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.

sarahs flowers 2

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

heart-friends

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.

Miracle Baby

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It has always been a joke that I get pregnant just changing clothes in the same room as my husband. Fertile Myrtle, as they say.  So I am not sure why I was surprised when I found out I was pregnant with my fourth child.  I knew before the plus sign showed up.  The test was just a formality, any time I was more than a day late, I was pregnant.  Regular as clockwork, any interruption in my cycle was cause to take notice.  Yet, when that test wand changed, my heart did a little leap at the idea of another addition to the family.  A happy leap.

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I went to the doctor for the official blood test.  We were well acquainted by this time, as he had delivered my first three, so when he came into the room the look on his face told me that all was not as it should be.  My counts were too low, he said.  With my previous history of a miscarriage, knots in my stomach formed immediately.  An ultrasound was ordered to detect if there was, as he suspected, a tubal pregnancy. To my great relief there was no evidence of that.  However, the doctor maintained that there was not a viable pregnancy.  He gave us some options.  Go ahead with a DNC.  Wait until I miscarried on my own. Or continue to monitor blood levels.  We chose prayer, and the third option, with great hope that a miracle would occur, but also with great fear that we would once again be miscarrying.

The next few days I had blood work every day to follow my HCG levels, which continued to be lower than is normal.  The doctor scheduled a DNC for the following week, and we were devastated.  We went home that weekend, fully expecting to start miscarriage symptoms before the following week. None came, so we moved forward with the plan.

I went in on the appointed day, Bill by my side as we faced this together.  The doctor did one more blood test, and bounded into the room.  He said, “Stop everything.  We are not doing anything.  Your numbers doubled.  If you were going to lose this pregnancy they would be dropping. You are still way below what you should be to have a viable pregnancy, but I am uncomfortable proceeding if your numbers are going up instead of down. I want to watch the numbers for three more days to see if I can figure out what is going on.”  And so he did.  On the third day, he showed us the graph.  The numbers had continued to climb steadily, and then jumped up high enough that he said it was a viable pregnancy.  He determined that when I came for my initial appointment I must have been only a couple of days pregnant, instead of the 6 weeks we thought. The increase in hormone was low because I was barely pregnant. My cycle somehow shifted from its regimented precise course.  When he adjusted the date the numbers lined up perfectly to the new, earlier timeline. The pregnancy proceeded as normal from that point until the day my 11 lb. baby was delivered…21 years ago today.

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Happy 21st birthday to Peter, the baby who almost wasn’t born. A miracle.  So proud of the young man he is becoming.  Officially, I am the mother of four adults and that too is a miracle.

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Uncle Jim

jim-in-chairSome men leave this life with much fanfare, while others quietly make their exit.  Jim Wages would be the latter, an unpretentious man, who lived his life in the most genuine of ways.  Jim never desired the spotlight, he lived simply, put his hands to hard work, and his heart to family. He was a man who believed actions spoke louder than words…unless there was a Georgia game on, and then his words could be heard ringing out for all to hear! Rather than do a lot of talking, he preferred to be on the move, never sitting still for very long.  His desire to be outside would lead one to believe he was created to live in a tent, and if he could have he would have.  The love for the outdoors, fishing, and camping lit up his face like the sun.  Anyone would tell you that near the end, his fancy outdoor scooter, with what looked like tank treads, extended his life, just by allowing him the ability to get outside again. Even at family gatherings, he was known to visit for the obligatory amount of time and then he was gone.  Sitting around just wasn’t in his nature.

The faith in God that rescued him, was on display for others to see.  He was generous with his love, poured out not only to family, but to the many kids he taught in Sunday school for years. It was an actionable love, that moved not as much with words, but more with doing.  His prayers were more like sermons, and were heartfelt in their desire to make Christ known to all within earshot. He made up for his quiet ways in the prayerful moments, which were the times his words flowed freely. To talk with him about his faith caused him to choke up with gratitude to God, but he would much rather show you than tell you.  He never demanded you notice his actions.  He simply and humbly walked them out without fanfare. Though he wouldn’t want you to know it, there was a tender heart beating within his chest.  He may have seemed tough on the outside, but we all knew differently.

