Category: Family


This past Friday night I had the privilege to enjoy one of life’s rare, almost perfect, dare I say glorious evenings with my family. Not only with my husband and our two children who are still at home, but my parents, my brother, and my oldest son who lives now in Texas. It’s a rarity for all of us to be in the same place at the same time: my brother is in town between chef jobs at an exclusive hunting lodge in the Midwest and Alex is home for a week – the first time since Christmas.

I love to cook, and I try to be creative, but I am absolutely no match for my brother. He is a self-taught chef and in a word, amazing. “Chef Bo” has an instinctive sixth sense about technique, taste, texture, and presentation. Meats, fish, seafood, veggies, potatoes, sauces, fruits, desserts, you name it – he has a recipe somewhere in his head. I don’t even understand about half of what he does or how. But one thing is certain: it is always delicious. I don’t just mean “wow, that’s really good.” I mean, “How did you do that? That’s ridiculous good! Yes, more. Right there on my plate. Yep, keep it coming.”

So last Friday we decided on a menu, took our field trip for food shopping, and met at my house to begin preparing for the gorging that lay ahead. My mom was leaving town the next day for a choir trip so we were celebrating an early Father’s Day. And it was all hands on deck: I was working on the meat, Chef Bo was directing the appetizers and preparing side dishes, kids were chopping fruit and cutting blocks of cheese, Richard was cooking bacon. Everyone right there in the kitchen, together, doing something.

Knives flying, oven heating, refrigerator and pantry opened and closed, it all started coming together. Add a little move-your-feet music to the mix (U-verse, my family thanks you) and we had Paula Deen meets MasterChef.  We were laughing, talking, feeding ourselves a bite over here and playfully stealing a bite from someone else over there. By the time my parents arrived, the house smelled delicious. And we had artfully arranged the appetizers on a new (smaller) dish to disguise how much had already been consumed.

My responsibility for this particular feast was the meat: BBQ boneless ribs. Mmmm, my mouth waters just thinking about them. I’ve baked them many times before but I don’t remember ever cooking them when my brother was going to be eating them (did I mentioned he’s a chef?). Talk about pressure. The main attraction, the one thing everything else on the table centered on – even the appetizers – was my responsibility! Aye-yi-yi! I have to admit, I was tempted to change things up a bit, try something new, do them just a little different, but I stayed true to my personal recipe and slid the baking dishes into the oven.

Chef Bo, with a raised eyebrow asked, “Are you sure about those ribs? You know we’re eating in 2 ½ hours right?” I acknowledged the clock and his question with a simple, “uh-huh” and a smile.

Fast forward to 7pm. Appetizers consumed. Table set. Side dishes working on the stove and in the oven. Clock ticking. Laughter. Conversation. Billiards tournament underway in the basement.  And then it was time: time to pour the drinks, summon everyone to the table, and let the feasting begin. Everyone who knows me knows I love having my family around the table together (Norman Rockwell, my grandmothers and my mother, I thank you). So on any other day, just the fact that we were all together would have been enough. Not this evening. Not this meal. The ribs had to be perfect: tender and juicy but not watery, with sauce that wasn’t too thick or pasty. We all sat down and held hands to bless the food and our time together. Dishes began to move around the table in every direction, forks and spoons clinking, passing this, sharing that. And then the moment of truth: Chef Bo took a bite of those cooked-to-perfection ribs. I placed my napkin in my lap and sat back in my chair waiting, watching.

A big, surprised expression in those cat-like green eyes of his followed by a huge smile answered my unspoken question. “Wow! Those are amazing! How did you do that?”

Ah, yes, the sweetness of a food triumph.

What followed was in a word, carnage. We ate ribs until we couldn’t lift our forks. We ate homemade mac n’ cheese made from lasagna noodles (I told you, he’s a chef!). We ate a most unusual and delicious green bean and sweet pea concoction I feel very sure I could not re-create. Chef Bo asked my secret for the ribs followed immediately by, “No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. You can keep that culinary secret and I’ll just keep eating.”

