Full of Hope and Possibilities

Yesterday my BIL Leroy called and asked what I was up to.  “Cleaning up areas and stuff that no one will notice at all.  And it’s looking worse before it can possibly look better,” I sighed. Leroy replied, “Well as long as you notice that’s what counts, right?”


Still, it’d be nice if SOMEONE would say, oh wow, the way stuff’s not pouring out from under the desk–yeah that–that’s pretty awesome.

Not meant to be though.

So as I was wrangling dust bunnies big enough to choke a horse out from under my desk, I found this little guy.

Rescued this little guy from the attack of the dust bunnies under my desk

Rescued this little guy from the attack of the dust bunnies under my desk

He really doesn’t have much left in him, poor thing.  Once you start sharpening the labelled part, well, it’s getting close to time to start scrambling for a new pencil. It reminded me a of a boy I went to school with–we’ll call him Buck.  We were in school together all twelve years.  In the early years, we had all our classes together.  I remember him writing with pencils just like this one more often than not.  How he did it, I do not know.  But he did.

I thought about the short pencil, wondering if Buck always had to use the short ones or if it was his preference.  I knew children who often seemed to be short on school supplies.  At the time I took it for granted that I never lacked the pencils and notebooks and paper and other supplies required by my teachers. If I had to borrow paper or a pencil it was because of my lack of planning, not because we didn’t have it.   Today I realize that my parents made our education a priority, and though we didn’t have a lot of extras, they did make sure we had what we needed.

The end of summer meant picking up packs of paper and pencils.  I even remember the year I got to pick out a Trapper Keeper because it was there was a big sale at the KMart.  It had a horse on the cover.  I was on Cloud Nine.  Decisions were made about whether a new lunchbox or lunchbag was needed each year.  We made trips up to my aunt’s in Griffin, so Mama and my aunt could go to the Sock Shoppe.  New underwear and socks also marked the beginning of the school year, because well, you know.  No I’m not really sure, but why not?  It was as good a time as any, I guess. I loved the shopping trips because it meant playing with my cousins at the house while the shopping was done.  (And yes, I loved my new aforementioned items too.)

We got new bookbags as needed, but the one I remember most was one Mama sewed for me–two-tone blue denim with all kinds of pockets.  Mama did not find much pleasure in sewing but she was an excellent seamstress.  That bag held up for quite a while.

Today I am thankful for my parents who made choices that assured I was never without what I needed for my education.  That was a precious gift because I know there were times that were hard, and they had to cut corners.  I am lucky that I never had to worry about how I would get the posterboard for my projects or if I had enough notebook paper to finish the school year.

The public schools here start in the next couple of weeks.   After finding the pencil yesterday and thinking back over how fortunate I was, I have been thinking about the children who won’t have it so good.  Those who will start the school year without the things they need.  They start their year already two steps behind.  That breaks my heart–the children whose families are affected by the furloughs or whose breadwinners have lost their jobs or who are moving from place to place without a real place to call home.  We have the power to change at least this need for them.

Many stores have dropboxes for supplies that will be distributed to children in need.  Local programs that work with homeless families or spouse abuse shelters, Salvation Army, the Red Cross, Rescue Missions–all of these have children in their midst who could use a hand up as school starts.  If you were lucky enough to have what you needed or if you remember what it was like not to have those things readily available, and you are able to pick up a few extra things in the next couple of weeks, will you join me in helping change their future?  Let them know someone cares, and send them off on their big day with all the things they need.

Nothing opens up possibilities like a fresh box of crayons–so much one can create and do–so full of hope.  (And remember the boxes with the sharpener built in?  Fabulous!) Let’s show them they’re loved.  I know it’s a cliché, but these young people whom we have a chance to help today are our future. Let’s make it a bright and hopeful one.  We can do it.  One pack of paper or box of pencils at a time.

Full of hope and potential, just like the children who need our help.

Full of hope and potential, just like the children who need our help.

It’s Okay to Fail…..or Make a D…..or Whatever…..Just TRY

This morning my little guy Cooter was working on his letters.  He was working on perfecting his lower case “f”s.  He was doing okay, but he knows I will call him out if he just throws something on the paper…..like he did yesterday.  He’s allowed to make mistakes.  He’s not allowed to just give up and not make an effort.

pic of handwritten f's

After about three “f”s were on the paper, he lamented, “Oh, I can’t do it.  I fail.”

Ahem.  He sounded like his big sister.  She’s said that a time or two…..or twenty in the past few years.

And so, I realize, as painful as it might be, it’s time for me to share this story.  (If you see me tomorrow and I’m hanging my head, you will know it’s because I am still carrying this one around in my heart.)

