Let us be transparent

My paternal grandmother died of an aggressive form of colon cancer when I was just 10 years old.

It was the early 1970s, well before the advent of modern chemotherapy, radiation, and experimental treatments.  Surgery was, at best, the only viable option.

I don’t remember specifics, but I do remember that she kept her symptoms from her grown children for months before her diagnosis.  You see, she didn’t want to worry or inconvenience anyone.

Her surgery was deemed “successful.”  Her oncologist assured our family that he’d gotten it all.  “She’ll die from something else like old age, but not this cancer.”

(insert famous last words here)

Within a couple of months, the cancer was back, with a vengeance.  Short of a miracle, her frail body would succumb to this awful disease.

Someone in the family, one of her children, decided that we would not discuss her terminal situation in her presence.

So we didn’t.

We didn’t get the opportunity to tell her goodbye.

Instead, we washed our faces clean of the tears, plastered on fake smiles, and talked optimistically about life.  Her future.  Her getting better.

At the time, I didn’t understand why we were lying to her.

She knew how sick she was.  She was no dummy.

She was a strong Christian, a Pentecostal lady who spent Sundays shouting and praising her Lord, even while standing in the kitchen, preparing lunch for a dozen people.

She knew.

And now, 40 years after the fact, I look back and realize what a mistake that was.

We didn’t tell her what she meant to us.  We didn’t get to say goodbye properly.  We danced around the elephant in the room, day after day, night after night.

It was a long, arduous, painful process, her death.  She knew how much she was loved.  I just wish I could’ve told her one more time.

Here in the 21st century, folks still generally deal with death like an awkward teenager’s first attempt at driving a car.

We don’t know what the heck we’re doing.

Let’s don’t talk about it and maybe it will go away.

It’s like sitting in the driver’s seat of a car for the first time.  You see the steering wheel, the gear shift, and the pedals in the floorboard.  You know the goal (driving said car), but putting all of the working parts together takes time and practice.

That’s your soul journey in a nutshell.  Your soul sits in the driver’s seat of your life.  You see all the gadgets and pedals and gears, but putting it all together?  Takes a lifetime to get it right.

And the best way to live your journey is to be transparent.

My grandmother should have been told, “You are going to die from this awful, terrible disease. We’re going to spend whatever time you have left telling you how much you are loved.  How much you mean to us.  We want you to tell us stories, give us some pearls of wisdom to get us through the difficult days ahead.  Let your faith be our guide.”

She died in 1973.  I miss her every day.  She was one of the biggest Christian influences in my life.

Honesty.  Transparency.  Facing the tough diagnoses.  Choosing to live well in spite of the bad.

It’s what quenches souls.

It’s what connects you to others.

It’s what sustains you while in this imperfect dance called life.

That, my friends, is where God is glorified.

While my soul’s sitting in the driver’s seat of this temporal life, I’m going to tell it like it is for anyone that cares to listen.  I’m teaching my sons the same.

Transparency sometimes comes after hitting rock bottom.  It’s a freeing moment when there are no more secrets.

Transparency allows those who practice it the ability to live without regrets or hidden agendas.

If nothing else it certainly makes for an interesting dress rehearsal 🙂

“Happily ever after??”

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The reality is you have no idea where your life will take you tomorrow. You are like a mist that appears one moment and then vanishes another.

James 4:14 (VOICE)

“And they lived happily ever after… The End.”

How many times have you seen the above words, either at the close of a fairy tale or the end of a movie?

How many times have you, as a parent, read a story to your children that concluded in this manner?

Attention, people of Earth:  There is no such thing as “happily ever after” this side of Heaven.

It’s a crock, a pie-in-the-sky term which plays to our romantic side and wistful daydreaming.

No one, no matter how lovely the life or the relationship or the family, lives happily ever after.  “Happily ever after” gives a false sense of security, a technicolor existence that can never live up to those three words.

“Ever afters” eventually come to an end.

And endings are not pretty, at least the ones I’ve experienced in my life.

Endings are messy.  The majority are not wanted by at least one of the parties involved.

Endings may evoke sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, and anger.  They may cause great pain.  Lives are forever changed by endings.

Death is the ending feared most by the human race.  But let’s face it by taking the bull by the horns.   We’re going to die some day.  As James so eloquently puts it, we’re like a mist, a vapor–here today, gone tomorrow.

Endings are inevitable.  We cannot get around them.

