreed and gave me his address.

I still have a copy of that letter around here somewhere. I remember crying my eyes out as I wrote it in my neatest handwriting. I included a newspaper article about me that had my picture and a story about my success in speech and debate – just to be sure and impress him.

Oh, it is all so humorous now. But in my honest moments, I have to admit that it still stings. This conversation was the first of many that didn’t go as I had always imagined them to go – which is why I probably do over-exaggerate the impact of Madison’s conversations with her Daddy.

In my defense, it’s not unreasonable for parents to want to give their children what they didn’t have. I don’t want Madison to question for one second how much her dad loves her and how our family will always be the most important thing in his life. And above all, I don’t want her to have a dad shaped hole in her heart and spend the rest of her life trying to fill it.
May 17, 2009

Fearless Love

Have you ever loved some one so much that just thinking of them makes your heart swell in a way that no physical act can express? You can kiss them all over, squeeze and hold them tight and still feel like there is all this emotion inside of you to show them.

I remember the first time I felt this indescribable love. I was 24 years old. The Man of my Dreams and I had been married for just a year and a half when our little angel surprised us by arriving a month early. There was one most beautiful baby in the world, and I had her! Just as I expected, she was the most incredible thing I had ever laid my eyes on. What I didn’t expect was this omnipotent, omni-present feeling that consumed me. It was so overwhelming that I felt guilty for it.

But I didn’t have to feel guilty for long. She wasn’t but a few weeks old and I was standing in the doorway of her nursery watching her Daddy hold her. He was talking to her, kissing on her, telling her how much he loved her, when he said it. He told her that he had never loved anything like he loved her. Whew! What a relief. It wasn’t just me! We were both crazy in love with our little Victoria Madison May.

And so it has been for nearly 13 years. Our baby girl will be a teenager on June 5. As a little girl, her vivid imagination was always entertaining. Despite my early boycott of Disney movies, she was about three when she decided regularly to break out in her version of “Just around the river bend” and transform herself into Pocohantas. Upon her direction, her Daddy became her brave John Smith. She also decided she wanted her thin, fine blonde hair to look like that of her Indian heroine – and consequently refused to let us cut it for years. (Let me be clear, it wasn’t pretty.)

Through the years, and with the help of some key teachers, coaches and family members, Madison has grown into an incredible young woman. She is all of those things you would expect a proud mom to say about her kid – so I will spare you. There aren’t enough words or time to write about how proud I am of her and how I love the young woman she is becoming. She’s not perfect, but she knows what she’s perfecting. Right now, I think that is about all I can ask for.

Last week, my now 5’6”, 95-pound baby, lined up at an Invitational Track meet here in Columbia. Although she had won the seventh grade mile race three weeks in a row, this meet combined seventh and eighth grade athletes. And not just any eighth grade athletes. Nicole and Bianca Mello are twin sisters and amazing athletes. They, like Madison, are following in their father’s footsteps; he is an elite triathlete. The Mello girls are both incredible swimmers and runners. Nicole holds the record at Madison’s middle school and on this beautiful afternoon, Madison lines up next to her with realistic expectations.

She knows she’s not there to beat the Mello girls. She’s there to beat herself. Her goal for the race was to break 6 minutes, which would be a Personal Record by 6 seconds. I was scared to death for her, worried that she would go out too fast and not leave anything for the end of the race. I was worried that running up next to the older girls would break her spirit and deflate her. I was terrified she wouldn’t meet her goal and taste disappointment.

I was worried. She was not. She jogged back and forth inside the track to warm up, looking as calm and confident as I had ever seen her look. They called the runners to the track, gave them instructions and told them to take their places. The gun went off and my heart pounded all the harder.

