A mere six months ago, I kissed my sweet husband goodnight, and we snuggled into our big old bed for what would unfortunately be our last night at home together. Looking back, I cannot fathom that it was just another ordinary night. Sure, we knew he had to be at the hospital for his “routine” surgery early the next morning; we had no idea that it would go so wrong. I can still picture him walking into the boys’ room, waking them just a little so he could give them one of his special “full body” hugs and a kiss before we headed out at 5am that morning.
An ordinary night. An ordinary day. You never know what might be your last. I don’t want to bring anyone down, but from my sad experience, take a little bit of advice. Cherish every loved one in your life. Be thankful that they are in it. Live each day, ordinary or not, like it is extraordinary, trying to squeeze all the gusto and fun and laughter you can out of it. I’m reminded of a Don Henley song, I’m not even sure of the title, but in it he says, “There’s just so many summers, and so many springs…”
A soft gentle rain is falling on Wichita Falls as I write this. I’m tired, it’s been a busy day. I am so thankful for my friends….have I told you that lately? One special family, Mike & Pat, graciously offer to take Andrew to basketball practice with their son, Anthony, every Monday and Tuesday night. That is such a gift, especially on Tuesdays, when AJ’s at school until 4, Ben has piano from 5 to 6, AJ leaves for practice at 6:15, returning around 9. Knowing they are taking care of Andrew means the world to me. I went through the drive-thru at McDonald’s twice tonight in 30 minutes–the first time for Andrew, dropping food off for him, then running to pick up Ben, and going back by McD’s for his dinner. By the time we made it home, Andrew was gone already. He came home tired, with a sprained ankle.
Mark’s mom is packing up a lifetime of memories, sorting through a house full of things, as she plans on moving from the big farmhouse she was raised in, the home she raised four children in. I look at all the change I’ve seen and been a part of in the past year, and it’s both humbling and overwhelming. She is looking forward to moving into town, to a retirement village filled with cousins and good friends. It’s bittersweet for me, to see the old farmhouse vacated; she will rent it after it is emptied this summer.
It’s been the constant in my life for almost a quarter of a century. We’ve stayed in it all seasons of the year, I love the way the stairs creak whenever the boys bound down them. I enjoy sitting on her front porch, where I’ve witnessed first hand God’s artistry and majesty in some of the most lovely sunsets imaginable. And unlike here, in the suburbs, the sunset there is unobstructed, as are the sunrises on the opposite side of the house.
Last spring while visiting, Mark came in from outside, after dark, remarking about the stars and the Milky Way. I walked out to the front yard, looked overhead, and saw the most beautiful swirl of millions of stars, the Milky Way in all its glory. The farm is just far enough from town that there’s no ambient light, so you get front row seats to the stars. I’d often wondered why it’s called the Milky Way….now I know. So many stars, they look like milk against a blue-black sky. In that moment, I really felt how small I am in this big creation God’s made.
Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Do Everything” reminds me that no one is insignificant; no act is insignificant. No day is ordinary when we are glorifying God. The lyrics are lovely, the tune catchy. It’s my new favorite running song:
Dear Andrew & Ben,
There have been only a few times since we’ve lost your daddy I’ve felt called to write to you specifically. This blog is for you, after all, and most of the entries are just my thoughts and feelings as we traverse through this maze of emotions and sometimes-harsh realizations. It is my hope that at some point in the future, whenever you are both a bit older, you can read these entries and gain both comfort and perspective about your dad’s death; we’ve come a long way in these almost-six months, but we still have far to go.
I want to explain to you a decision that I’ve come to gradually over the past 3 weeks. We discussed it in a general way yesterday, with my giving you as much information and justification as I thought you could handle at your ages.
I’ve discontinued wearing my wedding rings, at least on a regular basis. It was one of the hardest, most poignant decisions thus far that I’ve made. But it feels right, and I feel the need to express the reasoning behind it.
I loved your dad with every fiber of my being. I still love him. He was the single most influential person in my life…from age 22, whenever we first met, to now, as I look at my 49th birthday less than 3 months away. Marrying him was the best decision I ever made, and we had it all. Losing him was the toughest, most painful day of my life.
After his death, I took comfort in wearing his wedding band on my ring finger, flanking it with my band; it was loose, but my ring anchored it. I put aside the diamonds he gave me, and that’s a big adjustment for me, in itself; you know I’ve always loved diamonds, for heaven’s sake, they are my birthstone 🙂 ! I could look down at my hand anytime I wanted, and seeing those two rings, stacked on my finger, made my days seem just a little bit more bearable. He gave me his band the day he had his surgery, along with his drivers license; I still have the license in my wallet, and the band will always be precious to me.