It was second semester of my first year in college.  I was very lucky because school seemed to come easy to me over the years, and I will say I didn’t take that for granted.  I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall and to be found out for the “fraud” I was.  Oh, just wait, sweetie, it was coming.  I took Calculus I first semester just because I had loved math in high school with Miss Eleanor Bell–the legend–and awesome teacher who taught my Daddy, my aunts, and my uncles.  Calc I seemed to be pretty much a review of what Miss Bell taught us the last six weeks of College Algebra.  I was not nor did I have any intentions of being a math major.  But I was on a roll or so I figured, so I signed up for Calculus II as an elective second semester.  I was cranking along the first few weeks okay.  Then STUNT season hit in full force…..it’s a busy time at my alma mater, Wesleyan College.  Each class writes, directs, and acts in their own thirty minute musical.  The time from mid January until March is chaotic.  Script rewrites, casting, all night paint sessions, rehearsals, and then the grand night itself.  So much fun.  I did something I’d never done before.  I let the homework problems slide a bit.  I did some each night but not all of them.  Our teacher told us as long as we kept up with the homework and understood the problems we’d do well in her class.  Well she was absolutely right because I didn’t and I didn’t and I didn’t.  (keep up, understand, do well)  At one point in the semester, *whispering and a big confessional gulp* I was pretty close to failing.  This was the end of the world in my book.  I could not grasp how this had actually happened.  Well yeah, I knew, but the problem was I really didn’t understand the material.  I hadn’t put the time and effort into the class that I should have or needed to.  It might as well have been Greek for all I could understand it.  Such a difference from first semester.  *sigh* I missed Miss Bell.

I called and talked to Daddy about it.  I didn’t want to have the conversation but I knew I could tell him anything.  I wanted to drop the class, just let it fly away into oblivion as if this failure had never even happened in my life.  Obviously it was my choice, but Daddy discouraged it.  “You can do this, Tara,” he said.  “Just put your mind to it.  It’s like getting back on a bicycle when you fall.  Get back on and keep pedaling. Apply yourself.”  I can still hear those words like he’s sitting beside me saying them now.

Never one to want to let my Daddy down, (though it had happened before and would happen again) I set my mind and heart to finish the path I’d started along.  The mess I was in was of my own creation.  I was the one who had chosen poorly.  I needed to make it right and pull my head out of the clouds and realize that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.  College was a different ball game.

I took that final with my stomach fluttering and my brain full of numbers and formulas and whatever else I’d studied to prepare.  But as I sat there in that classroom in Taylor Hall, working away at the problems on the exam, I imagined myself pedaling that bicycle.  One pump at a time.  And in the end, I pulled out a D in the course.  And I was doggone grateful to get it, I don’t mind telling you.  I messed up, but thanks to Daddy, I made the effort and pulled myself out of it (well somewhat).  By the time I graduated, the D from my first year was just a blip on the screen of a really good college run.  And maybe it was due in part to learning early on what a poor choice could lead to…..doubt I’ll ever know for sure.

So tonight I am writing this for my children.  My oldest compares her high school career to mine, her grades to mine, her gifts to mine.  This drives me nuts.  Yes, I did okay.  (And I point out to her–do my children mind me any better because of my high school honors?  Oh baby, those trophies are long gone–too much to dust around.  Enter the real world.)  But she has different gifts.  Each one of you, my precious children who make me crazier than most, has different gifts.  You are going to try things that interest you or that seem like a piece of cake or that you are curious about.  Sometimes you will succeed, sometimes you won’t.  But here’s a couple of things you need to know.

First of all, there’s no story you can’t bring home, nothing you can’t tell me.  Shoot straight, then we will deal with it together.  I. Mean. This.    Nothing.

And secondly, it’s okay to fail.  Yes, I’m serious.  (You ever hear that song lyric, “Win some or learn some” by Jason Mraz?)  Don’t ever let fear of failure keep you from trying.  Sometimes that is the only way to learn–what will work, what won’t, and so forth.  You can create some really beautiful things by trying.  But please don’t ever let me hear about you being lazy or not trying.  That’s what happened to me.  I got slack.  I didn’t keep my priorities straight and I paid for it.  I’m okay with failure if you’re trying, but if you’re just not even applying yourself, you’re wasting what precious time you have.  Ain’t nobody got patience–or time–for that.  What a waste of your awesome talents and gifts.

So Aub, Princess, Cooter–as Mama and Daddy quoted one of the local tv personalities quite often–“Keep on keeping on.”  Don’t bully yourself and beat yourself up when you try and it’s not perfect.  Just know if you are trying your best, that’s all I ever want.  More than anything, don’t give yourself an F and call yourself a failure for a poorly written “f.”  There’s a whole broken world out there ready to point fingers and condemn and blame.  Don’t do it to yourself.  Just keep on trying and one day you will get it just right, or maybe, if you keep trying, just maybe you’ll discover a whole new way of writing them–one that will change the world.

Okay, I didn’t get a nap today and my metaphors are way off, but I hope you hear me when I say this–I learned more about myself from that one D than I did from most all of my other classes.  I learned that I had the potential to get off track.  I am not infallible.  I learned what could happen when I didn’t keep my priorities straight.  I learned my parents loved me no matter what.  And I learned that I could turn things around, even my mistakes, when I set my mind and heart to it and got back on that bicycle and pedaled, one pump at a time, until I reached the goal.  Not easy but so worth it in the end.

