Saints are all around us….

A confession…I’ve been dreading today.  Today was the annual Remembrance of Saints service at our church.  I’ve known it was coming for weeks.  Had to send the church a photo of Mark to be used during the service, all members who have died during the last year were honored as saints.  Their names were to be read as a family member placed a rose in a vase at the front of the church. 

I prepared the boys the best I could, we talked about it, and had a balloon release on All Saint’s Day in their daddy’s honor.  It was a poignant, fun, sad time, but we made it through. 

But who was preparing me for today? 

As I went to the room where approximately 20 or so families were waiting, all of them representing a loved one they and Floral Heights UMC had lost, I prayed a quick prayer for God to help me get through this.  We got our directions and headed to the back of the church, where we walked down to reserved seating near the front of the sanctuary.  Imagine my surprise as I heard handbells as I walked to my pew.  There, in front of me, were the Wesley Ringers, the youth handbell choir.  Two of those members are mine and Mark’s hearts walking around on the outside of us…yes, Andrew Joseph & Benjamin Wallace, dressed in their cobalt blue choir robes, were playing the prelude for me.  My tears, which had already been flowing and dried at least 3 times prior to now, flowed freely once again.

I felt so fortunate to have friends on either side of me, we processed alphabetically.  As the remembrance service began, a photo of each saint flashed up on the wall behind the choir.  Every photo looked like a professional one, not that there’s anything wrong with that, a photo from a family portrait or church directory.  Not Mark Howell’s!  He was in motion, the way he always lived, in his t-ball coaching jersey, walking in our backyard.  Andrew chose the photo, and I cropped him out to use it.  You see, wherever Mark was, his boys were always pretty close by.  I have very few photos of Mark alone.  I have even fewer photos of Mark alone, posing or doing nothing. 

As I put the rose in the vase, I glanced at his two sons, sitting near the front.  They both gave me a knowing smile, and I felt better. 

I felt better until we stood to sing the morning prayer response, my husband’s favorite hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past!”  Then I watches as my sons joined their choir, the high school choir, and chancel choir for a combined anthem that was simply beautiful, simply perfect for this day.  There they stood, front and center, side by side, singing with great enthusiasm, “Deep, Deep Love.”  I don’t know what I did more of, smiling or crying during that song.  For I could see both of us in their faces, but most importantly, I saw the face of God. 

After the service, we headed for home.  Before losing Mark, I had never experienced deep emotional fatigue, the kind of fatigue that is more encompassing than the fatigue I felt after running 13.1 miles in Oklahoma City in May.  Now I know that level of fatigue.  It’s like I’m running a full marathon now, no longer training for a fun run.  It takes dedication.  It takes training.  It takes everything I’ve got inside of me.  

I’m not running just for me, I’m running for our sons.  I’m running in remembrance of an awesome husband and daddy.  I’m running to be both mommy and daddy, provider and head of household, chief cook and bottlewasher, spiritual guide, sometimes-drill sergeant, and everything else under the sun. 

So, imagine my surprise as I open my Bible tonight, in search of some prophetic message to spur me forward, to help me put my grumpiness and fatigue aside.
  It opens to Hebrews, chapter 12: 
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (SAINTS, including Mark Howell!), let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
 verses 1-3, NIV

Well, that settles that.  Even a left handed girl from Western Kentucky can figure this one out.  Out of all the things I could’ve read in the Bible tonight, I read this passage.  Just what I needed.  Just in time.   I’m going to crawl out of this bed, put on my clothes, take my boys and mom to Chuck E. Cheese for a little boy-fueled R&R.  Shucks, if we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, there’s nothing we can’t do.  The race just got put into perspective for me.  Thanks, God.  Thanks, saints…..thanks Mark 🙂

Sing like no one’s listening…..

Ben had a PTA program at his school last evening.  Another “first” for us to get through without Mark.  It was a mini-musical about “Stone Soup”, and even though he thought it was “babyish,” his mom and grandma thought it was wonderful.  There’s just something about a large group of children singing on key 🙂   As I was video-ing portions of it, I had to stop to remember that this was something Mark was seeing first-hand from his vantage point, in the past whenever he’d be out of town, I would video it for him to watch whenever he returned.  Ben sang out like an angel through most of it, and told me later that he “was the best singer” on his side of the room. 

