Journey for Pure Life

That we may be overwhelmed by the wonder and beauty of it all.

Saxapahaw. Best thing I did this summer.

Bloop!

No.

No, no, no, no no no NO……!

Shock. Panic rising. Heart sinking to its lowest. Not again.

Nine-year-old Emma heard the horrifying little bloop  from the front of the rented canoe and quickly turned to look back.

“Was that your phone?” she gaped.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

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I’d happened upon the wee town of Saxapahaw (I’ve been schooled that it’s pronounced Sax-pahaw. That second ‘a’ is silent, accent is on the ‘haw.’) by accident one day while looking for stopover options for our Deep Creek mountain trip. We didn’t end up staying that night but the Airbnb listing intrigued me.  A yurt on a creek, on a farm, in a river town, owned by someone I had once gone to school with.

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A couple weeks after returning from Deep Creek, on a Tuesday, I booked the yurt. We’d had court (always my very least favorite place to be) that Thursday, during which big, risk-all or end-all decisions were made for the kids currently in kinship care with us, and I just….needed  a moment. A decent-sized moment. Emma and I took that moment together. After a full year of her sharing me with five other children, some of them very young and needy, some of them requiring more of my attention than she does, we needed it and she deserved it.

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Saxapahaw is a tiny blip on a piece of the Haw River. It’s located in Alamance County, and an easy twenty minutes out of Chapel Hill. Old brick mill buildings along the river are now home to local businesses so Mayberry and quirky and sustainable and eco-friendly and 2017 all at once. But this speck of a village…more full of life than possibly any other town I’ve visited.

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One by one, we fell in love….

Cane Creek Farm

The yurt at Cane Creek Farm was our first yurt retreat. We felt a bit like fru-fru, upscale Native Americans because though we were sleeping in what is essentially a giant, round tent, cooking meals over a campfire and using an outhouse (or a pot, I’ll be honest), we also had the luxuries of an actual wooden floor, a fridge, outlets and lovely strung lights hanging above us. As I soaked in all the coziness from the yurt’s bed that first evening, I studied its construction. My mind was already rolling around plans for my husband to build me my own on a little piece of land we’ve got…he always adores when I think up new, big projects for us (him.)

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Lucky for him, I discovered that this particular yurt was pieced together by a few willing hands and is totally possible for us to tackle ourselves. Cane Creek’s yurt, however, comes with an extra special piece of history that probably most renters don’t know and that can never be replaced. That beautifully old wooden floor I’d been admiring was pieced back together with the very same wood that mill workers had once walked across in the old dye house down by the river, the portion that is now the Saxapahaw General Store.

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In the same way those three connections are made, we found similar connections all over town.

The weekly crochet group may be nestled in among the diners and customers at the General Store, chatting away with busy hands as food and refreshments move around them. A Hawbridge School class may be meeting in the old colored school building now located at the Saxapahaw Museum. You may need to use the restroom at The Haw Canoe and Kayak Co. before your paddle out, climb the stairs to the old recreation area and stumble upon a dark gym, the massive faces that are the Paperhand Puppet Intervention props, staring down at you from each available wall. The butchery will offer the Village Bakehouse (housed within The Eddy Pub) bread, and also the local farm’s t-shirts. At Saturdays in Saxapahaw, you’ll be able to browse the local goods of area vendors (like Haw River Farmhouse Ales whose Sun Hands Summer Golden seasonal brew I can still taste and comes in such a cool little bottle that it’s now nestled on a shelf with other treasures I’ve found along the way) and hear different local musicians each week during summer. When a name is mentioned here, everyone seems to know exactly who you mean.

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Businesses and people don’t seem to stand alone, but appear to be so naturally intertwined with each other, beneficial to each other, that you wonder how they got that way and how all towns across America can replicate what they’ve created.

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The Haw Canoe and Kayak Company

Despite years of mill pollution into the 110-mile Haw River, it is now more closely protected and a stunning sight. A canoe and short shuttle ride was provided to us by The Haw Canoe and Kayak Company, with a bit of instruction. We had three hours. The whistles attached to our life jackets were for blowing if we really needed help.  At the spot where we put in you can never go to the left. A left will take you to the dam and over its falls. This terrifies me, of course. Class I rapids now terrify me. But to the right, oh my heavens. A glassy, still corridor of water between borders of green with very few buildings peeking out on both banks. A blue sky rising up in between with a few puffy, picturesque clouds amidst its near perfection. I had my phone, of course, and took some of the most gorgeous iPhone photos I have probably ever taken. Then I put it safely away.  I wanted to fully enjoy this. The calm beauty of the river, the ease of our first canoe trip, the realization that the river at this spot was incredibly shallow and swim-able…we were giddy, Emma and I. We swam, laughed, played. We swam over to where some people were jumping off high rocks, at a point I was later told is the deepest part in the area.

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We’d climbed back into the canoe to dry off for a minute after watching the rock jumpers. My things started getting wet in the bottom. I was in the midst of half-laughing/half-talking to myself about the wonders of the Haw, picking up my little bag to move it…

Bloop!

Every bit of giddy drained right out of me. The first-time, Haw River high we’d just been on….gone.

Emma heard the horrifying little bloop  from the front of the rented canoe and quickly turned to look back.

“Was that your phone?” she gaped.

We hadn’t even seen  what had fallen in. We knew.

How is it possible that I have just lost another thing to a river? Another phone? Those photos!? (Previously, I have lost the equivalent of about $2000 in rivers, including a phone, a days-old camera and an old and simple, but so beautiful to me and my very first, kayak. Don’t ask me how. It’s just my thing, apparently.)

This was a new phone. My husband had spent a literal three hours getting it set up for me.  It was so recent that I remembered it well. And those photos!

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I’d immediately instructed Emma to take off her life jacket and search the bottom for me. Most everywhere else we’d been we could see the bottom. Reach-down-and-pick-it-up shallow. Not here. We could touch, though, and we felt around for a good silent, somber ten minutes before I dropped my head against the canoe and resigned myself to the fact that I had just dropped a few hundred dollars and beautiful pictures into the river. Again.

“Should I blow the whistle now?”  Emma asked, quiet and serious.

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“No, Emma, we don’t need to blow the whistle…”  I replied, dejected and almost in a whisper, but with a hint of a smile trying to find lips.

Upon our return to The Haw Canoe and Kayak Co., Matt, who’d helped us into the river, learned of the phone incident. He gave me his phone to call my husband (who, by the tone of his “hello?” at having me call him from an unknown number, knew I’d had another sort of incident that would cost him money), treated my daughter to a popsicle and printed off directions to the nearest Verizon store. He had an entire group he was heading off to the river with at the exact time we strolled back up the path…but he waited. They all waited. Until he’d seen us entirely and patiently through the process as if he had nothing else in the world to do just then. He even figured he or someone would probably come back with my phone.

Just before I headed out the door,  my MapQuest directions in hand, he gave me his thickly laminated card, just in case.

“It’s waterproof,”  he smirked.