Mama Read Books and Daddy Listened

My brother is working on a special project, and he mentioned something that has me thinking about Mama and her books.  Mama loved books.  She read a lot of different kinds, but mysteries were among her favorites.  She also liked novels like “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt” and “Salvation at the Dairy Queen”–novels about people and their “real life” struggles and how they worked through them.

But Mama’s very favorite books?

The ones written for children.

Mama loved reading aloud to us as we were growing up.  And for the past almost eighteen years, she loved reading to her grandchildren.  For my oldest’s first birthday, she got a tire swing in the yard from Daddy and a book and little stuffed kitten from Mama.  It’s always been about the books.  Mama loved picking out books for different children of the family.  It was like a treasure hunt to find just the perfect book for each child.  She and Daddy always kept copies of “Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm” in the trunk of their car.  We loved it growing up, and they loved sharing it with children they came across on their day to day journeys.

Our family favorite growing up--Mama and Daddy loved sharing it with children they met

Our family favorite growing up–Mama and Daddy loved sharing it with children they met

One of my happiest “Mama reading” memories is her reading “Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?” aloud.  Her voice was so animated.  The best sound was the hippo chewing gum “Grum, grum, grum.”  Mama would work her jaw and you just knew that was exactly how it sounded.  I also loved hearing her read aloud, “Listen Buddy.”  She brought Buddy to life in such a way that you just couldn’t forget the story.  And there were so many more.

Mama brought just such books to life for her children and grandchildren and hundreds of elementary schoolchildren over the years.  She loved reading aloud at Byron Elementary to many children in grades kindergarten through third.  I recently found her storytime plans, complete with booklists and the fun experiments from  “Apples, Bubbles, and Crystals: Your Science ABC’s” that she shared each week with the children.  It was something she and Daddy enjoyed planning together.

Daddy supported Mama and her love of reading to children.  (It’s funny to think that he and I heard her reading out loud to children the same number of years.)  He helped her plan her storytimes for the children at the schools by going shopping with her for just the right treats, science experiment materials, and helping her come up with themes and ideas.  He even asked me to embroider “Lady Reads-a-lot” on a shirt for her.   There was one time when Mama was reading aloud that I really realized the abundance of love Daddy felt for Mama.  Daddy wasn’t always vocal about his emotions, but his actions more than let you know how he felt.

One of Maemae's more recent favorites--"Counting Crocodiles"

One of Maemae’s more recent favorites–“Counting Crocodiles”

One afternoon in October of 2011 I was sitting in the living room with Daddy, who was resting in his hospital bed set up in there.  My brother and his family were visiting, so my littles and his were in the “big room” with Mama.  She was reading aloud to them.  We could hear her voice but not necessarily the words as she read.  Daddy was talking and then he grew quiet.  He closed his eyes and smiled so big.  He opened them and looked at me with so much love on his face it took my breath away.  “You hear her?  There she goes.”  He chuckled softly.  He turned his head towards the window and listened.  And Mama was off, reading another story with her animated voice.  I think it was “Little Red Cowboy Hat,” another family favorite and one that Daddy also loved to read.

I remember that look on his face, and I am thankful for it.   Daddy loved Mama with all his heart, and in that moment it shone through every fiber of his being.  He was an encourager and pushed Mama to chase her dreams.  He knew she was talented and believed in her even when she couldn’t believe in herself.  We all should have at least one person like that in our lives, someone whose love for us shines through and who runs alongside us, cheering for us as we go, believing that we can…..and helping us see it through.   That’s the best stuff there is–having a cheerleader when you are going for it, a party-thrower when you make it, and a shoulder to cry on and arms to hug you when you don’t.

If you have someone like that, go now and tell ’em you love ’em or give them a big hug or write them a note.  Whatever.  Just appreciate them and love them right back.  Know you are one of the lucky ones.  Because you really are.

Beauty from Trash and Healing Hearts

In 2011 I was introduced to a book by Reverend Becca Stevens titled Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart. Readings from this book were used for devotions before the suppers at Daybreak in Macon on Sunday nights. They were really, really good. So I got the book myself and started reading it. At the end of the book, it talked about the mission of Thistle Farms. I was fascinated. So I started learning about them and their mission to help women in this country who have been living on the streets. They are doing beautiful things. And that’s a story for another time.

On September 14, 2011 they shared in a Facebook post that they would have jewelry from ABAN (A Ban Against Neglect) of Ghana in their Evening Survival kits. I clicked on the link…..and I fell in love.

In Ghana there is an ecological epidemic. Because of unclean drinking water, water is sold in these little sandwich-sized bags and then mostly discarded on the streets. So the city of Accra is littered with over 40 tons of these little bags…..every day. There is also a heartbreaking problem in that there are over 30,000 homeless youth sleeping on the streets at night, with over 10,000 of them young mothers and their babies. I’ll stop while you re-read that. Yes, 10,000 young mothers and babies. Sleeping on the streets. Every night. Awful.

