A Frightening Moment

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A beautiful fall day calls for…housework, right?  Maybe.  Just a little.  Then a drive through the brilliant glowing mountains, as a reward.  Bill was changing lightbulbs on the outside of the house in preparation for the darker evenings.  I was inside working to ready the guestroom for any visitors coming our way.  Bill was on a step stool which wiggled underneath him and bucked him like a bronco.  He went down on his back, hitting the corner of the concrete slab of the driveway.  Without his phone, he had no way to notify me of his plight other than to crawl into the house with screams and groans, which brought me running.  I found him face down in the floor writhing in pain, unable to tell me much other than he fell.  As he was pointing to his back, I did an assessment of the situation to determine if an ambulance would be necessary.  I found scrapes, but no bruises.  However, he is notorious for not bruising easily, so that meant nothing.  I grabbed the ice pack and plopped it on the area of concern.  When he got some of his breath back, he told me both his elbows where hurting.  We determined he had somehow put them behind him in trying to catch himself.  Both were scraped and bleeding and required ice as well.

He attempted to turn over onto his back and for the first time I saw his face.  His eye was black.  To me, in that moment, all my world got what I call fear-foggy.  I forgot the back and elbows and immediately asked where he had hit his head.  He insisted he had not hit his head.  However, since he does not bruise, for his eye to be black already I knew he must have really done a number on his noggin.  I was checking for bumps or knots on his face.

He kept saying, “I did not hit my head.  I fell on my back.”

I questioned, “Then why is your eye black?”

“It must be dirt,” he said.

I could feel panic rising in my chest and had to take a few breaths to bring some calm into my fear-fog.  I reached up and wiped at his eye, and removed his black eye.  It was dirt.  My relief was instantaneous.  I even laughed a bit at my concern over a dirt smudge.

I shifted my focus to dealing with the back, which by now was improving pretty rapidly.  He was able to sit up slowly and move, breathe, and twist.  His elbows became increasingly sore, but the back seemed okay.  He managed to stand and I got him to a chair.  Once he realized his back wasn’t broken and he could bend and straighten his arms, he took me outside to where he had fallen.  I have to tell you, it is a miracle he didn’t break his back.  Truly.  The concrete edge he fell on should have snapped his back in two.  I cannot explain to you how scary the whole event was.  But I can say, it showed me something significant about how our pasts effect our present.  The fear-fog that came over me when I thought he had hit his head was immediate.  I could deal with a possible broken back, or a couple of broken elbows…but just the thought of another TBI put me into a panic.

Which made me wonder…what things in my past are still fresh enough to interrupt my thought processes and create a fog?  What fears am I unknowingly living with day to day?  The most obvious ones, cancer and TBI will probably always be in the back of my brain somewhere waiting to jump out on days like yesterday.  But what of the others.  Are there others?  In moments which can be life defining, is fear bigger than life to me? I am aware of how things can change in one heartbeat…an instant.  I am also aware God carries me in those times of crisis when I cannot even think straight for the fog. Fortunately, yesterday Bill was spared any significant injury.  He tossed and turned last night in his sleep, moaning and groaning at the pain in his elbows.  This morning he still insists he is fine and no x-rays are needed.  We will see about that. 🙂 My heart is grateful beyond words that miracles still happen, and in a frightening moment yesterday, we were recipients of one.

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A Lovely Surprise

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At my alma mater, Berry College, we have a tradition called Mountain Day which is sometimes difficult to describe.  When asked, “What is Mountain Day?” I usually just say it’s like homecoming, because it is easier than giving a full explanation. Martha Berry, the school’s founder, had her birthday on October 7.  The celebration all started back in the early 1900s. The poor mountain students wanted to give Martha a gift for her birthday, but they knew she wouldn’t accept a gift for herself.  Instead, they each gave the number of pennies of their age in a basket as a scholarship for other kids to be able to come to Berry. That was a big deal. The students wore uniforms back in those days; women in pink and men in blue.  The seniors had the designation of women in blue and men in white.  They gathered at Lavender Mountain and marched down the hill to present Martha with their pennies.  After the first trip down the hill they marched back up to meet up and march down in pairs.  As the band played, they did this trip three more times until they were 16 across for the final march down and the singing of the alma mater.  Martha was presented with the basket of pennies and there was great celebration.  The day at the mountain has continued to this day.  In fact, it has expanded to include the entire first weekend of October each year, with Mountain Day Olympics, a talent show, a chapel service, a picnic, a Marthapalooza fair with carnival rides, and class reunions from previous decades.  Unless you went to Berry you probably can’t fully understand this rite of passage, but it brings all students, former to present, together to celebrate the heritage of the school and its amazing founder.

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This past weekend Peter was wearing white.  His senior year.  All those previous years of marching up and down the hill came to fruition in this last march. Next year he will be on the sidelines with the rest of us who have marched that hill before him. He will not be dripping with sweat, or huffing and puffing, but he will go back with fond memories to meet up with friends and reminisce.  He will have a new appreciation of the traditional event and its ability to bond all generations of students and their families.