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Saxapahaw General Store

The food at the Saxapahaw General Store (part store, part restaurant, part gathering place) is local, seasonal, creative, delicious, exquisite. By the time we reluctantly drove out of town, I’d tried the in-season Mozzarella Caprese Stack, the Duck Jam Burger (made with locally-sourced beef, blueberry ketchup and duck bacon), the Chicken Salad and the Duck Salad (best dang duck I’ve ever had in my life!).

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But it was the people….They left me a bit stunned and and a lot happy.

Maybe it was the fact that it was the first time in a year that I could actually be in a place without six little people crying, screaming, fighting, needing, pooping, running, playing, talking, talking, talking at/to me that I actually could  hold an appropriate conversation with another adult. Maybe it was like four-year-old Rief said, as he overheard me telling my husband upon return about how nice  everyone was…

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“Maybe they’re so nice because they really liked your skirt,”  he stated as he looked me up and down.

But no…I think it was just them. Every.single. one. that I had any sort of conversation with, there was connection. Genuine, slowed-down, looked us in the eye, stopped-everything-else-they’re-doing, fully engaged, real live connection.

I’ve got a small handful of business cards and handwritten contact info around me, given to me by the locals we met, just in case. When we accidentally wandered into Left Bank Butchery on a day that it was closed, we were invited in to have a look at the half of an open Cane Creek Farm pig on the back table.  When we met Chris, special needs teacher/coach during the school year, Sax General Store employee in the summer, he heard our phone-in-the-beautiful-river story and nearly offered to go look for it.

“Yeah, everyone in town’s gonna offer to find your phone,”  Matt with the canoes assured me later.

…………………………………………………………………………….

Back on the farm one evening, our last, the sun had begun to set, cooling the red dirt acreage off just enough for us to finally walk the perimeter and visit all the animals. I had given Emma my old camera to use for the first time and she was thrilled. I’d never let anyone handle my cameras before. (Though it seems….perhaps…maybe I’m the one I need to be most concerned about.) The evening was…quiet, mother/daughter, easy, intimate.

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The owners were away, camping in Nova Scotia. In their place, a farm sitter, though we hadn’t met her, seen her, heard from her. One of the owners kept in contact with me herself to make sure all was well. And it was.

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We had followed the red dirt that evening, which led us around the back of the main house and toward the gardens. Dogs rushed to us, barking but friendly. I glanced upward, towards the house, spotted a second-story deck and then…skin. Lots of skin.

Ah, there she was. Elusive farm sitter girl, at the end of a scorching day, amidst the cows and the guineas, in the sanctuary of the peaceful Piedmont acres, probably believing herself to be utterly alone…Topless.

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At first we looked away, admired the vegetable gardens with new fervor, then we exchanged a few words with now-clothed upper deck girl, acting as nonchalant as possible, and then we strolled on, giggling and taking sunset photos all the way back to the yurt. I later asked a new friend if this was Saxapahaw normal. Not quite, but it is farm sitter girl normal, I was informed. I also later realized, as I studied the farm’s map carefully back at the yurt, that I had led us right down the wrong path that evening. To think, had we gone wide and around the actual  farm perimeter, we’d have missed all that. And the big laugh we all had later.

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Because two weeks later we were back and really  met her, and the most precious little thing she is. When she’s not topless on the farm, she works in outdoor education. All natural, sweet-spirited and free. Like General Store Chris, my Emma girl liked her immediately. Kids can sometimes tell about people, you know.

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On a Tuesday, we ate our last Saxapahaw meal at the General Store’s outdoor cafe and grabbed a few items for the road. As I took a last glance around the store, at the fresh produce in their bins, the local artisan’s goods, soaked in all the kind and laidback Saxapahaw that I could, I turned to Emma and reluctantly said, “So we just leave?”

Though neither of us wanted to, she replied, “Yeah. We just leave.”

But I had a feeling that Jane, the museum director who’d shown us around that morning, was right.

“You’ll be back. I can tell,” she’d said, smiling her gentle smile.

(And we were, of course.)

After the pouring out of myself for the past year, Sax gave back to me. Nurtured a mother/daughter relationship. Gave me the perfect blend of peace, people and excitement. Filled me right up again.

 

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Because post-court can be hard hard hard.

I was asked the other day, before the court day that changed everything just enough again…just enough to change my normal, to make hard harder…if I would consider leading a yoga-type class for local foster parents. A time to exhale alongside one another, those walking that similar roller coaster, that often heavy path, sometimes with little respite for ourselves in the midst of a growing number of needs, behavioral problems, family issues, etc.

Because this foster parenting/kinship caring thing we’re doing, it just might be one of the hardest things of all.

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A few days after that, and a few days after the court date, I had some conversation or another with my husband about the tough stuff of this life and as I reflected on the counseling sessions prescribed to many involved in the case, I made the half-joking remark that I don’t need therapy.

“I don’t need therapy. I know how to…self-therap.”

(It completely sounds like a legitimate verb to me.)

(And by my making that statement, I meant that if I didn’t  know how to do such a thing, I’d be in big trouble.)

And just now, while pulling weeds in my horridly overgrown garden, letting my mind talk and talk and talk as it does in the silence, I thought about the past 48 hours. The quiet of only three children since that risky court decision. The quiet and time and freedom but also…the grief and the loss. And I thought, perhaps there should  be a support for foster parents, especially after these moments. Because while every feeling, compassionate person wants to see a child with its parent, the truth is that when you have raised that child (or three) everyday for one year and two days, it’s still a loss when the care comes to an end.  And even when it moves toward a possible end. When that child wants to be with someone else.

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As much as all that I am wants to see families whole and unified and together, it’s still a loss to the caregiver, the “mama” who isn’t at all and shouldn’t have been but did find herself there and so…what is temporary and shifting and unknown and hard suddenly feels a lot like loss. And grief.

We can’t take those very real, perhaps intense, feelings away from the foster parents  and the family members who’ve given their whole hearts, changed up their lives, loved to that hurt point.

There is recommended therapy for the drug user and the abuser. For the child in limbo.

Ma (my grandma/hero/best friend) wasn’t offered therapy after her husband died unexpectedly at 28-years-old and their almost-adopted baby girl was subsequently removed from her home, back in 1969. My, how deep the grief must have been.

There is no therapy for the aunt/grandma/foster mom who sang a child to sleep for 365 days, who made one meal for eight, cleaned it all up to begin prep on the next meal, who rubbed backs for weeks while children cried themselves to sleep after the people they were given failed to live and fight for them, who taught them to ride bikes and skateboards and how to swim and that they are safer and greater than their fears.

That the whole world is for them to enjoy. To move confidently in.

There is no therapy for the moment you know they could lose all that. When they ask you to give a child away to great risk and everyone knows it.

But thank goodness, somehow, some God way, us foster parents/kinship caregivers…some sympathetic God taught us how to…self-therap.

Taught us to trust even when we don’t feel.

That good can still conquer.

