After a somewhat harrowing drive, I arrived a few evenings ago in the college town I hold dear in my heart. The next day started a new journey for me as I had an official (pinch me) book signing and talks. I walked the hallowed halls and shared with the current scholars and community members about my journey to become an author. Although achieving a new found passion is as idyllic as it sounds. Trust me, the road of my dreams of becoming an author was paved with the sadness and tears of the greatest heartbreaks in my life.
This was illuminated for me as I stood in line at the post office last Saturday waiting to ship a large order of books to my uncle who behind Mom and Daddy is probably my biggest fan. Like Rick Bragg says, “Your first critics should definitely be ones you have in your pocket.” But while I stood in the long line (yes that happens in small towns) proud of my accomplishment, I suddenly realized the gentle soul who entered in behind me belongs to a friend who had recently endured the loss of a son.
My friend, who is one of the most amazing teachers I have ever met, was the same one for whom I sent many little prayers on Thanksgiving Day asking God to wrap him and his family, another set of dear friends, and the families of the Chattanooga bus crash tightly as they dealt with the first of the holidays without their precious children.
And there he was. The man I had prayed for.
Those that know me personally know exactly the first thing that came out of my mouth.
Can I give you a hug?
We shared the small talk of the grieving that only the bereaved truly understand. I was blessed to be in his presence because we acknowledged the unique journey of grief and how it comes with its own blessings and curses and blessings that feel like burdens. I agreed that I don’t subscribe to the sentiment that had been shared with their family that “it” gets better with time. I shared that for me the all the firsts (birthday, Christmas) were hard, but the seconds and the understanding there would always be an empty chair were intensely more difficult. In the conversation, I shared how much I had prayed for his family for the first Thanksgiving without their son and brother. And he imparted his own wisdom regarding loss. His words touched me deeply and helped me to process this bittersweet feeling with which I have been struggling for the last week.
Pride and sadness had co-existed, intermingling with every beat of my heart all week.
From the moment my book was released, I was elated that the stories God placed on my heart would be able to help others who are grieving or to assist those who want to comfort those who have experienced great loss. And lest we forget, the writing of this book was a part of my personal mending of the holes which will be my lifelong scars.
But please don’t misunderstand that I have never forgotten that the reason this book exists is that my son had to die for me to speak grief fluently. It is the one literacy skill that I wish I had never developed. Every time I share (even though I know I am helping others), I have to relive the thing that I thought would kill me. It is a delicate tightrope balance to revisit the pain of yesterday’s memories while remembering the hope that carried us through those darkest days.
With the holiday season upon us, existing (and I mean that in every nuisance of the word) are those among us who will attempt to celebrate for the first time with an empty chair. There also those like me who cannot, simply cannot, remove the extra chair from the table because it seems disloyal, and then there are those who want to take that same chair and smash it into a million pieces. The pain is real and universal and yet unique to the bearer. It is debilitating and exhausting.
Be kind and gentle to grieving people always . . . but especially during the holiday season.
As for me, with God’s strength, I am going to keep on acknowledging my empty chair and my broken heart that has been supported and, at times, filled with the incredibly amazing, wonderful, grace-filled, completely undeserved, and restorative hope that has come from family, friends, and strangers alike. Although it hurts, I will keep telling my story about our boy and his empty chair and God’s enduring faithfulness as long as our story continues to touch the hearts of others.
Perhaps it was the perfect storm of emotions that left me feeling elated one minute and deeply grieved the next on Sunday, which happened to be my birthday. I was happy to celebrate with friends and family and was ecstatic that my book is published as I had a book signing in church earlier that day. But perhaps the sharing of the story of my life and how grief has created its scars left my heart aching for the boy who can no longer be here to give those sneaky come from behind bear hugs.
My book is hopeful and uplifting, but the education of love through loss centers on our son dying at only twelve years old.
I miss him.
For life’s celebrations, there will always be the empty chair. On that day, I was riding the high of friends loving my book, but my heart trembled with sadness still because no phone call from college would come from the boy gone too soon.