Two young women went over to Accra as foreign exchange students in 2008. They were blown away at the pollution. And then they realized the greater crisis of lost children in the city. It was in creating a mock non-profit for class using recycled products that it occurred to Callie Brauel and Rebecca Brandt that they could make this happen, and work to change two crises at one time. ABAN was born.

Talented ABAN seamstresses creating beautiful works of art out of water sachets that once littered the street.

Talented ABAN seamstresses creating beautiful works of art out of water sachets that once littered the street.

If you look at their products, you’ll see that these young women are truly talented–making their own batik, sewing pouches, all kinds of bags, aprons, and picnic blankets from these recycled water pouches that were previously litter. Just amazing. They attach tags with ABAN’s story and a picture of one of their young women. I left the tag on my bag to remember. I hope always to remember. It’s so easy to take simple things like a clean pillow and a shower and food in the refrigerator for granted, isn’t it? Gas in a car, places to go, family and friends who seem happy to see me. These young women had none of these things…..but thanks to ABAN they are on their way to having a life that is redemptive and healing. What a gift.

I was fortunate to get to know both Callie and Rebecca via phone conversations and then in person back in 2011. We were arranging for Rebecca to come and share the story of ABAN and their beautiful craft at Bare Bulb Coffee in early December that year. In the midst of the planning e-mails back and forth, my Daddy was declining and it was apparent that it wouldn’t be much longer. I let Callie and Rebecca know, as I would be out of pocket for planning for a few days. Both sent the sweetest of messages.

From Rebecca–


Each morning we begin the day with prayer, announcements and a short message – we call it “Sister Circles”. These girls know and recognize loss as well, and have a unique sense of compassion toward it, so tomorrow, prayers for your father, for you and for your family will be on our hearts and our lips.

And from Callie, after I shared with them our loss–

Oh Tara!

It amazes me how much joy and celebration I read in this message. In Ghana, a funeral is an all-day celebration that usually lasts into the night. There is singing and dancing and praising and it is absolutely beautiful. Isn’t that what death should be about? Remembering and celebrating the beautiful moments that individual created and how his/her memories will live on inside of others? And it definitely sounds like the world was a much better place because of your father’s presence. I think this ABAN party should be his honor.

I love these young women. They are all about redemption and light in the brokenness. And about kindness and healing. They are saving lives and bringing joy to our world which so needs it.

The night after Daddy died, my sister, my Mama, and I couldn’t sleep. It brought us all comfort to know that these young women across the world were gathered, possibly at that very moment, in their Sister Circles and lifting us up in prayer. Comforting–like warm, gentle waves washing upon weary souls–and oh so humbling. We were connected–our lives and theirs over distance and time. Forever.

Graduates from ABAN last year--this year's celebration will be July 27th.

Graduates from ABAN last year with Callie and Rebecca–this year’s celebration will be July 27th.

There is a group of young women graduating from the ABAN program on July 27th. I am so excited for them. They have worked hard and learned so much, and now they will move on in their journey, taking the next step. On that day I will celebrate here in Georgia, thinking of them, and telling God how much they mean to me. I will cheer for them on this, their special day, for all they have left behind and all they are moving towards–these young women who are my sisters. For that’s what family does–multiply our joys and divide our sorrows. Mama always said.

If you have a few minutes to learn about what they are doing, I think you’ll fall in love as well. Those beautiful smiles, their indomitable spirits, and their beautiful wares. And if you have time on July 27th, grab a glass of sweet tea and a slice of pound cake with me, and celebrate these young women Southern style. And give thanks for Callie and Rebecca, for dreaming big of redemption coming out of brokenness, and for all the people who work with ABAN to make that dream come true.

Seeking Clarity

pic of my glasses

These are my glasses.  The most recent pair in a long line of visual assistance.  They help me see okay, although that is debatable after the incident early yesterday morning where I mistook a soccer ball for a calico cat curled up on my porch.  I think it is finally time for me to move on to the next rendition–bifocals–as these spend more than their fair share of the day hanging off my face so I can see things that are up close.

I got my first pair of glasses when I was in fifth grade.  I knew the teasing of “four eyes” was coming, but I didn’t care.  The clarity of my sight with them was amazing.  We went over to my great Aunt’s house over behind the Mercer Law School in Macon after we picked them up.  I was so pleased with them, and then promptly forgot them and left them there.   I wasn’t used to keeping up with them or keeping them on my face yet.  Daddy drove us back up there in his truck.  This was back in the day before all of the transportation laws.  I rode down I-75 sitting in the bed of his truck, amazed at all around me.  My head was turning from right to left and back again.  I could see leaves on the trees.  I could READ the billboards.  I was in awe of all that was around me.

I went through the phase of having the self-tinting glasses.  I thought they were so cool.  Until our class pictures were outside and I was the only one whose eyes couldn’t be seen.  That was a hoot.  And it seemed like they never quite lost the tint even when I was inside.

