I love the devotion book “Jesus Calling,” by Sarah Young. My sister in Christ–Mark’s ICU nurse who so lovingly cared for him–brought it to me shortly after his death. I try to read it daily, but admit that sometimes I get a few days behind. The devotion for August 9th really struck a chord with me. I’m not sure why, actually. But here it is, in its entirety:
I’m wearing a boot. A blasted black walking boot. Stepping into a hole off my back porch, a week and a half ago, I thought I just had a bad sprain. After several days of swelling and pain, I gave in and went to the doctor. A hairline fracture of the fibula, right above my right ankle bone, is the diagnosis. It doesn’t really hurt, just aches some, but I will be a good girl and a good patient and wear the boot. Hopefully it will be healed 100% in a few weeks so I can start my running routine again.
I’ve slowed down considerably, even though I have a list of projects to work on. Friends tell me the ankle is God’s way of saying “slow down!”, and I tend to agree. Even though physically I’ve slowed, mentally, I’m going 100 miles per hour. Last night long after boys were asleep, I could just not shut down my brain. I was awake well past 2 a.m., making “to do ” lists for here and for Kansas.
We’ve begun the slow detailed process of separating the boys into their own bedrooms. Since 1992, our spare bedroom closet has housed miscellaneous stuff. Anything that didn’t really have a home anywhere else found a cozy one in that closet. Only problem? That closet must be emptied. I have an eager 10 year old ready to fill it with his clothes, sports equipment, and games.
I opened that closet door yesterday. I kid you not, it was piled eye-level high full. How in the name of heaven can a family acquire so much “stuff”? I have no linen closet, so sheets have always been stored there. Mark had a box of nostalgic things to go through (most of which I saved for the boys). Winter coats? All stored there (also no hall closet in this house!). Gift wrapping supplies? I got lots of ’em. Christmas dishes? Yep, they’re there, too. Air mattresses (deflated), spare blankets, hunting equipment, Hot Wheels tracks, a box of baby clothes, a sack of antique plastic army men, cowboys, indians, and horses, etc. etc.
As I began to drag things out, the sheer volume of my “stuff” overwhelmed me. No one should have this much crap to deal with. I filled three trashbags for Goodwill. I filled my trash in the garage.
I look around at what Mark has left behind. He was very sentimental, and kept many things. But the Hot Wheels tracks were deemed trash. The army men, cowboys, and indians made the cut and will be saved. So will the adorably-small Bullpups Little League cap & matching small ball glove 🙂 I love them.
I found newspapers for both boys, saved for the dates of their births–Dec 26, 2001 and June 24, 2003–I just wish he could be the one to give the papers to his sons one day. I know he’d say, “Son, here’s what was happening in the world, and in Wichita Falls, TX, the day you were born.”
We’ve rearranged furniture. We’re tackling one room at a time, designating items to one of 5 boxes: 1) put away (for things not where they belong), 2) throw away, 3) donate to Goodwill, 4) keep, and 5) nostalgia (keep because it has some special meaning to a family member). So far, it’s working well. The good thing is that I can sort while the stupid black boot is on…sitting on the floor, it doesn’t feel like it weighs 10 lbs 🙂
I feel God, even as I’m sorting through my possessions. Mark’s possessions, all left behind whenever he went in that great whirlwind up to heaven last year, are many. But the ones he cherished? They are sitting on either side of me as we go through these boxes. His boys…that’s what matters. That’s what I’ll nurture. They are what I would give my life for.
Thank you God for my two important possessions, my gifts of Andrew and Ben. As long as I have them, along with You, your Holy Spirit, and your Son, I can get by just fine. Even if I am clunking around with a heavy, ugly boot that scares my cat 🙂
“Mom, if you had the opportunity to either be who you are today, or go back and be, say, 25 again, which would you pick?” Andrew Joseph asks from the front passenger seat of the Toyota truck.
Wow. I had to stop and think about that one for a minute. You see, when I turned 25, I became engaged to the boys’ daddy, and the next 23 years were filled with love, laughter, and all-out fun. Each and every day. I miss those days. The three of us, well, we’re doing okay, and we laugh together quite often…but it’s not the same as living with “Mr. Fun.”
“A.J., that’s a great question. And even though it would be wonderful to be 25 again, especially if it meant starting over again with your daddy, I have to say that I would rather be who and where I am today.” Those words came out of my mouth? Yes, they most certainly did.
I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s in the world. And I really don’t want to be 25 again. Looking back, I was so naive. I just hadn’t been out in the world. I led a sheltered, happy life in Western Kentucky. I’ll never forget the chairman of the Biology dept. chuckling before our wedding, saying, “Nancy, you’re going to discover there’s a whole big world outside of Mayfield, KY.” Maryland and Texas were the two states that were home to us as a married couple…Maryland for 2 years, Texas for the other 20.