Her Daddy was at the 200 (half way around the track), telling her that she was right on pace for an 85 second quarter. As she came around to the grandstand, I couldn’t contain my pride. I was so proud of her fearless approach to achieving her goal. She stayed on pace through the second and third laps. With 200 to go in the race, the Mello girls were well out of reach, but an eighth grader was just ahead of Madison and she kept her eyes on the prize – getting under 6 minutes. She took off and I knew it was going to be close and she was going to have to give it all she had. As she passed in front of me, I yelled and willed her to the line as much as I possibly could.


My eyes filled with tears and I got goose bumps all over my body.

She had done it by fearlessly running her race.

As I look around me today, I see so many people paralyzed by fear. They fear losing their jobs, their spouse, the love (or approval) of their children or their own self-respect. What about public speaking, dying, and failing? Or being alone and not being able to make ends meet?

I see people try to motivate others with fear. And I see people respond – at least for a while. For most it’s only a temporary response, as the consequences that are feared eventually become more desirable than the state of constantly fearing the unknown.

I’ve always found it interesting that the Bible mentions fear 365 times; it’s a daily devotional waiting to be written. In all these verses, God makes it clear that the only thing worth fearing is him.

After the race, I asked Madison if she was scared as the race started. “No, I was just ready to do this thing.” Later I asked her if she feared anything. She pondered my question and eventually answered me with tears in her eyes, “I’m only scared of losing people that I love.”

Me too. You too – I bet.

Maybe my girl is strong and fearless because she hasn’t experienced enough heartache to know what she should fear. Maybe, and hopefully, she’s just going to be secure in who she is and understand she can only control so much of life.

If I could give her one gift as she turns into a teenager, it would be that the confidence she demonstrated on the track permeate every aspect of her life. I would gift her the ability to always run her race, to not get caught up in the competition, and to celebrate life with those who love her.

And then, we could all learn by her example.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Life After Death

May 1, 2009

Four months ago today I lost my mom.

Four months ago I didn’t know if I would survive a month without her. Four months ago my life was upside down. My greatest fan, my biggest cheerleader, my unending fountain of support was gone. Gone. How would I make it without her? Who would I call or run to when I needed to hear that I am beautiful, talented and able to do anything I set my mind to? Who would listen to me go on and on about the joys and burdens of raising two children, and not just any two children – her grandchildren, her pride and joy. How would I ever overcome this overwhelming and unbearable sense of lost that invaded my EVERY thought? How could I find the words to help ease my children’s pain when I didn’t know how to begin helping myself?

And here I am, four months later. I am strong(er). I am wise(er). I am healing.

Grief is a complex emotion and I don’t pretend to understand it. But, in four months, here’s what I’ve learned about it. First, we all grieve differently. Grief looks different for different people. Part of this might be because when someone dies, we miss and mourn the loss of our relationship with that being. Our loss is different than anyone else’s. Consequently, don’t expect anyone to know exactly how you feel. They won’t. But on the other hand, you can’t understand their loss either. Because of all this, there’s no right or wrong way to grieve – other than to not do it at all.

As part of the process, I’ve found it helpful to think about all the unthinkables. What will Christmas be like? How will I celebrate my birthday without the giver of my life alongside me? What about the kids’ graduations, their proms, their winning mile runs, their last-second shots, and oh, their weddings. So I consider all these moments and the millions more in which I will ache for her and give anything to share with her. I cry now for what I have lost in my future. It is helping me cope with those moments when they occur, like Matthew’s 11th birthday and Madison winning the mile at the 7th grade track meet. These are great moments. They were meant to be shared. I hate not getting to see her face in those moments, so full of joy and pride. Oh, I loved getting to be a part of providing her with some of the best moments of her life.

I know the best moments here on earth pale in comparison to the joy Mom experiences now. I wonder what her days are like, and like the Mercy Me song says, I can only imagine. I wonder if she dances for you Jesus or to her knees does she fall. Does she sing Halleluiah or is she able to sing at all? I can only imagine. I can only imagine.

What I don’t debate in my head is how glorious her life is in eternity. I am confident that it truly is more incredible than I can imagine. Some things in life are worth waiting for. Heaven must be one of those things.