One evening after I had my glasses for a while, I was out riding our horse Betsy bareback.  I don’t know if it was at my urging or not, but she started galloping back towards the house.  Somewhere along the way, with me bouncing on her back, my glasses bounced right off my face.  I wasn’t able to stop her right away, but I knew about where it happened.  There were just two problems.  It was dusk and hard to see, and without my glasses it was even harder to search.  My folks came out to help but to no avail.  We decided to wait until morning when there would be more light.  I don’t know how we thought I would handle school without my glasses, but we had no other choice than to wait.

Early the next morning, we started searching out in the horse pasture.  Betsy followed us around, curious as to what we were doing out there so early.  The sunlight glistened on the morning dew.  Every twinkle I was hopeful.  But no such luck.  Then I saw it, a reflection that was more than a dewdrop.  My glasses!  There was a tiny crack in the frame, but otherwise they were perfectly fine.  We were so lucky that Betsy hadn’t crushed them on the ride back or during the night.  And that we actually found them–it was pretty much like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Just glasses in a horse pasture instead.

I was thinking about those glasses and that incident tonight.  Isn’t it funny how if you sleep on something and try again in the morning, in the light, things can suddenly seem so much clearer and sometimes you even find what you are seeking?  That kind of clarity–they just can’t put that in frames.  Oh if only.

Gators, Cats, and Panic Attacks

I’ve been up since five this morning.  And I’ve not had a nap today.  Neither of these things was planned, nor did they contribute to my general pleasantness today.  But I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet.  (Besides I might need it for next year’s Towel Day…..never throw in a perfectly good towel.)

I woke up to the sound of a cat yowling.  Just outside my bedroom window.  I turned on the porch light and looked out.   I saw what looked like a calico cat huddled on the corner of the deck.  Upon closer inspection a few minutes later, I realized it was the black and green soccer ball one of our crew left out there.  Ummm, yeah.  (Note to self–schedule eye appointment.  Soon.)  Rather than being the return of the stray who serenaded our girl kitty a couple of months ago, I realized our big boy, Sugar, had busted the screen and gotten out.  We got him back in and I made the necessary repairs (well, mending for the time being is a better way of describing it I suppose–Gorilla tape is the bomb!).  I couldn’t go back to sleep.  So I finished reading my book in the quiet, which was a rare treat.

The littles and I had an outing first thing this morning.  After we arrived, I saw I had an email from the neighborhood folks.  A gator has been seen in the pond at the other end of our street and he’s been hanging out in some of the yards around it.   So that sounds about right.  My mind immediately went to what could have happened if we hadn’t found our cat this morning.  Sugar, whom we rescued last year when he was three weeks old from whatever got him and beat him up pretty bad, whom I bottlefed and worried over, escaped just as there’s a gator on the prowl.  Oh my stars.  I was overwhelmed.  I don’t want to lose him that way.  Or at all.  I have to make sure this doesn’t happen again.  I could feel the panic rising.  That’s what all the grief and brokenness and hard times of the past four years has done.  I have panic attacks from time to time.  I look like Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc./Monster U.

pic of mike wazowski panicked

Or not.  Not making light of panic attacks by any means, but that feeling lost and “not knowing what to do at all” look that you see in his face?  Yeah, that’s it.

I am working my way through them.  Today I gave myself a pep talk.  Told myself I could handle this.  One. Step. At. A. Time.  And I did.  I talked and laughed with my Aunt.  For a long time. (Sorry.)  I changed some plans and rearranged my thoughts, and by afternoon, I could hear Mama, “This too shall pass.”  She said that a lot.  She’d also say, “Well if that’s the worse thing that ever happens to us, we’ll be all right.”  Or, “Well, at least they’re not shooting bullets at us.”  She was right.  I did feel the worry and upset and panic passing.  Sugar was back to his old self, no longer the crazed cat of 5 a.m. that refused to acknowledge me calling his name and telling him he needed to come back inside.  By late morning he had forgiven me and was back to being our happy, curious indoor cat that we all love.

That's our big boy, being goofy.

That’s our big boy, being goofy.

I am trying to learn not to let these moments overwhelm me.  I am trying not to let people and their issues steal my joy.  I am working really hard on tolerance and patience as well.  These things called Grief and Loss and Death have also turned me into one great big eye roll.  (Can you imagine Mike Wazowski doing an eye roll?  Yeah, that’s what I feel like too sometimes.)  I just don’t have the patience with some situations or some attitudes like I used to.  Is it a side effect of grieving?  Is it my age?  Is it that I think life is too short to waste time on things that really don’t matter in the long run?  Maybe some of all three.

All I know is that tonight I’m okay.  I made it through today.  The gator didn’t eat my cat.  I will find Sugar a new family (due to allergies, it just has to happen).  Right now at this moment, it’s all okay.  It’s different, but it’s okay.  I made a game plan and kept breathing.  I cannot let myself think about tomorrow.  I just have to do the NOW.  And some days that’s as good as it gets.  Oh, and I only rolled my eyes twice today I think.  Not too bad for a Monday.

This is my superpower, so yeah, I've got this panic thing down.

This is my superpower, so yeah, I’ve got this panic thing down.

Don’t Stop Believing…..Faithfully

We’re running a little late tonight, as we usually do on Sunday nights.  My oldest is in the shower, and she has her music playing in the background as she always does.

