Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Painful Revelations: Part 2

We were supposed to be at the airport by 4:40 am to meet the rest of our group for a 6:40 flight. When Prince Charming dropped us at the St. Louis airport, I was surprised how emotional I became. As we said our goodbyes, he told me he had put letters in my journal –one for every day I’d be gone. I was touched by his kindness and immediately felt like the bad wife for not thinking about doing the same for him. Selfishly, I’d been too wrapped up in my own pity party to stop and consider how he would be feeling with us gone. As he drove away, I felt vulnerable – an uncomfortable and unusual feeling.

At the airport, we found our gate and eventually all 47 of us from The Crossing, our church in Columbia, arrived safely. We were off. A stop in Detroit and six hours later, we were in Montego Bay. Each of us drug our two, 50-pound suitcases off the luggage carousel and were thrilled to get it outside to stack up for our bus ride to the mountains of Jamaica. Imagine 94 big suitcases - nearly 5 tons of clothing, toiletries, shoes and school supplies – as well as the 47 of us with our carry-ons. It was quite a site.

As we made our way up the mountains, the scenery was breathtaking. So were the near misses of on-coming cars, pedestrians, goats and chickens that were in the road. The roads were narrow and the curves were sharp. Our driver, whose name is Creamy, honked as he approached and made these curves to warn of our arrival. Lucky for me, I got the very first seat on the bus, which had extra leg room. I was suffering from a leg injury that caused my leg to grow painful and stiff, so I appreciated stretching it out.

Three hours later, we arrived safely to the village of Harmons, where we would be doing our work. As we drove through the village, residents stopped and waved and children ran alongside the bus smiling and waving too. The people of Harmons knew why we were there and the reception was warm. I caught myself feeling good about what we were going to do for these people and immediately asked God to adjust my thinking. I didn’t want this week to be about me and what I needed to feel good about myself. I really wanted it to be all about the people of Jamaica. Shamefully, I realized that only with God’s grace was that going to be possible.

Our accommodations at the Harmony House compound were modest, but manageable. We had 21 women in a dorm room with 12 bunk beds. At the far end of the room was the one bathroom. Yes, I said one. No, it’s not a typo. The bathroom had two sinks, two toilets and two showers, where we got to use our two (cold) minutes of running water per day! Let me assure you, two minutes of cold water is all I wanted. It’s amazing how quickly you can get your business done in the shower when you have to.

The directions for the toilet were posted on the wall and then later reinforced to us by the staff; If it is yellow, let it mellow. If it is brown, flush it down (Just like the scene from Meet the Fockers). I thought I was being smart when I grabbed one of the beds closest to the bathroom, in case I needed to visit it in the middle of the night. By the end of the week, I would grow weary of crawling in and out of my top bunk. By Wednesday night, I found myself lying in bed checking the clock, weighing what would hurt more; to hold it the rest of the night or hobble down the bunk with my nearly non-functioning knee.

On Monday morning we learned all about the history of the organization we were serving with, Won By One to Jamaica. Then we took a walking tour of the city. I was struck by the beauty of the island and the smiles on the faces of those we encountered. The living conditions were hard not to notice too. Homes with a roof, running water and electricity were the exception. Most of these wouldn’t even be considered shacks by our standards.

After lunch we got our first service opportunity assignments. At first I laughed at how the staff called our work “service opportunities.” After hauling bag after bag of maul (a mixture of sand and gravel used to make concrete) up a narrow path on a steep hill for the afternoon, I secretly decided “service opportunity” was code for “working your butt off.” The days would be filled with building three homes, working at the greenhouse, working at the store and serving at the infirmary.

I have written all about these experiences in detail, which is being posted in several installments on our church’s blog. If you would like more information on our work, the mission of Won By One and the lives that we touched and touched us, please go to http://www.everysquareinch.net/2010/07/called-to-jamaica.html.

On a more personal note, the work was hard – emotionally and physically. Building homes was a cross between Extreme Home Makeover and working on a Habitat for Humanity home. But just like the last 15 minutes of every EHM leaves you teary-eyed, so did the home dedications on Friday afternoon. Three families got homes – their lives changed forever. The homes were modest; 12 by 16 with no running water or electricity. But these families were as thankful and happy as anyone I’d ever seen on television. They appreciated this step toward independence, toward improving their quality of life. They weren’t consumed with having it all and having it now. Their joy was inspiring.