I’ve been asked a few times about the title of the book – the redbird sings the song of hope: and other stories of love through loss and why I chose that title. Simply put, the redbird is our love note from God. I am not trying to be cheeky, but the rest of the story is in the book.
But I do know the redbird and a friend helped wipe away the tears of longing of what will never be on Sunday night.
To start the story right, here are two things you must know:
1). I love birds.
2). I have never met a stranger.
Many years ago, a dear friend asked if a friend of hers could come to my house to photograph cardinals. In one text message her friend (whom I had never met) became my friend. Bill had fallen on some hard times and he like me discovered solace in the winged friends of God’s creation. From the moment I met Bill I adored him. He was genuine, sincere, and oh so real. I love people who have endured life’s scars and are willing to share them with the world. These are the people who embody hope and I admire them. They give me strength to take the next step and on some days to get out of bed. Our littlest thought he was the greatest guy ever because he has many tattoos and a kind heart and she was enamored with his ink and his realness.
Bill was welcome at our home, or more importantly for his career as a photographer, our backyard any time. There would be times, he would quietly come and park on the street then set up to photograph the birds in our backyard. His presence became a staple, and when the timing was right we would quietly ask if he would like to stay for supper. Those were blessed days of hearts intertwining – especially over the redbird he was so hoping to photograph.
We have remained friends and despite his moving a couple hours away, we stay in contact. A message here or there and an occasional in person meeting always leaves me wishing for more time.
And yet it was time or rather timing that filled my heart with a birthday greeting that seemed divinely appointed.
Sunday evening, I received a message from Bill not realizing it was my birthday. He sent me a sweet message, remembering the times spent in our backyard, with two of his pictures attached. My tear filled response thanked him for sending what appeared to be birthday greetings straight from heaven.
His response filled my heart with such hope and such love. Through tear filled eyes, I told him that he was the messenger of Reed’s birthday greetings for me.
Wow! Happy birthday! Crazy! I walked around for 4 hours with a friend at sunrise and we didn’t get any photos then he left and within 5 minutes the male cardinal was literally sitting 15 feet from me and never left. Closest and most patient they have ever been, the female perched as seen in this photo at about 20 feet. I knew there had to be a reason for their friendly demeanor this morning.
My friend, Bill, reached out because he was remembering a lovely time in our lives we shared, but I believe that God divinely orchestrated that birding moment. He put the right person in the right place at the right time and then he stirred my friend’s heart at exactly the right moment to send me a message I so desperately needed as I rode the roller-coaster of joy and sadness. It was the greatest birthday present ever.
As I write this, my heart is again reeling after learning of the news of the Chattanooga school bus crash. While I don’t know the depth of their personal pain, I know what it is like to lose your child and to have your children severely injured on a school bus. In an instant, the world changed forever.
Some might wonder how you can survive a pain so deep that the scars will always be a part of your existence. For me, my answer is a whole lot of faith, a bunch of amazing friends, all kinds of prayers, and one redbird singing the song of hope.
Note: If you live locally, I have copies of my book I would love to sell and personally sign one for you. Otherwise, my book about my journey through grief and healing (and the redbird’s part in all that) is available thru Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Today is Election Day 2016. This day has many people worried about its outcome and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge I am one of them. But a simple act of kindness reminded me that no matter who is elected into office tonight, there is one thing that will remain the same.
God is still God. He is still the author of authority and the leader of leadership.
No matter who your chosen candidate is, there are two things that God has called us to do.
Love and well, yes, love.
You might be thinking that is the same thing twice and you would be most definitely correct. Much of the discord of this election has illuminated there are many people in the greatest country in the world who feel that their voice isn’t being heard (and this goes for both sides of the political divide).
After seeing these videos posted on a friends wall, for the last few days I have been watching “The Messy Truth” episodes by Van Jones (http://www.vanjones.net/the_messy_truth) where he sits down with real folks in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania from all political inclinations to see why we can’t do just that: sit down and have a civil discussion. The final episode is powerful when one of the young men talks about the things that move him and the way he wants to change the world. While watching this episode I was reminded of God’s call to love the least of these.