Plus, if I went back to being 25, I wouldn’t have my Andrew and my Benjamin—the singularly two best things Mark Howell and I ever did. Their faith, their strength, and their empathy continually amaze me.
Don’t get me wrong…they are still 9 and 10 year old boys, prone to disgusting sounds and raunchy humor, just as apt to start wrestling each other in the floor as they are to help around the house. But they are my 9 and 10 year olds 🙂
I took the afternoon to begin going through things piled in our garage. I brought home several boxes of miscellaneous treasures from the Kansas farm, leaving practically no place for us to walk between vehicles.
Mark’s mom kept many things. We have teased her that she may have kept too much at times, but the things I went through this afternoon were truly keepsakes. She kept every letter Mark wrote them, and after we were married, we would both write. It is so funny to read about what he was doing, especially as he was getting ready to “pop the big one” (his term for proposing) to me in April of 1986. There are letters of him waxing poetic about how content and happy he is, as our wedding approaches. While he was readying for his TPWD interview while we were in Maryland, he agonizes about the long wait, before hearing he did, in fact, secure the job. He sends a job notice to his parents, circled in red, with “This is the job I got!” at the bottom. He wrote them frequently from his work computer, and I never read those letters until today. Thank you, my sweet mother-in-law, for saving these for me and our boys.
Mark saved every letter I wrote him. Every card I sent, too. I love reading my prose, seeing how young and wide-eyed I was about the world in general. He was my knight in shining armor, and I thought he could do no wrong.
Twenty five years later, looking back, I may have been naive about many things, but I was 100% on target about him. He was a great guy, and rarely did do wrong. He helped me become the woman I am today. With his encouragement, I gained confidence and self-esteem. He tirelessly worked to provide for our family, spiritually, intellectually, and monetarily.
I’m beginning to look at things like these letters and photos, with more of a realistic fondness. There’s rarely the sobbing and heavy weeping that would’ve accompanied an afternoon of sorting like this 6 months ago. I can smile, shake my head, and give a little chuckle, while at the same time have a couple of tears run down my cheeks. He was awesome. He was mine. But now he is God’s….
I believe that a deep healing has begun in me. Not only in me, but in my boys. The trip to Kansas for the one year mark was difficult, but so very necessary. As much as we love him and we miss him, life is going on. We wish he were here physically. But we know he is here spiritually.
There will always be a part of me that loves him. Heck, I’ve loved him since I was 22 years old. But God is helping me move forward, and is opening new doors for us. There will never be another Mark Howell. God pretty much broke the mold with him.
It is my prayer that my family is content with just us three, but if God sees fit to bring someone else to us down the road, we will welcome that, all of us, with open arms. These boys have so much love to give. And I would just like someone to cook for every once in awhile 🙂
I am amazed at the greatness of my God. He is magnificent, He is my confidante, He is my closest friend. And I might have never gotten this close to God if I hadn’t walked the difficult path I’ve walked for the past 13 months. Just goes to show you that God can weave good from anything.
In some of Mark’s personal papers, I ran across a church directory from his home church, circa 1985. As I flipped it over, there is a poem, author unknown. It is beautiful, and I had never heard it before.
It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Friday. I sit at my dining room table, still in my pajamas, my right foot elevated and wrapped in ice. I stepped off my back porch and into a small hole last evening, spraining my ankle.
I was with a contractor, who was showing me my empty beautiful backyard, after he and a crew of 6 worked tirelessly for two full days, removing my jacuzzi, decking, concrete walkway, wisteria, and underlying supports. The jacuzzi, circa 1985-ish, had seen its best days. The cover had been chewed by a bird dog. It was time to get rid of the mess.
As I stumbled in the hole, the contractor instinctively reached out to support me. After pulling off my shoes, I continued to walk the backyard with him. Things looked great, and I paid him.
Looking down at the ankle only a few minutes later, I see a baseball-sized swelling around the ankle. Uh oh. What will I do? I can’t be hobbling around the house, there’s way too much to do around here! We’ve been home less than a week, and every day, I’ve had projects to accomplish. This week alone, there’s been window installation, vinyl siding completion, painting, and backyard demolition. And that was just as of yesterday.