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor. 2:9)

With this confidence, I am learning to truly rejoice in Mom being in Heaven and me being here. With God’s grace, I am realizing the depths of my love for my Mom allow me to celebrate for her life apart from me. When she was lying in that hospital bed – part of herself here, the other in eternity – I kissed and held her and told her to go. I told her I was strong. I told her I could make it and I told her our Lord would be there to welcome her with open arms and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It was hard to say, but I meant it. My beautiful mother fought for me her whole life. I needed her to quit fighting and fly to Jesus. And it is because of my love for her that I smile when I think about the beauty that surrounds her every single moment. No pain, no disappointment. Only joy… and that makes me celebrate for her.

There have been days during the last four months that the uncertainty of what life looks like without her paralyzed me in fear and filled me with anger. During those dark days, I had to force myself to focus on the things of which I was certain; there was no more sorrow, no more pain for Mom. Our Lord had taken her “home” to be with Him. And this same God – the Creator of the Universe and all that is in it – was going to see me through this.

So he has. “When I am weak, You are strong.” (2 Cor. 13:9) He has been faithful to not only help me survive this tragedy, but to emerge from it with a stronger faith and desire to honor Him – and my mother’s memory – in all that I do.

Last night, the Man of My Dreams and I had dinner at a restaurant on the river in Branson. As we sat snuggled in a booth, my attention kept shifting between the older couple beside us and the view of the river in front of us. (Well I didn’t want to stare.) This couple was likely in their 70’s and on the surface seemed very put-together. They were stylishly and carefully groomed, so much so they would have been perfect for an advertisement of what the ideal retired couple would look like. But as I watched them, very little seemed perfect about their interaction. Although the semi-circle booth was perfect for snuggling beside one another, he sat in the middle alone; she sat to the side. In silence they sipped their white zinfandel. From time to time, he would try to initiate conversation, but with little response. “How’s your salad?” “Fine.” “Would you like dessert?” “No, I’m full.” There was no eye contact and little emotion. No body language that said, I am glad to be sharing this dinner with you.

Now in all fairness, maybe they were just exhausted after a long day of sight-seeing or traveling. And I am sure that there are times that I am having dinner with my family or the Man of My Dreams when people look over and think to themselves that I should have been left at home. But in that very moment, I just wanted desperately to walk over and gently tell them that I am so excited that they have this beautiful view to share together. I wanted to remind them that today is a gift and that there are no guarantees for a tomorrow. I wanted to tell them that my step-father would give anything to have his wife at the table with him one more time. I wanted them to live understanding they are the lucky ones.

Thinking about my mom, I see something in the landscape outside that four months ago I wouldn’t have noticed. The cool water in the White River combined with the warm humid air produced an interesting fog on the water. For a bit, the fog would was so thick that we couldn’t see the rest of the landing just a block away. It was around dusk and the dense fog was a peculiar sight. Then before I knew it, the fog began to thin and shortly we could see the beauty of the landscape before us.

“That’s kind of how grief works,” I told the Man of My Dreams, “The emotions of grief come over so intensely that it’s difficult to find your way in the midst of it. You can’t control it, you didn’t ask for it – it’s just there. It’s awkward and inconvenient. All you can do is work through it and eventually something happens to the fog. It eventually begins to lift. As it does, you begin to see life ahead of you and begin to imagine that with God’s help joy might be possible again.”

And this makes me wonder what I’ll learn in the next four months. What else does grief have to teach me?

“Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” (Psalm 37:7)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Learning Lessons Young

April 28, 2009

It’s been a week since the shocking email hit my in-box. It was from Mr. Earls and the subject line was simply Matthew.

I wanted to touch base with you about Matthew. He has a realistic fiction writing piece he has been working on---it was due a week ago Friday, but I didn't put much heat on him due to finishing testing. He told me he would have it last Friday and still doesn't have it.

“Due last Friday,” I think aloud, “Today is Tuesday.” My blood pressure starts to rise and I panic wondering if Matthew can even define realistic fiction, let alone produce it.