I think Jesus understood, long before Lady Liberty proclaimed:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
that the world would always need someone to champion the least among us. Less than in the world’s eyes, but no so, in Jesus’. I think He also knew that it would be unlikely for the political leaders of this world to be the ones to do that. While your vote might have power, your actions and your prayers have much more. Choose to love, especially those without a voice. Your vote can be that voice, but more importantly, show up and be the light in their world. And don’t stop showing up.
Last Wednesday night, I was wrapped up in my own world of grading papers for my students and putting finishing touches on one for my classes. Other than the TV on for background noise, I was oblivious to the world around me. My teenager, on her way out to our church, noticed a little clear bag containing a battery and note hanging from our front door (which to tell you how engrossed I was in my tasks that door is 20 feet from where I was studying and I never heard a thing). The care package arrived from the church around the block (which is not our church home).
After reading the card, our Sister was blown away. She talked about this random act of kindness for days. She and I were touched by the church’s simple token embodying love thy neighbor. It was a powerful reminder that indeed we are called to love. While we know many church members there, our political leanings had nothing to do with which house they chose. Nope. They chose us all, offering love without question and without conditions.
All of these thoughts were swirling around in my head last evening when – you guessed it – more grading and more paper writing was going on. And it reminded me of just how important today is. Oh, it isn’t the election that deems its value nor is it who is elected into office.
Rather the most significant part of today is our ability to love.
Don’t get me wrong, I will vote and I will take my children with me to vote, because that right is one we should never take for granted. But at the end of the day, no matter the outcome of any voting, we are still called to love and to shine our lights brightly in this world.
Choose love. Vote for love – not in the voting booth but in our hearts and our actions. Let love be your guiding force in disagreements. Love the least of these. Love your neighbor. Use the emotions this election has stirred up to be love to someone else. Listen with love to those who differ in opinion from ours. Let the first thing others see by our love. As my young Jedi’s would say, “Let LOVE be your FORCE”. The greatest of these is love.
Back to that call to love and to love. When asked to define the greatest commandment, Jesus answered to love God and to love our neighbors. There it is the double whammy, one-two punch: love and love.
Behind the little curtain, we have the ability to alter elections, but behind the cloak of love, we have the power to change the world.
Lately, I have noticed a Facebook post being shared over and over. The basic gist of the post cautions about teenagers coming to your home Trick-or-Treating.
Before I go any farther, let’s get one thing straight. If Halloween isn’t your thing, that is okay. We all have our things and I won’t judge you for yours, and please don’t judge me for mine. And if you must know, I don’t do ketchup on hot dogs. Miracle Whip is like my Kryptonite. And when I ask for extra, extra ice in my drink in the drive-thru, I am expecting the straw to hit a cube on the way in. Like, I said, we’ve all got our thing.
Okay, back to the point. On Halloween, some teens are greeted with a “Aren’t you a little old to be doing this?” The author of that post, whomever you are, I applaud you, because I agree what else would you rather they be doing? I love when teens dress up and stop by for three reasons:
- They still have a sense of imagination and wonder. If they aren’t “too cool” to Trick-or-Treat, then they are just about perfect in my book, especially if they are bringing younger children out and about.
- Like the author purports, there are about a million other things that they could be doing in the dark and they aren’t. We should celebrate this. They are choosing to dress up and still participate in childhood (which I seriously think is becoming an endangered species in this country). And for this choice – Good. For. Them.
- And maybe I am a bit selfish on this last reason, but it is always some quiet teenager that pulls me aside and whispers, “I really like what you did with the shoes”.
That last one melts my heart every time. I am much older than the costumed guest, but a secret little corner of my heart screams, “You get me! You are my kind of people. Thank you for noticing.” Only the last line of that ever gets uttered aloud.
The shoes. Oh, the shoes! They are so much fun and a very quick and easy DIY.
Here is what you need to wow the teenagers in your neighborhood and transport your heart back to Kansas teenage-dom.
1 pair of ladies pumps (I purchased these for $3 at the thrift store. They were originally tan and I didn’t think to take a before picture. Haven’t quite released my inner Martha Stewart yet.)
