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)