Thursday, August 14, 2014

10 years of grief and life

10 years. Somehow it seems like it just happened yesterday, yet a lifetime ago at the same time. 10 years where life has gone on all around me while a part of me has been forever frozen in time. A decade in which I have slowly learned to grieve and live at the same time.

My hometown will be dedicating a street to Michael at 10 tomorrow morning on the 10th anniversary of his death. The rest of my family will be there, hearts heavy with the pain of both the day's memories and the death of my grandpa in the quiet hours between last night and this morning.

This will be one of many memorials I've missed. You see, for years I couldn't --and
wouldn't-- deal with my brother's death, so I didn't go to all the services to honor his sacrifice. My logic was simple: if I didn't have to face it, I didn't have to hurt.

The thing is, a heart doesn't work that way. Oh, it can for a while. But by avoiding the pain, never letting it show, all I managed to do was trap it inside. The pain simmered there, under the surface, and I lied to myself by saying I had things under control.


There's that word that pops up so often when I'm being honest with myself, the thing I'm so often reminded that I don't actually have. Oh, but I sure tried to control it.

Early on, I was given the impression that this wasn't really my loss. When people would talk to me, they would ask about my parents and Michael's widow. I heard over and over again how hard this must be on them and how strong I needed to be, so it was easy to use that as a cop-out. My loss must somehow be less important, easier to deal with. If I was struggling, that must mean I just wasn't being strong enough.

So I was strong, and I barely cried. When Michael would come to mind--in the early months it was because I would think of something I wanted to tell him before suddenly remembering that he wasn't there to tell--I would blink back the tears, swallow the lump in my throat, and shake the thoughts away.

I was strong.

It took a long time for me to finally realize what I probably should have known from the beginning. My pain wasn't the same as what my parents were dealing with or what his widow was going through. That didn't make it any less real, any less searing, any less world changing.

I lost my brother, and with him I lost a part of me that will never come back.

You see, siblings get under your skin. They are as much a part of you as your heart is, part of your body and your soul. They know your history, your jokes, your corny sense of humor. They hurt when you hurt and rejoice when you rejoice. They may laugh when you fall but are the first to pull you back up to your feet. You take it for granted that you will grow old together, watching each other's kids grow up and poking fun at the first sight of gray hairs. Siblings occupy a part of your soul that no one else can access, and when one of them is ripped away it changes you forever.

10 years ago, part of me was suddenly empty.
And no one understood...except my baby sister, but it was my responsibility to be strong for her the way I knew Michael would have been for me. I didn't want her to see me hurting because I wanted her to know I could be there to support her if she needed me.

That empty part of me still aches, and most of the time I still blink the tears away and swallow the lump in my throat. There are some days, though, when that doesn't work.

Those days are filled with a roller coaster of emotions and memories, with pictures flashing through my mind
~laughing as Michael tried to saddle Red Cloud
~driving him home after a basketball game because he was pretty sure he had a concussion but didn't want Mom to worry about him in front of all the guys
~putting on a Garth Brooks lip-syncing concert in his tiny bedroom
~breaking down next to his casket at the graveside
~wiping my fingerprints off of the chrome in his old truck when we pulled into the high school parking lot before school
~my babies who never got to be teased by their uncle
~sweaty hugs after football games
~watching him and John walk down the hall as people moved out of the way, only to have them stop to tell me hi--seniors talking to a lowly freshman
~a black bracelet with his name on it worn to Sarah's wedding

Tomorrow is bound to be one of those days, a day I sometimes wish I could simply sleep through and wake up on the 16th. For every stab of pain, though, there are 20 years of happy memories, and I wouldn't trade those for anything.

This year I won't be with the rest of my family at the street dedication because I'll be here in Ohio getting my kids ready to start school next week. I know, though, that the morning will be filled with people who loved Michael and people who love my family, and for that I am thankful. I'll be there in spirit, but I'm forever grateful to those of you who will be there in the flesh, strong arms there to hold up my family when I can't.

