Thinking lately

Thinking lately

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately…thinking back to that week in October when our lives changed forever with the loss of Michael.

Last weekend when I was leaving home I came across a collection of emergency vehicles and a thick plume of black smoke. Another driver waved me off, we couldn’t get through, the road was blocked. Curious, but on a time crunch I turned my truck around and headed out the other direction.

It wasn’t long before I learned what had happened–a young man, just 20 years old, had lost control of his truck and slammed into a tree, the truck immediately catching fire. The young man lost his life, and so many in our community lost a dear loved one.

As I drive to and from my home, I have seen so many gathered at that tree–a lot of young people, grasping for some understanding of what happened, some comfort in their grief. I understand. All too well.

A cross was placed by the foot of the tree, and since then notes and teddy bears and trucker hats and countless bottles of Mountain Dew have been left in memory of the young man. It’s like a glimpse into who this young man was. I rarely drive past that tree without seeing a car stopped in honor of the small memorial, or a young person sitting in the grass by the base of tree.

My heart goes out to them. All of them. I remember those days all too clearly.

The grief. The questions. The anger. The desperation. I’ve felt it all. I still do.

We know someone who knows someone who knows the family. We offered to help with a meal. It’s the least we can do. And pray, always pray.

And maybe, I think, maybe I should visit Michael’s grave to sit in the grass under a tree.

But to you, it is not a label or even an emotion.
This is your life. Not in a box, but the way your heart beats. – Franchesca Cox, The Thing About Grief

Tea date

Tea date

I don’t drink coffee, but I have shelves and shelves of different kinds of tea, so if you were to pop in for a bit I’d invite you to choose. Feeling fruity, minty, spicy? Want something soft and summery? Or tantalizing and tasty?

As I put the kettle on, you’d probably ask how I’m doing, because that’s what people ask. And I’d say good, but then I’d pause. Not because I’m not good, but because since losing Michael “good” has a new definition, maybe even a lower standard. “Good, considering…” Just like the word “okay.” Sometimes I think I’ll never be okay again, because how can you be when someone so integral to your life has been utterly ripped away?

But I digress. Because that’s what I do these days. I think about Michael a lot.

So as my mind trails off in that direction, I’d pour steaming hot water into our mismatched but well-loved mugs, and I’d want to know how you’re doing. Partly because it will distract me from thinking about Michael, again. And mostly because these days my friends seem more focused on the tragedy in my life, and I truly want to hear about their lives, your life. Even in the midst of my pain, I want to feel for you, celebrate with you, sympathize with you. I’m tired of living on an island of grief. I want to be a part of your life too.

As we sip our tea we’d eventually circle back around and you’d ask how Husband is doing. And that one is so much harder to answer than the first question. How can you even describe the waves of grief one goes through after losing their best friend and only brother? So I’d probably smile a little, to reassure you, and let you know that we’re getting through. Not getting over, but getting through. And I’d ask you to pray for us, for the whole family, because we need it so much.

I’d be sorry that our conversation has been so sad. It’s not what I want. I’d love to be able to exclaim over the wonders of our life and the grand adventures we have planned, or even vent over a minor frustration. Sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever get back to that “normalcy.” Normal, hah.

In an effort not to depress myself or you, I’d ask something to spark a lively conversation. What you might not know is that I’m aching to laugh. More than anything, I want to share a moment of freedom with you–freedom from the cares of this world. So I don’t even care much what it’s about, but help me to laugh, please?

As we drain the last bits of tea from our mugs, I’d be gauging the wisdom of pleading with you to stay for another. But we both have busy lives, I know. And things that must be attended to. So I rinse both mugs and give you a long hug. Because hugs are important to me these days. You tell me you’ll be praying for me, and I know you will.

And when you leave, I’ll probably put the kettle on again, because another cup of tea might help me get through the day.

Self portrait

27

27

I turn 27 this week. And it’s been a tough one.

For me, birthdays have always been something to celebrate, not dread. I love celebrating my own birthday and the birthdays of those I love, because it is a way of celebrating them–their lives, their accomplishments, their passions, just simply who they are. A way of acknowledging my own life, my accomplishments, my day-to-day living that I rarely take the time to do.

When I was growing up, before the big birthday dinner, my family would all go around the table and thank God for something about the birthday person. It was a beautiful way to celebrate the things we love about each other, and to thank God for giving us each other. It’s a tradition I hope to continue with my own children someday.

But this birthday…it just isn’t so celebratory. I’m trying to be happy, and I am, or at least part of me is. My mom is coming to town, which is wonderful because I haven’t seen her in seven months–and visits from family are always something to celebrate, especially as they become more rare. So there will be plenty of laughter and good conversation to be had, I am sure.

But is something more sobering that permeates this birthday.