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This past weekend it was also Hannah’s 5-year reunion.  We were sad she was going to be unable to come the distance from Seattle for the celebration.  Unbeknownst to us, she hatched a plan.  She and Peter conspired to surprise us with her presence.  Bill and I were in Atlanta at an event and had planned to go to Rome for Mountain Day from there.  Peter knew the hotel we were at and Hannah had contacted someone at the event to get our room number.  At 6:30 in the morning I thought I heard a knock at the door.  I was sound asleep so I kind of dismissed it as a dream.  I heard it again and woke enough to listen more carefully, but was still unsure if it was our door or the one next to us.  I got up and looked through the peephole in the door.  No one was there and I thought I had imagined the whole thing.  I started to head back to bed, when another knock came.  Definitely our door.  Afraid to open it without knowing who was there, I asked.  I heard a muffled voice, so I asked again.  I still didn’t understand but it was a woman’s voice so I took a chance it wasn’t a crazed killer and opened the door.  “Surprise!” I was stunned to see Hannah and the squealing began.  I pulled her into a hug and drug her into the room.  Yelling for Bill to wake up and ‘look who is here!’  It was a wonderful surprise!!  We got to ride up to Mountain Day together and spend time with Peter on his senior day, the two of them laughing at their successful ability to pull one over on mom and dad.

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The class of 2012 banner was strung between trees at the picnic. Hannah found her friends there and surprised them too!  No one else knew she was coming either, except for those she was staying with for the night. She got to see all her former roommates and catch up.  It was a whirlwind, last minute decision on her part to come to Georgia for 24 hours, but it was worth it to be with family at a significant event and to see her friends…all in one place!

Generations of students and their loved ones were able to participate, either marching or watching, as the students marched up and down the hill. Hurricane Nate even held off so the march was able to be completed in the sun and humidity…haha.  This year, Peter’s senior year, my heart is full.

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Enchanted Moment

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It was an enchanted moment…a gift.  And I nearly missed it.

My brand-new husband peeked out of the curtains of our honeymoon suite. “Shell, get up and come look at this. It’s a gift!”

I was snuggled deep into the covers. My eyes were shuttered closed and happy to be that way. After months of wedding planning and finally being officially man and wife, I was in need of a lazy morning to sleep in.

I mumbled, in my best new-wife-but-leave-me-alone voice, “What is it?”

“Just come look!” came the reply.

“Can’t you just tell me?”

“No.  You have to see it to believe it!”  Then he whisked the curtains open and blinding light shined into the room.  Shielding my eyes, I sat up and took in the view of a snow-covered mountain, just outside our window.

I sat straight up in the bed, “What?  Snow!? How in the world?”

“I told you, it’s a gift!” his excitement was barely contained.  “Get up.  Let’s go!”

Less than a week prior, we stood in Frost Chapel at Berry College in Georgia taking our wedding vows.  To say the temperature was sweltering is an understatement.  It was 1986 and it was one of the hottest July’s on record with the longest number of consecutive days without rainfall.  When planning a wedding in the winter I thought of heat, seeing as the chapel didn’t have air conditioning, but I figured a stone chapel would cool down by 7:30 in the evening.  I was wrong.  The triple digit temperature only served to turn the chapel into an oven.  This sparked a last-minute effort to create funeral fans with our names and wedding date on them to hand out to our guests, who were dripping wet before they even walked up the hill to the venue.

My dream had always been to marry in February and have a ski trip honeymoon, but I was a teacher.  I could take 3 personal days during the school year for a trip, or have the whole summer.  We chose the summer…in the 1980s…when long sleeved, high necked, old fashioned, Victorian wedding gowns were all the rage.  People still tell me that our wedding was the hottest they have ever been in their lives.  I tell them, no one was hotter that day than me!  Hair falling.  Make up melting. I have pictures of me and my attendants standing over fans, dresses unzipped and off the shoulders, trying not to get sweat rings under our arms!

Bill and I couldn’t get to the Canadian Rockies fast enough. Though skiing was out of the question, we knew it would be cooler there.  I packed my bridal trousseau of cotton slacks, summer sweaters, and canvas espadrilles, ready for a 70-degree honeymoon.  Awaking to snow was not in the plan, however, being southern born and bred we couldn’t pass up the chance to go out and play!  We went to the gift shop to buy sweatshirts and layered our thin windbreakers over them. Off we went, following a directional sign that said Mirror Lake.   I don’t think there where many other southerners at Lake Louise that day, because we had the trail to ourselves. Maybe they were just smarter than we were, but we didn’t care.  Young, in love, and surprised with the gift of snow in July, we embraced the moment fully. The flakes were coming down hard and thick.  They created a magical world unlike anything we had ever seen. Delicate masterpieces caught on my eyelashes.  We turned our faces upwards to catch them on our tongues. The pine branches bent with the weight of white wet fluff.  The mountainous views were in every direction as we climbed. It was breathtaking.

We arrived to discover how it came to be called Mirror Lake.  The reflection was stunning. It was an exact replica both right side up and upside down.  The heavy snowfall simply made it more like a postcard from another world.  What joy filled our hearts!  Just to be a witness to such beauty was beyond anything we could have imagined.  Then we saw another sign which said, Tea House with an arrow pointing to a continuation of the trail.  By this time, we were cold.  Our clothes even with the sweatshirts, were ill equipped for hiking in the snow.  My “cute” shoes were soaked through and without socks it became a problem, unless we kept moving.  We had no gloves, so our hands were in pockets.  The hoods of our windbreakers were up, but since they were not waterproof our hair was soaked as well.  The thought of a Tea House, some warm liquid enticed us to continue our climb.  Never mind that the sign had no mileage listed, or that we hadn’t seen another soul thus far.  It wasn’t long before we began to question our choice to continue, but each time we would wonder what was just around the next curve.  Each twist and turn brought us even more beautiful views.