10 years. It's a milestone I never could have imagined reaching.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

too stubborn for something better

Cows are funny creatures. I was reminded of that this past weekend when I was home to visit and got to help Pop move his herd across the road. Summer in Arkansas means hot and dry most of the time (though the start of this summer hasn't been too bad), and that means the grass can't quite keep up with all the cows snacking on it all day long. Since I was home to help, Pop wanted to run all his cows in, put wormer on them, and move them across the road to where the grass was greener... on the other side of the fence... sorry, I couldn't resist.

It went relatively smoothly at first, and most of them came up when he hollered and started up the tractor. We even managed to get them worked relatively uneventfully--Pop only got kicked a couple of times, and the only one to kick at me graciously stopped her foot a good couple of inches in front of my face (yes, my face. Pop's comment was, "She's a bit of a high kicker, huh?").

But then, we had to try to get the rest of the herd.

A few of Pop's cows were a fairly new addition to his herd, and they weren't really used to coming when called and walking across the road to the other field. They were, however, together in one corner, so the plan was to easily push them along the fence line, around the chicken houses, and into the holding pen. Pop was in his truck and I was on foot since his four wheelers aren't working.

The plan...ha!
It wasn't long at all before a few of the calves were spooked, and then everybody took off running. Just in case you were wondering, I'm not very good at out running cows. When they're in a small space it's easy enough to step in front and get them to turn. When they're in the field, though, me stepping in front of them doesn't amount to much.

They were stubborn, and most of them are still right there--trying to graze on some extremely picked-over grass while the rest of the herd enjoys the good stuff.

I couldn't help but wonder how many times I've been like that herd that stayed behind when the Farmer tried to move me to something better. How many times has God tried to lead me, nice and easy, along the fence to get me right where He wants me, only to have me break away as soon as I get a chance, running for what I see as safety just because it's what I know?

Eventually, those cows will follow Pop's tractor and his voice, and they'll let him lead them across to where he wants them to be.

And hopefully, I'll follow suit. One day I'll learn to let God lead me without fighting to stay where I am, where I'm comfortable. Maybe I'll see that the pastures He leads me to really are greener.

One day, I'll listen to His voice instead of trying to do things my way first.

Monday, July 28, 2014

a legacy

"A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure."
~Ecclesiastes 7: 1-4

I'm just a couple days away from making one of the hardest trips of my life, traveling back home to quite possibly say goodbye to both my grandfathers.

Papaw has had a hard fight for a long time now, battling COPD and emphysema for every breath. Grandpa's fight has been more recent and less obvious, but he now fights against the cancer in his esophagus just to be able to swallow his liquid diet. They have both always been amazing, strong men, and it makes my heart hurt to see their bodies turning on them.

I'm broken over the thought of losing them, but I'm also reminded of how incredibly blessed I have been to have these two men in my life for almost 30 years now.

They are both Army vets, men who gave of themselves for God and country. They are also both horsemen, though their approaches couldn't be much more different. For me, though, what I'm most thankful for is the commitment they both have always had to their families. They are both men with strong arms and rough hands, proof of the years they spent sacrificing their own comforts for their families.

I have learned so much from these two men, and some of my best and worst qualities can be traced back to them:
my love of horses
my stubbornness
my sense of honor
my dedication to my family
my enjoyment of a good story
my temper
my pride in my work
my appreciation for good workmanship
my love of travel
my love of home
my addiction to Dr. Pepper
my reliance on God

Proverbs 22:1 says, "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold."

Neither of my grandfathers will leave this world with a lot of gold or silver in their pockets. They will, however, leave a legacy I am proud to be part of, names esteemed by those who know them-- and that is worth so much more.

"Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever."
~Daniel 12:3

Thursday, July 24, 2014

faith, hope, & joy: a lesson from VBS

This week has been VBS, and to be honest I went into it pretty negatively. It was only 3 days for 2 hours each day; I'm used to 5 days of VBS, all morning each day. Set-up was done in just a couple of hours; I'm used to spending most of the week before VBS at the church building doing set-up and decorations. I was going to be walking around from station to station with a group of kids; I'm used to classroom teaching and time to get to know the kids.