We ate, we laughed, we told stories on each other. We shared a meal and we shared memories. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it is truly unforgettable. No one rushed away from the dinner table, no one was anxious to go do something else or be somewhere else. Just family. Just perfect. And the email I received from my brother the next morning went something like this:

“About last night…it was grrreeeaaat. One of our best family times ever. And how exactly did you do those ribs???”

This weekend marked my maternal grandmother’s 97th birthday. Yes, 97. She looks like a spritely 75-year-old, is in excellent health, and until very recently could work circles around anyone half her age. I remember a few years ago when she was in the emergency room with an about-to-rupture gall bladder and the nurse asked her what medications she was currently taking. She said, ‘I don’t take anything’. The nurse turned to my mother and asked the same question, remarking that my grandmother didn’t hear or understand what she had asked. My grandmother, in excruciating pain, fired right back, “I heard you and I understood you. And I will tell you again, I don’t take any medication for anything.”

 My mother didn’t need to say a word.

 This weekend my family also celebrated my youngest son’s 10th birthday. Finally, double digits. My grandmother, his great-grandmother, “Memaw”, 87 years his senior.

 Although we don’t get to spend a tremendous amount of time together, my children adore their great-grandmother. And I’ve been thinking of a few things I hope they have learned from her, passed down generation to generation, reminding them of their roots and the legacy they’ve been given.

1. Family is everything. My earliest memories of my grandmother center around family gatherings. She and my Papa loved nothing more in the world than being surrounded by their children and grandchildren. They loved the churches my grandfather pastored and poured their hearts into the lives of its members, but nothing – and I mean nothing – brought them greater joy than having family around them.

2. Loyalty matters. My grandmother is fiercely loyal. She can correct, rebuke, and even punish a family member who gets out of line, but woe to the outsider who attempts to do the same. My Memaw is one of the sweetest, most gracious and forgiving Southern women you could ever hope to meet. Until you say something unkind about one of her own. Then I would suggest you head for the hills. Fast.

3. Growth is important. My grandmother was a teacher for most of her adult life using a teaching degree she earned in 1934. And at the age of 50, she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Education fromBerryCollege. Yes, going back to college was difficult. Yes, it took time, and energy, and commitment. But she did it. She also learned to drive. And for the record, she was a better student than she was a driver. The roots of my “Lead Foot Lucy” nickname can be traced straight back to her!

4. Change is inevitable. My grandfather was a pastor. Not at one church. Not at two or three churches. In his 57 years as a pastor, my Papa shepherded seven church congregations spread out over three states. My grandmother always made it an adventure, a calling, an opportunity. And she always made it home. No muss, no fuss. Just set up house, share the (one) bathroom, gather the family around the table for a home-cooked meal, and say the blessing. Make friends, embrace change, celebrate birthdays, holidays, and babies, and be grateful for the pillow on which you lay your head at night.

5. Marriage is forever. My grandparents were married for almost 60 years. When my Papa, her beloved Charles, was dying of cancer she was his advocate, his caretaker, his nurse, his meal planner, his gentle bath-giver, his prayer warrior. She was strong as he grew weaker, and she bravely held his hand as he left his earthly body to embrace immortality. Memaw taught us how to grieve loss and celebrate life in the same breath. She cried and she laughed and she hugged long and hard those who shared her grief. And she has faced head-on the years without him, sadly at times, accepting that it is not yet her time to be reunited with him. When it was suggested at one time that she consider re-marrying, she looked away and softly said, “it’s not for me; Charles was my one and only.”

6. The Bible is true. I don’t know how many times my Memaw has read through the Bible but she can teach it as if she wrote it herself! (No disrespect intended.) When she talks about her favorite passages or verses in the Bible, they truly come to life. Her love for God’s word is the foundation and cornerstone of her existence. And anyone who has ever met her knows that to be true about her. She doesn’t preach the Bible to those around her. She doesn’t have to because she lives it every single day.

7. Prayer works. My Memaw has spent hundreds, probably thousands, of hours throughout her life praying for her family, her friends, her community, her country, and the world. When she awakens during the night, instead of getting a warm glass of milk and going back to sleep, she gets on her knees and prays for whoever is on her heart and mind. And she stays there until she feels a peace about climbing back under the covers. I’ve heard her tell of many a night when she prayed right on through the night until it was time to start the day’s work. My life is living proof that her prayers were heard and answered.