But everything stopped as I gingerly walked to Mark’s big recliner, and my two boys brought me pillows, ibuprofen, and a ziploc bag full of ice. They were so sweet and so attentive. Anything I needed they helped me with. We even foolishly ventured out to dinner, and I hobbled into the restaurant, holding onto A.J.’s arm. I propped the leg up in a spacious booth, and watched as my two boys declined the children’s menu, each devouring a teriyaki sirloin with sides. By the time we left, I could tell the ankle was worse. We drove home post haste.
They helped me back into the recliner. More ice and ibuprofen began to help. What was I going to do about the wet laundry in the washing machine? What about the two beds left to put clean sheets on? The world stopped, and I just sat. I had the two best nurses taking care of me.
I’m a “stuffer.” A person who takes boundary crossings, conflicts, disapproval, and negative comments to heart, “stuffing” them down inside. You see, I don’t like conflict. Never have. Instead of confronting people or issues that hurt or upset me, I bite my tongue, and stuff my true feelings way down deep inside of me.
At some point, though, I get stuffed beyond my limit. That’s whenever the rubber meets the road, whenever def con 2 is a real possibility. At capacity, it may just take one little comment to cause my stuffing to come bursting out. And woe to the poor person who happens to be on the other side.
I came to this realization in light of events in my life over the past month. Listening to Lysa TerKeurst, founder of Proverbs 31 Ministries, and author of the newly-released “Unglued,” I see myself in her descriptions. The book is a must-read, and has been instrumental in getting my raw emotions under control.
As I look back over my 49 years, I see it time and time again. Lots of stuffing, until I burst. Then I make a resolution not to allow boundaries to be crossed…but guess what? It happens again. And again.
For example, at age 9, my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. By the time I was aged 10, in the fourth grade, she had gotten worse, and was in much pain on a daily basis. My mother (her daughter-in-law), and various aunts began to take turns staying with her overnight. She needed constant care. What a showing of love that was for my grandmother! But as a 10 year old, I just knew that 2 to 3 times a week, my mom wasn’t going to be at home. I had to stay with my other grandmother. To make a long story short(er), I stuffed. Big time. Those feelings of stress, anger at my mom being gone, to other various feelings I had. The stuffing burst in the form of a stomach ulcer. Yep, 10 years old with an ulcer. Do you think I was a worrier?
I kept the peace in friendships at all costs. If you hurt my feelings, don’t worry about it. I would never tell you. If you overstepped your boundaries in our friendship, asking me for something personal like say, money, or some possession? I’d make up some lame excuse as to why I couldn’t. I’d never say, “You shouldn’t be asking me for this in the first place.”
Marrying Mark was the best decision I ever made. He was strong, forceful, confident. He was loving, genuine, and hardworking. But he was not a pushover. And if someone overstepped their boundaries with him, he would let them know about it, in no uncertain terms. Oh how I envied that trait!
He was so good at dealing with problems, I basically deferred them all to him. He couldn’t for the life of him understand why I would allow a few folks to mistreat me, take me for granted. He urged me to stand up for myself. But it was easier to do the opposite.
Then he was gone. In a blink of an eye, I went from a supporting cast member to starring role. Man, it’s a role I never wanted! But what you want and what you get are usually two different things, at least in my humble experience.
I’ve had an awakening, of sorts over the past 6 months. Now that he’s gone, and I’m responsible for the well-being and care of my family, I find that my stuffing capacity has greatly diminished. I feel more confident, setting boundaries with relationships and people that I have avoided in the past.
It’s empowering, to say the least. And scary. Not to mention folks that have pegged you as a pushover for a decade are seeing a side of you that they may not like very much.
I admit it. I make mistakes. I let go of a multitude of “stuff” a few weeks ago, and I am not proud of the way I handled it. I had to get real about certain situations in my life. I cannot “fix” them, nor can I continue to enable them to keep disrespecting me. Still,as a Christian, I could have done a better job of ending things. But I am human. I sin. I need to ask for help multiple times per day from my God and my Saviour.
And though I may not have handled the initial burst of “stuff” in a 100% Christian-like manner, I am proud to say that I have handled the resulting collateral damage as Jesus wants me to. My response? Simply no response. Just prayer for the situation and those involved.
So I continue to work on me. I’m glad God has patience. And forgives. Again and again. I’m trying my best not to repeat mistakes, because if I am truly repentant, it means I’ve turned 180 degrees and I’m not planning on doing the same bad stuff again.
I fall. I get back up. I fail. I try again. I sin. I ask for forgiveness. I repent. I do things differently….sometimes I think I need one of those shirts you see on kids, “Be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet.”
My friend Leah, also on A Widow’s Might writing team, tells me of the inscription on Ruth Graham’s (Billy’s wife) tombstone. It is perfect. Written on Mrs. Grahams stone is the following:
I’ve had numerous requests for the website I’ve begun writing blog entries for. Sorry for the shameless self-promotion, but here are the first two devotions written for them:
I’m just thankful for the opportunity to reach more widows…..Proverbs 31 Ministries rocks, please check out their website at www.proverbs31.org.