When I wanted to turn back, Bill said “Just one more turn, then we’ll go back.”

Then, when he was ready to give it up I would say, “But we might be almost there. It can’t be much further.”

The sound of a waterfall in the distance gave us fuel to keep going.  The snow had stopped, and even if we never found the Tea House, the sight of a waterfall in such a majestic place would only make it more astonishing.  So, we climbed. As the rushing of the water increased so did our pace, mainly because we were cold, tired and wet.  We wanted to see it before we turned back.  When we saw the falls, we were once again overwhelmed with the gift of a snowy day.

In just a few more steps, the house came into view.  It was a thrill to almost be there.  It was still a bit of a climb, but the end was in sight…but so was the closed sign!  We were heartbroken. All that way, as beautiful as it was, and there was no hot tea waiting for us.  It dawned on us that we might actually be in trouble, as cold as we were.  We had depended on making it to a place to warm up, the sudden realization that we had to hike another 4.5 miles back down the trail without a rest was enough to bring tears to my eyes.  Bill wanted to continue to go up to the porch, look in the windows, and sit for a bit to overlook the glacier-fed Lake Agnes, which was the clearest water I had ever seen.  I made the case for turning back immediately, because to sit down when we were wet in the cold would not be wise.  He told me to stay put for a minute and he ran ahead to peek in the cabin perched on the lake between the mountains.  Much to his surprise when he looked inside there were people, who waved him in.

He cracked the door and said, “Can we come in just to warm up even though you are closed? We are cold.”

The man laughed and said, “I forgot to turn the sign around. We’re open.”

In minutes, our we shed our outer layers and put them by the stove.  We ordered hot tea, along with sandwiches on fresh baked still-warm bread.  I think it was the best meal I have ever had in my life.  Since we were totally unprepared for our hike, we were thirsty, and asked for water.  We were given a ladle to go down the to the lake and fill our cups with the clearest, best tasting water ever. We sat there looking out over the lake and snow-covered mountains amazed.  We were together, warm, dry, full of love for each other and grateful for our gift day.

Hannah at tea house

This week, our oldest is having a camping adventure through the Canadian Rockies.  She sent us this picture which is what triggered this blog.  Who would have thought 31 years ago, that our offspring would return to the same Tea House we stumbled into? In the pictures she sent us, she sits enjoying the food, the company of friends, and soaking in the same views we saw all those years ago at Lake Agnes.  It has served as a reminder of our beginnings and a snowy July day in an enchanted forest…that was a gift.

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Guest Blog

17191794_10211972892381522_696044197707358754_oToday I have an important guest blogger, my husband Bill.  He has a story to tell that is important.  In fact, it is one of the things that has been swept under the rug at our house for years, as we have been in survival mode. It is where so much of our lives together have been formed. In this current season of unraveling and looking back to go forward, we have started to dissect some things from the past. We have decided not to suffer in silence any longer.  I cannot tell you how proud I am of this man, and how much love I have for him.  He is amazing and I thought it appropriate to share this first part of his perspective of how brain injury affects him, on our 31st anniversary.  This is taken from conversations we have had together while hiking, or sitting over coffee, or driving in the car.  It is the tip of the iceberg. We are thinking of compiling our experiences for a book, at some point in the future.  It is kind of random and raw at this point while we are processing.  He shares and I write it down for him so he can concentrate on expressing his experiences.  I can tell you this, marriage with a TBI has been a hard road, still is, but I have a heart bond with this man.  Most couples do not survive TBI, we understand why, but we also are deeply committed to be one of the couples who does.  If I had known 31 years ago on our wedding day, what was in store in a year’s time, I still would have married this man I love.  Happy Anniversary!  

 My Hidden Permanent Disability

as told by Bill Gunnin

How do you overcome a disability you cannot see? I wonder how many of my perceived character flaws are really a symptom of my TBI?  It’s been so long ago, but they say TBI is forever. What if my character is not flawed as I think it is, but my TBI has redefined my life? It is like a living nightmare to be unable to do things, but to have no idea why I cannot do them.  An invisible force prevents me, and it is as if I am boxing an unseen enemy who I cannot identify, and I cannot defeat.  It has the advantage over me because not only is it hidden to others, who only see outward appearances, it is imperceptible to me, from inside myself.

There is a long list of symptoms and I have many of them, but I don’t always know. I have to have someone else tell me. There used to be more, but these are the ones I still have trouble with sometimes:  Impulse control, memory, ability to attend, focus, brain hyperarousal, agitation, irritability, egocentrism, denial, selective obsession, depression, lack of motivation, social immaturity, social dependency, inability to make decisions, logorrhea (excessive talking), panic, anxiety, frustration, mental fatigue, impatience, being hypercritical, hopelessness, decrease of social interactions, disinhibition (loss of filter), intolerance, inflexibility, setting priorities, word retrieval, and decision making.