Basically, things weren't going to be done the way I expected, and I got negative.

Then I was talking about school with Nathan. I was upset about how things are progressing-- or not progressing, to be honest. I was frustrated about being looked down on and judged. I was tired of doing things the right way only to be knocked down-- over and over again.

So again, things weren't going the way I expected.

And when my own kids started talking back to me and being mean to each other and just plain not listening, I felt like a failure as a mom. They were being disrespectful...

and weren't behaving the way I expected.

 I was watching the total lack of sales on all of my books on Amazon, wondering why in the world I was even writing if nothing was going to come of any of it. I hadn't made enough money to just stop all this school nonsense and write for a living.

Again, not how I expected.

Woe is me, huh?
 I was wallowing in self-pity, focused on how nothing was going the way I planned. Looking around, I was pretty much seeing life as rotten.

Then Nathan did something he really didn't want to do-- he told me how negative I was being and how utterly miserable I seemed, no matter what was going on.

I was hurt and mad, and Nathan went to bed that afternoon (so he could get up to work the night shift) pretty sure he would wake up to the silent treatment.

I went out to work on the yard, and I was pulling weeds with a vengeance. And even that was making me mad, because each time I looked up I was just faced with the overwhelming number of weeds I still had to deal with.

In the middle of that, though, something happened. I was reminded (again) that I'm not in control. I was reminded (AGAIN) that my way isn't God's way. When Nathan woke up for work, he was greeted with an apology and a thank you.

VBS Tuesday night talked about hope, and Wednesday night was joy. One of the things I was being negative about became the very reason I was convicted-- the negativity and pessimism and "woe is me" attitude was completely choking out the hope and joy I should have.

My circumstances haven't miraculously changed. There are still some things about VBS this week that I didn't full agree with, things with school are still up in the air, and my kids haven't suddenly developed perfect self-control. For that matter, the yard still needs lots of work!

What is starting to change, though, is my attitude. I'm trying to give up my stubborn, constant desire for control. I'm trying to regain the joy I once had, the optimism and hope that once guided my life because of my faith in the One who is Hope and Joy. 

Instead of looking at VBS as negative just because it wasn't what I expected, I've realized that God worked through it this week-- in spite of me. Instead of focusing on how often my kids fight with each other, I'm starting to focus on how much they love each other and how often they cuddle up next to each other. Instead of seeing school as something that's draining me, I'm trying to see it as the amazing opportunity that it is, one a lot of people don't get.

Things have never come easy for me. A lot of my time and attention lately has been spent focusing on looking forward to a time when things will-- but in doing that, I've fallen into a trap of seeing the struggles right now as somehow unworthy, as things I have to get through as I wait for life to start. The problem with that mindset, though, is the fact that life may not ever be easy here on earth.

If I spend all my time waiting for the life I want to start, I'll miss out on the one I've been given-- and that's not something I have any right to do.

God has allowed me to live this life for a reason, and He has a plan for all of it. No matter how much I struggle for control, He's the One who has set the course. He's the One in control, even when I ignore that fact. It's like He's the parent driving the car and I'm the kid in the backseat playing with my plastic steering wheel and whining that we're not going where I think we should.

So like David, I'll pray:
"Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence
or take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me."
Psalm 51: 10-12

Monday, July 21, 2014

when the journey is too much

The last time I wrote, it was about how God sometimes speaks in the quiet, the passage in I Kings 19 where God chose to speak to Elijah in a whisper instead of in the power of the storm or earthquake.

Have you read the chapter before that recently? It's the one where Elijah challenged all the prophets of Baal and Ashera to a duel.

Really--an old-fashioned duel!
Only instead of guns blazing it was a duel of fire.

Well, it would have been a duel of fire, only the prophets of Baal and Ashera didn't have any fire to duel with. Elijah, on the other hand, had flames that God sent down, fire hot enough to burn up a bull, the firewood, all the water that had been poured over the altar, the 12 stones used to build the altar, and the soil the altar was built on.