Only tonight it’s different.  Tonight it’s special music playing.  The same music she’s been playing all day.  Music from the Glee soundtracks.

Aub is sad and lost today.  My girl has had a lot of loss  in her young life–her Papa, her Cap, her Maemae, and her two great-grandmothers.  She knows life isn’t always about answered prayers and happy endings.  She’s way too young to know these things, but she knows them anyway.

But tonight her heart is breaking in a different way.  A young actor, someone she never met, has died.  She didn’t know him personally, but she felt as though she did, as he was a star in a show she’s only recently found and watched–Glee.  This has broken my girl in ways that I can only imagine.  It’s the first time someone young that she felt a connection to has died, and it’s just hard.

I remember very well August 16, 1977.  For whatever reason I was the one to hear the breaking news about the death of Elvis Presley.  I went in the kitchen where Mama was cooking supper and told her.  She thought I was kidding.  When I assured her I was not, a hush came over both of us.  I was sad.  While Elvis was not related to us, it sure felt like he was.  Daddy had so many of his albums and we watched his movies when they came on TV.  After I told Mama, it was time for me to go out and prepare the bottle for my calf and go feed him.  I remember how dark and unsafe the world suddenly felt when I went to the shed for the bottle and formula.  My world was shattered in a strange way.

I know this today has shaken the sense of immortality for more than just my girl.  There is a family and a young woman who loved this young man and whom he loved.  There are friends and co-workers and people who knew him in passing.  And there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, who “knew” him through his show, who will miss him and grieve this loss in their own way.

He played a fictional character.  I know that.  But this grief is real, not disenfranchised.  Tears have been cried under my very own roof.  And as police and investigators try to make sense of what seems to be a senseless death, the grief will continue.

I’m sorry, baby girl.  It’s a broken world.  Not much makes sense anymore, especially not Death and who it claims when.  I don’t know how to help you through this except to say, I love you and I will listen.  And maybe, just maybe, I will sit and watch a marathon of these shows with you.  In memory of a talented young actor and to do what we all do when Death creeps in and reminds us of how fragile it all is–to huddle close and love each other.

Hoping that light and peace beyond all understanding will reach those who are grieving and mourning tonight.  Tonight I leave you with something my girl sent me with this message: “Indulge me, I’m grieving.”  A talented young man is gone, may he rest in peace.

Piddlin’ and Putterin’ Around

It’s been one of those weekends. I only had a couple of things on the “agenda,” leaving a lot of room in the margins for getting together with my sister Mess Cat and her family. Or not. Whatever. Free time. That has become a precious commodity around here. So it was a nice surprise.

Several times this weekend, I’ve called Mess Cat or she’s called me.
“Hey, whatcha doing?”
“Nothin’ much. Just piddlin’. You?”
“Oh just putterin’ around. Nothing major.”

And this is how our several phone calls went all weekend. (With the exception of her painting trim in their new house. And I think she did refer to that as “putterin’.”)

This afternoon we puttered around at Mama’s. We sat on the porch swing and just soaked in yet another southern July day with highs in the 80’s and a nice breeze.  Beautiful.

The view we had today.....sitting on the porch swing and piddlin' around.

The view we had today…..sitting on the porch swing and piddlin’ around.

Later we checked around on things, uprighted a birdbath our two rambunctious boys decided would be cool to turn over to get the “dirty” water out.  No easy feat, that one.  We puttered around in the house, picking up, putting things away, emptying the ice bucket from the freezer.  A whole lot of little and a little bit of nothing.

In case you were wondering, putterin’ and piddlin’ around are not related to laziness at all.  In fact they are not for the faint of heart, for to putter or piddle around, one must have the ability to do things with ease and focus so as not to enter the level of frenzied activity that could be deemed “work.”  Piddlin’ and putterin’ are good for the soul and not strenuous on the mind, body, or spirit.  Think Andy Taylor and Floyd sitting around whittling on the bench outside the barber shop.  Now you got it.  Good stuff.  It takes skill, I’m not gonna lie, and years of practice.  But yeah, me and Mess Cat, I think we’ve got it down.

We’re working our way slowly toward the new normal.  One day at a time.  I like to think we are resilient.  Like the Back Porch Rosebush.  Before Mama’s back porch was built, there was a little set of concrete steps at the back door.  Next to the steps was a rosebush.  When they were getting ready to build the porch, someone, I think it might have been my brother-in-law Leroy, moved the rosebush to the other side where the porch would end.  It’s growing quite nicely, and there were two beautiful roses on it when we were there today.  It was a few months after the porch was built when we saw a sprig of green coming up through the floor of the porch.  At first we didn’t really pay much attention to it.  I think we clipped it back and kept on keeping on, what with Daddy being sick and all.  It quickly grew back through the floor.  Mama soon realized it was her rose, which somehow enough of it had been left in the ground that it was regenerating down there in the darkness under the deck.  She tried rooting it and cutting it back some.  The rooting didn’t go so well.  In recent months my siblings and I haven’t really thought too much about it.  Today, here it was in all its glory, thanks to all the rain, celebrating reaching the sunlight.