8. Eternity is forever. I can’t remember a time (almost ever) when my grandmother hasn’t reminded us all that she wants nothing more in the world than for her family to be together. Forever. Eternally. She reminds us all how important it is for us to stay in right relationship with God, to love Him above all else, and to be obedient to His leading. Through teary eyes and strained voice she pleads with us all to be sure, be absolutely sure, that we know where we will spend eternity. And then she smiles that sweet little smile, cocks her head and whispers, “I love you all so much.”

 Happy birthday, Memaw. Happy birthday, Stephen. As I find myself standing between the young and old, it occurs to me that the distance between 10 and 97 is not really very far. Not when it’s measured with love.

I heard on the radio this morning a news story about a video trend exploding across the country on YouTube. It’s a video called “Do you think I’m pretty?” and apparently it goes something like this: 12 and 13-year-old girls are making videos of themselves, talking to the camera and telling a little bit about their friends – or lack thereof – at school. The question at the end of the video is, “Well, do you think I’m pretty? Or do you think I’m ugly? Tell me the truth.”

As of this morning there are over 4 million hits on these videos from thousands of adolescent girls across the country. Four million! The host of this particular morning show made an interesting point: “Whether or not a young girl believes she is pretty is one thing; but there is no way she can possibly be prepared for the avalanche of cruel comments that will be posted in response to her video. Even if she’s drop dead gorgeous, people will say mean things just because they can. And because there’s such tremendous anonymity on the internet, you can say anything you want and no one has to know who you are.”

This is cyber bullying on steroids. What young middle school-aged girl, already insecure and overly sensitive, is not going to obsess over every negative comment posted and then dismiss the positive ones? What is it in our psyche that makes us unable to appreciate our own selves? Not in a puffed-up arrogant way, but simply because we are uniquely our own. The radio host and his crew decided to focus on one particular video and traced the girl back to a city in Colorado. Frightening in and of itself, this opens up a whole new world to pedophiles and would-be traffickers that someone can be so easily tracked down from a video posted on the internet. When the crew called the mother and told her what they had watched featuring her daughter, the mother said she had no idea the video even existed.

Please hear me: I am not condemning this mother. No one can possibly know her story or why she didn’t know about the video. Maybe she’s a single mom working two or three jobs because a dead-beat dad walked out on his family. Maybe she’s struggling to slay her own dragons and has lost her child or children in the process. Maybe she wasn’t taught by her own family’s example how to be a good parent and she simply doesn’t know what to do or how to connect with her own kids.

My point is simply this: somewhere in this young girl’s mind and heart, she is desperate for someone to affirm her, validate her, and tell her what she longs to hear. “I am valuable to someone.” It goes way beyond physical appearance, although I would bet this is the only way she knows how to express her need for attention. Be better, be thinner, wear nicer clothes, be more popular, have prettier skin/hair/makeup. The list goes on and on and on.

What does it say about our society as human beings – created and designed for relationship – when our children are screaming into cyberspace for attention and affirmation? The internet is a wonderful tool, no doubt, but as with every other advance throughout human history, it must be kept in balance. We must ensure that it falls way down the list of priorities in our lives, and certainly not allow it to be the barometer for our children’s love and appreciation of themselves and each other.

I fear we are losing our children to a world, a society, an environment that is not even real. And the only way to protect them – to snatch them from the grip of a cyber-society that is nameless, faceless, and shameless – is to regularly connect with them. They need to hear our voice, they need to feel our touch, they need to see our smile and embrace the warmth of our approval.

A friend said to me recently, “You know, I’ve come to realize my children will never love me as much as I love them. They can’t comprehend that kind of love. They’re not made that way.” It was a stunning revelation. She’s right. But what really struck me as I chewed on that statement throughout the rest of the day is this: our Heavenly Father can say exactly the same thing about us. We will never love Him as much as He loves us. We can’t comprehend that kind of love.