He had a love for kids of all ages.  Whether it was his own two boys traipsing through the woods, his many nieces and nephews and eventually grandchildren going for sleep overs, or his Sunday school kids grabbing for pixie sticks, he had a way with children.  He knew the importance of role models, though he would have never considered himself one.  There was something about showing kids they were valuable that meant the world to him.  He invested his time and it made a difference.

family-thanksgivingThough he was a man of few words, do not think he had none.  His opinions were often voiced…loudly.  And his thoughts were not at all hidden.  He had strong convictions, as well as a wicked sense of humor.  His jovial side came out at family dinners, where there was always a competition between he and his brothers Danny and Tommy, for who could make the most trips through the food line.  He laughed often and the twinkle in his eye was always a signal that he was up to something.  While he and Louise were probably tied in the contest for most spunk, he edged her out in stubbornness. Hard headed does not begin to describe Jim when he sunk his heels in on an issue.  There was no swaying him and it was best not to try.  It is one of the things that made him a successful business owner…not bending on quality.  When wiring houses, drawing a hard line is an important quality to have.

jim-and-brendaNo one knew Jim better than his bride Brenda.  The two of them went together like honey and butter.  She was the sweet to his salty.  She the calm to his storm.  The words he doled out sparingly, she poured out freely.  His strong opinions were softened by her gentleness.  As a couple, they were balanced.  The ups and downs of life did not pass them by, but they always managed to get through because they were together. It was a beautiful thing to watch.

Jim’s heart expanded, and with the marriages of his sons he gained the daughters he never had.  The family grew with the addition of two grandchildren, whom he adored.  His care for his family never waned.  Even as his heart was weakening, he continued to desire the best for the rest of us. His presence will be missed and cause a hole around the family table, but just think of the joy in heaven as he and Louise are reunited.  Heaven will never be the same with those two together again!

 

Goodbye Cloudwood

IMG_0167.jpgI have often heard that when a loved one is dying that they sometimes need permission from their loved ones before they breathe their last. Even if they are ready to go, they seem to sense when family members are not yet able to release them.  I had this crazy idea that our family farm, Cloudwood, needed my permission before it could go to another owner, so I wrote a letter.  It sold the next week.  It is significant that our last holiday to celebrate there was Thanksgiving, because we are all ever so thankful for the 40+ years of joy this property has brought our family and friends. We all put on our best brave smiles today and tried to hold back the tears. We were mostly successful, until the final goodbyes. We lost a family member whose lifeblood flows in our veins, and just as with any grief, the sense of loss is tremendous but the memories are sweet.  We spent the day reminiscing and picture taking to capture one last family celebration upon the mountain we have loved since the moment we stepped foot upon it.  In the end, no one wanted to leave, and the last gaze of the view as we drove down the driveway brought the ugly cries up and out.  Weeping for our loved one and all that we will miss, but as with all loss, we know that the price of love is pain.  Great pain, means we have been blessed with great love.    

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Dear Cloudwood Farm,

I have managed to avoid writing this letter for some time now, but it feels as if the tide is shifting and the final goodbye is eminent. There are some things I need to say before that day arrives.

I remember when you first came into our family.  I was 6 years old, and mom stood at a pay phone for what seemed an eternity, because dad called and said, “I bought a mountain.”  From the moment he drove up the driveway, you had whispered to him that this was the place he had been looking for.  It didn’t matter that mom and the kids were out of town, he knew and so he took the leap.  When we returned home, he brought us to see you and we were instantly enamored with your beauty.  The old farm house had such charm, and a rich history to boot.  Of course as a 6-year-old, I didn’t care about such things.  I was more interested in the tree swing, the castle of rhododendron bushes, the donut shrub in the front yard, the pond in the pasture and the endless supply of trees to climb.

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In no time at all you became our family respite. You were our escape from city life. During the week we went 90 to nothing, but on the weekends you welcomed us with open arms.  I remember putting together jigsaw puzzles with Pop, knitting (or trying to) with Betty, and cooking with Memommie.  I remember the little half room upstairs and how I thought it was unfair my little sister got to have it.  I remember being scared of the attic room, and feeling warm and snug in front of the fireplace.  I remember the creaky wooden floors that squeaked and groaned under our feet. I remember the old antique pie safe that held all our homemade wooden toys. I remember there was a bag of birdseed in the basement.