Embrace that reality.  Incorporate it into your daily living.

The sooner that simple fact sinks in to our sometimes-thick skulls, the sooner we can go about the business of living “happily every day.”

Whether you like it or not, at some point in your life (or at many points in your life), an ending you’re not prepared for will occur.

Your “happily ever after” stops.

The best way to deal with the reality of endings is to live fully in the moment.

Every minute of every day, every day of every month, year after year after year–don’t take your happy for granted.

Choose it.  Live it.  Experience it.  Love it.

Instead of happily ever after, live happily every day.

Then when “the end” comes, you can face it with no regrets.

An open letter to grief

Dear grief,

I hate you.

For a bit over four years, I’ve battled you on a daily basis.  In the beginning, I was numb–really I think it was shock.

I’ve lost loved ones in my lifetime prior to this.  Grandparents, a 44 year old uncle, a 46 year old aunt, my dad, my father-in-law, and several close friends.  You took up residence with me for quite awhile.  The most difficult being the loss of my dad, I remember crying in bed on a nightly basis for months.  I was so blessed to have a husband who loved me, who held me close while I cried.

Then a little over four years ago, the unspeakable happened.  That loving husband and daddy to two little boys died.

And grief?  You welled up inside me, spilling over like hot lava from a volcano eruption, pouring out all over my world.

You damaged everything I knew and loved.

Not only was I dealing with my grief, but also the unimaginable grieving of two boys–old enough to grasp the depth of what they had lost, and smart enough to ask the tough questions.

I didn’t know how we’d get through you.

Counseling helped.

Immersing ourselves in our faith, our church, and being surrounded by a loving support group of friends and family also gave us the lifelines we needed.

All I knew for sure was I had two boys depending on me to suck it up, and I needed to find some semblance of normal.  Not the wonderful, safe, lovely normal we previously had, but a new one, fashioned on a wing and a prayer.

If you’ll excuse the language, grief, you are a sonofabitch to live with.

I never know when you’ll rear your ugly head.  For the first two years or so, you were a constant companion, no matter the circumstance.  We assumed you would be with us every waking moment.  You were with us, at times, in our dreams.

Then, slowly and deliberately, you stepped back from the spotlight, content to roam around the periphery of our lives.  We began to laugh again, to have fun, to really enjoy life, all without any guilt.

Oh sure, you decide to pop up when we least expect it, but the times without you are now more numerous than those with you.

Not only do I hate you, grief, but also your siblings: guilt, regret, and fear.

Guilt and regret, when coupled with grief, keep one looking in the past.  “What if I had done this?”  “If I had only…” “Why did he not…?”

None of these are healthy.  Nor do they do my family any good.  It’s a bit like worrying.  Worrying won’t change anything, and will only rob you of joy in the present.

Fear is your worst sibling, I call it the “black sheep” of the family. Fear is the absence of faith.  When fear creeps in, right alongside grief, it’s a one-two punch of bad.  The only way to beat fear is to face it, head on.

But as much as I hate you and your siblings, today I had an epiphany:

I am a better person because of you.

You, with your twisted pain, have molded this family into a unit far stronger than I could have ever imagined.

We’re tough.  We don’t take anyone or anything for granted.

We grab hold of each day as the gift it is.

And my sons?

They are astonishingly normal, in spite of you (and me).  Empathetic, sensitive, confident, full of hope for the great futures that await them.

Secure in the knowledge that even in the midst of a terrible, crappy situation where their dad is in heaven, they are still so blessed.

They are confident, young Christian men who are already making a positive difference in their little corners of the world.

And although I wish their dad were still with us, physically, we know he is with us nonetheless.

Because of you, grief, I am a different person.  A more compassionate person.  A better person.

And I’m going to spend the rest of my days helping others deal with you.

You’re ugly and messy and a hard pill to swallow.  But battling you makes one strong.  When you are cut down to size, with God’s help, you really aren’t so scary.  You’ll always be in the shadows, but you’ve finally learned your place.

Death is a part of life.  Our society sweeps it under the rug, it’s a taboo subject most are too uncomfortable to discuss.

Although you will never be welcome in a household, some good can come from you.

I thank you for the lessons learned, the love that’s multiplied because of you, the hope that’s sprung in our hearts in spite of you.

Hey, grief, don’t get too comfortable…I still hate you.

But you’re evidently an integral part of the plan God has for my future, the future of two boys. So I accept you for who you are.

