Saturday, January 18, 2014

Remembering Bethany

On this day twenty years ago, life as I knew it changed forever.  My seven year old daughter Bethany took her last breath and left this world much too soon.  Over the years, I have grieved hard and long.  I have longed for one more moment, one more day, one more opportunity to hold her in my arms and tell her I love her.

Bethany's death is woven through the fabric of my life.  While the grief has lessened with each passing year, the scar on my heart remains.  I am and always will be the mother of a child who died.  Those who have had a child to die have a keen understanding of the depth of the loss, pain and sorrow.

On this "death day" anniversary, I want to honor Bethany's memory by sharing some of the things I have learned over these twenty years.  Her death taught me many lessons about life, love, forgiveness, perseverance, joy and gratitude.  I want others to know something of the experience following the death of a child.  So, here I share seven lessons for Bethany's seven years of life.

1. Parents who experience the death of a child don't "get over" the grief and they will never get over the death of their child.  There is no timetable as we "get through" our grief.  Our grief is prolonged because having a child die before you is so out of the natural order of things.  Children should outlive their parents!  We are left with painful reminders of lost promise and potential.  We are left to grieve every event or milestone our child will miss, such as celebrating birthdays, holidays and holy days, another year of school, becoming a teenager, getting a driver's license, graduation, college, choosing a career, falling in love, getting married and having children. All those hopes and dreams for my child were buried with her.

2. Grief is a lonely journey.  In the early days of my grief, I sometimes felt so alone, even when surrounded by a crowd of people.  Oftentimes friends and family members didn't know what to say or do.  Some chose to stay away because they just couldn't handle the grief or they were frightened by it.  I understand how they could feel that way and I've never been angered by their absence.  I am forever grateful to the friends and family members who have persevered with me for the long haul and have never attempted to explain away my grief.  Their presence, patience and compassion continues to sustain me today.

3. I've learned that I can do hard things.  Seeing my child in a casket and putting her body in the cold, hard ground on that January day is the hardest thing I have ever done.  I can't imagine that I will ever do another thing in this life that will ever compare to burying my child.  I've done the hardest thing a parent will ever have to do.  I can get through anything now.

4. I am a strong woman.  I've had more than my share of grief in my 56 years of life.  After Bethany's death, I spent quite a bit of time wondering if I would ever return to the land of the living.  I can remember watching the world go by and wondering why everyone and everything just didn't' stop on the day Bethany died.  Didn't they know my world stopped that day?  I plunged into the depths of depression, finding it difficult to get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other.  With time, I found my way back to hope and healing.  I have found a deep reservoir of strength and courage for the facing of each new sunrise.

5. I have learned to be patient, kind and compassionate to all persons.  I try to remind myself of this daily as I seek to live by a quote attributed to Plato: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  My own loss and grief has made me more sensitive to the trials, hardships, and burdens that others carry on their shoulders and in their hearts. We just never know what people are carrying around with them each day.

6. Forgiveness made all the difference in my journey through grief.  On the day Bethany died, I never considered or had the desire to forgive the drunk driver who killed her.  I hated him and I hated what he had done to her and the change he brought to my life.  I had horrible thoughts about him and I wished him harm.  With time, I did make my way to a place of offering forgiveness to him.  To this day, I do not harbor any ill feelings, anger or malice towards him.  I chose not to be a victim of his actions.  The choice to forgive him was life-giving.  It was the way I got my life back.

7. My faith has found a resting place.  Through Bethany's death, I've learned that I don't have all the answers to my many questions about God, theology, life and death.  There is mystery, and in the mystery, there is faith and hope.  There was a time when I had many questions for God, such as "Why didn't God intervene and save Bethany?"  "Where were you God?"  "Why didn't God give me a miracle?"  I've come to believe that one day all my questions won't matter.  When I'm reunited with Bethany in heaven, there will no longer be a need to ask my questions.

Bethany was my miracle on the day she was born.  Today and every day, I choose to celebrate her life. I choose to remember not what I lost as a result of Bethany's death, but to remember how blessed I was to have her for seven short years. I will miss her until the day I die.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I'm Sorry to Interrupt You

May I interrupt you for a minute?  Do you have a second?  I promise this won't take long.  Excuse me, can I ask you a question?

Sound familiar?  You've probably heard those questions at work or at home.  You've experienced those times when someone or something distracts you and changes your focus.  Perhaps you are trying to focus on an important task at work.  Maybe you are in the middle of a conversation or attempting to mark off the next item on your to-do list.  You are facing a deadline on an important project, but the interruptions keep you from your work.

Unwelcome interruptions happen quite often and can be very frustrating and downright aggravating.  The interruptions can serve to slow us down and distract us.  Interruptions can keep us from what we think is most important.  Intrusions on our time and schedules often leave us feeling annoyed.

As I read the gospels, I'm reminded that Jesus knew something about interruptions.  Someone was always in need and Jesus was willing to stop and help.  A woman touched the hem of his garment.  A blind man shouted from the crowd.  A crowd numbering 5000 needed some food.  A Samaritan woman needed some living water.  A little girl needed to be healed.

I'm also reminded of the story in Mark 2:1-12.  Jesus is at the house of Peter and a crowd has gathered to hear his teachings.  The people are jammed tightly together on the porch, around the door, and inside the house. Four individuals carrying their paralyzed friend show up, hoping to get their friend to Jesus for healing.