1 bottle of Modge Podge
1 paint brush
1 jar of red glitter (I am warning you I have a love-hate relationship with glitter. I love all things bling, but that stuff is the bane of my existence. I once did a glitter project with my 2nd graders and I swear that Pompeii’s eruption was less painful. Every day for a month after that, I looked like I had a nose piercing. Bane. Of. My. Existence, unless of course, you need a little shimmer. Not nose ring shimmer, but you get the point.)
1 pair of striped socks (Tights would work well here too. I used long socks.)
Creation Station: (Okay, I took a little liberty there. I used the center island in my kitchen but dubbed it a fancy name for the moment. Hey some days it is a science center because the people around here do not know how to rinse oatmeal out of a bowl. Yeah. Oatmeal sticks to your ribs and I have proof because it becomes like cement in your unrinsed bowl.)
The steps to this DIY are considerably simpler than removing that oatmeal.
Use the paint brush to brush on liberal amounts of Modge Podge in small sections of the shoes. I placed the shoes in a rimmed cookie sheet to contain some of that glitter eruption. Sprinkle glitter over the areas coated with Modge Podge and continue until all the areas are covered. The shoes I mean. Yes, I know this will also mean the counter and you, but try, for the love of all zucchini, try to keep it contained.
Allow the blinged shoes dry. While they are drying, stuff newspaper into the striped socks. Oh who am I kidding? Take this time to check your e-mails or social media and enjoy a nice beverage. Mine was sweet tea until I discovered . . . oh yes, you got it, GLITTER.
Now the last step is fairly easy but does require a little finesse. Stuff your newspaper filled socks into your shoes and situate the socks and shoes so that your garage door (when shut) appears to have fallen on the Wicked Witch.
DIY – done. Simply.
Now if teenagers show up to your house, be kind and remember they are still kids. And just give them the candy, unless of course, you are stocking up for a Netflix binge. No judgment here – we’ve all got our thing.
Leave it to grief.
Well that and an aptly timed phone call to change things around.
I have been experiencing a bit of a writer’s block. Wait, that isn’t exactly right either. I have been doing plenty of writing, just not the kind that appears here. I began taking courses this summer in pursuit of my dream to earn a doctorate in education. So I’ve been writing oodles of papers, video critiques, and discussion posts as a graduate student. Back to campus happened and between lesson plans, emails to my students, and grading assignments, I have been doing plenty of writing as a teacher too. Then there is that wonderfully amazing thing known as my book (to be released in November) for which I have been doing all kinds of behind the scenes writing with marketing and publicist teams. As excited as I am about my first book, this kind of writing is not fun.
So instead of writer’s block, I guess I have been experiencing blogger’s block.
But leave it to grief and a phone call last night from the dearest of friends to bring me back to the place where I have laid bare my heart. Journaling on Caringbridge is where this crazy journey to become a writer started, and it was grief (that wretched beast) that taught me my hurts and my ability to share them bring comforts to others.
So am I back and I thank you for your patience.
My corner of the world grew a bit dimmer this weekend as my grandmother, Mama, passed away peacefully in her sleep in her own home. She was one of the lights of my world and she was the last of my grandparents still alive. Trust me, I don’t for one minute forget how blessed I am to be into my forties and still have my grandmothers. My Nannie passed away four years ago and there isn’t a day that I don’t miss her either.
My friend, Karla, called last night just to check on me. God bless her because she listened to me cry and laugh and cry while laughing for more than an hour. She is a true second mile friend, the kind that just keeps on walking when everyone else dropped off at the first mile marker. I am blessed to have several.
At some point in the conversation, she asked me to remind her how old my Mama (which is pronounced maw-maw) lived to be. When I said, “ninety-two”, her immediate response was “Wow! And she lived at home essentially on her own all that time.” That was just the way it was so this didn’t seem all that odd to me. But what my sweet friend said next is where I started to see the light breaking through my heavy grief fog.
Kan, how many 92 year olds do you know who lived that successfully on their own? You know, your Mama really got to live as her own boss.