Joy was also abundant when My Princess and I worked at the store, where Jamaicans get to come once every 12-16 months and fill two Wal-mart bags with much needed clothes, shoes and school items. It was like Christmas morning to those people and we got to be their Santa.
But perhaps the most profound displays of joy came at the infirmary. The infirmary in Jamaica is the place where people are discarded and left to die. I can’t adequately describe the sensory overload I experienced the first day I went there. Imagine the most horrific nursing home and then add very limited staff, few hygiene practices, flies and bugs everywhere, and an abundance of physical and mental disabilities.

Then imagine these same people displaying an unexplainable joy. A joy that came from us sitting with them, holding their hands, playing Dominoes, reading scripture and praying with them. One lady, named Birdie, told us that she loves it when people like us come to visit because it reminds her that God has not forgotten her. Another lady, Mabel, sat up straight as a board in her bed and talked to us about how she knows she’s going to be called to heaven soon. Tears streamed down my face as I told her that I felt confident that God had sent us to love on her here in Jamaica and that God had called my sweet mother to heaven to welcome her home when Mabel’s day arrives.

Thinking of Mom overwhelmed me with emotion. Does she see this? Does she her granddaughter showing love to the people that the world tells us offer nothing of value?
Did Mom see us the night that we read scripture into one another? It was a night that neither of us will forget. We chose scripture for one another earlier in the day and then we shared it by candlelight. I cried that night too, as Madison read to me from 1 Corinthians 13, “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” and thanked me for showing God’s love to her in this way.

Unfortunately, the week wasn’t filled with these mountaintop spiritual moments. It had its share of valleys too. For example, my heart broke on Tuesday night when I opened up my journal and realized my letters from Tom for the rest of the week were gone! Gone. I searched and searched, asked everyone and dug through the trash. How could this happen? God, how could you allow something like this to happen?

And then there was my leg and the immense pain that I was experiencing. Because I am addicted to running, I continued to try to run a few miles each day, despite the pain and the sensibility of it all. On Thursday, as I came down a big hill, my leg gave out. The pain was so intense that I broke out in a sweat and my breathing became rapid and shallow.

Was this some kind of a sick joke? First I lose my job, then the only connection I have with Prince Charming and now the ability to run? What was this supposed to be teaching me? Let’s just say I wasn’t feeling the patience and kindness that the verse above speaks of. But how could I feel sorry for myself when the people around me had real reason to complain but yet never did. How could I say poor me when I would soon be headed back to the comforts that many Jamaicans only dream of?

How could I not trust God to prune my heart, to hit my reset buttons and to adjust the lenses by which I was determining what is important in life?

Thankfully, God did that. While in Jamaica, God revealed that amidst the many things that appear to need fixing, I am the broken thing that needs His attention. God wanted this week to be about me and Him – not the other things that I’ve tried to find my identity in. He wanted to do business with me and it took stripping me of nearly every prideful thing in my life to make it happen.

It was painful. It’s still painful, but I’m learning to embrace my brokenness. I’m realizing that I have been living the lie, chasing the American Dream. Chasing a finish line that I’m never going to find. Feeling like I have to make more money this year than last year, that I have to run more miles this week than last week, like I have to run faster and further than I have before, like people need to look at Prince Charming and I and be convinced that we are a happy couple who has it all figured out.

So my secret is out. I don’t have it all together. I’m broken. I am weak and on my knees.

But I’m moldable and yielding - and so excited to see God build something beautiful from my wreckage.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Painful Revelations: Part 1

Perhaps I have never been more amazed at God’s fingerprints on the details of my life than I have been the last few weeks. There is so much to tell. Where should I start?

On May 11th, my employer, Takeda Pharmaceuticals notified us that they would be laying off 28 percent of the sales force on June 15th. I’m not sure why this surprised me since nearly every pharmaceutical company has been doing the same thing for the past several years. Maybe it was the fact that we had always been assured that Takeda would not be doing these cuts that gave me some false sense of security.

Speaking of false securities, I have never been fired. I’ve never been laid off. I’ve never been given an action plan for improvement. I’ve never gotten anything other than a positive performance evaluation. I am the anal one. The one in college who never skipped class. The one who everyone hated in high school. Over-achievers like me do not lose their jobs.

