messages in the mirror

Dear One,

Tonight as I was driving home I came upon the portion of the road where they are doing all that roadwork.  Expansion.  Ugh.  I’m already disgusted with myself about it, because I’m sure it will only take a few months after the road widening is done that I will be thankful for the extra space on the roads. I will forget my indignation at the trees cut down and habitats destroyed and become complacent.  Double ugh.  But I digress.

I looked at those homes sitting on the side of the road.  No telling how long they have been there.  With families that have loved living on a country highway.  Children who had memorized exactly how many steps it took to check the mailbox by the road.  Mamas who could tell the time of day by the cars and buses that passed by.  Families that sat on their porches and waved at the passersby.  A good life.  Content.

And now, their yards have been violated.  Ripped into.  These homes now only have a fraction of what they did before, the black plastic marking and separating what is left of their space from what once was. Fences lay all askew and the grass is non-existent.  And all they can do is sit and accept.  No one will want their precious home now.  Selling it isn’t even an option.  It’s hopeless.

I gazed upon the torn down trees and gutted earth, and I thought of you.  How you must feel like these families do.  Your heart torn into, at first slowly, and then not with one or two, but with three big rips.  What your life once was, ripped into pieces.  And what you are left with–much, much less than it was.  Devastated.  Hopeless.  I imagined that was how your heart must ache.

The tears you hold back.  The words you don’t say.  The mask you must wear and the burdens you feel you must carry alone.  All of it wearing you thin and making everything that happens seem more.  More than you can handle.  More than you can cope with.  More than you can bear.

Until you find yourself searching for a lap to crawl into.  Somewhere to curl into a ball and be safe.  A place to hide from all that has gone before.  And from all that could yet still come.  A place to be.  Or not be.  Darkness.  Quiet.

My Mama would say, “At least nobody’s shooting bullets at us.”  Some days that was as good as it seemed to get, and she’d take it.  It’s hard to hear those words and take heart in them now, isn’t it?  Daddy’s wisdom seems far, far away, the echoes of his words so distant, they are unintelligible.  It’s enough to make one feel lost, without those who have always guided and loved and offered sanctuary.  It’s enough to make one just want to quit.

When Mess Cat was headed back to her life from before the HospitalStay last year–the same yet so different–after Mama was gone and we were left to figure things out on our own, she took my hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I want you to do me a favor.”  I nodded through the tears.  “Remember these words.  ‘Yes.  Thank you.’  When someone offers to help or whatever, you say those words.  Okay?”  I nodded again.

I need you to nod now.  Those words.  Can you say them?  Can you let people help?  And if the offers aren’t there, will you please let those around you know what you need?  And if you don’t even know yourself, will you tell them THAT?  That you don’t know what you need, but you are.  In.  Need.  And when they offer to come and sit in the dark with you, will you say these words?  Yes.  Thank you.  When they call you on the phone will you pick it up?  Will you say, I need help?  Not “I’m fine.  I’m okay.  Doing all right.”  Take off the mask and let them in.

Life was not meant to be lived alone.  We were not meant to walk the path with no one at our side.   It’s lonely and it’s dark and there are shadows and noises that can be frightening.  As Leroy said today, we all are on a journey that there is no blueprint for.  No map.  There’s no book that tells any of us exactly how to get through this without it being messy and hard and broken and filled with longing and hurt.  Because there is no such thing.  It’s going to be all of those things.  For a long time to come.  Grief is all of those things and more.  Period.  There are no buts.

I have hope that you, me, we all can get through this.  Leroy said we can, and he’s never been less than truthful with me.  I want you to do this.  Go look in the mirror.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Now look yourself in the eyes.  And tell yourself these things and begin to believe them.

*I am enough.

No matter how you interpret the behavior and thoughts of others, take off the filter that tells you it’s all because you are not enough. 

*I am loved. 

Because you are.  By so many.  Now go and love yourself.

*I can do this.  I can.  One step at a time.  With the help of others.  I can.