It’s embarrassing.  People think I am one way because they cannot see the injury.  I want to be the person they think I am, instead of who I actually am.  I am embarrassed of myself, within myself. When I talk about my deficits and a possible job, I think ‘who would want to hire someone who has all these deficits.’  I don’t want to talk about it.  I know I can do the job, at least I think I can, so why talk about possible limitations? But I may not be able to do what I think I can do.  I don’t know if I can or not, so should I say something and risk not getting the job at all?  It’s discouraging and depressing.  I have trouble making decisions.  I can’t direct myself to what needs to be done now and what needs to be done later, because of that sometimes I can’t do anything.

I’ve been told of deficits and I’ve read about them.  I am more aware of the ones that affect me, after they happen than when they are happening, any recognition I have about myself is all in retrospect. Just now, I realized something, but then I went to get paper to write it down and forgot it. I want to just be me, but I feel I am not acceptable as I am.

Impulse control. Delayed gratification. I cannot delay wanting something.  If I want a milkshake, I go get it.  In the early days after the accident, this happened in outbursts of anger or other feelings. I could not control my temper, or my tears.  I felt things and they just came out.  You don’t realize how much your brain helps you to be socially acceptable with your feelings by allowing you to hold them in or let them out appropriately.  It is not as much controlling emotions now for me, only when I am tired or overwhelmed, but I can hold them back better.  For me, it is more external things for comfort that I cannot seem to stop.  I guess it is what some people would call will power.  I lack that in some areas. For example, impulse control in conversation…I can’t hold back my thoughts, so I interrupt constantly, and even go in different directions in the conversation. I don’t know it though, not at the time. It requires review after the fact for me to see it. It frustrates my family, or people I am talking to for me to do it, but because I don’t say everything that comes into my head (believe it or not) I think I am doing well.  I don’t always see the frustration on someone’s face or pick up on social cues, so I just keep talking.  My kids will tell me, or my wife will nudge me under the table, but I don’t see it myself really.  So I think I have more control than I do.  Like right now, the music that is playing is bothering me while we are talking. I don’t want to hear a song where I recognize the melody, because it pulls my attention away from trying to talk about this with you. I just jumped off topic because of my external environment and my inability to filter it out. If I am in a loud place, like a crowded restaurant it is overwhelming to me. I will stop talking because I cannot keep up with all the stuff going on in there and carry on a conversation too.  It also tires me out, so when I leave there I need to go rest so my brain can calm down again.

Memories are a tricky thing. I don’t trust that I am remembering it correctly.  When I try to analyze things I can’t, especially under stress.  I get agitated when I have to deal with external stressors.  A lot of regret about not handling things well…after the fact. Or not being able to remember things that I know I should know.

Symptoms are sporadic and sometimes I can do things…other times I cannot.  I hate these problems.  They have no solutions.  It’s not clear cut…like needing hearing aids, or my knee is hurt, so I cannot walk. Those are direct and easy to understand at least. For me, sometimes I know the issues, and sometimes I can’t see them.  So much of it depends on external circumstances that are beyond my control, and it prevents me from showing what I can do.  For example, I had a job interview recently.  I was in the lobby filling out some short answer type questions where I had to write.  There was a baby in the room and there was some confusion as to who was keeping the baby between the two adults there, so one of them could leave. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was writing because of the distraction, but also because I was worried about the baby and the situation even long after they had solved the issue. It’s like it got stuck in my brain. They came and got me for my interview but my questions were not finished, which made me feel like I did something wrong. Employers don’t have any idea what it means to me to say, you can finish it later.  I went from the lobby, and my unfinished questions with my feelings of being inadequate, directly into a room with a panel of people asking me about how I would handle made up scenarios.  I thought the interview went great, but now looking back at it I can see I totally messed it up and my answers were not good because I could not think clearly. I talked too much, because I do that when I am stressed. When I interview they probably think I can’t handle stress.  They think about how those little things, like a baby in a room while writing affects them, not me.  I can handle a job, but I never get the chance to show it.

This transfers to other areas, it is easy for me to be critical of other people, but impossible for me to understand what pain they have from their own experiences.  People who are discriminated against for color, or religion, no one truly knows what they have been through in their lives.  I have the same type issue with my hidden disability…no one knows.  It’s invisible. Saying you understand is different than my gut level experiences with rejection.

I have compassion for people who are having trouble, like the elderly, or disabled people. My limitations have taught me patience and given me empathy. I like for the elderly to feel their own autonomy in the small things, like which trash bags they want or other things when they are shopping.  I could just pick some things, but I want them to feel they have some control over their lives still. Sometimes they are like children with an intellect.  I understand how that feels. I can guide while still letting people feel they are in control. I want to be someone who comes from where they are.  No assumptions on my part, instead I want to show empathy.  If they are angry and cranky, they don’t have evil intent, they are just frustrated.  Cranky old people are misunderstood, the problem is they are losing themselves and it makes them unhappy. I get that.  I say let them be who they are.  Interesting people.  I want someone to let me be who I am, too.   Nothing I can do can change what older people think or feel, and just because they are old, people nod and smile and understand them, give them patience.  I want people to give me that same kind of understanding.

In the Dirt

solitudeWhen I was a little girl, my dad used to take me on walks in the woods.  We would traipse around our property, sometimes not even on trails, just walking and seeing.  It wasn’t far, but to my little legs it seemed like miles and miles.  I learned a lot on these walks, not because he taught me exactly, but because I watched him.  I learned you can chew sourwood leaves in the fall, like gum.  I found out if you put your watermelon in a mountain spring it would be ice cold in time for the picnic the next day.  I realized to follow a stream provides water, as you walk through and underneath trees, which provide shade on hot summer days.  He taught me to be aware of snakes when I stepped over rocks and logs, and that not all snakes are poisonous.  He let me slide on a slick rock overhang into his arms over and over again.  Those lessons were learned through time together and shared experiences.