Our love for each other and especially our children is broken at best. We all have wounds that shape and, unfortunately at times, define us. Our perception of ourselves and the lens through which we view and respond to the world and people around us has to constantly be checked, evaluated, and adjusted. And I’ve found a great place to work on those adjustments: the word of God.  Check it out:

Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Psalm 139:13-16 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Proverbs 4:23 “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

Isaiah 49:16 “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…”

Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Matthew 6:26 “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

Luke 12:7 “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

We humans are a fantastic mix of fragility and strength. We endure excruciating physical and emotional pain, we accomplish the seemingly impossible, and we press on against insurmountable odds. But at our core, in our heart, we are as fragile as a word, a look, a touch. And no one knows this better than the One who gave us our very breath. So walk gently with the world around you.

The mark you leave behind may very well be a permanent one.

Open the Gate.

Last week a dear friend of mine shared a post on facebook which, quite
honestly, has dominated my thoughts and kept me awake for several nights now. Her name is Dawn and, coincidentally, we share not only our name but the same birthday month – how cool is that? And for the sake of clarity, she is the younger Dawn by far!

Dawn and I met through our childrens’ sports activities and have become good friends. Mikey, her oldest son, has the biggest, most heartwarming smile you’ve ever seen. He loves to share hugs, high fives, and french fries at baseball games. Mikey is also a special needs young man with Down Syndrome. When our families first met, he called me ‘Mrs. Hood’. I laid my hand on his arm and pleaded with him, “Mikey, please don’t call me Mrs. Hood – it makes me feel old. You can call me Miss Dawn.” He threw his head back and laughed big and hard, then smiled and said, “okay, Miss Dawn.” He now refers to my in-laws as Mimi and Papaw and has a not-so-secret crush on our daughter Rachel. {smile}

I am blessed to know Dawn and her family. All of her children – Mikey included – are fierce athletes. Their daughter Ashley has college scholarship potential as a softball player; she also excels academically. Their two younger sons, Evan and Zach, are baseball and football superstars and Mikey, although on a special needs baseball team, far exceeds the physical and mental abilities of his teammates. As I’ve observed their family dynamics over the years, I’ve learned that Dawn and her husband Mike rarely make concessions for Mikey. They hold him accountable for his behavior, his speech, and the sometimes belligerent taunting of his sister. Having never spent a significant amount of time around a family with a special needs child, it has been fascinating to watch how they treat him – literally – just like any other kid. Somewhere in my brain I wrongly assumed there would always be the ‘making excuses’, the ‘indulging’, the ‘oh, I’m sorry’.

My perspective was always based on the family’s and the inspiring way in which they completely and totally embrace Mikey. (Although it has never crossed my mind that they would do anything else.) But I never thought about it from Mikey’s point of view until last week’s facebook post from Dawn. On a regular morning, in the midst of a regular weekday routine in which two parents were preparing themselves for the workday ahead and four children were eating breakfast and grabbing book bags for school, Mikey said to Dawn, “I don’t want to be a special ed kid, Mom. I want God to fix me.” 

Whoa. Shut the front door. If this were a scene in a movie, the moment would freeze on the big screen accompanied by deafening silence.

My kids have said a few things over the years that have stopped me in my tracks, but what could any parent possibly say in response to a statement like this? Dawn shared that this is a recurring topic with Mikey and also bravely shared how it breaks her heart. Mikey knows he is special needs; knows he functions at a different level and pace; knows he will always live life ‘differently’ from his siblings. And it frustrates him. More than how Dawn responded to his statement, I’ve been reflecting on Mikey’s simple, innocent proclamation: “I want God to fix me.”

We all have things we would like for God to ‘fix’: finances, marriages, wayward children, jobs, physical features that we label ‘too much of’ or ‘not enough of’ or ‘just not the way I want’. But when is the last time we asked God simply, ‘fix me‘? I have to admit, God has really been dealing with me in this area (no, actually it’s been more like hammering – I do have a stubborn streak). I tend to look at what surrounds me and want those things to change. The ‘If only…I just wish…why can’t I…or why don’t they…’  Maybe what I need to be looking at is me and what needs to change.