With all that being said, as we have progressed through the months, I began to feel a bit odd, still wearing the bands. In my mind, over and over, I hear the vows we took. They end with “til death to us part.” If anyone had asked me 5 months ago if I’d be putting the rings away, I would’ve thought they were nuts—and been highly offended that the question was even raised.
But here in the past few weeks, I’ve felt the need, no, the desire, to take them off from time to time. Kind of like whenever you started to learn to ride your bikes, and Dad removed one training wheel. As you gained confidence, and got your bearings on the balance you needed, he removed the other one. Before long, you were riding like you’d done it your whole life.
I’ve done much soul searching, a lot of praying and meditating about this. I truly believe that God is telling me that it is okay to take off those bands. They will always be a symbol of your parents’ love for each other, of the commitment we made before God in 1988. But your dad’s now in heaven; nothing we can say or do can change that harsh reality.
Our lives have forever changed. We are now a family of three. I believe with all of my heart that your dad wants us to move forward. One of the quotes I keep coming back to is one that Sharon Randall, syndicated columnist for our paper, shared after her husband died. A close friend wrote to her soon after her beloved Randy passed away:
I am perfectly happy being alone. It’s strange, I never thought I would be able to say that. Once again, God’s grace is at work. Although I do get tired from time to time of wearing these “big girl boots,” the decisions I am forced to make now, as head of the household, are also empowering.
God is gracefully moving me forward on this path I didn’t choose. I feel His love & mercy healing me in ways that I never anticipated this soon after Mark’s death. Hence, the more upbeat blog entries of late.
But don’t get me wrong. I still have my rocky moments on a daily basis. Moments where I cry out, times whenever the tears readily flow. Instances in which, for a split second, I think of some event or happening that I cannot wait to share with Mark…and just as soon as the thought enters my mind, it’s replaced with the sad realization that I cannot share with him anymore. Other than his laugh, I miss that most about him. We were best friends, able to talk about anything. We didn’t have secrets, we had the same sense of humor, we loved the same sports.
I could discuss any subject with him, use him as my sounding board. And he was so intelligent and well-versed on such a wide variety of subjects! From football to politics to ichthyology to botany to pop culture to scripture to baseball to the stock market and finance…you name it, he was knowledgeable about it….and could successfully argue his point on most anything. His wide range of knowledge was sometimes frustrating for me, because he was rarely ever wrong. Wives, you know what I’m saying here?
Since my life has taken a more positive slant, I assumed our boys’ had, as well. Recent family counseling sessions haven’t been as fruitful, the boys seem to be processing this major change as well as can be expected. I’m on full alert each day, trying to pick up non-verbal signals from either of them if I think they are troubled or feeling sad.
They are processing this loss on a whole different playing field than I am. For as much as I mourn and miss my husband, my love, my best friend, they are missing their father. The man they look up to more than anyone else in the world, the person that they are hoping to be like some day. The one that rough-housed with them on a daily basis, the one who had the strong hugs, lots of manly kisses, who would pull them into his big recliner, just to squeeze them and inquire about their days. The one who would teach them to be godly men, and how to treat women with respect. I know that I can do many of those things, but there are some that I physically cannot.
Mark enjoyed specific shows on television. Sports, especially professional baseball & football, took priority over every other genre. He loved college baseball, football, and basketball, as well. The History Channel followed as a close second behind, with shows like “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” set to record new episodes. They are still recording, I can’t bring myself to delete the timers. The boys watch the shows, too, it was something they would share together.
Last night, as the boys lay on either side of me in my big bed, the television volume was too loud, and they had been watching Pawn Stars. It continued to blare down the hallway as they wound down. I thought Andrew was almost asleep, but found that he was sobbing into his pillow. “I miss Dad,” he cried. “The volume’s too loud, and his favorite show is on. He should be down there in his chair, watching. And you should be yelling for him to turn the volume down so we can go to sleep!” As I try to console him, I hear Ben crying softly on my other side. Little things like that are what take us back to the raw emotion of our grief. All I could do was hold them, and my tears came, as well.
Saturday evening, another example. I took the boys out to eat. We went to Logan’s Roadhouse, where we’ve been as a family of 4 countless times. We’ve been out, just the three of us, quite a bit, but for some reason, as we sat in a booth, with Ben & I on one side, and Andrew on the other, that spot next to A.J. just looked so incredibly empty and big. Andrew & Mark always sat together, and Ben & I, likewise. It felt like we were missing our 4th wheel. And we are.
