Category: responding to crisis


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.

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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 killed a snake in our backyard last week.  I had been trimming the bloomed-out azaleas with an electric hedge trimmer.  When the pile of dead branches and spent blooms started piling up, I went to find the metal rake so I could move them to our ‘sinkhole’ up near the fence.  Sidebar: the builder oh-so-many-years-ago decided that instead of disposing of the trash properly as he built the house, his crew could simply toss everything up into the backyard.  Some 28-odd years later, there sits a hungry sinkhole that we feed several times a year with grass, leaves, branches, and whatever my young son and his friends decide is worthy of burying in our backyard abyss.

Anyway, as I carried the rake back to my work site, I saw him: a large black and yellow snake curled up at the base of the railroad ties.  I dropped the rake and made a quick retreat to the steps of the deck.  Apparently the vibration of the rake caused the snake to stir, and he began slithering his way back behind the railroad tie wall where my trimming had disturbed his home.  I suddenly realized that if he made it all the way in I would never see him again.  At first, that thought comforted me.  Then it occurred to me that I would still know he was out there.  Some ten feet or so away from the trampoline – and the kids.  I grabbed a huge pair of ‘yard scissors’ (manual hedge trimmers?) and snagged him around his mid-section.  Long story short, after a twisty, turney, tug-of-war I won and cut the snake in half.  He was laid to rest in a Tupperware dish with a rock on top of the lid (just in case a sawed-in-half snake could resurrect itself and escape) until my husband could get home to see my trophy of bravery.

What I didn’t know at the time was that my backyard companion was in fact a King Snake: non-venomous, not prone to strike (constrictor family), and easily tamed (please don’t tell my boys that last part).  He was in fact the neighborly kind of snake that eats rodents of every kind and is impervious to the bite of other native Georgia snakes which are venomous like the rattler, water moccasin, and a few others.  Bummer.  He was a good size, too.  Somewhere around 23″ long and as big around as my two thumbs put together.  I went to bed that night wondering if sometime in the next few days or weeks we would be overrun by rodents who had been given the green light to invade our now unsecured backyard.  No sugarplums for me – I had visions of Willard dancing through my head.

As I was relaying this story to my Mom the next day on the phone, she said almost as an afterthought, “Too bad you didn’t know what he was from the start; you might have changed your mind.”  I’ve been chewing on that for several days now.  How many times in my life have I encountered something that appeared to be a threat and reacted (panicked), only later to realize if I had only taken the time to get all the facts, I might have changed my mind?  In my defense, I have a history with snakes.  I’ve killed three in our yard in the last seven years and have been bitten by one.  Still, it has given me pause to recall at least a handful of decisions that given the opportunity and more information, I would have indeed ‘changed my mind’.

It might be stretching things a bit to say I miss ole’ Mr. Black and Yellow, but knowing what I know now, I might just have let him slither back behind those railroad ties and live happily (and well fed) ever after.

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