Then, Elijah watched as all the people of Israel turned back to God. After that, he killed all 850 false prophets. And even after that, he told the king that rain was coming--even though there had been a drought for 3 years at the time. When the rains came, Elijah was given the amazing ability to run ahead of King Ahab's chariot, racing him to town.

Talk about a spiritual high! Elijah must have been in a whole different place mentally and spiritually right then. He was probably feeling pretty darn good about himself when he went to rub it in Queen Jezebel's face. He had just made fools of all her prophets and then had them all killed. In the face of all that had just happened, I imagine he figured Jezebel would have no choice but to repent of all her evil ways and turn to God.

But if that had happened, calling someone a "Jezebel" probably wouldn't have the negative connotation it does today.

Instead of feeling shame and remorse, Jezebel made Elijah a promise: she would kill him.

You would think Elijah would just laugh in her face. Or maybe call on God again, this time asking Him to knock her down a peg or two. Surely that would  have been easy to do. After all, God had just done some amazing things at Mount Carmel.

Elijah didn't laugh.
He didn't stand up to Jezebel.

We're told that he ran off, terrified.

I've been in that place before. Not the same, mind you--I've never taunted a group of 850 false prophets and then called down fire from God. For that matter, I haven't ever outrun a chariot.

I have, though, been in a situation where I experienced a spiritual high and then fell as suddenly as if I had walked off a cliff. Actually, I've had a few experiences like that in my life, times when the valley of fear and doubt seemed to swallow me and block even my view of the mountain top.

There are times when I've seen the amazing things God has done, then somehow it seems like I manage to forget about all of that in the split second it takes for things to go wrong.

I get overwhelmed by something that scares me, and suddenly I forget that God can--and will--take care of me.

I know it, or at least I know that I should know it.
The problem is, I have a trust issue:
I want to trust myself instead of Him.
I want to take care of things myself--that's the only way to know everything is going to get done...the way I want.

I have a stubborn tendency to forget that God's way of taking care of things usually isn't the way I would choose.

That's the same thing that happened to Elijah, and his valley was so low that he was praying to die. He cried out to God, "I have had enough, LORD," and then he crawled under a bush, kinda like an animal does when it crawls away to die.

You know what, though?
Even when we are at our lowest, even when all we can do is tell God, "I've had enough," God takes care of us. For Elijah, that came in the form of an angel who told Elijah to get up and eat, who gave him bread and water. The angel also told him something that, to me, is one of the best things to hear when you're overwhelmed: "the journey is too much for you."

Sometimes, the fact that someone else recognizes that what you're facing is just plain hard is enough to pull you through. For Elijah, it was enough to let him travel for 40 days and nights until he reached the mountain of God., the very mountain where God spoke to him in a whisper.

So take heart. God knows you're overwhelmed.
He knows things have been tough.
He knows that you've had enough, that the journey has been too much.

And He's still there, providing, no matter whether we remember or not. And if we follow Him, He'll lead us to a place where He can speak to us.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

be still...

"The LORD said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire was a gentle whisper.
~I Kings 19 : 11 & 12

"Be still, and know that I am God"
~Psalm 46:10b

Life is busy.

Sometimes, it's just plain hard to get away from everything--assuming we even want to. These days, the thing people seem to be the most concerned about is being connected. You very rarely see somebody without a cell phone somewhere in sight, and facebook and twitter are even at the center of advertising campaigns.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone when I admit to spending way too much time on facebook, pretty much just being nosy to be honest.

I don't know about you, but I'm at a time in my life when I'm desperate to hear God's voice. I want to hear from Him because I want to know His plan for my life. I want Him to guide me, to set my feet on the right path.

The problem is, I don't spend enough time listening.

When life gets busy, when life gets noisy, it's hard to listen. You see, in my experience God doesn't tend to yell to get my attention (I think He's used a 2x4 to make some of the lessons sink in from time to time, but that's a different story). I would love for Him to get my attention with something impressive like the burning bush, but that hasn't seemed to be His way with me.