You can.  It won’t be easy.  The path you take may not look like Mama’s or Daddy’s or anyone else you love.  But it will be your path and you will make it and get through this.  You won’t ever be able to shake all of the pain off your heart, but you can and will be able to see beyond it.  Eventually.  Just take it one moment at a time.  One small task.  Some days getting up and getting dressed is enough of an accomplishment for the day. 

And as you hear those words, do these things:

*Cry.  Speak.  Let it all out. 

Holding it in will only break you further.  Tears are good.  Letting it out will make room for the good stuff.  And one day, please Lord, there will be plenty of good to fill you up. 

*Give grace freely.

To others.  To yourself. Hurt happens, but you don’t have to let it linger in your heart.  Work through it and give grace.  Especially to yourself. 

*Seek joy. 

In a memory.  In a word.  In a smile.  In a song on the radio.  Look for it.  You have to look to find it, joy is not likely to walk up and bop you on the head like little Bunny FuFu and those field mice.  Ah, there’s a joyful memory right there.  Remember that song?  And the rabbit named Little Bunny FuFu that Daddy brought home for us? 

Those houses on the road.  I don’t know what their future holds.  Nor do I know what yours or mine will be.  Maybe we all will be reinvented, so that we can be okay, we can have a life where we are, in this new way we find ourselves, able to be and do with a little less than we had before. Somehow making the best of what we have now.

And that’s a Mama-ism right there–Do the best you can with what you have at the moment.

Maybe we’re not as lost as we feel.  Maybe we learned more than we thought we did.  And maybe Leroy’s right.  Maybe we will be okay.  I want all of this and more.  For you.  For me. For all of us.

Love.  Love.  Love.  Always.

The Cup of Coffee

I didn’t want to write about this tonight.

Seriously, I’ve spent much of today debating myself about it.  So much so that I have a headache (which could be non-related, but still).  I have other things to share.  80’s music at a skate rink and a turtle shell-inspired story. Good stuff, right?

But my heart says no.  Tomorrow those other stories will still be here.  This one has to be written.  Tonight.  So I can let it go.

And so I begin.

A year ago I spent the day at the hospital in Warner Robins with Mama.  There was all kind of discussion about moving her to Macon, that they had specialists there who could help her.  Once the decision was made (and Mama had to be convinced too y’all, not an easy task), we had to wait on transport.  All.  Day.  Long.  I understand, looking back at the big picture.  But in the moment, I hope you’ll understand when I say there was a bit of impatience on our part.  They told us she would be moved and then we waited for HOURS.  In the meantime, the Fella brought Aub to come get my car, so she could get to and from work the next day.  I waved at my children from the window.  Mama’s pastor came by and made Mama feel so much better with his presence and prayers.  He lit a fire under her faith with his gentle words and she felt much better, at least mentally and spiritually.  Physically she was still in a lot of pain.

Finally the crew arrived to take her to Macon.  I had been asking all afternoon if I would be allowed to ride with her.  I had only heard from one source that I would be able to, so I had been a bit nervous about letting my only means of transportation go.  When the male and female ambulance EMT’s arrived, I asked once again.  I was told it would be okay.  (insert huge sigh of relief here)  They moved Mama to a stretcher which caused her to tense up and pinch her mouth to keep from crying out.  We went down hallways and through doors with special admission only and around to the back of the hospital.  The man led me to the ambulance, and they loaded Mama in the back.  The woman sat in the back with her.  When I thought we were about to leave, the man said he’d be right back, and he went back in the hospital.  I sat there, listening to the movement of the EMT in the back as she hooked up the necessary equipment.  I heard Mama’s muffled voice.  I couldn’t really see what was going on through the opening, so I chose to trust that Mama was okay.  Anything else would have made me crazy.

Finally, the EMT came out with a Styrofoam cup.  He placed it in his cupholder and cranked up.  The radio station blared music from a classic rock station.  Oh.  My.  Word.  When I say “blared,” I am not exaggerating.  If I weren’t already so far over my stress threshold, that would have sent me there in one drum beat.  LOUD.  He said, “I just wanted a cup of coffee before we leave.”  Umm.  Okay?  I mean, I guess he’s allowed.  I don’t want to tell him he can’t have a cup of coffee, but I hope you will understand that this whole thing had us wishing for a sense of urgency on EVERYONE’s part.