I kept him in for both recesses yesterday and told him he would not be seeing the light of day from me again until I have it.

What? He missed both recesses yesterday and never saw fit to even so much as mention this to me. In fact, when I asked him the same-old, same-old questions designed to draw out any important assignments, accomplishments and general excitement from a day in the life of fifth grade, all I got was a story about how he perfectly timed a release of gas right as Mr. Earls called on him. I was horrified and asked what Mr. Earls said in response to such a disrespectful and disgusting – yet incredibly entertaining for adolescents – reply. He calmly told me that Mr. Earls said, “Matthew, sadly was the smartest thing that has come from you all day.” Looking back on the story, I wish I could have put my own feelings aside long enough to consider the motivation behind Mr. Earl’s response.

He and his best friend are my two holdouts---I am not really sure what they are up to.

“Best friends? Best friends my hinny. What kind of a ‘friend’ drags my kid down to this level of irresponsibility and deceit?”(Because of course, my kid wouldn’t sink to this level on his own –right!) Just yesterday this young man came over after school and I asked him and Matthew together about their performance at school. Almost in unison they assured me all was well and neither of them mentioned they were in deep, hot water with their teacher. Intuitively I thought their response was a little suspicious and warned them that if I were to find out differently then I would not be encouraging this friendship by allowing him to visit after school.

This boy reminds me a lot of one of my brothers, Chris. He’s polite and charismatic and I can’t help but like him, despite the fact that I know he would feed me a line of bull at any moment – all with a smile on his face. I have a heart for him. Maybe it’s because he’s being raised by a single mother and I can’t imagine being in her shoes. Maybe it’s because I was raised by a single mother and remember the struggles. Maybe it’s because my heart broke the time he and Matthew were watching basketball on TV and he told Matthew he’d never watched a basketball game in his life – or any sport for that matter. But nonetheless, it was time I make good on the promise I had made to these boys and they weren’t going to like it.

Could you have a chat with him to see if you can get him back on track? I will be sending it home with him tonight. Let me know if you have questions. Thanks---


I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. Any questions? Oh, I have questions alright. Where is he? How quickly can I get to his class, yank him out of his seat, take him to the hall and tell him how deeply disappointed I am by this behavior. And how did this happen anyway? When did my sweet and innocent baby become a pathological liar? How did I miss the signs?

I not-so calmly typed a response letting Mr. Earls know that I in no way was aware of the situation. Then I stewed about it all, trying to figure out the best way to begin understanding how Matthew could think any of this was OK, wondering how he is sleeping at night with the burden of this work and his lies. (OK, so a hint of my drama queen was showing through.)

Of course, in perfect “dad timing,” My Executive, His Father was hosting a meeting out of town and couldn’t answer one of my ten calls to his cell phone. Left to deal on my own, I decided to call the school and leave Mr. Earls a message asking him to keep Matthew after school so we can confront him together. Later I found out that Mr. Earls cleverly passed the written message along to Matthew – just to make him sweat it. Sweet!

I spent the rest of the afternoon formulating the perfect mix of words for this meeting. When I got to school, he’s at his desk writing and looks up and smiles at me. It was one of those “I’m gonna test the water smiles – like how-mad-is-she smiles. I don’t smile back and immediately he gets it. His eyes begin to water. See that’s the thing with my Matthew – he’s a good kid at heart who hurts when I hurt. He knows this conversation is going to make him sad.

After the story is all told, I explain to Matthew that my heart will always be for him and there is nothing he could ever do to make me love him less. But, (and you knew that was coming), I was shocked and deeply saddened by his decision to blow off his work and then lie about it for days!

…Fast forward a week. Consequences are in place. The TV is gone. The gaming systems are packed away. The computer is limited to homework only. No email. No phone. Sure, the paper is turned in, but are there any lessons in it all?