That it wasn’t in vain.

That they will remember.

That the fight was the most worthy one.

That His children, those wee ones, they’re always worth the need for some self-theraping. Always.

“Trust me.” –God

Magic Upon the Rocks

Deep Creek, North Carolina.

It is THE quintessential experience of childhood and family camping.

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But when she first mentioned it, I was surprised my friend Lindsey would want to go again. She said she’d been several times over the past few years.

And when we first pulled up and I saw how close the tent pads were (me, who likes a good deal of quiet and space…if quiet and space is possible with six children), I was a little hesitant that this was the place for me (and all these loud children).

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After a day at Deep Creek the magic was obvious.

Most everyone I spoke to had begun visiting the creek in childhood…and they just never stopped. Years and years after that initial visit, they come, still, children and grandchildren in tow. They make friends-for-the-week with those at the nearby tent pad. They share their nieces, nephews and grandchildren, who run through the campground with our own to play manhunt through the darkening night sky….catch fireflies while trying not to squish them….take tube runs down the creek, olders helping the littles….and then they all run back for more, giant tubes slung across backs, coldest water in western North Carolina not so cold anymore…again and again and again. And then, all tired out, they share quiet moments by the fire making bracelets and s’mores. Camp friends that will always have a spot in their memories, moments they won’t soon forget, if ever.

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Deep Creek is located in western North Carolina’s Swain County, just inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park via Bryson City. The community of Deep Creek is just a couple of miles outside the city. The creek itself is a tributary of the Tuckasegee River, which flows right through Bryson’s downtown area. Deep Creek runs north and practically all the way to Clingmans Dome at the Tennessee/North Carolina border. A Civil War battle was once fought on its banks, and included more Native Americans than most western NC battles of the war. Today, the creek is one of the most family-friendly spots in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s known for its fishing, hiking, picnicking, camping, waterfalls and, of course, tubing.

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But here’s my truth…

I’m smitten, so completely, with the community of Deep Creek and Bryson City. But the creek itself…it kind of terrifies me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had a child laying unconscious before me and then airlifted by helicopter after a traumatic brain injury. Maybe it’s because I’ve been put in my place by little river rapids before.

I recently saw a short video that described the creek as a “lazy river.” And yes, perhaps that’s what everyone else sees. That is the opposite of what I see.

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Despite the huge smiles, the pure joy on their faces, when I, adventurous though I typically am, look at Deep Creek and watch my kids carry tubes higher and higher (ie. dangerous-er and dangerous-er) it’s all

rocks rocks rocks

and

rapids rapids rapids

and my blood pressure is rising and I’m thinking everyone should be wearing helmets for this, especially that one with the now long hair and sweet curls at the end.

And that caution at the bottom of the National Park Service website that clearly states that tubing is not recommended within the park because of water-related injuries…though, clearly, this is what people come here for, due to the numerous tube rental spots available just before the park entrance and the hundreds of tubes coming down the icy waters all day long…that warning is still flashing through my mind like it’s a tv screen with the tornado warning scrolling across the bottom and interrupting your regularly scheduled programming and it’s probably all over my face as I scramble to follow along the trail at the edge of the creek’s now-steep bank and and my eyes are scrambling to find my child and I’m trying to stay calm but inside I’m not at all and so I’m praying, pleading with God to keep them safe.

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So there’s me, doing that.

And then there’s my friend, Lindsey. My friend Lindsey who once lived in a tent for a summer while guiding rafting trips on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. My friend Lindsey who has the same last name as me, but who’s lived in Ecuador and whose husband is currently there leading adrenaline junkies over class V rapids and occasionally camping in the jungle. My friend Lindsey who knows three languages, one of them, American Sign Language, chosen for her when her oldest was born without hearing. Lindsey, whose two sons, at ages eight and ten, already know how to roll a kayak in case they are accidentally flipped while in rapids. Lindsey, who grew up looking at a river out her back door every morning, swimming in it most every evening. My friend who often goes without technology and doesn’t seem to mind a bit. Lindsey, who moves to her own beat, rolls with the punches of life with a peace that far surpasses my own, is always content and never, ever not. Mi amiga whose phone was dead for the entire duration of our trip and to whose mom I finally sent a Camp Robles photo just so she knew we were all okay. My friend who, while I’m frustrated with my six when the littlest won’t go to sleep and she’s running crazy all over our tent and I just want her to “go to sleep!” and I’m telling her so and I’ve lost my patience completely, hasn’t at all. Because when I step out of my seven-man tent and pass by Lindsey’s little one I hear that she’s sweetly, patiently, beautifully singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to her three and it’s just about the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard. And the most humbling.

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I tried not to think about it, but court was approaching while we were camp-firing and “lazy-rivering” amidst the magic (and terror, but only to me) of Deep Creek. It would be kind of a big deal day for the kids in my kinship care. And for me. I couldn’t control it. Not really at all and not really sure that I would want to.

Deep Creek was there, just at that time, with all its risks and its rockiness and its slippery, steep creek banks, and with its new friends and fun-filled days that no one wanted to end…and with Lindsey and all her calm and her peace and her preparedness and her faith…and I just had to let them go. The kids with their blue tubes, the court outcome.

We prepared, we took it slow and small, learned from our mistakes and how to handle ourselves. But then we went higher, past the waterfall, to the place where the rocks became larger, the risk greater, the fall harder, the waters swifter.

And I let go.

And it was good. Really good.

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Now I see, why she wanted to come back here, why they all did…again and again. Because past that place of hesitancy, past that place of the unknown, the fear, the big and the scary, there was something so very special. So worth it.

Children had the time of their lives, but they also looked out for one another. Left no one behind. Helped out a cousin stuck on a rock. Coached a sibling on how to maneuver a rapid.

Built rock pools together. Learned to make doughboys and foil packets. Honed their fire-building skills. Endured the freezing cold waters and the long hikes up the steep hill. Laughed and played all the live-long day. Communicated in a bit of sign language, or as best they could. Slept one last tent night with a bit of rain dripping down on them because their moms thought rain tarps were unnecessary.

Families unified and crafted moments here. I had discovered that I wasn’t the only one bringing along children in kinship care or similar situations. Others knew this was the place…

The place where we see and learn and feel…without any words at all…that there’s a whole wide world just outside the tent flap, and though it may be scary at first, that world’s got so much more for us than what others may have chosen for us, back when we were too young and new to choose any of it for ourselves. And in that world there are people who do things differently, and those people can be good.

And maybe it’s a place where, though we can’t erase what was before and the ugly that continues and we can’t control the outcome, we can give them this, this gift, this summerbecause magic happens in a childhood summer…and maybe, we can dim those bad memories just the slightest. And all those in-between times can be filled with ones oh-so-good. Ones they’ll hold on to forever. And every once in a while they’ll peek in on that memory and remember, the world was on my side after all. Just maybe.

Anger, because love.

If we’re honest, it’s anger now.

And if I’m raw and still honest, it’s what I want to feel.