The problem is that over-achievers like me like to think we have control when we don’t. Such was the case on June 15th when my boss called to deliver the news of my… what? My termination! I was shocked. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. What about the criteria that was supposed to be used to make these decisions? How did this happen to me? Was this a mistake? Please tell me I was going to wake up tomorrow and this all be a dream.

But it wasn’t. I did lose my job. People I cared about also lost their jobs. Still other co-workers kept theirs - including my partner and very good friend. How could she manage our business without me? What does tomorrow look like with our partnership now severed?
I have to admit it, I was hurt. Or rather my pride was hurt. How could this company not care about all that I had given to it during the past six years? Apparently, whoever made this decision didn’t think as much of me as I thought of myself! And what about my partner? As if it wasn’t bad enough to lose my job, I lost my partner in the process. I think that loss might have hurt the worst.

And I was mad. I didn’t deserve this. I had worked hard and been successful. What about all the extra projects I volunteered for? What about the leadership qualities I exhibited? What about going above and beyond to help our company and the people around me?

And now I can also admit that I was scared. Yes, somewhat because of the financial security my job provides for my family. But more so because I didn’t know what the future was going to look like for me. I didn’t even know what tomorrow was going to look like. What was I going to do? Get up and do what? I sensed God had work to do in my heart and I feared it wasn’t going to be pretty.

Well lucky for me (in so many ways) that I got this news on a Tuesday and My Princess and I were scheduled to leave the following weekend for a mission trip to Jamaica. So I spent the remainder of the week answering the endless phone calls of my colleagues and friends – all offering their words of condolence and encouragement, and getting ready for our trip.

As we packed, my emotions shifted somewhat from myself to the trip. We began planning for this trip nearly 9 months ago. Only God could have known just how much I needed this trip, just how much I needed to have my eyes opened, my priorities adjusted and my heart shaped.
I’m so thankful to God for allowing me to be broken and then taking me to Jamaica to fix me.

(Please read tomorrow to learn more about our mission trip, the work we were a part of there and the work God is doing in me as a result.)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fun in the Sun

April 3, 2010

We are sitting on the airplane flying home from Ft. Lauderdale. How did the week go by so quickly? It seems like hours ago that we were leaving St. Louis. This is our fourth Spring Break trip with the Wipfler family. Twice we visited Destin, once to Daytona and now to south Florida. The weather was outstanding and I don’t think I’ve been this tan for a few decades.

Prince Charming is beside me and My Sweetness is beside him. My Sweetness turned 12 this week, which means that someday soon he’ll no longer want me to kiss all over him. Someday soon he’ll no longer smile when I tell him I love being his Mommy. And one day he might even stop saying back, “and I love being your boy.”

I look across the row at him and think about the day he’ll go off to college, the woman he’ll marry, the career he’ll choose, the husband and father he’ll become. I pray for God’s direction on all of these things and remind myself that he is a gift from Heaven. I don’t let myself worry about how I’m not equipping him or the ways that I fall short as his mother. I try to be a good mom and I pray he knows that. I’m not perfect. That he knows for sure. When I lose my patience, I have to ask him for forgiveness and he receives it with a loving smile and that softness in his blue eyes.

Right now, he and his dad are glued to this tiny 7-inch DVD screen watching Blades of Glory for the 100th time. They are sharing the ear buds and laugh after laugh as if it’s the first time they’ve ever seen it.

My Gazelle is several rows back with her friend Madison Wipfler. It’s not that there weren’t available seats behind us. They just chose not to sit by us. It doesn’t bother me in the least though. Her independence makes me smile. She is growing into such a beautiful young woman, both on the inside and out. Now I know that I’m prejudice and some what obligated to say this, but it is true. I’m so proud of her and so very thankful for her.

I’m also shameful that I am not more patient with her. Sometimes I forget she is 13. I start expecting her to think like I do – at 38, but deep down it’s the last thing I really want for her. I want her to be young, confident and content that the world will come to her. Because it will.