I Peter 5:6-7 (NCV)
James 1:2-5 (NCV)
I’m home. Back in Texas, where the temp here at almost 7pm is 109 degrees. The boys and I made it through the Kansas trip. It wasn’t easy, and there were times I wished I could’ve been anywhere but there, but with God’s help we persevered.
A friend suggested we compile a list of accomplishments, things the boys and I had done since Mark’s death. Whenever we sat down and thought about it, there were alot of entries. I asked the boys if they wanted to accompany me to his grave, so I could read the list to him. They both declined, and I certainly don’t want to force them to do anything such as this before they are ready. I would be fine if they never went to his grave. I’ve assured them he’s not there, anyway, it’s just the resting place for his earthly body that couldn’t be healed.
So, while aunts and uncle took boys to the local water park, I grabbed my journal, a box of tissue, a bottle of cold water, and headed for the truck. I drove the 1/4 mile from the farmhouse to the cemetery. The grass was so dry and prickly, I ended up sitting on the top of his mausoleum. I didn’t feel disrespectful, it almost felt like I was sitting on his lap, as I’d done countless times while he was alive.
As a hot breeze swept across the central Kansas prairie, I opened my journal to the list, one and a half pages long. Before I realized it, I was not just reading it to him. I was conversing with him, laughing, adding extra commentary, sometimes crying, too. It felt like he was right there, like I could practically reach out and touch him. I imagined his smile, big as Texas, as he nodded his agreement, his approval, his pride at what we’ve been able to do without him.
It must’ve been an hour or more before I wrapped up the lop-sided conversation, blew my nose for the umpteenth time, and gathered keys, journal, and water bottle. I bent forward to kiss the inscribed plate which reads “Mark H. Howell Oct.25, 1955 July 30, 2011 Phenomenal Dad”. A few more tears dribbled down my nose onto the granite.
I walked back to his truck and noted a large bird swooping overhead. It was a bald eagle! Now, I’ve been visiting Kansas for over 25 years. Never have I witnessed a bald eagle in that part of the state. I cranked the truck and slowly drove the 1/4 mile back to the farmhouse. The eagle swooped, then landed in the top of a cottonwood tree. Lingering only a few seconds, it took flight again, sort of keeping up with my path, until it landed into a huge tree not 50 feet from the driveway. After I parked the truck and got out, it took off for places unknown.
I was speechless. Do I tell my relatives? If there aren’t any known sightings of eagles in the area, will they think I’m crazy? But I know what I saw. It was so majestic, it couldn’t be mistaken for any other bird.
I decided to phrase my sighting in the form of a question to Mark’s mom, asking if there had been any reports of bald eagles in the area. Surprisingly yes, she stated, nearby at Lake Kanapolis, and other areas. Then I felt confident enough to tell my story. She simply looked at me and said, “That was Mark’s gift to you. He was there.” And I believe it.
I now count myself as a one year survivor of widowhood, officially. It has been a year of ups, downs, and everything in between. I have gone from the deepest depths of grief and bewilderment to the heights of glory, as God is intricately, actively, and lovingly weaving a beautiful future for my boys and me. That future, with its possibilities, doesn’t come without a price. We had to let go of so many dreams we had with Mark whenever he died. But God knows what He is doing. He has a plan.
New dreams and plans are on our horizon. We may not be moving to Kansas in July 2013, as Mark wanted, but we are building a cabin there on our 51 acres of pasture, hopefully starting this fall. The cabin will be a place the boys and I can escape to, where we can look out the back door and observe sunrises, where we can walk to our pond and fish for supper, where we can relax on the front porch and watch majestic sunsets, unobstructed views all-round.
The cabin will be furnished with odds and ends, most taken from that old farmhouse that my husband loved, drafty upstairs and all. We’ll bring his bird dog there, and she’ll point pheasant and quail for A.J. and me.
I’ll use the quiet, tranquil spaces to begin on my book, which I’ve been writing in my head for months. The outdoors column will get countless material from the Kansas landscape, two Howell boys, an unpredictable bird dog, and an outdoors mom. Mark, I know, is bursting with pride.
It’s not the same dream….it’s different. Life is what you make of it. If plan A doesn’t work, go to plan B. As long as God is the architect of your dreams, they will turn out to be life-changing and life-affirming.
I’m following the roadmap Mark left behind, but I’m adapting the details with my own interpretation and twists. I think he heartily approves.