Instead, He's quiet.
He whispers.

And there's a funny thing about whispers. You can't really hear them unless you're still and quiet.

When's the last time you were truly still, the last time you were silent so that you could listen for the whispered voice of God?

I have to admit that I can't really recall the last time I was. But then I turned on a documentary called "Into Great Silence" about a group of monks who break their silence only for prayers and songs, and it got me thinking.

If I'm truly desperate to hear God, I need to make listening to Him a priority.
I need to be still.

This week, my babies are spending their last week in Arkansas with their grandparents. It's just Nathan and I here, and he's working nights right now. I'm planning on taking advantage of this time for a few things: housework that I need to get caught up on, a paper and presentation that I need to put together for my Radiation Protection and Regulations class, and getting in some writing time so I don't lose my mind. More importantly, though, I plan on taking some time this week to be still and quiet, to stop talking long enough to listen for God's whisper.

Here's hoping you're granted a bit of surprise quiet this week so that you, too, have a chance to be still.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

this parenting thing is hard...

I want you to know, my parenting this last week or so has been the best it's been probably since my sweet baby girl was born 7.5 years ago.

I haven't yelled at either kid, lost my temper over the little stuff, been impatient, zoned out when they told another long story, or pretended to listen.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that my kids aren't here right now. They're spending this part of the summer in Arkansas, going back and forth between grandparents' houses and having a blast spending a month on the farms.

I miss them and I can't wait for them to get back--my house is entirely too quiet--but I know one thing for sure:
it won't take long for me to lose my temper, no matter how hard I try not to.

This parenting thing is hard.
Why isn't that something they talk about in those "what to expect" books?

It's filled with stress and anxiety and messes and endless loads of laundry and sinks full of dirty dishes and tears over nothing and fights and arguments and "why?"s and legos to step on and piles of toys on the stairs and complaints about dinner and...

Some days, it's easy to get overwhelmed.

It's easy to get pushed so many times that you finally snap, even though you promised yourself that you wouldn't today.

It's easy to respond with sarcasm when you know that's not the way you should answer, even though it's your toddler's millionth question before 9 a.m. 
It's easy to want to be hateful back when your little drama queen is glaring at you and daring you. After all, I've got 22 years on her with that whole "moodiness" thing. Doesn't she realize that she's an amateur dealing with a professional?

But then, a dirty little boy brings you a tiny flower in his grubby hands--just because he thought it was pretty and his mommy would like it.
A rebellious little girl crawls up onto your lap and snuggles against you, saying "I love you" in the sweetest voice you've ever heard.

And you're overwhelmed again.

How could you love someone so much?
How could someone so little have such a huge impact on you?
How in the world did God choose to bless me with the chance to be their mom?

And you whisper a prayer, saying thank you to the One who gave you such an amazing gift.

And them another thought crosses your mind:
How in the world am I ever going to raise these precious souls without completely messing them up?

And the prayers of thanksgiving turn into pleas for help, because you know that you can't do this. You aren't strong enough to stand firm for these little ones you've been entrusted with. You see them cry tears of pain and realize that you can't protect them. You have to drive away and leave them behind at their grandparents' for the summer and you know that you can't always be there to stand guard.

And somehow, God reassures you. He tells you,
"You aren't strong enough, but I am your foundation and I will always stand firm. I am a fortress for these precious little ones, and I will be the only protection My children will ever need. You can't stand guard, but I have put My hedge of protection around them. I have entrusted them to you for a reason, even if you can't see it.
Lean on Me, believe in Me, and rely on Me;
they will learn to do the same."

So when my babies get back, I'll love them with everything I have. I'll mess up and I'll apologize and I'll mess up again. And I will rely on God with all my heart, mind, and soul--because He's the One who gave me these precious, obstinate, spirited, amazing babies, and He's the One who will keep me from completely messing them up.

"Because You are my help, I sing in the shadow of Your wings. My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me."
Psalm 63 : 7 & 8