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Some months ago I’d had a friend call me upset and angry, to vent about life, the life she thought she’d planned out and been perfectly happy with. That life had its own plans. Took her in a direction she simply didn’t want, but could do little about. I gave her my best words. On deaf ears they fell.

I hung up the phone and realized…that  girl didn’t want to feel better and move past it. Not yet. She wanted to experience the anger that she had every right to. I looked at the trajectory of her life, the loss of control and helplessness she felt…the only thing she probably felt in control of at that moment were her own emotions. And she was going to choose them. That day, she chose to shed the happy, shiny surface layer and feel  all that was not happy or shiny. In the safety of a trusted friend. Without hurting another soul. Good for her.

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Today, just for a time, though the sun is shining down gorgeously in my favorite backyard spots, though the birds are singing their early morning summer songs, though there are six healthy kids still sleeping and there is so much to warm a heart….I kind of, little bit, just want to sit in it, the anger.  I want to be allowed it, is all.

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For all these months that we’ve stepped into the life that is kinship care, I’ve tried so hard, prayed so hard, to love, rise, strengthen from the inside, real deep down. Right where I needed to love, rise and strengthen. But it’s hard work for someone as imperfect and damaged as myself. And amidst all the loving, and maybe, because of  that intense loving, other feelings come…

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The anger comes, nearly a year deep in, when…..

…doing the right thing so often feels like the wrong thing.

…justice isn’t served.

…others walk away, and there you are, hands full of the pieces, broken.

…the pieces broken from the lives of others. But carry them you do. And carry them you must. (Are called to?)

And the pieces, can they ever fit back together?  Can the kid-sized pieces be mended?

And with furrowed brow you focus laser on those kid-sized pieces, sorting them out, trying your best to fit them together (which may not be good enough)…then, a familiar, but louder this time, shatter from above.

Sinking in your stomach pit. You look up, adult-sized pieces smashing down on you, all around you. Again. Overflowing the open hands. Crumbling the kid-pieces into bits.

You there, unable to stop the shattering. Unable to fix it.

After the sadness, the anger comes.

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And it comes when….

….it isn’t your life decisions you’re living anymore. It’s the paying for someone else’s. And it’s endless.

…you have the sickening realization that some will continue to hurt, the there-in-plain-sight hurt.  And you just can’t make it stop.

….you know the source of the hurt, right where a child only sees a glorified mirage.  Maybe right where an adult does too.

….you cry with them, pray for them, love with them, right where your inclination is, instead, to curse. But only in your dark, private, subconscious dreams do you curse.

….you know the truth, feel the truth with every ounce of your being…but you’re the only one.

…you empty yourself everyday, from early morning hours until bedtime reading, only to feel like the bad guy when you drop into bed.

…you hear people say they care. Knowing that genuine care is a daily act, a daily love sacrifice, a daily selflessness.

….to others it seems a game, participation based on whether they’re winning or losing.

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…everyday you can see God’s work, your own transformation, your own healing process, from something that was once so ugly and messed up and long ago abandoned…and still they tear you down, make you question what you shouldn’t.

…you are mocked for the deeply personal, core things that make you who you are, those things that are more you than anything else, those things that see you through it all, always have.

…your sensitivity causes you to feel every hurt, even when it’s not your own to feel.

It comes when…

…people hurt children. Children. And some of us have to look at that hurt. Everyday.

…people make light of those children. And carry on with  seemingly charmed lives, higher priorities. And some of us continue to look at that hurt, witness the full circle of damage. Everyday.

…you do the most thankless thing you’ve ever done. And you know, there was never any other option. Because love.

…you know that however it ends up, whichever road you walk, will be the hardest one.

…you remember how you always said the hardest roads are the best ones to be on…but seriously, can you just chill off the road and on a Puerto Rican beach for one sec?

…some people tell you that your life screams Jesus…while others tell you that what you need to do is find more Jesus.

…you realize that life doesn’t hand out rewards. It even snatches away the hard-earned ones.

…you blame a mean God for all this. The unjust.

…but mostly, you blame yourself, for not being better. And for, sometimes, feeling your worst self seep out of your pores and into the air around you just when you thought that self was gone forever.

And I just want to feel it for a minute. All that is not warm and fuzzy. Here in my safe space.

But for all this anger…all this ugly….there’s this glimmer….

One recent night two young girls and I lay in the hammocks as the sun went down and the fireflies began to light up the backyard. As the sky darkened, the upcoming celebration of Father’s Day was mentioned and the conversation shifted. Shifted to a little baby girl whose father moved away from her and now she’s a grown-up woman with no real dad and Father’s Day for her can be awkward and it can sting and so she focuses on her husband, the father of her children. And in that night, one little girl discovered that Aunt Amanda has hurts too. Most of us do. Sometimes the hurts can cause us anger. Sometimes tears.

Sometimes, if we’re lucky and open, those hurts lead us to deeper connection, trust, safety with those people, those moments, that life we do have.

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“I like having conversations with you at night. I can’t go to sleep unless we have conversations.”

And then, as we watched the sky turn dark…

“Can I sleep with you?”

A question never, ever asked by her before. Words never, ever said by her before, this one who internalizes most all she feels, all she has seen and lived. This one who guards her heart carefully, unsure of what’s real, who to trust. There under the pines, reclined in hammocks, “firefly!” interjected among the hard topics, underlying sadness and vulnerability.

Dock 8

“Can I sleep with you?”

Somehow the talk, the real one with the unshiny stuff, with a child who maybe understood it better than I would wish for her to…somehow it comforted.

She wanted the discussion, the nearness, the shared truth to continue into the night.

Now it’s clear. When we love hard, we feel hard.  And not just the nice feels.

When we love people, our people, children, we feel when life is unfair to them. And that’s ok. It spurs us to love action.

Dock 1

Thank God for the feelings. For the talks. For what is real, for a life imperfect. Mostly, for healing and for love.

Every day I breathe is not for the anger. That shall pass. Everyday I breathe, it’s for better love.

When the wilderness inspires faithfulness.

Two weeks ago I finally received that phone call I’d been waiting on. Officially, we’d just become licensed foster parents. And I’d waited seven years. Seven years to receive that phone call. That is where our journey to become foster/adoptive parents began.

Uwharrie 1

My Disney version had me, a smile plastered on my face, a heart so overflowing with love and snuggles that I could fix anything, save everyone, erase the bad past, be the hero. I can’t tell you how many times I’d pictured the scene. A child arriving at our door, siblings even. The door swings open, our smiling family waiting behind it, open arms for a big embrace. The children outside that door, they smile as well, of course, so happy they are to arrive. Somehow, in my picture to save the children of the world…somehow, I forgot the brokenness, the heartbreak, the deep wounds, the traumatic rip from family. I forgot the reality, and the ugly truth.

Uwharrie 2

That week also marked nine months of three little additions to our home. There isn’t one single second of that time that has looked like that picture I’d held in my head. The day my own nieces and nephew had to walk through that door…a fairytale shattered all around me…probably no one was smiling. Though perhaps I tried, I don’t remember.