We’ll tolerate you for the rest of our lives.

Respectfully,

Nancy

God may very well give you more than you can handle—that’s why you need Him.

Any temptation you face will be nothing new. But God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can handle. But He always provides a way of escape so that you will be able to endure and keep moving forward.  1 Corinthians 10:13 (VOICE)

If I see one more quote or social media meme with the flowery, lovely phrase,

God won’t give you more than you can handle,”

I. Will. Scream.

No where (let me repeat that–NO WHERE!) in the Bible are these words found.  This sugary coated phrase must have originally come from a poor interpretation of the passage above.

Give. Me. A. Break.

Life is messy.

We, as mortals, as humans of free choice, created in God’s glorious image, made sure of that.   Way back in the beginning, in Eden, we had it made.

Everything man and woman could want or desire was at our fingertips.

God was such a good friend that He came and walked in the garden with Adam and Eve.

Imagine that.  God, visiting.  God calling out to us, by name.

But were we satisfied?  Nope.

You know the story.

Temptation.

A chance to know everything God knows turned out to be the beginning of the end of perfection, at least this time around on the planet.

So, instead of living in a perfect place, surrounded with everything we could possibly want or need?  We struggle.

We live in a broken world.

Broken people, broken promises, broken homes, broken hearts.

Life is not fair.

To reduce God to a Deity that willingly and purposely piles on–excuse the word–crap to see how much we can bear?  Blasphemy in my humble opinion.

Life is about choices.  A multitude of them, put in our paths every. single. stinking. day.

The God I serve didn’t take away my loving husband on purpose.

He didn’t intentionally take away a dad from two little boys who desperately needed him.

He’s not up in heaven, checking my status updates, seeing just how much more can be heaped on my plate before I hit maximum capacity.

Because, believe me, dear friends, that plate has tipped over many days, and I’ve thrown up my hands in frustration at my circumstances.

The Bible says He will not allow you to be TEMPTED beyond what you can handle.  That’s an important distinction.

What He does give is the strength, perseverance, and grace to handle what you have.

Until He comes again, in the glorious form of His Son, life will be full of tough stuff.

Brokenness will be the norm, not the exception.

But the brokenness and the strife found in day-to-day living can forge a beauty and a strength which has no limit.

For it’s in the brokenness where we find what we are truly made of.

It’s in the trials we catch a glimmer of the original perfection in the creation God intended us to be.

And until He sends His Son to restore this ugly, sticky, sinful mess of ours into what His original blueprint designated, we will more than likely have more than we can handle.

Saying and believing anything else is just flowery, feel good “Christianity.”

I’m now crawling off of my soapbox and heading out for my morning run.

Together, God and I will handle whatever the world throws at me today, because I cling to the promise that He will help me to not only endure, but also Keep. Moving. Forward.

I’m counting on it.

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Second (or third, or fifty-third) wind…

August.

My family survived July; we’re getting our second (or third, or fifty-third) wind, as the summer wanes. And as much as I wanted July to be over—specifically July 30 and 31—I want August to Just. Slow. Down.

Time, as the old Steve Miller Band song pontificates, keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’ into the future.

As I turn the calendar pages to August, the first day of school glares back at me. I don’t want this summer to end.

I long for just a few more days of laziness, of staying up late and sleeping in.

A chance to snuggle on sleepy-eyed, messy-haired boys, before they awaken enough to realize they’re being loved on.

I want a few more evenings of no school-related obligations, where I can sit on the couch between two laughing, increasingly-long legged children as we watch borderline-inappropriate-boy-humor programming.

I want to freeze these moments in time.

keep two school pictures of the boys on prominent display in our front room–they were always on Mark’s desk at work.  Taken during the last school year he was with us (2010-2011), our boys 3rd and 2nd graders.  

This is how they looked when their daddy was alive.  

This is a moment forever frozen in time.

A time where we all had the world on a string, where laughter and fun echoed throughout our household most every day.  AJ and Ben really didn’t have a care in the world.  Loving parents, a nice home, everything they needed, along with a few things they wanted–they couldn’t ask for more.

As I look at these photos, it seems like a lifetime ago.  

Two little boys, one tow-headed blonde, the other, dark eyes dancing above a snaggle-toothed smile, had no idea how life would change that summer.

And although I want to take away the pain, I cannot.