I am sure she knew she had “released the Kraken” because after that statement I burst into laughter. Having lived through many grief trials of her own, she had to know it was either a weirdly placed grief reaction or a true Southern story coming on.
Thankfully for me it was the latter.
I asked her if I had ever told her the “boss” story. Even if I had, she let me retell it to her again.
My Mama Cloie loved gospel music. By loved, I mean LOVED gospel music. She and her friends and family would travel to gospel singings every chance they got. Her all-time favorite was the “Dixie Echoes”, but with her Alabama twang it always sounded like the “Dixie Eckels” to my ears. My mom always says my dad had a few of those language nuances when they met too. The apple doesn’t fall far in Alabama.
Well a few years back, Mama, some of her cousins, and my Aunt Charlotte (my Daddy’s sister and Mama’s daughter) started attending the Gatlinburg Gathering for a weekend of gospel music and good ol’ fashioned preaching. One of the cousins, who are closer in age to my Daddy, had a time share up in the mountains and this flock of Cunningham girls would travel to Tennessee for their annual get-away.
In between singings, they would sometimes hit the shops in the mountain town. On one trip, Mama had enough of shopping and told the younger ones to go on ahead; she would just rest on the benches outside the stores on the main street. Every time, the shoppers would come out the stores, there she would be . . . sitting with another little old man. As they moved down the strip, the scene replayed itself over and over. Mama would be on a bench with a different little old man who had grown tired of shopping with his wife.
As the day went on, the cousins and Aunt Charlotte took to teasing her about how “they brought her all the way all to Tennessee for gospel singing and she was more interested in finding a boyfriend.” True to our family’s style of teasing, the picking continued well up into the evening. At some point, my Mama became like Popeye and she took all she could stands until she could stands it no more.
She let them all know what she thought of their boyfriend accusations.
Let me tell y’all something. My Momma and Daddy bossed me for eighteen years. Then Reed bossed for more than 60 years. If it is all just the same to you, I’m going to be the boss of Cloie for now.
Stealing a line from a Reba (who Mama adored too), and I guess she did!
I sincerely wish it wasn’t grief that brought me back here to the place of my roots. (Okay my writing roots because only my hairdresser knows exactly what color my other roots truly are.) But I promise you that if this story about my grandmother touches you there are plenty more in my heart and definitely some about her and all my crazy people in my book. And yes, grief gets a mention there too.
So for now I will be writing love notes to her in my prayers while my heart works to live without my “bossy” Mama.
Every week, I call my college aged son. I think it goes without saying, but I will say it anyways. I miss him. To play down how much I miss him, I always end the phone call with some snarky bit of wisdom akin to “Sawyer, just in case you didn’t know I have not changed my number.” Otherwise, I might end the call in tears begging him to come home. This of course, would be purely for my own benefit and definitely not his, because he is making a life for himself and establishing how he wants to be a powerful force for change in the world. And while he is much like his paternal grandmother who isn’t much of telephone conversationalist, our chats are brief. Outside of that, when talking with him, I would say he errs on the side of understatement of how much good he has brought to the world so far.
Well, not his momma! I will gladly wear the hyperbole banner . . . because I can. I’m the mom!
There are things on social media that blow me away – like the Olympic moms’ commercials and other inspirational videos, but then there are the ones that make me shake my head. Usually they are in the “Are you sure you realized that you hit post?” category because I wonder what their mothers are thinking when and if they see it.
I know I was in that category last week, when I saw my sister-in-law liked a post on said college boy’s page. What I read simply took my breath away.
In a really GOOD way.
My son, my version of the Boy Wonder, is vying for a full tuition prize through a contest with the Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Corporation. In the competition, he has to describe how he would change the world.
FIND A CURE TO AD USING PLURIPOTENT STEM CELLS
First and foremost I don’t know what kind of future I can have other than one devoted to helping others. When I was a young kid I was severely injured and spent many months in the hospital. This experience has given me the drive to devote my life to using medicine to help improve the lives of others. Specifically by researching ways to combat AD. ~Sawyer S
MELT. MY. MOMMA. HEART.
I am sure my son was limited on space, but one can never discount his proclivity to understating the story. So let me fill in the details.