I’m trying to chronicle in my head the great memories we made this week: our annual May versus Wipfler family tennis and basketball game, flat runs along the palm tree-lined streets, the airboat ride in the Everglades, the trip out into the ocean, Cardinals Spring Training game, dinner at South Beach, laying by the pool, tanning by the ocean, oatmeal from Jamba Juice, card games and movies. Then, there was my book. Nothing completes a good vacation like a great book. I just finished The Help and if you haven’t read it, you should. I hope I don’t forget the vacation or the book. They are both worth savoring.

The plane is a little bumpy but the sun is shining above the fluffy ceiling of clouds. Riding above the clouds will always be surreal to me. Two rows up there is a young mother struggling with a toddler who hasn’t been content for much of the flight. I remember what it’s like to worry that your baby is annoying the rest of the plane, the restaurant, the church – whatever. I wish I could ease her mind, but I think back to all the “old” moms that tried to tell me the same thing. I didn’t listen. Instead I spent far too many services and such wishing my kids would grow up too quickly.

My sweet mother pointed this sad truth to me one day when I was complaining to her on the phone. In retrospect, I think she’d heard enough of my whining about “doing it all” and such. Prince Charming was training for a new job in St. Louis during the week, which left me at home with a newborn and a not-quite 2-year-old. I think I was telling her how I was desperately ready for the weekend to come and offer some relief of the single-parent life, when she stopped me in my tracks.

She had been a real single-mother. She knew what it was really like and wasn’t going to listen to my pity party one more minute. She told me I was going to wish my babies lives away! And she was right, I was and I was ashamed.

I’m thankful for moments like this one, where my mom set me straight. I wonder if I appreciated it then, at the ripe old age of 26. I know I appreciate it now. But like so many things about Mom, I probably didn’t tell her how I appreciated her wisdom. Her words couldn’t be truer today, as I realize the days of these sweet family vacations are fleeting.

It’s so easy to be sad when I think about a great vacation coming to an end or the life of my mother ending too soon. As we begin our final decent into St. Louis, I hear the announcement to shut my computer off. The next time I open it, I’ll have to download 10 days of missed emails, digest my Outlook calendar for the week and open up the kids’ schedules. Life will ultimately return to the controlled chaos to which we’ve become so accustomed. But instead of being sad that “it” is over, I’m going to do what my mom would want me to do and just smile and be happy because we got to experience it at all.

The joy was in the journey.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

And the Oscar Goes To...

March 5, 2010

Sometimes inspiration comes in the most unusual places and a sense of belonging comes from the least likely people.

This was the week of the Academy Awards and Oscar buzz has been bountiful. But far, far away from the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood’s red carpet, I witnessed the real performance of the year. My Oscar goes to my brother, Buddy, and the entire Prison Performing Arts cast of Stalag 17.

Stalag 17 is a once-Broadway play adapted into a 1953 war film about a group of American airmen held in a German World War II prisoner of war camp. On this particular March night, Stalag 17 became a story of hope, community and the promise of a better tomorrow.
Last July, I wrote (Held in Heaven's Hands: July 2009) about my first exposure to Prison Performing Arts (PPA). It was a night I will never forget. My reserved brother, who had never shown any interest in any theatre, awakened a part of him neither of us knew existed. The experience was empowering and encouraging for everyone involved.

There was never a question about Buddy continuing in the PPA once it resumed. The experience changed him. It made him realize that life is full of opportunities to touch people and be touched – even in prison. It seemed to change his perspective on engaging in and building community.

I couldn’t wait to see the Northeast Correctional Facility company of actors on stage again. And I couldn’t wait for my grandma and aunt to see it as well. Since my mom’s death, these two women have been a pillar of strength for me and my brothers. I was excited for them to see how their encouragement of Buddy has been an investment that allows him to encourage others.
When we arrived at the prison, I immediately began to see familiar faces; family members of other cast members and supporters of the program. I found myself wondering how this concrete structure surrounded in fences topped with barbed wire had went from feeling cold and horrifying to now somewhat, well, comfortable. I never thought in a million years that I would grow comfortable visiting this place. When I first started coming there, the echo of the closing doors haunted me. The thought of my brother being stripped and searched before and after he visited with me outraged me. The reality that he was seen as “one of them” by the guards who work there, by the State of Missouri, by the rest of the world – it broke my heart and physically repulsed me.