We are making it. No doubt about it. But it’s hard. I find myself relying more and more on scripture and prayer. The scriptures that seem to comfort me the most, at least lately, are found in the Old Testament. Something about the general themes of anticipation and longing for a Saviour, the documentation of daily human struggles speak volumes to me now. Before all of this happened, I was more of a New Testament kind of girl. Now, Psalms, Lamentations, Jeremiah, and Joel are fueling me.
Today, the weather in Wichita Falls was nothing short of spectacular. Temps in the upper 60s, a breeze from the east, sun shining brightly down upon all of God’s creatures…I can think of far worse places to spend my winters than here. In a perfect world, I’d live here in the three seasons of the year that are cool & kind (fall, winter, and spring); for the hotter than hell summers, I’d head to the mountains, or the lovely northeast where relatives reside. Those relatives tonight are experiencing single digit temperatures, but it sure is nice there in July.
We’ve had a good day, spending our morning hours in church, with beloved church friends & family. Our pastor gave an exceptional sermon dealing with the issues of creationism vs. science; the two are not necessarily diametrically opposed. As a scientist (biology degree, chemistry minor) I appreciate the Biblical story of creation; however, I believe in the scientific evidence of an evolution of sorts. What I most appreciate is my pastor understanding both, too. My first experience with these subjects came in high school, where my biology teacher gave us both sides, and illustrated them by physically jumping from one side of the classroom to the other, as he told of the two. He emphasized that one could either believe creationism, evolution, or some mixture of the two. That has always stuck with me, and I still believe that the story of creation is man’s explanation and interpretation of what took place. And I know Who set it all in motion. God, who set the world in motion, is still handling things today, in 2012. I feel it. I am comforted by it. And I anticipate great things, as He has promised in His word.
This afternoon, I worked my stubborn 48 pound German Short hair in the backyard, as we practiced the new skills she must master in her obedience class. She’s smart, almost too smart, in my opinion. It takes all the strength and focus I can muster to get her to go in the direction I want her to go. I have the leash, the collar that tightens whenever she pulls too far ahead, or when she decides to sit on her well-muscled hind quarters as I tug at her. We stare each other down, nose to nose, brown eyes to brown eyes. And in the end, I’m bigger than she is, stronger than she is, and I have the collar/leash combo. So she follows. As she trots beside me, doing what she needs to do, the leash is loose and the collar is resting on her neck. You’d think as smart as she is that she would figure out sooner or later to do what I ask of her, so that the tugging and tightness would stop.
I think at times in my life, this is analogous to how I’ve been with God. I know what I need to do. He has the implements to guide me–in Maggie’s case it’s a leash & collar, in my case, it’s the Bible and Christian friends–but I am stubborn and think that my way is better. I tug to get my way, sometimes going down a path that I fully know will not turn out well. Sometimes I sit on my hindquarters, too stubborn to move whenever I know it’s the only way to grow spiritually. And sometimes, it gets to the point of God getting down on my level, nose to nose, looking deep into my eyes, before I get it. He’s got my best interests at heart. He knows what I need, well before I know what I need. He sees the road ahead, and plans for the bumps and curves that I will most likely encounter. He also walks beside me, and doesn’t want me to get too far ahead of him, or fall too far behind. For it’s when I’m beside Him that my yoke and troubles are at their easiest. Hmmm….maybe Maggie taught me something after all today 🙂
A friend forwarded me a devotion last month, during the tumultuous days before Christmas, from a blog called “A Widow’s Might.” I found the site to be very inspiring, it is good to see Christian women in circumstances somewhat like mine, with children, jobs, problems, all relying on God to be their strong foundation. Of course, the title is taken from Jesus’ story about the widow who place two mites in the temple offerings. Others with more wealth gave more money, but in Jesus’ eyes, she’d given the most because it was all she had.
I’ve kept that “widow’s might” phrase in my subconscious since then. It seems to help me believe that I do have the “might” or strength to get through my circumstances. It reminds me that I am not alone. Imagine my surprise and delight to find, while thumbing through my favorite catalog, the James Avery collection, a new charm for spring, the widow’s mite. It is sterling silver, and is beautifully reproduced to look like the coin from ancient times. You know I had to have one. This afternoon, I walked into the James Avery store and asked to see it. I explained to the salesperson why I wanted it, and what it meant to me. She smiled knowingly, helping me place it on my necklace with the ‘Best Mom’ charm. Whenever I got home, I called both boys over to see it, and explained why I was wearing it with the necklace & charm they gave me for Christmas. They approved.