Mark loved to sing.  He would sing at the drop of a hat.  He would sing without abandon, loudly and enthusiastically.  He sang like he lived life, without any hesitation, reservations, or regret.  Some of my earliest memories of our dating days revolve around his singing loudly to whatever classic rock song was playing while we were driving somewhere.  In our B.C. (before children) days, there would be plenty of opportunity to listen to either the radio or cassettes or cds while travelling to either Kansas or Kentucky to visit family.  He would always pretend he had a microphone in one hand, while driving with the other.  At specific times during the song, he’d take the invisible mic and stick it under my nose, while I was minding my own business in the passenger seat.  “Inside the box” personality that I have, more often than not I would just shrug my shoulders, shake my head, and point ‘the mic’ back at his face.  How he longed for me to just burst into song, right along with him!  Looking back, I wish I had left my self-consciousness at the curb more often, and just rocked along with him.  He relished the times that I did. 

He was the perfect complement to my “way-A” type personality.  He urged me to take chances.  I was not (am not) a risk taker.  But in him, I saw the most perfect combination of a responsible, hard-working adult that didn’t take himself too seriously.  He was always up for fun and trying new things.  I’d like to think he broadened my horizons, although he never thought I stepped outside the box often enough.

At bedtime last night, I was worn out.  So much so that we all were in bed shortly after 9pm.  I snuggled Andrew for a short while before kissing him and closing his bedroom door.  Just as I was drifting off to a much-needed full night of sleep, I felt him at my bedside.  Crying, he told me, “Mom, I’m really missing Dad.”  I pulled him into the bed beside me, cradling him in my arms.  “I really miss being able to talk to him,” he said.  Man, can I ever identify with that statement.  I told him that’s the thing I miss most about him, too.  Because I could talk to Mark about anything.  Then I told A.J. that he could still talk to his daddy, and if he listened really closely, that his daddy would talk back to him.  I think in the stillness of the night, before sleep comes, is the best time to talk to both God and his daddy. 

He asked me to come back to his bed and lay with him.  Off we went.  As I rubbed his back and dried his tears, I felt both helpless and helpful.  Helpless that I could not bring his daddy back, but helpful in the sense that I could be there for him, a physical, tangible presence that could express a deep love.  I ended up falling asleep with him for awhile, then finally made it back to my bed at some point during the night.  So much for a good night’s sleep…, I’ve decided that sleep is overrated. 

As I drove his truck home this morning after taking the boys to school, I felt overwhelmed again to be without him.  Then a still, not-so-small voice tells me, “I am with you.  I am with you.  I am with you!”  And I am reminded, for the millionth or so time that God has not let go of my hand.  So, I turn up the radio, listening to the contemporary Christian station, and sing without abandon into an invisible microphone,

♪”If you’re scared that you don’t matter…If you’re lost and need to be found…..If  you’re looking for a Savior…..All you gotta do is turn around”♪


Are you Mark Howell’s Wife?…..

Today has been hard.  I started out crying, as I awakened to a song that reminded me of Mark.  Lying there in the darkness, on my side of our big bed, I cried for all the dreams we had as a family.  I cried because I miss him snoring beside me.  I miss his laugh, his great, strong hugs, and the way he filled a room with that gregarious, infectious personality.  His sons need him. 

But since they can’t have him here physically, it means I have to be enough…so I wake the boys as another school day awaits us.  Andrew notices that I’ve been crying and knows why.  Ben, thankfully, was a bit too sleepy to see my red eyes and drippy nose. 