Michael was 27 when we lost him last fall. Had just turned 27. We were celebrating. His birthday. His life. His self. Him.

I was never supposed to be older than my brother-in-law. Never. And now, I will be. Because I will turn 27 and live through it. He didn’t. It’s sobering and hard and sad. I’m amazed at how piercing our loss is, and I wonder when the ache will ease.

Maybe next year’s birthday won’t be so difficult. When it’s been longer. When the number is 28, not 27.

Sunset at Northwest River Park

Trust

I began writing this a few weeks ago…but it was so raw and new at the time I couldn’t bring myself to dwell on it long enough to finish writing about it. It’s still difficult and hard to understand and even painful. Because I’ve never been in this place, and I never wanted to be in this place.

My whole life I have experienced an unwavering trust in God. Complete. Without fail. Not just in His sovereignty, but in His goodness. And today, I struggle with that.

When we were at the beach house in May, Ginger took a little adventure of her own. One moment we were making breakfast, the next we were frantically searching for her. We still aren’t sure how she managed to get out, or where exactly she went.

But we know that Husband and I very nearly panicked. Amid a flurry of running around calling out her name, searching desperately for any sign of her, and splitting up and driving in opposite directions around the community, I was praying fervently.

Most of my prayers were hardly more than “Lord, let us find her” and “Lord, keep her safe”.

Ginger at First Landing State Park.

Then, somewhere in my head a doubt, a question crept in. Would God keep her safe?

Trust has taken on new meaning since we lost Michael. Deeper meaning in some ways. Harder in others. Just different in so many ways.

I hardly had the wherewithal to examine where the doubt came from in the midst of my panic. Even now, with Ginger safe at home, it confuses me. It’s not that I don’t trust God anymore, I do. I fully and completely believe that He is Lord and He is righteous and holy and perfect. And nothing will change that.

But my naivete is lost. I no longer feel like I have that unwavering, unshakable trust that God will work it all out.

At moments, it becomes painfully obvious that I know that God doesn’t always “work it out.” God doesn’t always step in to our lives in the way we want. God doesn’t always keep us safe and free from pain.

Ginger escaped again last weekend. I followed her through fields of young corn and across acres of harvested wheat. We went about three miles; I was rarely more than 20 or 30 feet behind her. And I prayed–frustrated, fear-driven prayers.

I hope, over time, I will learn to restore my trust. I hope that it becomes as strong as my faith. It will never be the same–never like it was before we lost Michael–but perhaps it can be even better, stronger, truer. Perhaps trust in spite of loss is more real, more meaningful, more effective.

I was encouraged today when I read about another woman’s struggle with trust after loss. I’m not alone in this. And it’s not a failure of faith. It’s just part of the process of grief.

Disasters and hearts and things

Disasters and hearts and things

I have a career I am passionate about, working at a place that I love because of the difference it makes in the world. I don’t talk about it much in this space, mostly because after dealing with heavy issues like world hunger and chronic poverty all day, I prefer to spend my personal time focusing on and writing about some of the more beautiful things in life. But professionally, I am a writer for an international disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization.

Needless to say, for the past week since the massive tornado in Oklahoma I have been very, very busy.

Oklahoma

When a disaster happens, we kick into overdrive. There’s an air of adrenaline as we try to beat the clock churning out media so our partners know what is going on. We are the connection between our “boots on the ground” team and those who make all of our work possible, our donors. It is amazing and humbling to be used as a conduit at such times!

But there is so much heartbreak. For the first few days, we hold our breath against each new update. How bad is it? How many injured? How many lives lost? We get firsthand reports from our team on the ground and we feel the pain. Even though I mostly work furiously from inside an office these days, I have also seen it firsthand. The Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina hit–I held hands as families surveyed the wreckage that was once their home. Haiti a few short months after the 2010 earthquake–I saw devastation beyond comprehension, broken hearts beyond repair.

And as always, as the shock fades and the news media begin to drift away, we are still there, and the heartache continues.

This year, though, I feel it in a new way.

I think losing Michael has given me a window into the anguish that some of these families are facing–waking up tomorrow without their loved ones. It’s so painful, so raw.

My heart is broken for those in Moore, Oklahoma in a new way. And my prayers are ever more fervent because of it.

It is sometimes hard to imagine anything good coming of losing Michael, but perhaps there are small things. Like empathy. Like prayer. Like surrender.

Join me in praying for those in Oklahoma today. Please.

Strawberries

Strawberries

The last place I expected to learn a big life lesson was in the quart of strawberries on my counter.

It’s funny how we associate things–snow with Christmas, baseball with summer nights. Here in Virginia Beach, the surest sign that Spring is in full bloom are the strawberries. There are pick-your-own patches dotting the city and as many farmer’s markets and produce stands as you could want. There’s even a strawberry festival.