I heard a sermon recently by a man, well into his 70s, addressing this very subject. His text was 15 little words nestled in the middle of Psalm 37, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (v.4). Dr. Hill put it this way: “if you try to delight in what you desire, your desires will never bring you any delight.”  His point was this: until I delight myself in the Lord first (the result of which is a contended heart), my desires will never satisfy me. You guessed it: hammer firmly in hand, nail placed strategically right between my eyes, swing with intent. Bam!

Will God ‘fix’ Mikey? I don’t have any idea. Conventional wisdom, the history of medicine, and DNA would all say no. But everyone who knows and loves Mikey would tell you he doesn’t need ‘fixing’. Is this a pat-on-the-back, “just give God the desires of your heart, son” quick fix? Absolutely not. I don’t doubt for a moment that God created Mikey in his mama’s womb exactly the way He planned. I don’t question that His purpose for Mikey’s life is of any less importance than any other person on planet Earth. Does knowing that make it easy? Of course not. Does it satisfy Mikey’s desire to be more like his siblings and their friends? Probably not. Does it explain God? No more than understanding how a clock works explains eternity.

The lesson is for me. For us. Fact is, we live in a broken world. There always have been and always will be circumstances and situations that we wish could be fixed. But how would those circumstances and situations change if nothing changed except the heart through which we look at them? Thank you, Dawn, for offering me a view behind closed doors; and thank you, Mikey, for being you.

I think my Christmas list will be short this year: Dear Santa, I want God to fix me.

How do you say goodbye to someone you’ve known almost your whole life? He’s not family (at least not by blood relation) but he’s absolutely family. I met Larry Morton when I was 12 years old and he was 31. He was married to a sweet, pretty young woman named Ruth Ann. Our families become instant, lifelong friends. They had moved to the Atlanta area from Canada and my Southern family provided endless hours of entertainment for Mort as he observed our quirky sayings, behaviors, and food choices. He loved to practice his southern drawl on my name, calling me “Daaaaawwwwwwn” then flashing his Santa Claus smile. Mort lived with wild abandon, drove a corvette, rode a motorcycle, water skied, snow skied, and (fill in the blank with every other adventurous outing imaginable). I played the piano and it was not unusual for Mort to buy me a new piece of sheet music and bring it over to our house. One of his favorites was “The Entertainer”, a tricky little ragtime piece that I worked hard to master. When Mort and Ruth Ann had their first (and only) child, Nicole, I was convinced she was mine.

Mort taught my brother and me how to water ski at Lake Lanier on a warm Saturday morning in early summer when I was in high school. He showed me how to put my feet in the skis, hold the rope correctly, and lean back. Keeping my knees together and pulling hard when he hit the throttle on the boat, I came up out of the water on my first try! For many years after, my brother and I could not get enough of those early mornings and long days at the lake. Mort, my Dad, my brother, and I would go very early, meeting Ruth Ann and my mom later in the day to eat and hang out at a little cove we discovered. My confidence grew and it wasn’t long before I tried to slalom. That’s when the fun really began! Many a boyfriend tried to survive a day on the lake with my Dad, my brother, and Mort. Very few made it back for a second one.

Mort and Ruth Ann took me to my first professional hockey game – the Atlanta Flames. I was hooked from the first drop of the puck. Going to the games with them was the only time my parents ever let me stay out late on a school night. The highlight of those games came one night after a tough win and a few broken hockey sticks. I managed to wrangle a stick from one of the crew and Ruth Ann and I walked down to the locker room, waiting patiently for those enormous athletes to start leaving. Ruth Ann stood there with me as I sheepishly asked them to sign the stick, which they all graciously did – every last one of them. With my stick covered in Atlanta Flames autographs, I sneaked it in the house later that night and gave it to my brother for his birthday. I thought Mort and Ruth Ann were the coolest people on the planet.

We introduced Mort to my Mom’s hot buttered biscuits and my Dad’s famous ham. He introduced us to Verner’s ginger ale. It has just the right mix of sweet and burn; I love it to this day. Some of my family’s favorite meals come straight out of Ruth Ann’s kitchen. She had been a school teacher in Canada and I was fascinated by her stories of how they did things ‘up North’. Mort and Ruth Ann were easy and comfortable to be with and Mort was the kind of man who always made you feel better after you had been around him, even if only for a few minutes.