Ask Matthew and he’ll tell you he learned that crime doesn’t pay and that bad choices not only hurt yourself but those around you. I believe in my heart he wants to be a man of integrity and wise character. These aren’t new concepts to him; we talk about them regularly. He was as miserable as anyone during the last week.

Ask me and I’ll tell you there are lots of lessons to take away from this little experience on Matthew’s road to manhood. First, I had to ask why. Why did he flippantly blow off this writing assignment? Sadly, for me, I realized he did this because he hates to do it. My kid hates to write and what’s even worse is that he thinks he’s not any good at it. My heart aches in sadness at the reality. How can a person who is half me despise something that gives me so much pleasure? And is he really that bad at it, or does he just think he is? Either way, it doesn’t matter. He has created his reality.

Because I love to write, I want my kids to love it too. Looking back, I am sure they both feel this pressure. I have never said it, but I guess if I am honest with myself I would have to admit that I also expect them not only to love it but to be good at it. It’s like I have become one of those parents I despise. You know, the ones who need their kids to be all that just to make themselves feel complete.

This incident shows me that Matthew is ready to give up on meeting an unrealistic expectation that I have misplaced on him. While his actions are still unacceptable, I have to take responsibility for two things. First, I have to get Matthew the help he needs to translate the brilliant thoughts in his head to something cohesive on paper. I can no longer sit by and watch him struggle at something he’s convinced he can never do to suit me. Without shame for either of us, we are hiring a tutor to help Matthew gain the confidence he needs to - “write enough.” I’m not asking him to love it or create realistic fiction stories for fun. I’m just asking him to write enough – enough to graduate, go to college and support himself and hopefully his family.

Secondly this is an opportunity to remind myself to celebrate Matthew’s individualism. He’s incredible with math and science. He’s funny. He’s caring. He’s handsome. He is my heart. And he is just as God created him to be. He, like his mother, isn’t perfect but rather is being perfected by our Creator. In the process, God is perfecting me too. Some days (and weeks), it’s a painful process.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Minimal Invasion

April 27, 2009

They call it minimally invasive surgery. I find the term kind of humorous and interesting all at the same time.

My Olympian is set for an arthroscopy to repair the meniscus in his right knee. The knee is the largest joint in the body – and one of the most frequently injured. This injury comes as no surprise to me. That knee probably has logged nearly 20,000 miles during the last three decades.

Stephanie is the RN prepping him for surgery. As she shaves his leg, I think about how uncomfortable he must be with allowing a strange woman to run a sharp blade up and down his skin. He lifts his leg and she takes the razor to the underside of his leg. It leaves him in a vulnerable position and she makes a joke that he looks like he doing his Jane Fonda workout. With the fluorescent lighting, my Olympians pale skin tone and cleanly shaved leg lifted in the air is quite the sight. It’s the same leg that pounds out a sub-three hour marathon, I remind myself. It will be strong again.

Stephanie looks very pregnant. Cute, pregnant. Not bloated and puffy. Not big all over. Just cute, basketball-in-the-front pregnant. If I had a promise of being pregnant like Stephanie I would have been much more tempted to have done it a third time. But that’s another story for another day.

Dr. Wilson Beckett has probably done as many of these knee repairs as miles my Olympian has run. He comes in with his scrub top neatly tucked into his bottoms, draw string pulled tight. It’s not his best look – somebody should probably tell him he looks a lot like Homer Simpson. But on the other hand, his jovial spirit is equally as entertaining and it endears me to him, despite his bulging mid-drift. He makes us no promises about my Olympians running future and for a moment I was overcome with sadness at the idea that someday we won’t be able to run. It was one of those moments that made me face the reality that one day our bodies will deny us the activities that today we (ok, I) take for granted.

As Stephanie scrubs the newly-shaved knee and leg, she respectfully calls Dr. Beckett old school. He was around in 1983 when my Olympian had his first knee surgery - when arthroscopy was considered cutting-edge health care. Today, technology has driven improvements in the scopes and the cameras and these “minimally” invasive procedures occur as if they are as natural as the gentle rain falling outside enabling spring’s berth.