Looking back, I realize now that my black and white thinking hadn’t prepared me for my brother’s imprisonment. Life used to be simple in my head; bad people did bad things. Bad people went to prison. My little brother, full of boyish charm and a good heart, wasn’t the sort of person who spends years in prison. Was it possible that good people do bad things and as a consequence end up in prison? Or is it possible that God was calling me to open my eyes, deal with my prejudices and allow my heart to be transformed?

This process didn’t come easy. It came from story after story of people impacting Buddy’s life – people who looked past his prison garb to see someone uniquely talented and worthy of being loved. Agnes, the director of PPA, is one of those special people. She doesn’t just see the best in my brother. She sees it in every man who walks into her class. I see her heart for these men in how she speaks to them, how she speaks of them and in the sacrifices she makes for them. She makes me want to be like her.

When we arrived to the activity room that had been transformed into the set of Stalag 17, I hurried to pick up the programs for the evening. It was several pages typed and very professionally put together – just like everything Agnes does, I suspect. Along with a list of the cast and information on the play and PPA, the program had a short bio of each actor. I cheated and skipped past everyone until I found my brother’s. As I read his bio, I got a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. In it, he dedicated his performance to me and thanked me for being his cheerleader.

I was humbled and emotional. I don’t feel worthy of his gratitude, but I’m thankful for it all the same. This opportunity is a good one for Buddy in so many ways and I’m just proud to be a part of it.
The show opens and like the performance I attended last summer, I am amazed. These guys are funny, talented and courageously entertaining. I recognize most of the cast from the Shakespearean performance. I smile as Rodney hits the stage. Rodney is one of those people, like Ms. Agnes, that understands the value of community. He recognizes the importance of being synergistically connected and thankfully, he’s helped open Buddy’s eyes to it too. Last semester, Rodney convinced my timid brother to come give PPA a chance to change his life. Excited by the opportunity to transform himself and move others through art, this semester Buddy brought along his friend, Jesse.

When Buddy hits the stage, I can’t help but stare at him. I try to tell myself to stop, but I can’t help it. I don’t want him to make eye contact with me because I’m afraid if he does, I’ll burst into tears. I’m so proud of him that I can barely contain it.

After the performance, there is an opportunity for the audience to ask questions of the cast. I love this part almost as much as the play itself. Here I get a chance to understand what it is that really motivates a group of prisoners who are very different to come together in such a unique way. Even the warden spoke and offered his praise. He joked that they don’t like to use the E word, but that PPA offers a great escape from the every day prison life.

I have thought about his comment a lot since then. I hope that PPA offers more than just an escape from prison life. I hope it offers an escape to freedom – freedom that moves beyond the walls of the prison as these men someday transition to a life full of opportunities. I hope it breeds a confidence that will serve each of them well, both today and tomorrow.

As the evening came to a close, we were all served delicious and humongous servings of cake. It was better than any birthday or wedding cake I’ve ever eaten. Maybe it was the occasion; eating cake in my brother’s honor. Or maybe it was the feeling of community that permeated the room. Mike, who served me cake, knew my name and all about my running and writing. His interest in my ordinary life made me feel special, as if what I do matters. Then there was the visit with Rodney’s parents, who I’d met at the last performance. Seeing them again felt like visiting old friends. It was a good feeling. I loved it.

I also visited with Jesse’s family and met Ms. Beasley, who supervises Buddy’s daily work in the activity’s building. It was hard for me to imagine her in the cold, blue, standard uniform for DOC officers. I didn’t want to imagine it either. She was beautiful in her pink sweater and her generous spirit showed through. This wasn’t her shift. She wasn’t there working; she was there encouraging. I loved her for that.

Buddy told me later that the assistant warden wrote each of the actors in the play a letter congratulating them on a wonderful performance. She also put a copy of the letters in their “files.” She didn’t have to do either of those things, but she did. I love her for doing so.
It’s nights like this one that remind me that God wired us all for a relationship with Him and with others. For lots of people, whether they are in prison or not, building relationships like these is difficult, at best. Creating relationships where individuals can accomplish things that on their own is impossible is a gift. I love it that we got to be blessed by this gift. It helped me realize that I’m growing more comfortable with the prison because with the help of PPA, I’m seeing that we are all just people. Not that must separates us. Not nearly as much as I once thought.

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)