Uwharrie 3

Later in the week, after the phone call, we pulled the popup out of the driveway, the eight of us, and headed into western-end counties we hadn’t yet covered in my pre-kinship care goal to experience all 100 of North Carolina’s counties. After a day and a half of having my husband there with us, grilling, zoo visiting, staying at the campsite with the kids while I visited the bathhouse, he had to leave us for work.

Uwharrie 4

There I sat, in front of the campfire, full realization that I was in the woods, in the dark, without the easy comforts of my home, utterly outnumbered even by the children under five. This could be total disaster.

My mind flutters to that moment in the courtroom. That moment everything changed and I realized just what we were taking on. And there would be no turning back.

Uwharrie 5

Wilderness, literally. That’s where I was. I hadn’t taken on this much before. I didn’t know if it would work out. There would be no easy exits if things went awry. As the kids fell asleep that night (thank you, Jesus), one in my arms and my fire crackling before me, it wasn’t lost on me that the past nine months…the wilderness of my life. And I would take on this camping trip the same way I had taken on those months. If nothing else, one. small. step. at a time.

Uwharrie 7

Arrowhead Campground is situated on a hill on the edge of 5,000 acre Badin Lake. It lies in one of North Carolina’s four national forests, the Uwharrie. Horseback riding and off-roading subcultures are present in and around the campground. Canebrake, a horse camp, is just around the gravel bend. Off-roading trails are maintained throughout the forest. 4×4 jeeps came in packs throughout the campground. One large group, mud slung across lifted tires, a perpetual game of corn hole going, flew a blue stripe American flag at their site across the loop and had themselves a very different sort of good time than I.

Uwharrie 8

A shooting range, also in the near vicinity. My closest neighbors, the ones who set up their cozy tent for two while we were away at the zoo and from whom I noticed the “oh, hell” look when we all piled out of the van, spent an afternoon there shooting. (I’m proud to say we were not the loud, obnoxious ones on the campground. I hope they were grateful…I sure was.)

Uwharrie 9

The east side of Badin Lake is bordered by 50,000 acre Uwharrie, which lies in Montgomery, Davidson and Randolph counties.  A short, paved loop for hiking and biking circles the campground. From our site it leads to a 5.6 mile lake trail, a rocky, rugged, somewhat hilly path just at water’s edge.  The still lake water, a lovely green hue. Dogwoods in bloom, the woods a bright green with the onset of early spring. Only a few buildings dot the horizon I could see. Occasionally, a boat sped by, to or from the ramp that sits just below Arrowhead. Eventually, it found a quiet spot to throw out a pole, and all was undisturbed again. Until a certain two-year-old tripped on a half-buried rock and her shrieks tore through the silence.

Weeks of relative quiet, movement in a good direction…errupted by days of sadness, attacks, complexities…

Uwharrie 10

Other campgrounds are situated within the Uwharrie. At Arrowhead, the showers are hot and the fire rings are large. The bathhouse is nicer than most, perhaps to make up for the fact that there is no water hookup. Our site, 25, is one of the best, view-wise. There is drinking water access directly across the camp road. Bathhouse, however, on the exact other side of the loop. Have you ever dumped a pee pot every morning?

Uwharrie 11

We spent one day in Randolph County at the Asheboro Zoo, about a 45 minute drive from the campground. Because we have a yearly family membership to the NC Aquarium, all eight of us received free admission.

Random blessings from those who have eyes to see the need…

Uwharrie 12

We spent one full day only at the campground, hiking the trails, digging up rocks (I literally just found a backpack full of rocks someone snuck back), playing in chilly streams, catching tadpoles and crayfish and itty bitty baby skinks so new to the world you could see through their translucent skin to the developing organs inside. So cool.

It was lovely and picturesque and adventurous.

But the truth is, camping with children who still need naps is…challenging. Camping with a mama who’s camping with children who still need naps is…risky.

Uwharrie 14

The ups and down…yeah, we had them. The tantrums and loss of self-control…those too. Battle scars…well, just a few. Unpredictable weather, technical difficulties…only slightly, thank goodness.

And yet, every second of the roller coaster is…worth it. In a world growing in the disconnect, we connected out there in the Uwharrie. With each trip, with each struggle, connection multiplies. Appreciation deepens. For running water, for learned abilities and practical life skills, for the earth and creatures around us, for each other, as we stumble along together. What may seem at first an opposing force (the natural world, difficult people, complex situations, heartbreaks, deep wounds) may actually be our greatest ally, our refining tool.

It may be, if we let it.

Uwharrie 13

A young woman whose own situation recently fell short of Disney quoted me Charles Spurgeon just hours ago…

“I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”

Yes, that’s it.

I ventured on that solo portion of the trip mostly how I’ve ventured through life these past nine months. One small step at a time. One foot in front of the other. Because I don’t know what lies even a few feet ahead. Today, I am utterly blind to the challenges that will present tomorrow. And I don’t even feel qualified to handle any of them. One minute on this rocky path the sun is out in all its warmth, and in the next moment, all goes dark and cold.

And so, though I go on a bit blindly, because life with children, life on the road, life in foster care is a life that cannot be put into a box, a life of uncertainty and daily question marks, I walk forward in faith. Because that’s all I’ve got. Faith that the sun will light again, just in time to illuminate the way.

Thankful for the wave, crashing me towards something far greater than myself.

Uwharrie 6

When our hearts are hurt (and how to accept and let go of expectations)

 

Sawdust pile feet

Someone hurt me recently. Went back on their word, had a new priority. Altered an experience for not only me, but a child of mine. Man, that really hurts.

As I wrestle with my anger and hurt, the wounds of being rejected yet again, with the pain this person has caused me, I falter. What do I say? What do I do? How do I expect more but keep the peace? How do I stand up for justice while being loving, kind and good?

The line between extending grace to those who hurt and standing up for just treatment will always be a delicate one for me. The preservation of relationship is always desired, but equally so is relationship foundated on true love and respect. Each situation and relationship is precious and unique, to be handled with thoughtful care and careful thought.

Sawdust pile foundation

A few things I would do well to remember….

1. It could always be worse.

I have people. They are imperfect and they fail to meet my expectations, but they are still my people. There are children wandering a slum right now, waiting for someone to come along and be someone for them. There are people sitting in a court room right now discussing children who literally have no people, no family. Too many of them. There are children around the world today whose entire families have been obliterated by war or disease. I am not one of those children. I am so blessed I scarcely have the ability to recognize it.

2. I must recognize them as the humans they are.

Humans are not God. They are quite flawed. I may write well occasionally, but in daily life I mess up pretty often. I can be awkward, say the wrong thing, fail to be supportive where I should have been, the list goes on. Just like my messy self, so are my people. Most of us are still trying to heal from something. And most likely, we’ll be healing from it, working hard against its negative influence every day for the rest of our lives. Show grace. Amanda, show grace.