I recently heard a Bible study teacher sharing about I Corinthians 13:13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”  He asked what our thoughts were on why love is the greatest. A few people offered up the canned answers: because God is love; because love is a choice; because you can’t have faith and hope without it; because …” And then he explained it in a way I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. He said that faith is something we have here and now that the Bible promises will become sight. Hope is something we have here and now that the Bible promises will be made complete. But love? Love is eternal. Love is past, present, and future. Love will remain love for all eternity. Amazing, isn’t it? How a simple, different way of looking at something – even a word – can open up a whole new concept of what it really means. I can’t help but believe that God gave me the opportunity to hear these truths just a week before we learned that my dear friend, one of my heroes, is on his way Home.
 
Mort, even now your faith is being made sight. Your hope is being made complete. The love you gave your family and the love they gave you will go on forever. Rest, my friend. I love you.

Someone once said, “Marriage means commitment. Of course, so does insanity.” Ask anyone you know, married or single, about-to-be-married or used-to-be-married, it doesn’t matter: they will all have something to say about marriage. Thousands of books have been written about marriage, hundreds of seminars and workshops are held each year on the subject, contracts are written, movies are made, and therapists and lawyers make their fortunes off of it. Still, we are no closer to figuring it out than Adam and Eve after their disastrous rendezvous at the fruit tree which gave birth to ‘he said, she said’ and the beautiful madness of marriage.

Irving Stone’s The Agony and The Ecstacy, published in 1961, is an amazing, masterfully written ‘biographical novel’ on the life of Michaelangelo. It is also a haunting and insightful portrayal of marriage. We see the contrast in the rich historical Renaissance era between Florence – a cultural mecca for artists, architects, musicians, and writers – and Rome, the political, religious, and educational benchmark for all of Italy.  Both cities brought their own unique value to their country, and to all of Europe as a result.  But not only in the culture where he was raised, we see Michaelangelo’s own personal battles mirror that of marriage. The passion with which he pursued what he loved, the despair of rejection and/or failure, the very struggle necessary to create. And the glory of a life well lived, leaving behind astounding works of art that have touched countless millions of lives.

We’ve all heard ‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’. We are also from Florence and Rome. We are salt and pepper, dogs and cats, blue sky and deep green ocean, and velvet and steel. For all the ways we explore understanding and overcoming our differences, our contrasting elements are the stage of struggle on which we create things of beauty, works of art. Where would fried chicken be if seasoned only with pepper? How boring would a dog’s life be if never given the opportunity to chase after a cat? Would the sky be as blue if it did not rest peacefully against a deep green ocean? And could we truly appreciate the strength of steel if we never cradled velvet against our cheek?

My husband and I will be married for 17 years tomorrow. There have been seasons of ecstacy and times of overwhelming agony. We have loved, laughed, cried, yelled, made promises, made threats, and bought and sold cars, houses, and furniture. We have three wonderful children. We’ve shared many more pets. We’re learning to learn from others’ mistakes and celebrate their successes. And we’re learning what works for us. At the end of the day, for all our married ups and downs, he knows me. I know him. We draw strength, stability, and sometime arguments from each other. And at night, resting on the same pillows, there is comfort in knowing that Rome and Florence are learning to peacefully and productively co-exist.

The struggle to create something of beauty. The glory of leaving behind a work of art. The beautiful madness of marriage.