The porch rosebush, our own version of the phoenix, rising up out of the darkness towards the light.

The porch rosebush, our own version of the phoenix, rising up out of the darkness towards the light.

For Mess Cat, me, our brother and sister and all of our family, this is what each day is about.  Reaching past the darkness towards the light and hope for better days, yet still connected to the darkness.  Once you’ve been there, you can never leave it fully behind, but you can soak in all the goodness and love around you and reach for the light.

And so we do.

And while we’re reaching, we putter.  And piddle around.  And sit and be together.

That’s the best stuff in life.  Being together.

As a summer treat to celebrate a beautiful day, here’s a great summer song to putter and piddle around to–y’all enjoy!

And yes, that’s Kris Kristofferson with the guitar and cigar.  And if you don’t laugh with Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, well, there’s just no help for ya!

Inappropriate to One, Survival to Another

pic of survival doodle
When my Daddy left this world, his two sisters, my Mama, my two sisters, and I were all right there with him. Less than thirty minutes later, my aunts and I were in the other room. We’d been sitting vigil since before daybreak, and we were all emotionally and physically exhausted. One of my aunts teased me about something, trying to lighten the moment. I looked at my aunt and offered an exaggerated pout, “I can’t believe you’re giving me a hard time…..my Daddy just died!” They laughed softly. “Oh, that was good, Tara. Good job.”

Inappropriate? Maybe. But they understood. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been inappropriate in my grieving and it probably won’t be the last.

A couple of months after Daddy died, I was so bogged down in the loss that I was crying in the shower regularly and just missed him so much. I was talking with my sister about it. She said, “You know Daddy wouldn’t want you being like this.” And without even thinking about it, I replied snappishly, “Well he ain’t here, is he?  So he doesn’t get a say.” Just the other day I told my Aunt that I kept doing things, half expecting Daddy to come back and stop me. And that I wish he would. I am pretty sure that if I don’t get my act together about some things, Mama will figure out a way to come back and set me straight. She’s always been resourceful like that. I told someone that and wondered if I really should have said it.  I do that a lot.  I say the first thing that comes to my grief-stricken mind, and then later think, “Uh oh. That sounded just about sacrilegious and downright disrespectful.” If any of those comments have fallen on your ears, I am sorry. I don’t mean to be disrespectful or offensive at all.

You see, in the past several years, that has become our relationship. Mama and Daddy knew I loved and respected them more than anything.  I ma’amed and sirred them right to the end.  But I would play at sassing them and they’d play fuss back. It was never about anything serious, just goofy stuff–like me giving them a hard time at letting my children have treats or watch a movie, all of which I was totally okay with. Or when Mama would want to send home the leftovers with us, and I’d sigh and say well, if I have to for goodness’ sake, but don’t expect me to do this again. Good-natured sarcasm was a mainstay. We lived for the playful banter.

And I miss it.

I was thinking about this the other day when I remembered a particular family I worked with in Hospice shortly after I was hired. A young mother, metastasized cancer, they waited until the very end to admit her to our program. I was at the house a lot, especially in the few weeks after her death, spending time with the children. The patient’s brother stayed in town for a little while after the service. One day he was trying to convince his brother-in-law, the grieving widower, to take a day off from work and go play some sport with him. The widower was reluctant; I think he’d taken a lot of leave over her several year battle with cancer. The young woman’s brother said, “Come on man, you can play the ‘my wife just died’ card. It’ll be fine.”

Quite honestly I was shocked and appalled. All at the same time. How could he even think such a thing, let alone say it out loud?

Ah, the indignation of youth and ignorance.

Because I get it now. I look back now through the lens of my own grief and realize that it was his way of dealing with losing his sister. He was flippant and irreverent and some might say inappropriate. I know I did back then. But he was surviving. He was making light of a horrible, tragically sad situation in order to hold it together. Because if he–if I–really shared any of what was in our hearts, the floodgates would open, and there would be no turning back. All of that brokenness, shattered and scattered like a mirror that has been shot clean through, would be so far gone there might be no putting it all back together.

And so we joke. We kid. Around here if someone says “Maemae wouldn’t like that,” it’s quite likely a “Well then she needs to come back here and tell me to my face” will follow.  We miss them. We miss their laughter, their wisdom, their love, their hugs, and just being with them. Being with them and taking their presence for granted, that would sure would be nice. Because, unfortunately, that’s how we lived…..before the cancer, before the illness, before the surgeries, and the sadness. We took each other for granted. It sure was good.

It has taken a dozen years and tremendous heartbreak for me to look back and understand the words and reaction of a young man whose sweet sister lost her battle with a horrible disease. I wish I could go back now and whisper in the Tara of yesterday’s ear–“Hey, cut him some slack. It’s not inappropriate. It’s survival. Give him the grace he needs. Because one day, sooner or later, we’re all going to need that grace.”