Sweet, local strawberries

The sweet, ripe berries of this area remind me of the first Spring after we got married. We were living in Sandbridge, and every day on my way home from work I passed one of the best produce stands in the region. I bought quart after quart of those succulent berries. Every morning I would take Ginger for a long walk on the beach and come home to a big bowl of nutritious cereal with fresh strawberries–bursts of flavor every morning.

Those days were wonderful in so many ways. The cold of winter had given way to the freshness of Spring. Things weren’t perfect, but life was good. Husband and I had our whole lives ahead of us, our whole marriage to shape and nurture.

This year, I began craving those sweet strawberry-filled bowls of cereal. I think, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that if I could just get my hands on the strawberries, life might hold such sweetness once more.

Fresh strawberries

And I did get my strawberries. But though they may be delicious, the feeling that everything is right with the world just didn’t return. And I think that is what I truly wanted–the reassurance, the happiness, the peace, the hope. But really, strawberries can’t bring that feeling back. The fact is, I am no longer the person that I was when I felt those things.

It’s a little like my experiences witnessing extreme poverty first-hand. I can’t go back an unsee what I have seen. I cannot unknow what I know. And after losing my brother-in-law last fall, I cannot unfeel the aching loss. I cannot return to ignorance or naivete. I cannot change the experience. I will never be the person I was before.

I know it will get better. Because we are better today than we were three months ago. That is proof that while the loss remains, life continues and God is faithful. There are new hopes today, new sources of happiness, but it will never be like it was before. No matter how many strawberries I eat.

And I think that is yet one more thing I must grieve.

Hospitality

Hospitality

I believe my mother truly has a gift for hospitality. For offering up her house as a sacrifice of love for others. For making people feel at home. For serving sugar cubes.

Sugar cubes are probably my most vivid memory of her hospitality. I come from a tea-loving family, so every guest was offered a cup of tea, and the sugar bowl–filled to the brim with sugar cubes. I think the real reason behind the cubes was because Maryland humidity made granulated sugar clump until it was rock hard. But the people she served them to? They had no idea. They felt like queens, being offered the very best. So many people remarked on those little cubes, utterly delighted with them.

I’m an introvert, so hospitality isn’t my natural inclination (that would be something more akin to hibernation). But I learned well from my mama, and it comes in handy because I ended up marrying a professional chef. Yep, a chef. And a social one at that.

Which means that we do a lot of entertaining. We make a lot of dinners. We invite a lot of guests into our home.

Sure, I don’t do much in the way of food prep, but I know from experience that hospitality is more than just food. It is a feeling, a welcoming, an opening of heart and home.

So we try to create an environment suitable to hospitality. A lot of comfortable seating and plenty of coasters to go around. Movies that are group favorites, drinks we don’t usually indulge in, easy access to extra throws and floor pillows. It’s a lifestyle.

Beach House

When we married, Husband and I didn’t want to move into a one-bedroom apartment, we wanted a place where we could host people. We were blessed with a five-bedroom beach house that was miraculously in our budget (thanks to off-season pricing). It was large enough to host my entire family (including all those nieces and nephews) for our wedding. When we had to leave that house (it was just a winter rental after all), we prayed for another home that we could open to others, to bless others.

God provided once more, another five-bedroom house, this time in the country. We didn’t know how He would use it, but we prayed that He would. That He would use the house and us to bless others abundantly, and in turn we would be blessed.

A lot of people have come through this house over the past two years. Family, friends. Some for big events, some for little vacations. One night, two, ten. Husband’s friends, mine. One even lived with us for a while until he could find his own place. We have loved opening the extra bedrooms, setting them up with extra toiletries, bottles of water, fresh linens. We loved inviting our loved ones to make themselves at home. And we were blessed by the company, the friendships that were born and fostered.

Country House

Yet, we still didn’t really know what our Lord had in mind.

Then we were hit with tragedy. My brother-in-law, Michael passed away unexpectedly. That night, our home held six very broken people. Before long more arrived, we were soon hosting up to 13 every night. A hurricane raged around us, but we were safe and dry and at home in this house. We poured ourselves out for those we love, all of us hurting. And this house–this house brought solace. It brought comfort. This bit of hospitality blessed our most dear ones.

I will be ever grateful for this place, these walls. And I will be sad to leave them when the time comes. But I am thankful that the Lord has heard our prayers and, through us, has blessed so many.

I can only pray that our next home, wherever it may be, will hold the same potential. That we will continue to offer our home as a sacrifice of hospitality to those around us. That we will share our blessings to our utmost ability.

And now, I think I might go buy some sugar cubes.