In 2008, three of our four children were riding home on the school bus when the bus was hit. In the aftermath of the crash, four children died (including our oldest son) and fourteen others were injured. One of the seriously wounded was our Sawyer. The crash left him with a head injury, bruised lungs, a lacerated spleen, a shattered left femur, a broken and dislocated right hip, and severe nerve damage. That year alone he spent twelve weeks in and out of the hospital before he was well enough to attend the last five days of the school year . . . using a wheelchair because he was unable to walk for several years afterwards. He never complained and when they wouldn’t let him play football for the next 3 years, he took up guitar to keep himself busy. He has endured more than most adults and is still a beacon of positivity.
Prior to the bus crash, we had been adopted, so to speak, by a sweet gentleman and grandpa in our church. This gentleman designed and made elaborate woodworking creations. When the Boy Scout Pinewood Derby rolled around, Sawyer asked Grandpa if he would help him and his dad with his car. Let’s just say, I am not sure who was more proud of that winning car, Sawyer or Grandpa! When the bus crash happened, Grandpa was distraught over how he could help our family and asked his son and daughter-in-law to arrange to pay for the hotel room that we stayed in for the nine days we were there. In the next year, Grandpa started to slowly fade away from us as Alzheimer’s disease – that cruel and wretched disease stole most, but definitely not all, of the amazingness of the man who loved us as his own. And in the final days, Sawyer never missed a chance to visit him.
So there is the AD piece, but let me tell you about my son.
When he says that he cannot imagine a life not devoted to serving others. This isn’t just lip service. He means every word. He hasn’t forgotten a single kindness extended to us or to him specifically since that awful day 8 years ago. He has used every opportunity to give back and to serve as much as possible (even after having had over 30 surgical procedures since that awful day). I know I’m his mom, but I would be following in his footsteps, if I didn’t use the word inspirational in the same breath as I use to speak his name. Some of my favorites of his kindnesses are inviting a special needs student to attend the prom with him and his date, writing letters and personally inviting every single responding unit to the bus crash (there were over 30) to attend his graduation, and taking time in the hall ways at school to high-five, hug, or “wrestle” around with elementary students. Once he enamored a whole passel of children at the community gardens so the parents could finish up harvesting. There sat a big group of children mesmerized by the wonders of my Boy Wonder.
I’m his mom. I can boast. But remember I started with he’s not perfect, he doesn’t always call his mother, and I am not sure that elementary teachers enjoyed seeing him in the halls due to the melee that often ensued.
But now you see a piece of his heart and his love for serving others.
Then there is the aptness of the corporation sponsoring this contest. About a week after the funeral services for our other son, we were trapped in a fog of grief, medical treatments, and generally being overwhelmed. Add to this the nerve damage that Sawyer endured, we had a young man who writhed in excruciating pain 24 hours a day. Exhausted was the understatement of the century. Thankfully, we live among amazing friends and neighbors who kept a vigilant watch over how to best help us. One such evening, a neighbor popped over to check in on us. She asked numerous times if there was anything she could do – right then – to help us. What I lack in the trivialization department, I more than make up for in “I can do it myself” pride. Several times, I assured her that we were fine. As she got to the door, stepping into her winter boots and parka, she implored one last time, and just as I was about to stop her, my – at the time – little guy spoke up.
I could sure use a Dr. Pepper.
As Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story.
And Dr. Pepper he had! I should probably apologize to the truck driver because I think she perhaps hijacked a delivery truck. It was a moment that I have never forgotten. Of all the things, he could have asked for to bring comfort, it was a Dr. Pepper.
But in all seriousness, even on his moving back to college day, he proudly wore the shirt from the night he danced all night to support two little boys who require extensive medical care and he hates dancing.
This sweet boy of mine needs your help. Please go to the link below and vote for him and ask your friends and neighbors and Boy Wonders to vote too. Help him to shine his light and use his potential to truly find a cure for the disease that took away one adopted grandpa so that no one else has to endure that pain. And like the commercial from my youth used to say, I am pretty sure my son would love to “be a Pepper too!”