Ben still insists that I park the vehicle and walk him to class. I don’t mind, and it’s funny….before Mark died, I probably wouldn’t have gone into the school sans makeup, but now, I just throw on my running clothes, slap a ballcap on my head, and I’m on my way.  I do make sure that I match, so I haven’t totally abandoned my formerly-vain self 🙂

Speaking of running, I put in another 3.4 miles.  Cried some more.  I’ve learned to tuck a few tissues into my fanny pack.  Somedays I don’t need them, but today, boy, did I ever!  My mix of music, which I’ve eased back into listening to, is about 300 songs.  They randomly play, with no apparent rhyme or reason.  During my last 5 runs, I’ve heard the same 2 songs at some point on the trail.  They are:  “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, and “I Am” by Bon Jovi.  Kansas was really Mark’s all-time favorite group, and those of you who know he’s a Kansan through and through will understand.  But the words!  Oh my goodness, those words and the haunting melody mean so much more to me now that he’s gone:

I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment’s gone
All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see

Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind

Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away, all your money won’t another minute buy

Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind 

And the other, by BonJovi?  It’s been our special song for the past few years.  Mark never much cared for my cd selection whenever he would drive my car.  Imagine that, a man that doesn’t particularly enjoy listening to Pink or Katy Perry.  Thankfully, he found Bon Jovi’s cd, Have a Nice Day, and liked it.  “I Am” is beautiful.  Here are the lyrics:

How you spend your minutes are what matters
All tomorrows come from yesterday’s
When you’re feeling broke and bruised and sometimes shattered
Blew out the candles on the cake like everything’s a big mistake
It seems you always wait for life to happen
And your last buck can’t buy a lucky break
If all we’ve got is us then lifes worth living
And if you’re in, you know I’m in
I’m ready and I’m willing

I Am
When you think that no-one needs you
Sees you or believes you
No ones there to understand
I Am
I’ll be there to be that someone
When you think that no one, is there to hold your hand
I Am

We’re just who we are, there’s no pretending
It takes a while to learn to live in your own skin
Say a prayer that we might find our happy ending
And if you’re in, you know I’m in
I’m ready and I’m willing


And I aint got no halo hanging over my head
I aint gonna judge you, I’m just here to love you
I Am
I Am

There’s actually one other one that seems to keep re-playing, as well, but I will save that one and see what comes of it.  I came home from the trail all cried out, but content.

Mark and I moved to Wichita Falls in 1992.  We knew no one here at that time.  New town, new neighbors, new church, new jobs, new everything.  He jumped in, headfirst, and got involved immediately in city and community work, using his job as a foundation for life-long relationships.  And he was very good at it.  A couple of years after we moved here, he came home and sheepishly said, “Honey, folks are starting to recognize me whenever I’m out and about in town.” I laughed.  My reply?  “You’re full of you-know-what.  There’s no way people are recognizing you this soon after moving to town!” But he insisted, saying residents were, indeed, doing so.  I still didn’t believe him. 

A few weeks later, we were at a gas station.  He was outside, filling the tank, while I sat in the passenger’s seat.  As God as my witness, the guy filling up his truck next to us looked at Mark and said, “Say, aren’t you Mark Howell???”  The look on Mark’s face as he glanced at me was priceless….he beamed that magnificent smile, and replied, “Why yes I am…and you are?”  Man, did I ever take alot of teasing for not believing him.  And, of course, as the years passed, more and more people recognized him.  He was on television often, and had his weekly outdoor column with the local paper for the past 6 years. 

Fast foward to today.  I took the boys to church for choir and handbell practice, then headed to JC Penney for a little shopping therapy.  An older lady working there was straightening sweaters, and I greeted her as I was looking around.  She was so pleasant and sweet, we began discussing sales and the upcoming holidays.  Whenever she mentioned Thanksgiving, I mentioned that I was dreading the holidays since losing my husband at the end of July.  She stopped in her tracks, quizzically looked at me and said, “Are you Mark Howell’s wife?”  And I replied, “Why yes I am.”

She told me how she read his weekly columns.  Of how sad she was whenever she learned of his death.  While reading his obit she asked God why did He have to take him away from his young sons, his wife, and his community that he was doing so much for.  She told of how she’s now following my weekly musings and enjoying them.  We talked for a few more minutes, I encouraged her to join the Texas Master Naturalists group, which he began, and we exchanged goodbyes.

As I crawled into my car to head back to church, I was overcome with a mixture of amazement, sadness, and thankfulness.  Amazed that I had been recognized, only a mere two months after beginning my paper writing.  Sad that Mark wasn’t here to be proudly beaming about it.  And thankful that I had been given the opportunity to continue his work, even in some small way, in this community.  God continues to give me exactly what I need, when I need it.  I needed that moment in Penney’s today. 