We left the hospital, heading west on Watson to pick up 247.  An interesting choice of route.  (I don’t know why, I guess because I have my Daddy’s sense of direction–a good one thankfully–but I find myself constantly calculating the best route or re-routing in my head.)  When he turned on 247 and passed the base, I decided to try for conversation.  I can’t help it, it’s what I do.  (That, I got from my Mama.)

Somehow the subject of coffee came up.  I asked him if he’d ever been to our favorite coffeehouse.

“Um yeah, once,” he said.  “I don’t like all that fancy coffee.  I just like it simple.”

Okay. Strike two.

Please forgive me, but I had already cut him some slack when we had to wait for them to arrive to begin with, and then again when he went back in for coffee.  But then he blares music that there was NO WAY my Mama was enjoying, and he slams my favorite coffeehouse that specializes in sharing light in the world?

Puh-lease.

We talked a little about his recipe for chicken salad, his family, I think, and the fact that he also works at a firehouse part-time.  This I learned when he rolled down the window and talked/hollered with the guy in the firetruck next to us at the light.  Um, no I’m not kidding.

He did swing me back in his favor just a little when he explained his choice of route without me asking.  “We’re going to take Broadway in. The interstate bumps too much and will be more uncomfortable for her.”

Okay.  We’ll take it.

When we got to the hospital, I saw Mama’s face.  She was in pain and holding it in.  We parked in what I think must have been UNDER the hospital, barely eking out a place for the ambulance.  It was packed on that Friday around six in the evening.  They wheeled Mama around the other ambulances, exhaust blowing from the still running engines, and all I could think was, “How sanitary is this?”  But I guess, at that point, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

We wound through the patients in the hallway of the emergency room.  Bless all those poor sick souls.  They all looked miserable.  Yet several gazed upon us with sympathy in their eyes.  We went through more secret special doors and headed up to the fourth floor.  A room with a couch (oh thank you Lord!).  Mama had to be moved once more from the stretcher to the bed.  The two EMT’s were more gentle this time.  Mama couldn’t help it.  She moaned a little.  The female EMT stepped back to the door, as the man paused.  He looked at Mama.  “I hope you feel better soon, Mrs. Joyner.”  He nodded, looked over at me, and headed out the door.

The whole thing was very surreal.  Mama was literally slipped in through the back door.  She didn’t get admission papers taken care of until much later.  As we sat wondering if anyone even knew she was in the room, we wondered where the bathroom was.  And we eventually decided, as we laughed nervously, that this must be one of the special rooms without one.  (We did see it later–it was behind the door to the hallway that had been open the whole time.)

All of this was before they moved her to the CVICU around 10 that night–a room that would be her home for the next two weeks (after which they moved her to the STICU).  It was before the doctor came in, complaining that she had been calling the Warner Robins hospital all day long wanting to know when Mama would arrive.  Before we comprehended the sense of urgency that Mama’s condition caused amongst the hospital staff.  It was before the doctor said that she didn’t have the really bad life-threatening condition (just a highly contagious one), an opinion that was reversed just twenty-four hours later, followed quickly by the first of three emergency surgeries. This was before all that.  A day that began with me feeding my children breakfast and heading out the door ended with me sitting in an ICU waiting area, waiting to hear if Mama was okay and to ask why the rush to move her to ICU.

And when I’ve thought back on that day today, all day long the thing that pops into my head immediately and stays there is that cup of coffee sitting in the cupholder.

It was such a simple, mundane thing for him to do.  Get a cup of coffee before he hits the road again.  Just as a businessperson might grab one before tackling the next report.  Or a student might grab an espresso before beginning work on a ten-page paper.  We all do it, right?  Take a moment before the next thing.

Only in this case, the next thing was my Mama.  The situation and she herself were at the top of my priority list.  In those moments I couldn’t care less if he were as thirsty as a man crossing the desert.  Getting my Mama well was all I had on my mind.