In my mid-20s, I was part of a small Bible study group which was, truth be told, probably more of a ‘find your spouse’ study group than anything else.  We had a lot of fun and spent ridiculous amounts of time together as a group.  Church functions, discovering new restaurants, pool parties, bowling, Christmas decorating, weekend trips, shopping, football, Spades tournaments that lasted for days, New Year’s eve parties, and more than a few late night races between those of us who had fast cars (and yes, I was one of them). One particular weekend, very late on a Saturday night, we were exploring how we felt about the serious topic of life.  Everyone had to write on a piece of paper one word to describe how they felt about death. We scribbled on our papers and folded them up, laid them in a basket, and one person began reading all the words out loud.  “Scared”, “dark”, “alone”, “final”, and “trapped” were just a few of the sentiments.  Then our self-imposed leader read mine: “peace”. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I love being alive and want to squeeze every moment I have out of it. A friend said to me recently (in her elegant, slow Southern drawl), “Dawn, I hope when you reach the end of your life, there’s no more dance left in you.”  Her simple statement hit me deeply as someone who has faced a terminal illness and, praise God, lived to tell about it. I truly don’t have a death wish. But as far back as I can remember, I’ve never been afraid of it.  Death has always seemed to me a warm blanket of rest. And letting go. And peace.

For the past several years, I’ve had the wonderful privilege to be part of a volunteer ministry at my church whose primary focus is caring for families as they navigate the dark waters of a loved one’s terminal illness.  As one of the leaders, I am often the first point of contact for a family after they have been advised by their doctor that it’s time to ‘call in hospice’. Our small band of volunteers serve as a sort of liaison between the family and hospice care. Many of them have never heard of hospice and don’t fully understand what it is, so we help them understand the language of ‘end of life’ care.  We also help with the daily tasks of life: housecleaning, yard maintenance, preparing meals, laundry, grocery shopping, and day-to-day errands, so that family members are able to focus on caring for their loved one.

There is no time or energy for hiding behind masks here. Grieving before a loved one draws their last breath takes on many faces, and we have learned that no one has the right to dictate how another walks down the path to good-bye. Sometimes they need to laugh so they don’t fall apart.  Sometimes they need to vent – and there are no rules about language here. Sometimes they need to weep. Bitterly. Sometimes they need to ask questions and try to answer what is destined to remain unknown.  Sometimes they need to sit and embrace the silence. But they don’t want to be silent by themselves. There is an unspoken comfort that comes from simply having a warm body close enough to reach out and touch. Even if they don’t

People often ask why we do what we do – especially when they hear about us for the first time.  “You mean you go into a stranger’s house and clean their toilets?” Yes.  “Why on earth would you practically move in with someone who’s dying?” Because they need us.  “Wow – you guys are weird.”  The families we care for would disagree.  There are many answers, and we all respond in our own way. But for me, the answer is two-fold: meeting people at the point of their need is what Jesus does. Not to over-spiritualize or set ourselves up on some kind of pedestal, but for me it is truly that simple. However, a very strong secondary driving force, and probably what drew me to this in the first place, is that I feel very much at home with people who are broken.  Whether they are broken because of their own choices or choices that were made for them or choices that were forced on them, I am drawn to them.

After being unemployed for almost a year (three days shy of one year to be exact) I’ve been incredibly blessed to begin working with an organization whose focus is providing a safe haven for ministers and their families in crisis. It is a comprehensive, intense program (on average from 12-15 months in duration) which offers relocation, housing, counseling, and childcare when necessary in an effort to provide healing and restoration to ministers and their families who have had to walk away from their calling – as a result of their own actions, or the actions of their home church.  I was initially thrilled about this opportunity because it meant I would be writing – and getting paid for it!  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that once again, I’m submerged in an environment where people’s lives have been shattered.  Men questioning their failures. Women questioning their marriage. Children questioning their future. 

The vast majority of the time, I will not personally interact with these families. Most of them I will probably never even meet.  But what we are doing is helping them put their lives back together. The ‘safe haven’ we provide is guiding them to an honest and authentic relationship with God, themselves, their families, and their church. It is a painful process. Peeling back years of unresolved or unexplored issues to face the core of their own souls.  And then to slowly, gently provide the balm of restoration. To help them stand again, scarred from the battle, but equipped with tools to win the war. I can’t say I love my job because it doesn’t feel like a job. I love what I am a part of. I love knowing that families have a place for hope.

And I feel very much at home.

I cleaned out our attic this week.  It’s only June – not even Summer yet according to the calendar – but the Atlanta area is already enduring temperatures way up in the 90s.  My goal was to work in the mornings before the heat soared past unbearable.  However, anyone who knows me knows that once I get started on a ‘project’, it’s hard for me to stop.  I’m like a freight train on crack. 