Happiness, comfort and healing

Happiness, comfort and healing

My horse, Chappy

It’s been some time since I’ve felt completely, totally, irrefutably happy.

Just over six months ago, we lost my brother-in-law far before his time, and it hurts. It still hurts. Our loss, our grief has overshadowed every moment since that awful day. We loved much, so we grieve much.

Here in Virginia, fall is the perfect time to ride. The weather is lovely, the mosquitoes not so bad, and fall lasts through December. But we lost Michael in October, and while I went through the motions, most of last fall is a blur of heartache. I didn’t ride. Not once.

I didn’t ride all winter. It was cold, dark, rainy.

I didn’t ride in March or April, it was an unusually cool Spring, and wet as usual. I clean stalls, I feed, I groom, I arrange vet and farrier care, but I didn’t ride.

Then, I did it. I dusted off my saddle, pulled out the bridle and actually rode. For the first time in six months.

Registered Name: Easy Feelin'

And it was great. Perfect. Beautiful.

I watched the sunset from horseback, and I loved on my baby girl.

Eventually I dismounted and put her away, gave her some grain and stored all that tack once more. But this time it won’t collect dust–it won’t stay hidden for long. Because this was life-giving. This small act of riding brought a real smile to my face, one I couldn’t deny if I tried.

I felt euphoric, alive, joyful…happy.

Pony nose

I know that riding horses isn’t the source of my joy. The Lord is the source of all joy. But He has given me a special heart for these majestic creatures of His, and through them, He comforts and heals my heart.

The happiness didn’t last forever, and the next day my muscles were pretty sore (I forget just how much muscle it really takes to ride well!). But I have been reminded just how therapeutic a ride can be, and I plan on partaking again pretty soon.

Happy trails!

Riding my horse

I gotta keep praising Your name

I gotta keep praising Your name

In my reading today…

“May God give you brothers to stand with, or a wife’s hand to hold, or a sister to weep with, because we won’t make it through these things alone. We can’t stand in the way of death, but when it comes, we can stand in its face together, and celebrate life and celebrate family and celebrate having loved fiercely and expressively

…a new family makes the world better. It brings people together, creates new connections, creates bonds that we all need in daily ways, and then desperately, when death comes to our home.” – Shauna Niequist

A walk in the woods.

I went to a women’s retreat in Ellicott City, MD this past weekend. It was wonderful and convicting and compelling and thought provoking–all the things a retreat should be. Laura Story led the worship. I’ve told you about how her song Blessings has blessed me in the past few months.

Nancy Guthrie was the speaker, she is also the founder of GriefShare and has had her own share of grief…I appreciated the heart and passion she brought to the retreat, when she spoke about the little things and the big things. Amid my time spent in worship and diving into Scripture, Husband’s family was hit with yet more heartache this weekend, more pain, more questions, more grief. Sometimes it feels as though just when things can’t get any worse, they do.

Beauty

On the way home last night, I had a five hour drive to think and pray and ponder and sing. I did a lot of singing. I rediscovered a Mercy Me song that spoke to me in a new way:

Another rainy day
I can’t recall having sunshine on my face
All I feel is pain
All I wanna do is walk out of this place
But when I am stuck and I can’t move
When I don’t know what I should do
When I wonder if I’ll ever make it through

I gotta keep singing
I gotta keep praising Your name
Your the one that’s keeping my heart beating
I gotta keep singing
I gotta keep praising Your name
That’s the only way that I’ll find healing

Flowers

A seed of hope for Easter

A seed of hope for Easter

Spring flowers

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Easter, considering the recent tragic loss our family has endured. Thanksgiving and Christmas were hard–both because they came on the heels of our loss and because they are supposed to be such joyous occasions. But Easter…it was hard to anticipate.

It turns out that Easter was like a reflection of what our lives have been. A lot of sorrow, humility, heartache mixed with a seed of hope. And I pray that just like Easter, this journey will also come to a place of joy and victory.

The weekend also reflected these feelings…there were pockets of productivity, moments of rest with friends, and a few hours of hopeful togetherness. The weather began chilly, damp and drizzly, but with a break in the clouds and a burst of warmth on Easter afternoon.

We took full advantage of that moment of hope and took the pup out for a mini-adventure. A new park is pure bliss for Ginger. But amid her excitement, even she had to stop and smell the flowers. Because Spring is coming, full of hope and promise, with a few cloudy reminders of sorrow mixed in.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 6 months since we lost Michael. Just a few months ago, we wondered how we would make it one more day and one more day after that. Here we are, 6 months later, exhausted with grief and sorrow yet fostering a small seed of hope that tomorrow will be better and someday, some glorious day, this world will be made new and all the hurt and pain and suffering will be gone.

Ginger stopping to smell the flowers.

Ginger at the park

Vibrant flowers.