I vowed in that car this afternoon that I will try to do more of what he would’ve continued in this community if he had lived.  I’ve applied for one of the vacant positions on the city’s Park Board.  He served on it for more than one term, and I hope to get the opportunity to serve, as well.  I will continue to write for the paper as long as they’ll put up with me.  I’ve been invited to go out on the water with his crew, for trap netting and electrofishing. 

There are other ideas I have, floating around in this sometimes-foggy brain, and we’ll see where God leads me.  Mark left some awfully big shoes to fill, but the path he laid out and walked is crystal clear.  I just need the faith to follow it, put my own spin on it, and continue his work.  Mark believed I could do anything, he told me that on a regular basis.  And you know what?  I’m finally beginning to believe it myself. 

Stay tuned.  This could be the start of something…..


Celebrating "Saint Daddy"…..

Took advantage of the first All Saints’ Day after losing Mark by celebrating and remembering.  You know, in all my years on this earth, I never really took notice of this most holy holiday…..guess up until now, it didn’t really strike a chord with me.  But today was different.  An email from a dear friend here in Wichita Falls with All Saints’ sentiments, coupled with two facebook messages, one from a high school classmate I just re-connected with in July, the other from a local friend who has just lost her father, all spoke to me, albeit in different ways.  Two of the three friends have known Mark personally; the other has never met him.  All  three know the impact this good man has had on both our Howell, family of three, and the greater community. 

One has lost a son to tragic circumstances & can identify with my grief journey.  Another has had her share of trials in life, and knows that my husband loved her and her sons mightily.  The third, who just lost her daddy, tells me that from reading my blog and posts, she feels that she can go on, that the grief doesn’t have to define who she is. 

I feel blessed to call all three of these women friends. All three are from different phases of my life; if you stood us all side-by-side, you might not see our similarities with the naked eye.  Yet, on a spiritual level, we are all sisters in Christ.  We share a bond that can never be broken and will always keep us connected.  Whether you’ve lost a best friend and spouse, a child, a daddy, or dreams & relationships, you grieve.  Each path is different, just as each person is.  But the God of us all never lets go of our hand, even through the valley of the shadow of death, through circumstances that we think that we can never process. 

One told of a balloon release done in honor of her son, and that option had already crossed my mind today.  Her suggestion reinforced my decision, and I took it as a sign from above to move forward with my original plan.  Sunday, 11/6, our church will honor those members who have died this past year, and we’ll place a rose at the altar in Mark’s memory.  What better way to prepare our boys for that ceremony than to make today a celebration of their daddy’s life?  Balloons are fun and festive, and the boys were all for it.  We talked about what a saint was, and they both agreed that Mark was a new saint and deserved a special ceremony to initiate him into the “club.”  I brought home beautiful purple and white balloons, and we traipsed to our big backyard.  One by one, we took turns, holding a balloon in our hands, as we talked to our daddy and husband.  My mom even took a turn.  I loved hearing the boys talk to their daddy, their love and faith is so pure, yet so simple.  How I pray for the level of faith they have!  Sure, there were a few tears…but the smiles and laughs far outnumbered them. 

It’s impossible to remember my husband without smiling—forget that, if you knew him at all, you’d be laughing!  He lived life to the fullest, with gusto, and love, fun, and humor.  He may not have lived long enough, years-wise, but he put more living into 55 years than most folks do if they live to see 100. 

So we laughed through our tears as the balloons sailed away, confident that we’d done Daddy proud.  Now, our sons are more prepared for the Sunday service, and for a service to be held in a couple of weeks at the chapel of the hospital where Mark died. 

I know that Mark’s in great company, up with the rest of the saints, keeping a good watch over loved ones.  I know that he is close by, because I can feel him.  I know that I will see him once again someday.  And I know that he is proud of us and the decisions we are making.  It makes life bearable.  It keeps me honest.  It keeps me praying.  It keeps me smiling and looking upward. And it keeps me going.