Survival and grief are gritty and hard and raw.  Not pretty.  Or easy.  And the only way to find that out, unfortunately, is to go through it.  Which is why I didn’t get it twelve years ago.  But today, today I understand.  All too well. What looks like indifference or irreverence is often just a way of holding the pieces together.  One moment at a time.  Sometimes that’s just the best you can do.

Mama and the Drug Dealer

Last August when Mama was in the hospital, she had a really rough time.  She had been admitted with a temp registering over 105.  I don’t know if I’ve ever been more frightened in my life.  They took her back immediately and left me to do the intake…..and worry what was happening back there.  She was dehydrated, her blood levels were off–it wasn’t good at all.

As happens they needed to “get a vein” on Mama quite often during that ten day HospitalStay.  Putting in an IV was especially tricky.  Mama did not, for whatever reason, have what could be deemed “good veins.”  I watched her in pain as nurse after nurse tried to find a way to get it set up.  Eventually they did, but each time Mama was left more exhausted than before.  And unfortunately, the vein would give out I guess or she would be in great pain, and they’d have to move it again.

Between me, my Aunt, and my siblings we stayed with Mama pretty much around the clock.  I spent the nights with her.  Though you could still hear voices in the hall and the lights were as bright as ever out there, there was a hush that came over the hospital after dark.  People who came in the room talked in low tones, and were more deliberate in their movements.  Often I dozed through the comings and goings.  One of the symptoms of Mama’s newly diagnosed syndrome was that she could run a fever and then sweat so profusely the bedclothes would need changing.  The staff was very good about helping her and sometimes changing the linens twice in one night.  They understood.  I’m so thankful for that.  And Mama, who had been to nursing school, kept a keen eye out for which ones had those special bedmaking skills.  Before she was discharged, I knew what was considered the right way, and who the best bedmakers were on our floor.

One night I had been sleeping for a couple of hours when I awoke to voices talking quietly, almost a whisper.  I sat up and Mama said, “Oh Tara, you have to hear the story that Sonya* just told me.  She’s the best at setting up IV’s.”  I smiled and rubbed my eyes.  Mama was beaming.  Sonya was finishing up connecting the IV, but it was in, and Mama wasn’t hurting.  Oh so thankful.  “I’d like to hear it.”

pic of drug needles

Sonya had been in nursing school in Virginia I think.  Mama liked that because her baby boy and his family live there, and it was a connection for her.  Eventually, Sonya wound up in New York doing some training.  Late one night she was having a hard time getting a vein on a patient.  One of the more experienced nurses told her to go up on the ninth floor to see Harold*.  He could help her with accessing veins.  Sonya went up and found Harold, an older gentleman patient diagnosed with AIDS.  He was a former drug dealer.  One of the aspects of his business was showing new folks how to get a vein, in the hopes that they’d get hooked on the drugs I suppose.  He was very, very good.  Maybe at selling drugs too, I really don’t know.  But eventually he wanted out of it.  He quit dealing, turned his life around and was involved in many good programs helping people before AIDS put him in that hospital.  On the ninth floor.  Where he taught Sonya–very well–how to “get a vein.”

The next morning as we sat, like you do in a hospital room, I thought about Sonya’s story.  “Hey, Mama, did you ever think you’d be thankful for a drug dealer and his skills?”  I don’t remember her answer.  She might have been sleeping.  All I know is I was and still am thankful for him.  And for Sonya who took the time to learn from someone others might have overlooked, something that all of her patients from then on would benefit from.

A few weeks ago I wrote about all the shades of gray in our world.  And remembering this brings it home for me.  So often in the past couple of weeks I have said to my Aunt or my friend or to my oldest–and yes, in frustration quite honestly–“See, no one can be put in a ‘white’ or ‘black’ box.  We are all a mixture of good and bad, light and dark, and we all go in the ‘GRAY’ box.”  *sigh*  So often I wish I could just write off someone who has upset me or disappointed me because there was nothing redemptive about him or her.  But it’s just not that easy.  There’s no all the way on anything or anyone.  It’s always a mix.

And that’s why I love this story.  The story of how my Mama, a feisty but sweet Mama of four, volunteer, Winnie the Pooh lover, great cook, reader, artist, and writer was touched and blessed by a drug dealer from New York City.  Because that part of his life did not ultimately define him.  Just as no one part of Mama’s life defined hers.  We are all these amazing stories whose lives intersect in the most fascinating and ordinary of ways and at the most interesting times.  And when they do, isn’t it breathtaking the stuff that can come of it?  When I think about the ripples, all the lives touched in a good way by Harold because he was a part of helping programs, because he was willing to share his skills with nurses, I am blown away.  Just as there’s no way of counting the lives that Sonya touched and still touches as she goes about caring for patients and helping people heal and be comfortable.  Or how many little lives my Mama touched all those years she read to children in classrooms at Byron Elementary.  I think that’s one of the coolest things ever.  How our stories travel far and wide to places we’ve never even been.  My Mama and a drug dealer’s lives connected?  That’s the most beautiful shade of gray I’ve ever seen.  Light in the darkness.  I love it.

*not their real names