It’s a wonder all I did was think ugly things.  I’m surprised I didn’t say them.  But then again, that was before Mama died, and I still had a little bit of a filter.  He wouldn’t be so lucky these days, I’m afraid.

As I rode in the car home from a birthday party this afternoon, I thought about how many times I “stop for a cup of coffee,” not appreciating the situation those around me might be in.  I stand daydreaming in the line at the grocery store, not aware that the woman behind me might be in a rush because she’s been at work all day and has a sick child at home.  Or that the cashier might just need to hear a kind word from somebody because she had her heart broken the night before.  So many times each day, I just keep on going to the next thing. 

For me that cup of coffee stands for more than a thirst or even a caffeine addiction.  It represents the importance of being aware of what’s going on around me and shifting my priorities as needed.  If he had taken the time to turn off the radio or ask if the station was okay or just turned it down, what a difference that would have made in my attitude.  As it was, I felt like Mama was “just another body” to carry up the road to him.  One more checkmark on the list until he could get off and go home later that night.  And no one, not on my watch, was allowed to treat my Mama any way other than the special person she was.  Especially in the hospital.  She was so sick, the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen her in my whole life.  To treat her as someone who could wait on a cup of coffee or not even have a choice about the music or volume…..that broke my heart.

And maybe he got it.  I saw something shift in him as he left us in that room that evening.  Maybe he finally saw her as a woman, a person, a Mama.  And maybe, just maybe, he realized that no one’s life is worth putting on the back burner…..not even for a cup of coffee.

A good lesson for us all to remember, I think.  Especially me.

Dear God, please don’t let me get so bogged down in my own needs and wants and grief that I don’t even see that there are those around me hurting and needing to be loved and respected and heard.  Amen. 

Amen.

On journeys, memories, and finding peace

Journeys.

We begin them.  We come to the end of them.

One year ago tonight, the Fella was flying a night sortie.  He wouldn’t be home until after midnight.  I had a sick young’un who was on the upswing of the bug, and my oldest was supposed to go to a Wesleyan College information night at Bare Bulb Coffee.  It had been a week of rearranging plans and cancelling get-togethers.  Like you do when one of your babies is sick.

It wasn’t ideal, but we made it work.  Aub and I took turns watching the littles in the Blazer in the Bare Bulb Coffee parking lot, sitting and playing games on my cell phone with the heat on.  Somehow we got questions answered, met the Provost, found out about Scholarship weekend, and made a refundable deposit to hold her spot in the Class of 2017.  When we were all back in the car together, I took my phone back from the littles, and prepared to drive us home.  A notification on my phone caught my eye.

A missed call.

From my Aunt’s cell phone.

This did not bode well.

I called her back.  And my churning guts were right.  Mama was at the ER.  In severe pain.  In her quiet way, made even quieter by Mama’s presence, my Aunt shared with me that Mama had called her and asked her to take her to the hospital late that afternoon.

If Mama was hurting badly enough to return to the hospital, she was not doing well at all.  She had been in the hospital for eight days the previous August, and she did not ever want to return.  But nobody really does, do they?

I was thinking about all of this today, and I thought about my Aunt and how it seems like she’s always been there for us whenever Mama was in the hospital.  All the way back to when we were all young.  I remember us staying with her family when Mama was in for several days (I think) following surgery.   If I remember correctly, she took us back to our house to shower and change for bed, and then we went back to her house for the night.  I don’t have all that real clear, but what I do remember clearly is knowing it would all be okay.  Because of her.  My Aunt has a way of making me feel that way.  Even when the world is falling apart.

On the phone that night, January 17, 2013, I asked her if she wanted me to come on to the hospital so she could go home.  She hadn’t planned on them admitting Mama when she left her home, but it certainly looked like that was what was going to happen then.  We talked about options, and she finally said, “No, I’m fine.  Even if we stay the night, I’ll be okay.  You stay there with the children tonight.  In the morning will be soon enough, and I’ll head on home when you can get here.  Get some sleep tonight.  We don’t know how long it will be before you can again.”