Hill Field Rd Dec 28

3. Each of us are not only human, we’re also on our own journey.

What illumination (or lightbulb moment) appears to me at 33 another may not realize until 45. Or they may have realized it at 15. Our genetic makeup, our histories, our experiences, personalities and inclinations all work intricately together to make each of us so unique that there’s no way we could all always understand the importance of the same thing at the same time. Our journeys were never destined to be identical, and that is truly a beautiful thing should we have eyes to see it.

4.That person that hurt me has a hurt too.

Somewhere along the line, this person has felt pain as well. In tense moments, it can be hard to remember that. Maybe as recently as yesterday they were hurt. Maybe as a child they were deeply wounded in ways I have no privy to, ways that could have left lifelong scars. Have compassion. How others act out of their own hurt often has nothing to do with me. Remember, it most likely isn’t a reflection of the love and treatment we all deserve. Because we all deserve love overflowing, even that person who just hurt me.

Saw dust pile Dec 28

5. People are not my Savior.

They WILL fail me. They will fall short. Just as I will. My husband said to me several weeks ago, as I cried in the kitchen after a hard day, “you are never going to be her savior,” speaking of a child. I thought I could be. No, not a Savior. I have deficiencies in my character, limits in my energy, resources, confidence and compassion. That’s where we, people, end, and God must begin.

6. Give it up.

I may not ever receive the perfect relationship I crave. I must let it go. Today. I can’t let my high expectation change who I want to be, who God knows I can be. I can pray for our relationship, I can act on those prayers, but I ultimately cannot change anyone. That’s between their heart and God’s.

Field to sawdust pile Dec 28 2

7. Most likely, I’m going to do the same sooner than I’d like.

I’m so flawed. I take people I deeply love, admire, laugh with, want more time with…I take those people and I say things to them that immediately put an uncomfortable and unfortunate space between us and I just as immediately wish I could unsay it.

But I’m learning. Slowly, ever so slowly, making better decisions than I did in the decades prior to this moment. I’ll still slip up, I’ll still need to ask forgiveness, check myself…but those moments, God willing, will become fewer and farther between as I recognize and grow from them.

Those people who hurt me…will they grow? Well, that’s in hands not my own. In my hands….my response. What will it be?

Madison's First Sawdust Pile

The Fire That Refines, and the Joy Nuggets Within

DIxon Field 1

New day. NEW day. Pancakes and tree decorating and live nativity and good friends always there. That cozy, wintry feeling and hot coffee and a husband who graced your dreams last night just to hold your hand there and holiday cheer and fruit  that is the evidence against all the ways the enemy wants to crumble the confidence of who you are.

People who love you. People who know you and want still to love you deeply, faith that this too shall pass and tomorrow will bring yet another new  day.

Children playing in the floor with the Christmas village people, a warm, slow breakfast on a cold December morning. Truth, wisdom, forgiveness.

But Yesterday. Yesterday brought with it challenges brand new to my home, complexities never before sorted through, terrain highly uncomfortable to an easily bruised soul. I spend some time on the kitchen floor, in a peaceful little corner after a done day. And then to bed, where mind and heart can find an eight-hour reprieve.

I grasp a warm mug in the morning, gaze out to the rising sun, look around at all these tidbits of things that I love and that fill my new day, and I feel that nudging reminder about yesterday (and so many days)…

Isn’t this the fire that refines?  The pressure that forces us to choose which road we will take, that presses us to decide who it is we will be?

Isn’t it the heartache that reminds us where to find our joy, for there is joy, always joy, somewhere. The same ache that reminds us where to focus our hearts, that we always have lists, tucked away behind the momentary discomfort, of those things to be truly thankful for, those little nuggets of all that is so, so good and worth the flames. Those little gems that are the result of very small but good decisions day after day, that make up a life and make it wonderful.

I’ve lived on the other side. The side of making very bad decisions day after day. On this side…I’m still one flawed human among other flawed humans. The fire still comes.

This time, on this side, I use it as fuel.

I once heard a pastor say,

“where there is growth there is seldom comfort. Where there is comfort there is seldom growth.”

I wrote it down amidst the scriptures to have as a reminder always.

“And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong.”                 Isaiah 58:11

Please, do that…for I am not so strong.

The pressure will be on, and I accept it not for its pleasantries, but for its polishing process in me, for I am nothing yet that I hope to one day be. And all that I am (and am not) extends far beyond myself and my years.

“And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations.”                                                    Isaiah 58:12

Though the waters may rise, my prayer for this day is that our confidence will not be shaken.

Though the waters may rise, may where we stand in the hearts of those who know and love us never be in question.

Though the waters may rise, may we stand firm , never growing weary, in doing the right thing…and the next right thing and the next right thing and the next right thing…despite the heavy attack.

Anyone who ever stood for anything was also called to sacrifice.

I know I am not alone. May you also find confidence, peace and joy nuggets within the fire. And may your new day come quickly.

When The Ideal Falls Away

My husband has always told me that I live in the clouds, less and less often as our years together have passed. I want my dreams,  I want exotic and exciting and grand and picturesque and amazing and fairy tale and beautiful and romantic. I want it all the time and I want it right now without ever counting the cost….but, here’s what I now know…there’s no life in the clouds. Life is here, where I am, in the messy, ugly, extreme, unfair, disappointing, relentless, exhausting, overwhelming, heartbreaking, dark, dark places.

  “Isn’t it here? The wonder?”  ~Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

The ideal has fallen away. You know, that perfect picture. That this-is-how-it-should be picture. That right picture. And so I pray. I beg for answers. I put one foot in front of the other, again and again, day after day. It’s hard. It’s exhausting, it’s frustrating, I get angry. It’s a drain some days and a strain on others. But oddly, as I press through, chug slowly and carefully along, fail and pick myself up over and over, I am filled. I am all of these things but I am filled to the brim with love. With purpose. And I am thankful. For health, for life, for love. For six little faces. For so many things that the ugly struggles attempt to mar and fade. But deep, deep down there is a fire burning. Thanksgiving its fuel.  The fluff, the extras, they are falling away. The core, the important, it alone remains.

Haywood after Matthew

I don’t know the path, I don’t know the right direction, but I’m praying for clarity on the road ahead, for truth to reveal itself. I think of that trail I ran one day in the spring, the Weetock Trail. A portion of it was so heavily overgrown with the fresh green undergrowth of the Croatan forest that the trail was incredibly narrow, just wide enough for me to fit on, just wide enough for me to see the way and the danger ahead. If I hadn’t been so diligently watching the path ahead, preparing myself for what I could come upon, I never would have seen the rattlesnake slowing moving across my path. Its rattle inching, creeping its way from under the lush green into view, my eyes growing wide. Wonder intermingled with fear. My destination, on the other side of that rattle. I had to put one foot in front of the other.