It’s a pain they will never “get over.”  A longing they will always have.  A void no one or no thing will ever fill.

My job?  To stand in the gap and fill that void as much as I humanly can.   I trust God to fill in the rest.

On days like this, the responsibility overwhelms me.  I have so much to teach them, so much to tell them.

And so little time.

They tell me on a regular basis that I am enough.

I know, deep down, I am only enough with God’s help.

Summer’s waning.  

And I’m not ready to give them back to Barwise Leadership Academy.

Two weeks and counting.

What will you do with your children today?

Whatever it is, make sure it counts.  

For starters here, at least, I’m heading in for some sleepy-eyed snuggle time, then we’re heading to church.  God likes it when we visit His place.

The True God who inhabits sacred space is a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.

Psalm 68:5 (VOICE)

Christmas 2010

Christmas 2010

Just another day

26 So too the [Holy] Spirit comes to our aid and bears us up in our weakness; for we do not know what prayer to offer nor how to offer it worthily as we ought, but the Spirit Himself goes to meet our supplication and pleads in our behalf with unspeakable yearnings and groanings too deep for utterance.

27 And He Who searches the hearts of men knows what is in the mind of the [Holy] Spirit [what His intent is], because the Spirit intercedes and pleads [before God] in behalf of the saints according to and in harmony with God’s will.

28 We are assured and know that [God being a partner in their labor] all things work together and are [fitting into a plan] for good to and for those who love God and are called according to [His] design and purpose.

Romans 8:26-28 (AMP)

7/22/11 Ben, Mark, and AJ

7/22/11 Ben, Mark, and AJ at Six Flags over Texas

To 99.9 percent of the world, yesterday was “just another day.”

For the Howell party of three, it signified the 4th year we’ve walked this earth without Mark.

I keep thinking and hoping July 30 will not hurt as much as the years pass.  So far, that’s been the farthest thing from the truth.  And for those of you who have never suffered a loss of a great husband or daddy, you most likely won’t get “it.”  If you’re in that category, you might want to save yourself some time and stop reading now 🙂

Time stopped July 30, 2011, a little before midnight.  A great guy died.  At least time stopped for those who knew and loved him.  And for those of us closest to him?  Life as we knew it stopped with his last breath.

As the intensive care nurses coded him (protocol followed, short of a miracle, there was no hope), I felt part of me washing away with the bitter tears I cried.  His spirit, so tangible in the room, had bigger fish to fry, so to speak, and I felt him leave.

And as difficult as July 30 was and is for me, today, July 31, is worse.  For today is the date I had to drive over to a friend’s home and tell Mark’s sons that their dad was gone.

It’s been four years.

By the grace of God, we’re healing.

By the grace of God, we’re moving forward.

By the grace of God, I’ve found purpose and meaning in a single life unimagined before his death.

By the grace of God, our sons are emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy, despite the gaping hole left in both their hearts.

As I watched the clock yesterday, trying to make the hours go by faster, I heard from a few friends and family.  They remembered.  They know what July 30 means to us.

The words spoken, the texts and messages written?  Touched us deeply.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for remembering. It might not be a big deal to you, but it certainly was to us.

Life goes on.  It was “just another day” to everyone else.

For everyone who has a day on their calendar like July 30 is on ours, know that we get it.  We understand your hurt.

We acknowledge that while the world says to “move on and heal already” (infamous words from someone so clueless it’s laughable), it is perfectly fine to just move forward.

Moving forward is healthy.

Moving on?  For this household, at least, it’s not an option.

I trust God to continue to make beauty out of our ashes.  He’s in full control.

Someday, we may understand why life as we knew it stopped 4 years ago.

Until then, we’ll keep moving forward, in this, our next chapter.  We’re depending on God to pen beautiful stories for all three of us.

Hope floats

“We who have run for our very lives to God have every reason to grab the promised hope with both hands and never let go.

It’s an unbreakable spiritual lifeline, reaching past all appearances right to the very presence of God where Jesus, running on ahead of us, has taken up his permanent post as high priest for us, in the order of Melchizedek.”   Hebrews 6:18-20 (The Message)

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Hope.  It’s the connection between mere mortals and our Creator.

Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.

Especially this week, full of memories I’d rather forget.  I replay the events from 4 years ago, a routine surgery gone terribly wrong.  I walked into the hospital with my healthy husband.  I walked out 5 days later as a widow.