What wasn’t said.  That.

I love her so much for that conversation right there.  For two reasons.

She knew I needed my sleep, and she gave me the gift of one more night at home in my bed.  Neither of us were to know it, but the next night I would spend sitting up in a brightly lit ICU waiting room with the TV blaring TNT “car chase” movies, getting exactly twenty minutes of shut-eye.  I am thankful for that gift.

But even more so, I am thankful that it just went without saying that we, none of us, would be leaving Mama by herself.  There was no discussion to be had.  It was an assumption, and I love her for that.  She stayed until I arrived the next morning, having gotten things in some semblance of order (such as it is around here) at my house and having packed a bag.  Just in case.  A good thing, it turns out.

One year ago tonight, my Wesleyan Pirate began her journey towards attending Wesleyan.  And we began the journey of–well, how do I phrase that–“losing Mama?” No I know where she is.  She’s still very much with me.  “Letting go?”  We didn’t.  I hung on tooth and nail, worrying every doctor I knew in that hospital right up until one finally said, “It’s time.”  I don’t know what that night began except that I can tell folks that it was as close to hell as I ever want to be.  It was hard.  And for now that’s enough said about that.

I’m trying to make the point of remembering over the next few weeks to be one of redemption, of finding what I can be thankful for in the middle of all of this.  Each night that I sent out an update from the hospital last year, I tried to end with “Tonight I am thankful for…..”

I think Mama would have liked that.  I also wrote things I wanted to remember to share with her, things I thought she’d laugh at.  Like the time she was still sedated but bit the doctor when he put his finger in her mouth.  After letting her be shocked and feel bad for a minute, I was going to tell her that he deserved it. (He did.) Oh, and the story about one nurse’s little baby and how I took her a copy of Mama’s favorite book from the trunk of the car (where she kept extras) for the baby.  Mess Cat and I were going to share a veggie burger with her from the cafeteria–it was so delicious!  So many stories not shared or told.

After Daddy died, Mama told me something that was hard for me to hear.

“Tara,” she said, on the phone late one night. “If you call over here and you don’t get an answer, and you find that I’ve left this world in my sleep one night, I don’t want you worrying over it.  I’ve had a good life.  And I’ll be okay.”

“Mama it sounds like you want to go.  I don’t want to talk about this.”

“No, I don’t.  I’ve got a lot of things left to do.  But if I go, I just want you to know that I’m at peace. And I want you to be too.  You got that?”  For a person of such diminutive stature, she could sound quite forceful at times.

She did have things that she still wanted to do.  She told her pastor and sweet friend the afternoon after she was admitted, “I have to get well.  I want to come work in the food pantry at the church as soon as I get out of here.”  She had plans to go see her new grandson after he was born.  As they wheeled her down to surgery, she told her nurse who was assuring her everything would be okay, “It has to be.  I’ve got a new grandson coming any day now.”  And she smiled a big ol’ beautiful smile through all that pain and discomfort and fear.

And that’s what I want to do.  Throughout the next few weeks, through the pain of remembering and grief, I want to find and remember something to be thankful for in our days and weeks on the journey, some form of joy to be found.  I don’t want to just plant a smile on my face, I want it to radiate from my whole being.

Because Mama told me she would be at peace, and I think she’s telling me it’s time I found myself at peace too.

Tonight I’m thankful to be the Mama of a Wesleyanne.  When I was a student there, just yesterday I think it was, I never imagined the joy it would give me to be a part of the traditions with my own daughter.  I give thanks for my Aunt who has been with us every step of the way ever since we were little.  And that she still lets me walk with her today, that I can pick up a phone, just as I used to reach up my hand on our walks, and find her there.  I’m thankful for the gift of being on the journey with my Mama, for the gift of seeing that smile and hearing the hope she had.  I don’t understand, but that’s where that peace that Mama talked about, the peace that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7) comes in.  As I journey through the memories of the past and press forward to the future, that’s what I seek and hope to find.  Peace.

Love to all.