Life feels a bit like that trail right now. Dangers, count on them. Hardship, a certainty. Sometimes we don’t get to say goodbye. Sometimes a child is taken home sooner than our heart could ever be ready. Sometimes our broken earthly home hurts us so badly that we are shuffled from dwelling to dwelling, family to family, all with the shaky hope of mending that shattered picture. He promises to be with us through the struggle but He never promises its absence on earth. He knows, removing it would cripple potential growth. We may forget to give thanks for all that is. And so, He leaves it right where it is. And us, right on the path with it. Just enough is clear to tell me to keep going, but my watch must be constant. Should this path end, change or become a less than ideal one, I’m going to want to know about it. Life is a lot longer than the 11-mile Weetock, and there’s much more at stake.

White Oak 6

And there’s this…All around me, as I’m staring down the rattlesnake, the blue of sky peeking through the abundance of carefully preserved pines, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the eastern grey squirrel crafting their tiny homes, a low-lying still and marshy pocosin giving way to the mayapple nearly blanketing the forest floor with its new growth, the deep valleys left behind by ancient streams in a coastal woodland, the rattlesnake itself a strangely beautiful sight I’ve never before witnessed in this wild, brave creatures taking a peek at their world after a quiet winter, springtime and all its beautiful beginnings. All around me, as I’m staring down the rattlesnake, so much beauty to behold.

“Isn’t it here? The wonder?”  ~Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

The Embrace of the Village

Carver

We walk through the metal gates of the middle school football field, the seven of us. Over my shoulder is a fold-up chair, a cooler bag filled to the brim and a giant purse with all the necessities for the day—sippy cup, diapers, wipes, little toys and candy for bargaining good behavior. In my other hand I grip a little one. To all the other littles, who trail along behind me, I have doled out helmets, pads, water bottles, blankets. We stop to count heads and pay our entrance fee, and I realize with a frown that it’s chilly out. And really wet. I had woken at 5:30 am to be here and dressed in 85 degree weather clothes. I am not amused by chilly and wet.

We trudge slowly across the field, freshly cut grass collecting on our flip flopped feet and legs, before settling our blankets, toys and snacks somewhere around the 50 yard line under an overcast, misty sky.

Two hours later I am sweaty, my white shorts are dirty on the seat, I have given up my chair to Ma (my grandma) and am on the ground with Legos and trucks spread all around me. One of the littles is crying and snotting for no other reason than that I had woken her before the sun was up, the other kids are huddled under umbrellas in an effort to hide from the hot sun, I can’t keep enough water in the bottles to satisfy all the thirst, I have already pulled out my secret candy plus some, one little has fallen on the wet bleachers after I told them all not to get on the bleachers (after which a cry erupted, I almost lost some cool and half of the team parents turned to look at our scene), and I’m texting my husband, who is probably blissfully driving from one job site to the next listening to pre-children music in the solitude of his truck, “Never again…”

I attempt a few photos and video with my big, obnoxious lens that makes it look like I know what I’m doing. Football is so new and foreign to me that much of the time I don’t know what I’m looking at it. Behind a camera lens, forget it.

I put away the camera to focus on my son and the game.  I find myself watching a play where the other team fakes to the right and quickly passes to the left, my son’s corner. He has already left the corner to head right and completely misses the handoff. I take in every detail, understanding it, a rarity for football and me. I don’t scold, I don’t yell, I resist the frustration that many other sideline parents don’t. I don’t really have the energy left for it anyway.

The littles are occupied with other children and I stand to watch the next play, camera hanging by my side. My oldest, he’s close to the end zone, on defense, when he’s knocked off his feet by a kid who, though lean, towers over him. He catches himself with his hands as the other team scores. I watch him get up, then wince and baby his left arm. “He’s hurt,” I say to no one. Ma hasn’t even a clue where he is on the field. I’m not really sure if she’s aware of what sport it is she’s pretending to watch. I quickly walk the sideline to meet him and in a whirlwind of team moms and players and water bottles he’s given ice and benched, wincing and teary-eyed. I stand behind him, alone and unsure of what to do.

Halftime arrives minutes later and we all realize he’s out for the remainder of the game. His jersey is turned inside out, moved gently around his wrist and he watches the last half with his ice pack on his arm. His dad, who’s been trying to get a play-by-play from me all day, calls to talk to him, wishing so badly that he’s here with us. He’d know what to do.

It’s Monday morning now and my daughter colors at a child’s table of the doctor’s office while my injured one sits by a window holding his ACE-bandaged wrist. The woman at the front desk explains to me that there seems to be a problem with the insurance, possibly on our end but probably on theirs. At the same moment she realizes there is a glitch on the insurance end, our pony-tailed doctor with the big white smile spots us and brightens. She immediately tells the front desk woman not to worry, we are good, she didn’t realize it was us, and waves us clear. Our sons play football together. Before that it was baseball, I think, and scouts. Suddenly I feel the quaint smallness of my town and I feel less alone.

We talk for awhile in the exam room about the team, the coaches, the game before she sends us about half a mile down the road for an x-ray. Despite all my initial “it’s fine, I’m sure it’s just a minor sprain” we soon receive the call that tells us our oldest has his first fractured bone and he’ll need to go see Dr. So and So this afternoon.

As I stand there in my living room, listening to pieces of my husband’s conversation with the doctor, I almost physically feel my world getting smaller, good smaller, and my people crowded all around me. The desert island I sometimes occupy has vanished and I’m standing in the middle of the village, a charming one that I don’t acknowledge often enough. Dr. So and So had been at our house the night before, delivering a meal to us with his wife and children, one of whom I used to tutor in my homeschool co-op class. My community seems to grow each year, friends move far or we don’t talk often, but somehow a safe, supportive haven of people has been intricately knit together within the larger community, and they show up just when you need a reminder that God has not left you alone, not at all.

As those people find out about my son’s weekend injury, added to the pile of recent heartbreaks and challenges, they call, they message, they pray their concern for us. In recent weeks needs have been provided for, dinners have been served (which my husband and I secretly wish could continue all year! Why stop a good thing?). One says, “you must be a really strong person for God to feel like you could handle one more thing.” Not at all. I’m just a girl relying on love to carry me through one day at a time. But all these kind words are sent to me, because of a situation that can’t be changed and in normal circumstances would be a minor one…and well, words are my love language and they communicate love. Just when I need to feel love.  Last week I felt I was on an island (an island with wild four-year-old boys and no babysitters). This week I feel the embrace of the village. The village makes my heart swell so much that I almost embrace the hard days as well.

I’ve always tried to surround myself with those who are better than me. Not prettier or wealthier, but soul better, better inside. Wiser, more loving, more giving, more kind, because that’s who I want to be. So though I may place myself on the island at times, I can’t be there for long. These people I surround myself with, they’re all still there, and they won’t let me.

As we head off the field that sunny Saturday afternoon, my arms are more full than when I came. Helmets and pads have been added to my pile, chair and bags still slung over my shoulder, while my oldest walks beside me cradling his hand. We are just about to stop for a hot dog when a man runs up beside me and offers assistance.

“I’m walking your way so I’d be more than happy to carry some of that.”