So I climbed the stairs, took a few steps onto the plywood flooring and looked around. Wow. I think there must be something about insulation, duct-taped boxes, and intense heat that promotes reproduction.  Where did all this stuff come from?  I found suitcases, Christmas decorations, papers from previous school years, air filters, clothes, and toys.  It seemed easy enough to begin editing.  I started with broken toys (how did they end up in the attic and not the trash can?)  I then moved on to parts and pieces of incomplete Christmas decorations (repeat previous question).  Clothes that no one in my family will ever wear again, luggage long past its prime, and a collection of stuffed animals that would rival FAO Schwartz brought back great memories, despite the fact that I was beginning to look and feel like I was at boot camp in the desert.

Going through each box with just enough detail to make sure I wouldn’t regret our Friday morning visit from the trash man, I was quickly filling the bags beside me.  Then I found it.  The box with Rachel’s costume from her dance recital six years ago.  It was an adorable bright yellow top and skirt that felt something like a cross between vinyl and plastic with black taffeta everywhere (literally).  Her group danced to Rascall Flatt’s Life is a Highway.  I remember her practically floating down the stairs to show her Daddy after we had the whole outfit perfectly in place, complete with slicked back her hair and makeup. She was beaming and her Daddy was speechless.

Next, I came across a collection of sports cars that Alex collected when he was much younger.  I remember the various Christmas and birthday celebrations when he received them and how he studied them, learned about the make and model, discovered all the parts that would open and close, and proudly displayed them in his room.  His favorite by far was the truck his Granddaddy gave him, a replica of his own. Alex kept a very special place reserved just for that truck and it was very often the first one he showcased when anyone else admired his collection.

With the heat sweltering and my eyes stinging from sweat running down my face, I was about ready to call it a day. My stomach told me it was well past lunchtime but I decided to go through one more stack before descending into the comfort of the air conditioned hallway. I moved a small blue blanket that a family friend had made for Stephen’s crib and opened the box underneath where I saw a stack of cards and some computer-printed sheets of paper. 

And I started reading.  “Dawn, we are praying for you and your family every day”; “Please know that Heaven is being bombarded with your name!”; “Our children pray for you and Baby Hood every morning before breakfast”; “So sorry to hear that you must undergo another surgery”; “Praying for you as you begin your chemotherapy treatments”; “Please let us know if we can do anything for you”; “You and Richard are a testimony of God’s strength and grace”; “I love your short hair!”; “The Lord brings you to mind several times each day and I am asking Him to give you strength and courage”; “Thank you for your updates by email…it helps me pray specifically for everyone in your family”; “You look fabulous with a bald head!”  More cards.  More Scripture passages.  More prayers.  Countless emails and notes of encouragement. 

I have no idea how long I sat on the floor of our attic reading those precious notes of encouragement, remembering like it was yesterday.  But what really made my heart swell was the realization that nearly ten years later I remain close to almost everyone who sent those cards, notes, and letters.  How it blessed me to realize that these friends and family have shared the good, the bad, the ugly, and the miracles of life with us! 

I was drenched when I slowly, carefully, came down those rickety stairs and closed the ‘trap door’.  But my spirit felt uplifted. Encouraged. Strong.

Eight years in the attic.  And still so very close to my heart.


 

I wrote this and submitted it to a greeting card company last year.  My Daddy was the inspiration for every word.  
  
Dad,

You were the first man to ever hold me in your arms
The first man whose shoulder I laid my head on
The first man whose hand I reached for
The first man whose name I called when I was scared

You were the first man to ever kiss me goodnight
The first man to smile as I modeled a new dress
The first man to wipe away my tears
The first man to celebrate my accomplishments

You were the first man to ever say to me, “you are beautiful’
The first man who ate cookies I made from scratch
The first man who wore a “hand-painted” shirt or tie
The first man who wrapped me in his arms for a photograph


You were the first man to let me go as I became a woman

And you will always be the first man I ever loved.

Thanks, Dad.


Happy Father’s Day.  I love you.

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