My in-laws are on home duty, enduring the dreary Monday morning with my two angels who are already more than ready for summer break. I am thankful they’ve come up to help – and for a second I think of how today might be different if my mom were still alive. It probably wouldn’t be that different; she would have wanted my Olympian to have his parents here with us. But no doubt she would have been holding us close in prayer. Somehow, I feel like she’s holding us close today from her new vantage point and I am glad.

My mother-in-law sent us to bed last night with instructions for me to tell the doctor about this or that that happened 26 years ago when he had surgery. I feel bad thinking to myself that none of that matters now, technology has come so far – after all this is no longer a big deal, it is just a “minimally invasive” procedure. The reality is that it’s probably always a big deal when it is your kid, when you know that something that he loves to do, something that completes him, is on the line.

I am glad that she will be with him at home after the surgery. No one dotes over my Olympian like his mother – and with a son of my own, I can appreciate that. I’ll go to work; she’ll take care of her baby – all is right with the world. It’s not that I can’t take the day off to be with him; it’s just that his mom will do a much better job than I would dream of. My maternal, caring instincts are best served with my children.

Sitting in the waiting room, images of Bea Arthur flash on the TV screen. She died “peacefully at her home with her family” at the age of 86. It seems to me that 86 is a reasonable age for dying. For a moment I am confused with conflicting emotions. I remember how mom loved the Golden Girls and how much joy those women brought to her. Although she rarely watched any television program on a regular basis, Golden Girls seemed to be an exception to the rule. But the sweet memories surprisingly turned painful as I couldn’t help but think, “why did her family get 23 more years than I did? Why did she get to die peacefully at home instead of being blind-sighted by a death that we didn’t see coming?” I fight back the tears and remember all the blessings in her death. Looking at Bea’s picture, I am happy that I am not left with an image of my mom’s aged body and face at 83. My mom will forever be young and that makes me smile.

This waiting room is much like this surgery, much like all of life really. It’s all become minimally invasive. I focus on my computer. A man in front of me doesn’t take his eyes from the book he is reading. The woman beside me knits, her hair in her eyes, as she chomps her gum. “It’s almost a lost art,” says an elderly woman who passes by walking slowly with a cane. Her comment spurs a lively conversation that boosts my spirits. It reminds me that life’s all about being invasive, it’s about connections – God made us to desire them and these two don’t miss an opportunity for a genuine encounter. Eventually the knitter wipes her bangs from her eyes, lifts her head and tells a beautiful story of how her mother gave her $50 and told her to go buy something that would make her happy. The knitter took the money and purchased the items necessary for her to begin her craft. Funny how her mom blessed her in an unknowing way and now this knitter blesses others with one-of-a-kind, original sweaters.

At 8:25, Dr. Beckett appears and motions for me. He sits me down in a quaintly decorated, comfortable room, shuts the door and sits across from me. He explains that my Olympian’s knee “was terribly chewed up” – whatever that means. I guess the meniscus was quite a mess and he cleaned it up and said this surgery would definitely help him. “Help him?” I repeated. “I don’t mean to sound neurotic, but running really is like a very important part of his (our) life. I was hoping to hear you say you had fixed him and he’s good as new.”

By this time I’ve decided I love Dr. Beckett, as he calmly encourages me to adopt his philosophy of focusing on what we can do – not what we can’t. Our bodies, he reminds me, are meant to break down and then we die. “The lucky ones are those who die before their body defies them.” The lucky ones? I know he’s right but hearing the statement stabs me in the heart and my eyes fill thinking of my young, sweet mother who walked five miles on her elliptical the day before her stroke.

For now, my Olympian can and will be able to run again – starting in six weeks. But, as the doctor explained, it may also be time to take up some other fitness activities, because after all, 40 miles a week is 2,000 miles a year – and that will be a lot for this knee. Forty miles a week, a lot for this knee… My Olympian isn’t going to like the sound of that.