Try as I might, the events play over and over in my head, like a macabre highlight reel stuck on “repeat” or “rewind.”  Last Sunday, 7/25 (the date of his first surgery), my phone, kept on silent by my bedside, vibrated twice at 4:30 a.m.  That’s the exact time we’d awakened to go to the hospital, 4 years ago.

Talk about a wake-up call.

I just went ahead and got up for the day, there was no going back to sleep afterwards.

Hope assures me, however, this is not how my family’s story will end.

Hope tells me I must keep my head up, looking ahead.  Looking back will bring only pain and a litany of “shoulda-woulda-coulda” moments.

Hope reminds me this is only a dress rehearsal, this thing called “life.”  It passes in the blink of an eye.

Hope insists God will restore us.  Hope declares His purpose for our lives will eventually be revealed, and that any pain will be used for His glory. He’s given us glimpses, and it’s going to be beautiful.  But right now it just hurts.

When we’re weary, replaying sad events in our minds, hope is the nudge that refocuses us.

It’s an unbreakable lifeline, hope.  No matter the circumstance or situation, hope remains.

So we continue to hope.  “Hope is an anchor, firm and secure.”

“Hope floats..”

In the meantime, my boys and I will keep plugging along, fixing our eyes on an unknown future–trusting it to a known God.

Grabbing onto the lifeline, not letting go.

Hoping for better days in August.

Family

I love my family.

Are we perfect?  No.

But boy, do we know how to have a good time.

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This past week my sons and I have been with my mom, brother, sister-in-law, and two nieces, near Branson, Missouri.  We rented a cabin and spent 24/7 with one another for 5 days.

I consider it a success because we all survived and no one got hurt (physically or emotionally!).

During that precious time, I got to drink coffee with my brother in the mornings.  I drank something a bit stronger with him in the evenings.  I watched him be a daddy and husband.  I observed his sweet demeanor with our mom, who lives near them in Kentucky.

My boys got unlimited time with their only cousins, both girls.  The older will be sixteen next month, the younger is eleven.  It’s amazing to see how all 4 easily fall back into a routine, enjoying each others’ company.

My sister in law is a jewel; I love her strong will and her ability to find good in all circumstances.  She’s a great mother, to boot.

My mom, who is getting older, sure enjoyed watching her grandchildren, and relished having 7 of the people she loves most under one roof, if only for a few days.

My boys and I hadn’t seen them in a year.

I’m almost ashamed to type that sentence above….but living so far away makes visits more difficult.

Life passes in a twinkling of an eye.  You never know how many days the good Lord has for you in His book.

So make time to visit those that you love.  Whatever cost or inconvenience or rearrangement of schedules necessary is well worth it.

Make some memories. I hope we get the chance to do it all again, sooner instead of later.

I know my boys will remember the zip-lining, the roller coasters, and “throwed” rolls from Lambert’s Cafe.

I’ll remember the laughter, the conversations, and all the hugging.

But the zip-lining was pretty cool, too.

July stinks

I hate July.

That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I truly dislike this month.

This month holds too many memories.  Most of them wonderful, great, and fun.  Some of them, however, are very, very bad.

July 30, 2011, was the day we lost Mark.  That day, my life forever changed.

That day, our sons’ lives forever changed.

I became a widow.

They became orphans, at least in the biblical sense.

I felt like my arms had been cut off.  I lost my best friend, husband, lover, confidante, and biggest cheerleader.

My boys lost a wonderful role model, someone who was compassionate, just, loving, patient, and had integrity to spare.  They lost a dad who loved them beyond compare.

Life goes on.

We adjust our sails and move forward, because that’s what Mark would want us to do.   I have two boys to raise, and by the grace of God, we’re doing okay.

And while there’s been great healing in all our lives, and we’ve forged a new path, July still takes us back to the surreal place in time where we were forced to say goodbye to not only the best man we’ve ever known, but also a way of life.

So we hurt.

And grieve.

And cry, in the midst of smiles, remembering.

Life’s not fair.  You play the hand you’re dealt.

I’m determined to play the heck outta this hand until the dealer’s out of money and the casino’s closed 🙂

“God in His holy house is a father to those who have no father.

And He keeps the women safe whose husbands have died.”  

Psalms 68:5 (NLV)

Howell, Party of 4, Wilderness Lodge, Walt Disney World, August 2010

Howell, Party of 4, Wilderness Lodge, Walt Disney World, August 2010