I may have let him had we not been stopping but I actually have a pretty controlled chaos organized at the moment. I decline, drop all our gear and buy my son a hot dog. Most of the time we don’t need the help; certainly we’ll survive without it. But indeed, it lifts the load when others offer to carry just a bit of it. It brings others alongside us, to take part in the fellowship that disruption and hardship can bring if we allow it, it reminds us of the great beauty and selflessness of so many among us, it inspires us to mimic the same when it’s our turn. To be on the receiving end of all that greatness…well, it makes the load worth carrying.

To my village, thank you. In every magnificent or tiny way you’ve been there, I feel the embrace. It’s everything.

50 yard line

I thought I had time to tell you…

Gdaddy Britt

I was at your house today, but you weren’t there. The house you grew up in, moved back to in retirement and cared for with all your heart. The beautiful old house with the garden you carefully tended and the workshop you built my daughter’s doll bed in and the small woods you cleared for walking through and building a fort in for the littles who came to visit, the field behind it where you let the small boys “drive” your truck, and the countless photographs of all of us throughout the years placed in every last room of the house.

And you weren’t there.

I hugged my dear struggling but striving sister more tightly than she’d ever let me before, and she hugged me just as tightly back, and we cried for you.

I looked upon the lovely bathroom that was remodeled just for you, the great and long ramp that was built just for you by your own son’s hands, the hospital bed that had been brought in just for you and set up in front of the windows overlooking the backyard. But you weren’t there to use them.

I didn’t get to say any of the things I wanted to say. I didn’t get to do any of the things I wanted to do. I thought we had more time. And now you’re gone.

I let this blown-up photo on wood sit on my table for one whole week. I sat on these words I wanted to say. I let them mull over in my mind, I waited, I hesitated. Afraid of how they’d be taken, afraid it was too soon, too much of my heart. It wasn’t too soon. Maybe it’s never too soon.

Life, being the complex, intricate, crazy design that it is, has recently placed me with six little people under my care, all your great-grandchildren. So on these words I waited, I got busy. Legitimately busy, shuffling these six to appointments, visits, school. Dealing with tantrums, meals and baths. And that night was busy…your last night. We tried. Oh, we tried. But we were too late.

The call came around breakfast time, when neighbors were out walking their dogs and sipping coffee, and I sobbed in a ball on my back porch. I dropped everything. I should have dropped it all when you were still with us.

I’ll never be sure of why life robbed my little sister of those last few moments with the one true and good man she’s ever known. But I’ll forever be thankful for the moments she spent with you in your last weeks. And I’ll forever pray that she honors you with her life. You were there for her when no one else was.  You loved her like no other man ever has. Thank you so much for that.

My childhood was incredibly richer because of you. Some things I forget easily these days, but some things are etched in my memory so clearly and forever…the countless hours I spent playing with Barbies from the 70’s in your Greenville attic, the old Tomcat and the smell of his cat food, the Atari in the back bedroom, the little shadow box in the kitchen and all its tiny little pieces I can’t believe Grandma Britt let me play with, roaming your neighborhood and getting hurt on a construction site, exploring the small bit of woods behind your house, having lemonade stands with the neighborhood friends I made, attending beauty pageants for the girl across the street, being fed loads of sweet potato casserole every Thanksgiving (which is my one Thanksgiving contribution today), reading books in the hammock on the screened-in porch of the cottage at the river, taking sink baths at that river cottage, getting stung by five wasps while exploring a wooded hillside, catching fireflies and keeping them for our nightlight in a jar.

During that short union between your son and my mom, you were the silver lining. The true blessing. You let me in like I was one of you. And I was never anything but.

One month ago, on August 9 I wrote these words. I meant to share them with you. But one month later, I didn’t get the chance.

“We grew apart for a time. I got older and drifted. I probably thought I’d lost you, as I’d lost all the others. I hadn’t. Not really. Not for one second in our hearts. I just know it. I can feel it. If only I’d known then. If only I’d known what family meant, and who that family was. Family isn’t built in the blood. Family is crafted in the heart. You were, you are, a part of that family. I’m so sorry for not knowing that, for not staying in the picture, for not holding you so tight that you couldn’t go away from me even if you tried. It’s hard to know when to do that…and when to just walk. But to you, I’m sorry, because I love you. You rare epitome of love.

But I did get lost for awhile and when I came back you let me right back in, like we’d never missed a beat, like I’d never done anything I shouldn’t have, like we were real family, like you loved me. For me. And I know you did. And for that, I thank you, because that is everything. Not everyone does, even those who probably should. You did.

So I can’t imagine a world, my world, without you. I don’t want to. My sister, who needs you, doesn’t want to, shouldn’t have to. You see, it’s strong, kind-hearted, caring, genuine men like you who make this world worth living in. It’s men like you who care about people, are kind to other people, who accept people just as they are, who love them the very same no matter if they’re making all the right decisions in life or all the wrong ones. You’re the kind of man I look up to and hope my sons and nephew will one day be…and if only they had more time with you.

I have never, never known tragedy as I have this past year and a half. With each blow I say, “Ok, God, that’s too much now.” Then another comes. And that’s life, I suppose. It sometimes just does what it will. I get angry. I want to undo it and I can’t. I. Just. Can’t. With most things in life there is something you can do, some move to make even if its effect is minor. But this, but death…I can’t do anything. None of us can do anything. It’s difficult for a heart to grasp.

Like you, I will also have my time to go. Please don’t feel like you got the short end of the stick while the rest of us are to remain here, living it up. There will forever be a void. And I am only an ex-step-granddaughter. There will always be a void. I’m going to blink and it’s going to be me. Please don’t feel like you are alone. I’m no longer ignorant to the fact that one day, which will feel like much too soon, it will be me also. It will be all of us. We will go with you. Will be with you.

You. You are….stability. You are a rock. You are love. You are a foundation upon which one can build on even after being torn down. You are steady. You are never changing. You are kind. Oh so kind. You are hospitable. You are standing there with open arms. All the time. No matter what. You are golf and summers by the river and Spill the Beans and Greenville and the perfect reading hammock and Richmond with Uncle Leon and a picnic table on the porch and that hill by the river where Becky had to use her cigarette tobacco on my stings and blueberry muffins and a winding country road and Thanksgiving and slow Christmases and an old country museum.

I have six of your six great-grandchildren, like you said. I have no idea what the road ahead looks like. I pray to God everyday that He works out the right one. But I can tell you that where it concerns me, no matter what the path looks like, your loving spirit will shine through and guide us. We will make you proud. Have no fear of that.

I know where you’re headed. I’ve read about it, I’ve dreamt about it, prayed about it, thought about it, questioned it. But if you’re going, well, that’s where I’m going. No more questions. Please tell Jesus that I appreciate His example. Unquestionable love for everyone, anywhere, anytime. I appreciate His sending us the few, like yourself, to remind us of His heart.”

Heaven, universe, people, please get the message to him for me. I just didn’t get the chance to tell him.

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