On the way back up the mountain, however, I was less likely to be enamored by the stroll through nature, because it had become a climb.  My little legs screamed to stop and my lungs agreed.  Dad used to carry me, but once I got too big for carrying, I had to stop and rest along the way.  I remember begging him to carry me, and I did not have the best of attitudes about it. I was tired and weary which translated into irritable, tearful, and cranky.

Fast forward to walks with my own children.  Going down the trail to a waterfall was all skipping and laughter.  Wading in the ice cold stream brought giggles.  Bill taught them about skipping rocks, and we picked wildflowers along the way.  Once we were at the bottom in the waterfall mist, their faces lit up at the magnificence and power of the water spilling down into the valley.  Then it was time for the climb back up. The trail was a switchback so there was steep incline followed by some more gradual slope, giving the illusion that it wasn’t exactly straight up.  However, little legs are not fooled by illusions.

Going into the second steep section the whining began, but there were four of them and only two of us.  They had all outgrown the baby backpack we had when they were little.  Carrying was not an option.  We encouraged, held their hands, and tried distraction techniques to get their minds off of the pain, “Was that a woodpecker over there on that tree?” or “Look at that beautiful orange flower.” To no avail.  By the next steep section, meltdown mode commenced for one of them.  No amount of, “we’re almost there” helped.  There was no consoling.  It was a sit-down-in-the-trail-refuse-to-go-any-further moment. Tears rolled down the face like the waterfall ran down the mountain and the frustration spilled out like a thunderstorm in the summer.

Desperate to keep the other three moving forward without incident (these types of outbursts can be extremely contagious in a family with four little ones), I moved on with the other three, while Bill waited for the first to cry himself out.  It was all that could be done.  He could not see the end of the hike was near.  He could not make his legs go any further.  He was weary and angry we wouldn’t carry him.  He was not climbing another inch.  Bill sat down in the trail next to him, while he flailed around in a full blown tantrum.  A father, just waiting, trying to soothe his child. In the midst of his tantrum, my son was not even aware that his father was sitting next to him in the dirt.  Once he became aware of it, he wanted nothing to do with him.  Every effort Bill made towards him was rejected out of anger.  It wasn’t until the patience of the father, sitting next to him, was evident that he finally relented and allowed a gentle calming hug.  Holding him, wiping the tears, quenching his thirst…not just for water, but for acceptance and understanding which only unconditional love can bring within the hard places.

Sometimes life is overwhelming.  Just like a child on an uphill climb, sometimes it feels impossible to continue.  It feels like God is not for me…and might even be against me…if he exists at all.  These dark nights of the soul are places where nothing is for sure.  All the neat and tidy spiritual explanations fall flat.  The heavens are brass, and my prayers blow silently away on the wind.  I am not the only one to ever experience this seemingly never ending dark place where brokenness is a companion.  I know others who walk here, who wonder and wait, and shake their fists at God at the same time they cry out to him.  I am a little girl who doesn’t want to walk one step further up this mountain I feel forced to climb. I want to yell and cry and kick and scream, “NO MORE!!” until I am carried, consoled, and soothed.  I realize that in order for peace to come, I have to allow my feelings to work themselves out. The volcano, which has been dormant for years, has erupted and it will release the built up pressure…once the explosion is over.

The complexities of emotions layered one on top of the over make it tricky to get to the root, which is the feeling that God has abandoned me.  What feels like a forever climb has left me in the dirt, wallowing around like a 2-year-old, unable to see my Father sitting next to me waiting.  Brokenness is a messy, ugly, dark place…but it is a real place.  People live here, not by their own choice, but by circumstances outside of their control.  That’s the rub with this place…there is no control here. Death, abuse, disease, rape, injury, loss, divorce, heartache…no one is immune from the pain of life. Life=loss. When my legs will no longer hold me up, I fall and cry out to God for rescue.

I am double minded, believing I am abandoned by him, while still receiving provision from his hand. I feel alone, despite his presence right next to me. I try to block him out since I no longer believe in him, only to find myself praying with desperate cries that he really exists.  I feel I cannot function, all while continuing to put one foot in front of the other. The dark night is a pretty mixed up place.  It is not depression, nor is it despair. It is more like losing the core of who I am, and questioning everything I have ever known…all while still knowing it.  Kinda.  I am rambling, in search of words and talking in circles.  Sorry about that.  One thing I know (maybe) is that when I am in one of these dark broken places I find out things…truths, that I might never grasp had I not sat down in the first place. So while I am groping around now, there will come a time (I hope) when my tears will be dried and my thirst will be quenched by the Father who sits next to me…in the dirt.

Explanation

michelle-in-front-of-yonahI probably never should have pushed the publish button at 3:00 a.m. I do not usually share these kinds of deep places…until after the fact.  My usual pattern is to pull away and sit in silence, waiting for the sun to come up and the lesson to make itself known.   But this time, I know that isolating myself is not healthy.  Hence, my lament last week went public. Don’t you hate it when people put vague but heart wrenching stuff out there, but never explain it?  I do.  It caused quite a stir and I learned two things from it.