I know a charm has no mystical power. I know that my power comes from prayer, from trusting in God, and from studying His word. But I like the feel of it against my neck, the way it looks. And I love what it represents to me and my boys. In my opinion, this is money well spent.
Hope I can say the same for the obedience class for Maggie Mae.
I got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. this morning….on purpose. Andrew had a date with a 20 gauge shotgun, some ducks, and a group of hunters/mentors at Lake Arrowhead State Park. His ride was coming at 5:15.
Amazingly, he got up without much coaxing on my part, much better than whenever he is going to school. I made a parental decision that just one day missed of school was worth it for this opportunity. And here’s why:
Yesterday, my older son & I had the time of our lives. We suited up in camo, had all the correct licenses, stamps, and permits, and went on a mentored duck hunt. He was the only youth in attendance, I was only one of three female hunters. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has partnered with Delta Waterfowl and the Texas State Rifle Association to conduct these mentored hunts; it’s a relatively new endeavor, this hunt being only the 3rd in the state.
For the orientation, I was the only female. Walking into a room of hunters, men I don’t know, I really don’t know what to expect. But being married to a life-long hunter, I recognize the qualities of these guys as I step into the room. I am greeted warmly. There’s lots of laughing, chuckling, swapping of stories. Every one in attendance made Andrew feel special and welcomed. Several know of Mark, and a couple even know me.
Andrew and I head out to the blind with Sarah, our friend, and our two hunter mentors, Chad and Travis. Chad’s 15 month old chocolate lab, Izzy, accompanies us. It’s a beautiful afternoon, but we are dressed for the weather change that should sweep through the area around 4pm. It’s a slow start, we don’t see any ducks up close and personal. Like clockwork, at 4:10 pm, the clouds roll in, and the wind shifts to the north. Andrew, who is loving all of this, is happy I forced him to wear his long johns 🙂
Since the blind’s not seeing any action, we hop into Chad’s truck and head over to a small pond, in hopes of a surprise attack. I wish you could’ve seen Andrew, sneaking along in front of me, Travis at his side, giving him advice and positive reinforcement. We line up, the 5 of us, as we get ready to stand and blast away. On the count of 3, we stand. Four ducks are on the pond, we start shooting as they scatter. Andrew has two shells in his pump shotgun, but he only requires one. He hits a female gadwall duck, winging it. It drops, not too far away, dead. His look? Incredulous. Man, I wish I’d swapped my gun for the camcorder before leaving the truck!
Another duck is shot, and we go to retrieve them. Andrew has a carrier, both ducks are put into it, and we head back. There are fist bumps, and once back at the truck, lots of photos taken. He’s hooked. TPWD and partners, you succeeded in getting my 10 year old son to groove on hunting. You can look at his face and see a lifetime of hunting in his future. I had a great time, too, and the fun we had together, the two of us, is priceless.
As we return to the meeting hall, every hunter we meet is genuinely excited for Andrew. They gather around a table outside, as Andrew & Travis take the birds out of the carriers. Travis shows A.J. how to dress his bird. I snap away, as I see my son, next to his mentor, surrounded by a dozen or so men. And this unlikely scripture flashes through my mind:
I’ve had a good week. It’s so wonderful to be able to type that. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way. There is so much to write about, so much to tell. I really don’t know where to begin. Since the day Mark died, I’ve kept Jeremiah 29:11 in my heart, on my mind, in my house, on wall hangings, on plaques, to remind me that God has a plan for me, for my boys. A plan to prosper us, and give us a good future. That’s what I’ve been clinging to, it has literally helped me put one foot in front of the other some days whenever I just didn’t think I could go on.
It’s one thing to pray and hope for a good future whenever you have no earthly idea of what’s coming down the road. It’s another thing altogether to begin to see the possibilities as they unfold–I find it to be exhilarating, overwhelming, and a bit scary.
I’ve said all along, whatever God has in store for us will have to be outstanding, because what we had with Mark was pretty phenomenal. Whenever he died, a big old door closed for my family. Plans had to be let go of…my hands were clinging to intricate retirement plans, plans to move to the country, to build a house, to put the boys in the schools Mark attended, to plant huge gardens, to restore our pasture to native prairie, to raise German Short hair pointer pups…the list goes on & on & on. Over the course of the past months, I’ve learned to slowly but surely open my hands, and release the dreams and plans we had. All the time I’ve been letting these dreams go, I’ve clung to the promise that new plans and dreams had to be on the horizon for us.