I also remember the night we got the call that the house burned to the ground.  I remember the tears as mom and dad left the city to find nothing left of our mountain place. They told us that it was important to remember things from the house…to tell them everything we could think of.  That is why my memory of that old house is still so vivid after nearly 50 years.  But you may have noticed that none of those memories include stuff.  They are all of people and feelings of the place, not the items within it.  I don’t know that remembering my wooden toys and a bag of birdseed was much help in the rebuilding process, but I am glad I thought so long and hard, because now I can still pull up the images in my mind.

After the fire, we stayed in your caretaker’s house at the bottom of the hill. We still came to see you often as we dug through the rubble from the house trying to salvage any piece of history we could.  To this day I think I love scavenger hunts because of those post-fire weekends.  Melinda and I found items and created a fire museum in the Rhododendron bushes.  Old skeleton keys, pieces of dishes, old timey irons, we laid them out on big rocks as a memorial to the house.  It was our childlike way of processing the loss.

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Though the house was gone, your land was abundant in its welcome of us.  You were always so generous with your caring.  We made trails through the woods.  Dad and I logged all the wildflowers I could find, in my journal…which I still have by the way. We gathered bird nests, only once they were unoccupied of course, for a collection, along with rocks of all shapes and sizes.  There were always adventures to be had and treasures to be found.  Thank you for that.

Once the new house was built, the fun continued.  By this time, we were old enough to bring our friends along in large and small numbers.  We played for hours in the little storage closets in the dormers, creating a play house club.  One for the girls’side and the other for the boys…who were always harassing us.  And oh, the winters!  Everyone else runs from the snow and we run to it…creating snow angels, and snowball fights by the hundreds on your hills and pastures. The gathering of all manner of children to sled with their dads on the driveway, and warm their frozen fingers and toes by the fire.  Warm cocoa, hot cider were always at the ready and the marshmallow jar by the fire with sticks for roasting, was as much a part of the hearth as the log poker.

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In the summer, the nearby rivers made creek-walking adventures, swimming holes, and fishing spots. Super Jeep took us on the highways and byways of all the surrounding area, and a few off-the-beaten-path places. We rafted the waters of nearby rivers.  We trail rode the horses through your forests, beside your bubbling brooks, through the apple trees, and round and round the house.   Friends by the bus load arrived at your wonderland to discover that nature is not at all silent, and that God is closer in the mountains.  There was a spiritual connection to him there, on the front porch.  The stars overhead inspired so many young minds and hearts to look towards the creator.  Your creator.  And ours.  Maybe that is what joined us so.  Our common creator, who formed us, it seems, to enjoy one another so as to bring him pleasure. The rocks and hills and trees will cry out in worship if we do not…and you knew that verse well, because you were always crying out.

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Our own children were the next generation to hear your songs of worship.  They found the love of family on your mountain top.  Falling stars left them in awe…and we smiled at your ability to capture them as well as you had us. Football in the front yard joined cousins’ hearts, as did sledding on bright orange disks that gave them the ability to fly. The Grandkid Olympics each January 1st, was a time for mom and dad to combine their love of place with their love of the next generation…making memories that will last a lifetime. Being together, with you and each other was a marvelous mystery that was passed from generation to generation. A legacy.  Scavenger hunts to the pasture brought forth your hidden treasures that ended up in bedrooms and on walls to remind them of their time with you.  The reading tree became a symbol of all that you represented to them.  A place to put down roots, while still reaching for the sky.  A place of quiet in the midst of a world of noise.  A place to explore other worlds through words, all from the safety of home.  Home in the deepest sense of the word.  Home is where the family is, as well as the heart.  The connection and the love of the land is what made all of that possible.

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I love you Cloudwood.  It is hard for me to imagine you not being a part of our family.  In reality, it is not possible.  You will always be with us in heart and spirit, and we with you.  I release you now, to spread your enchantment to others who need to connect with their creator through you.  Call the ones who are next in your never ending family.  Continue to sing your worship song and cry out your praises.  We will hear it.  We will love you always and will never forget the sacred place that God used to fuse our hearts to his.

Much love,

Michelle

(The star gazing, mountain climbing, tree loving, tomboy of a girl who became who she is because of you.)

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