  1. I have a multitude of people who love me. I did not intend to scare anyone with my post. (Bill called it my suicide note…I promise it was NOT.) I rarely publish the hard places publicly because of this very thing.  However, the calls and notes I received have brought a measure of healing along with the acknowledgement there are people I can call when I am in a painful place.
  2. There are many, many people who are hurting. Along with exposing my pain, I unknowingly exposed the pain of others who have/are walking in difficult places. They reached out with compassion, not trying to fix it for me, but just holding space to allow me to feel.  Only those who have walked in brokenness can fully grasp what it means to have someone who gets it. Thank you.

Grief is an odd companion.  There are stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  I have found, in my life, that these stages are not linear, rather they jump around like frogs in a rainstorm.  Just when I think I have found acceptance, tears reappear.  Or when I know I am no longer in denial, I find another area that has been hiding in the corners of my heart.  Recently, a confluence of circumstances triggered some pain I thought was long ago dealt with.  I would have said I had full acceptance of this loss, but in reality, I was in denial.  Funny how that works.

It seems going back is my way forward these days.  Unresolved pain, from the TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) days 29 years ago, is washing over me like the waves at the sea.  I walked the stormy beach last week in Fl. and watched waves crash over and over again like an aching metaphor of TBI life. The ancient pain festered and cried out reminders that there is still unfinished business of the heart back there which is effecting me, even now.  It is like an onion, that is peeled back one layer at a time until the core is all that is left, and like cutting an onion, the tears flow unchecked and uninvited.  Long past days of survival cry out to be heard from the depths where they have lived stuffed for years.  Loss unimaginable refuses to be relegated once again to the back burner, and so every event brings pain gushing forth to overflowing.  A movie rips the scab off of wounds currently tender.  A change in plans undoes me.  No one gets it.  I don’t even get it.  But I am in pieces, and all I know is that it is like beating my head against a wall over and over again. I want to curl up in the fetal position and cry for days.  All the prayers in the world cannot bring back what was lost to us on that day so many years ago.  All the cheerful-look-on-the-bright-side words cannot change what I am dealing with, even though I appreciate them and I wish they could.

Sarah Bessy, one of my favorite authors, put it this way,

“All of this has reminded me of how trauma sometimes sleeps in our souls, too. We can carry our trauma – whether it’s betrayal or hurt or abuse or loss or something else entirely – for a long time before it surfaces. Often it is when we feel we’re making progress that we discover reawakened old pain and then we have to deal with that now, too. I talk to a lot of people who have what we might call soul trauma. Sometimes they are so grateful to be alive that they feel it’s wrong to admit that they’re still hurt, that some days are harder than others, that they need help. They survived – the rest is details, right? But I’ve learned along with these brave souls that God is in the details.”

Soul trauma. It is a time for me to grieve the details.  A time to try to find the illusive acceptance which seems always just out of reach.  Somehow to let go of the shattered dreams, to stop trying to glue things together, and to recognize our lives are impaired. I cannot explain what it is like to see your barely recognizable husband tied to a hospital bed. I cannot describe days of bedside vigil praying that he would live only to wonder why I prayed that way, when he awakened as a strangely different person.  I cannot define the feeling of teaching him how to walk, eat, and dress himself again. No one can understand what it is like to live 30 years trying to regain your dreams, only to realize they are unattainable. The frustration, the heartache of watching the man you love, try so very hard to recover all that he lost, on one day, in one minute. Walking beside him for years and watching the struggle that is so very real every day. We have lived with the residual issues of a damaged frontal lobe from the day of the accident till now.  My charming, gregarious, fun-loving, hilarious husband is too wonderful for words, but he has some limitations.  TBI is a stealer of stability, and I hate it for that.  Jobs come and go, and because of the frequency of that fact, they are also hard for him to find.  There is no understanding of how many friends fall by the wayside, how many jobs slip through the fingers, how many attempts it takes to do the most basic things like making decisions, or remembering where you put your stuff.  Unless you have done so, you cannot know what it is like to live in a before and after world.

Nevertheless, there is a fierce love which does not give up.  It is deeply rooted in stubbornness and tenacity, and we have it…have always had it, through TBI, miscarriage, cancer, fire, illness/death of a parent, and surgeries.  Nothing bonds hearts together like shared trauma. Our relationship is like steel. But recently a straw broke my camel’s back and my brittle heart is fragile. The contrast between past and present is difficult to reconcile. I seem to have a foot in each. The NOW part of me struggles with a faltering faith that is shaken to the core. Going around the same jobless mountain, back in survival mode yet again. The PAST part of me knows that holding on to God is the only way through the tough stuff. The broken part of me sits down and cries, “Where are you God?”  The part who has walked through hellish times before knows he is never far.

I am like a child having a temper tantrum because I do not get what I want. The grief is in realizing I will not get it. Meanwhile, God waits quietly for me to cry myself out. All I know is that he might be waiting a while, because nearly 30 years of survival mode has pushed me to the brink. All the pent up, buried, painful grief I have silenced for years is demanding to be heard.  I have people who listen and guide me in these kind of times. My family has carried me so many times, we would not have survived without them. There are others who have walked along side us for years and know just what to say and how to pray.  I do not want it to sound as if I am not grateful for my life…I am.  I have been blessed beyond measure, I am just very tired.