I began writing. First by taking over the weekly outdoor column that Mark had written for the Times Record News. Then shortly thereafter, I began this blog. Both have provided me outlets for my thoughts, my prayers, my hopes. There have been rough patches. I look back at this blog, and there are entries where my raw emotions are just splatted out on the page for God and all to see. I have had some very dark days. But through those dark days, I’ve had God carrying me. The blog and column have allowed me to actively work toward healing, toward a wholeness that I thought I might never experience again.
I’ve gotten numerous responses from my writings in the paper. A week ago, I got an email from an editor over 7 newspapers in the Scripps family that started me thinking outside of the box. Now, Mark always joked that I never thought outside the box, and I would reply that “the box” was cozy, comfy, and I knew where the boundaries are….and that’s how I pretty much have lived my life. But the editor’s email, along with urgings from others, has opened a window for me (“when God closes a door, He opens a window”). I have a new goal, to try to get my little column syndicated this year. I don’t know if I will be successful, but I think I have a legitimate shot. Folks say that I’ve struck a chord with them, that I have something worthwhile to say. Like I wrote in my first column, I’m now the single mother with children that Mark wanted to reach, the ones that sometimes fall through the cracks, and never gain a love and appreciation for the great outdoors. Maybe I can help others who may find themselves in similar situations. If in some small way, I can make someone else’s journey a bit easier, or a bit less painful by putting my story out there, it is well worth any embarrassment I might feel over sharing.
If this unfolds like I think it might, it is plainly God at work, pure and simple. Am I ready for it? Nope. But I will try my best to push forward, prepare and promote myself to achieve the best possible outcome.
In the meantime, I have much to do. It absolutely blows my mind that I may be looking at a whole new career, one that I would’ve never had the opportunity to try if our circumstances hadn’t so drastically changed. And to top it all off, I’m shooting clays with Mark’s shotgun, taking my kid to a mentored duck hunt at Lake Arrowhead Wednesday, and going back on Thursday to hunt myself.
I laugh and tell the boys that I used to shop at the mall….now I shop at Academy and at sporting goods departments of Target and Walmart. Life has changed. It’s different….it’s not what I imagined. But it’s still good. Mark Howell, I will always love you. Thank you for showing me that life really is better outside. You were one in a million, and heaven is a more fun place, I’m positive, since your arrival. We are doing our best to make you proud.
~I’m at peace. That’s what I feel, finally, for the first time in well over 5 months. God’s peace has washed over me, at a time when I least expected it. I worried about the holidays, wished for January to hurry up and get here, and my little family made it through. Peace came Christmas Eve night. I hope it never leaves!
~I’m content. In the current circumstance I am in, I am content. Do I wish things were different? Sure. You don’t have what I had and not miss it. But I’ve decided to be content in my situation. I don’t have Mark beside me, but I have two wonderful kids, a host of family and friends, a church and community that embraces us, and a God that will not let me go.
~I’m happy. Happiness is a choice, pure and simple. Each and every day as I awaken, I choose whether the day I’m facing will be one where I am happy, or one where I am downcast and sad. There have been way too many of the latter. I choose happy, and will continue to do so, over, and over, and over again. Soon, like any other good habit, it will become second nature, just as my running has become over the past two years.
~I’m hopeful. Hope is what keeps us afloat each and every day. Hoping that tomorrow will be better than today, with new adventures and new experiences awaiting the boys and me. Hope for a future that will be good.
~I’m confident. This one’s been a bit harder to master, but I’m getting there. For 25 years, I was content to sit back and let my husband lead. He was the true head of our household. But now, it’s me. The 22-year old me (before Mark) was shy & unsure of herself. The 48-year old me (because of Mark) is anything but shy, and is becoming stronger & stronger each day. Having two boys who think I’m totally in control (even when sometimes, I’m totally faking it!) helps. They make me want to be better, do better…..and I always have their best interests in mind during my decision-making. Confidence is just the by-product.
~I’m more sensitive. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’ve seen first-hand how short life can be. It’s just a vapor, a second, whenever compared to eternity. So, I listen more closely, tend to cry more often. I’ve slowed down my life (Mark used to say that I’d go at life like I was “killing snakes”…which was not meant as a compliment). I take time to relax…breathe…pray….and wonder at all God’s given me.
~I’m amazed at the grace God continues to give me. The mercy that I see in each new day. The love that never has abandoned me, that never will. And the sad fact is, I knew all of this stuff before losing Mark….I just didn’t take the time to embrace it, or act on it.
My eyes have been opened. So have my hands.