Happy Aaron Day!

michelle-in-front-of-yonahI miss birthday parties.  Now that my children are grown, there are no more themed celebrations with cake, ice cream, and favors.  No more little voices screaming, laughing, and playing.  I remember the exhaustion at the end of the day after planning and pulling off a party.  I remember doing four of them a year.  Now, on birthdays it is quiet here.  They don’t live here anymore, and though sometimes that makes me melancholy, it is as it should be.  I take a moment to look back at their lives through pictures to celebrate their amazing births and their growth over the years.

IMG_0363Today is Aaron’s Day.  I look at the pictures of his birth and remember the trauma for both of us.  It was a difficult delivery due to his 10lbs. 5 oz. self.  We worked together, even back then to make it to his first breath.  In the pictures we both look exhausted, but content to have completed our first mission together.  In his first birthday pictures, there is a scab on his nose from learning to walk.  I remember thinking I might be tagged for child abuse with as many bumps and bruises as he had.  On his 9th birthday he had 36 some odd stitches in his face from running into a brick column.  There are other memories from the time he got into a yellow jackets nest and was stung over 56 times.  When I consider these snippets of his life, I wonder how he has made it to 26!

IMG_0348Not all the pictures are of near death experiences.  There are swim parties with lots of smiles and watermelon.  The dinosaur party, where having a dinosaur egg hunt was a huge hit.  A cookout at the lake, a trip to the space center, and looking for alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp are in the scrapbook as well. Dressing as Bill Nye and having a science party where experiments were in abundance is in there too. (Will the items sink or float?)  Adventure.  Curiosity.  Experiments.  Those have always been a part of Aaron.  I might not get to see him this year on his birthday since he is on a cross country adventure, but I celebrate him anyway.  I am always looking both behind and ahead to know that God has a plan for my son…has always had one.  I am glad I was chosen as his mom to be a part of it.  Happy Birthday Aaron!

Wedding Preparations

michelle-in-front-of-yonahI am at wedding central. My lovely niece Sarah marries the love of her life on Saturday, so the army of helping hands has been called in.  I arrive at the house to buckets of flowers and the smell of a florist shop. There are Rubbermaid tubs stacked all around, with labels like “cake table,” “bride’s room”, and “reception” on them.  The counter is covered with a maze of Post-it-note lists. In moments, we have created a cookie-bag-stuffing assembly line, and in short order conversation fills the air of hope and the future.  There is just something uplifting about the new beginnings that weddings bring. Checking things off each different list continues. Table layouts are next up with each one discussed and packed, in even more labeled boxes.

The main event of this day begins slowly at first, but with the arrival of the grandmas, grandpas, and aunt, floral arrangements begin to multiply like rabbits.  Starting as buckets full of flowers, each stem is carefully chosen, cut, and placed with loving care into an arrangement.  Three generations of family are humming around like bees in a hive.  As we work, three generations of wedding stories are told.

The bride, who is wise beyond her years, states, “I think I will appreciate and enjoy these flowers more since I helped make them.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t care as much because someone else would have just brought them in and set them up.”

A discussion follows of how weddings used to be events which involved family and friends all coming together to help the couple get a good start. There is much laughter and picture taking as the table fills up with each new floral creation. An atmosphere of love and warmth, permeates the room.  Everyone has a job and in no time, all of them are complete. Boxes are loaded into a plethora of cars going to a plethora of places, and whisked away to await the big day.  I am taken by the ease with which it all comes together.  The old proverb that ‘many hands make light work’ is proven true on this day, but it should also say many hands make ‘fun’ work, as well.

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Preparation for a wedding has gone to a whole new level since my day.  It has become a billion-dollar industry that leaves pockets empty as it promises a fairy tale ending.  The wedding itself is seen as the goal, without much thought to the marriage.  It is refreshing to see my niece and her fiancé have not taken the bait of “the bigger the better,” but have opted for simple elegance.  So many of these events are over the top, which leaves couples in debt and wondering what to do once the wedding is over.  It starts things off in an unhealthy way from the beginning, because the focus is in the wrong place.  The alternative is to cohabitate rather than to marry.  It is cheaper and more practical, and not nearly as permanent.  I totally understand why many couples are choosing that route, because after all, ‘it is just a piece of paper.’ Weddings are not thought of as sacred much these days. They are more of a cultural tradition, or a requirement to get a legal status.

Call me old fashioned, but there is something about a wedding that is more than just a ceremony. It is the joining of hearts with love and commitment; taking vows before friends, family, and God.  It is a sacred act, and the foundation of relationship.  It is a joyful occasion worth celebrating.  The birth of hope, which then grows into trust, which results in being fully known just as you are.  You can’t get that with just a piece of paper, or with a venue full of flowers.  It requires a supernatural intervention that comes when invited, and stays long after the I-dos are said. The wedding is the beginning of an adventure, not the end.

sarahs flowersI don’t think it is trivial that the gospel is compared to a wedding.  The bride of Christ is pursued, chosen, and invited into the mystery of supernatural love. She is adored by her groom.  She does not need the perfect venue or flowers. She doesn’t need a cathedral.  She rests in the simplicity of his love for her.  She gazes into his eyes and she has no doubt that she will be loved forever.  He assures her of that by his sacrifice.  He is unwavering.  He is steadfast.  All that is required is the union.  The scared vows.  The commitment to trust. The love to be received.  There is a wedding feast scheduled.  It is the beginning of a great adventure.  It is the fullness of joy.

Our weddings are but mirrors of the spiritual truth.  It is why we come together as family to create floral arrangements.  It is why we fly across the country to attend weddings in the first place.  We make the trip to bear witness to the union. To see hope born.  We are drawn to it, because we long for it. This joining of souls is a sacred act of love on which relationship and belonging are built.  The preparations are meaningful and fun, because they set the stage for deep love to be on display.  The intertwining of two lives becoming one can only be accomplished with supernatural joining the two strand cord and making it three.  The preparation is complete.  The waiting time is here.  Tomorrow is the day for love to be made known.

Happy Wedding Day Sarah and Ryan!

True Love

love.jpgLove does not always look like roses, chocolates, and candlelight.  It is deeper than that.  In fact, until the storms of life come along, I would say that love isn’t tested.  New love is more infatuation than sacrifice.  Do not get me wrong, there is a glorious awakening of the heart when new love blooms.  It is why we celebrate Valentine’s Day, why we write songs, poems, and stories about it. It is the feeling which movies portray as “the real thing.” All of us who are romantics, rush to watch lighthearted love play out on the screen. We go to weddings and smile as big as the groom does when the bride walks down the aisle.  We see young lovers who glow while gazing into one another’s eyes, and we remember our own whirlwinds of the heart. It warms and fills us with good feelings.  Yet, this type of affection is a beginning…a glorious one…a fun one…but still only a beginning.

Anyone who has been married for any length of time can tell you that the romance fades if you don’t stoke the fire.  Even with intentional effort it is sometimes difficult, simply because life gets busy. Careers, kids, and all kinds of activities fill up the spaces that used to be reserved for only the two of you.  Still, love grows.  The pace slows down, but the roots begin to spread out and encompass more ground.  This expansion enlarges the heart.  If caution is observed not to spread too thin, the busy seasons create a love that appreciates the little things.  Things like quiet.  And sleep.  And Saturday morning pancakes.

Then hardships come along.  If love is to survive, the roots have to go deep. This is where you learn that true love = sacrifice.  Hardship in a marriage is the crucible of fire that burns away the dross and purifies the love.  It is not easy, nor is it pretty.  It doesn’t usually come with warm fuzzy feelings, but it is real just the same.  Not every love survives the fire, because it takes two people willing to surrender.   It is beyond personalities and common interests.  It is spirit to spirit contact where hanging on to one another is the only way to make it through.  This results in a bond that is too deep for words to explain.  This kind of love hurts.  It is an ongoing choice, which is worth all the effort and heartache.  It may not sound too desirable, and you won’t find to many people lining up to be included in the hardship line, but the result is a love story of epic proportions…the kind of love that endures. It is not blown around by the winds.  It does not crumble with changes.  It is steadfast.  It is true.  It is more romantic than a card or a fancy dinner.  It is a deep love, with roots that hold it steady in the storms.  It is a gift, for which I am grateful every day.

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Heart Friends

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Sometimes you just need time with your heart friends.  I have been blessed beyond measure in the heart friend department.  Every season of my life has its own set of people who live in my soul.  They know me.  They get me. I have found that when things seem upside down in life, heart friends can set things right again.  Yesterday, we had a 2-hour-lunch-turned-6-hour-visit with some of our tribe from college.  There was laughter.  There were stories.  Memories were in abundance.  Updates were shared all around.  It was like a shot in the arm.  It boosted our spirits, and bolstered our courage.  It reminded us all of who we are, and where we came from.

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These are the kind of relationships that pick up as if no time has passed, though to see us, you can definitely tell that it has.  Our hair has grayed, or disappeared altogether.  We’ve added wrinkles and pounds, but the spark that bonded us all those years ago still resides within our eyes and smiles when we are together.  The joy of sitting and spending time together is nourishment for our spirits.  Berry College has always been its own little world; we even call it the Berry Bubble.  But its uniqueness wasn’t just the beautiful campus, it was the people who shaped our lives while we were there, from professors, to work supervisors, to the other students all around us.  It was a formative time in our lives filled with the adventure of spreading our wings for the first time.

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Now, we exchange aging parent stories, plan the upcoming weddings of our children, and discuss possible career changes in our 50’s.  We go back to our core beliefs and question what following God looks like at this stage of life, and in this cultural climate so different from the years that have passed.  We laugh at not understanding Netflix or participating in social media, because we realize we sound like our own parents.  We find that we care less about so much of what we thought was important back then. We swap life changing moments, be they health related or otherwise, that have allowed us eyes to see in new ways.  A theme arises that freedom comes when you learn to let things go.  We are wiser now, but still in need of people in our lives who remember us from the beginning, before careers, before children, before marriage even.  Back to when we were hashing out our belief systems, discovering our values, and pursuing education in our prospective fields of study. Back to days of ultimate Frisbee, air bands, saunas, antique grandfather clocks, catacombs, broken jaws, kidnappings, and reflection pools.  Back to when we prayed together, studied the Bible, and worshiped fully, under the arch, until the presence of God was so strong it was tangible in our midst. Full hearts. Even now, when the time comes to say goodbye and return to our lives, we linger for hours, desiring to bask in the acceptance and soak in the heart connection that comes from souls knitted together by shared experience. When we do finally break the spell, we leave with smiles and a lighter step because we have been with those we love.  Bonds like these cannot be broken.  They stand the test of time… just like heart friends.