By-passing the crowd, the friends begin to carry their sick friend up a stairway to the rooftop.  They then begin removing tiles, digging through a layer of straw and mud.  Peter and some in the crowd look up as pieces of dried mud starting falling into the living room.  The four individuals use ropes and begin lowering the pallet carrying their friend down into the center of the room.  Jesus was interrupted.

Jesus looks up to see the faces of the four friends standing on the roof and he saw their faith.  Jesus knew they had gone to great lengths to bring their friend to him for healing.  Jesus knew they believed he could heal their friend.  He knew the faith of this man on the pallet - and he pronounces both forgiveness and healing.  He tells the man to get up, take his mat, and go home.  The crowd said, "We have seen remarkable things today" and it was all because of an interruption.

Jesus was interrupted by human need.  He experienced interruptions throughout his ministry, but he welcomed those moments as opportunities.  Perhaps we would do well to begin seeing interruptions not as annoying or bothersome, but as opportunities for giving, helping and serving.  Doing so, we might come to believe what Henri Nouwen said, "My whole life I've been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered the interruptions were my work."

Interruptions.  Are they taking you from your work or to your work?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

I'd Just as Soon be in Boone

I spent the last four days in and around Boone, N.C.  It's a place that feels like home to me as I spent four years at Appalachian State University earning my undergraduate degree and then lived there another three years while serving on staff at a local church.  During those years, I spent a lot of time exploring back roads, curvy roads, and dirt roads, sometimes not knowing where I would end up at the end of the journey.  The roads usually led to new adventures, beautiful views, and places to pause for rest, reflection and thanksgiving.  

This trip I was accompanied by Samuel and his friend Brendan.  We spent the first afternoon riding the Blue Ridge Parkway as we made our way to the town of West Jefferson with no other plan than to visit the Ashe County Cheese factory and store.  It's always interesting to visit the viewing room and see how the cheese is made, but the best part is buying some cheese curds (Samuel calls it "squeaky cheese") and some sharp cheddar hoop cheese. We left with a bag full of goodies.

The boys went snowboarding all day Friday and the rest of the weekend found us taking many different roads and discovering some beautiful places and sights.  My one regret is that I forgot to take my 35mm camera and had to settle for iPhone pictures.  I'll let the following pictures tell the rest of the stories from our many adventures.

Icicles along the parkway.

                                                          ASU ducks walking on water.

                                                     They were slipping, sliding and gliding.

   Samuel and Brendan loved 
climbing on The Rock.

Mast General Store. Love this place.

Church of the Holy Cross, Valle Crucis (est. 1842)

A beautiful hike to Elk River Falls

Grandfather Mountain

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway on our last day. 
Morning clouds over the mountains.

We topped off our trip with a hat and a donut as we made our way home.  
The original Krispy Kreme in Winston-Salem equals a sweet ending to a wonderful weekend.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What Would You Do?

This afternoon found me making a trek to the Raleigh/Durham airport to drop off friends who were flying out to see family for Christmas.  As we made the exit from the interstate and passed the cheap gas sign at Sheetz, I mentioned that I needed to stop there on my way back to fill up my gas tank.  After we said our goodbyes, I did make my way back to Sheetz.

I pulled in beside the pump and began filling the tank, hooking the latch on the nozzle so I didn't have to stand there holding it.  As I was cleaning the windshield, I noticed a man wearing a suit and tie walking around the gas pump area, approaching individuals and engaging them in conversation.  He finally made his way to the last pump where I was parked.

The man began telling me a story.  He said that he and his wife had driven from Nash County and just dropped off his mother-in-law at the airport.  At some point during the journey to Raleigh, the man had lost his debit card.  His gas tank was on empty and he needed help.  He told me he had asked others in the parking lot for help and they had been rude and ugly to him.  He needed to drive only 16 more miles to get to his brother-in-law's house for Christmas.  Could I help?

I finished filling my tank, completed the transaction and asked the man to pull his car up to the pump.  I swiped my credit card and told the man to fill it up.  He said, "No, I only need one gallon.  That will be enough to get me where I need to go."  I insisted that he at least let me put $20 worth of gas in his car.  He said, "No, one gallon is enough."  So, I responded, "How about $10 worth?"  He insisted that he only needed one gallon and he pumped a little over a gallon in his tank, stopped and hung the hose back on the pump.  The total charge was $4.00.

The man then asked me why I was willing to help him.  I responded that I am a Christian and I try to help those who are in need.  He told me that others had ignored his plea for help and had said hateful things to him.  He shook my hand and said, "Thank you for being Christ to me today."  From the car, his wife said, "Bless you."  We said our goodbyes, wished each other a Merry Christmas and went our separate ways.

I must admit that after the conversation with this man ended, I kept waiting for John Quinones of the TV show "What Would You Do" to come walking up to ask me why I had helped this man and his wife.  My answer is simple - there was a need and I could meet it.  Others in the parking lot had refused, probably thinking they were being misled or lied to.  I wanted this man and his wife to know that there is still goodness and kindness in this world.  I didn't care if his story was true or not.

The best part of this story is not that I helped.  I find the miracle of this story to be that the man only said he needed a gallon of gas and that is all he pumped into the tank. I really wanted him to fill the tank but he wouldn't do it.  One gallon of gas and a grateful heart.

In this season of giving, I'm reminded that sometimes the smallest gifts can bring the greatest blessings to both the giver and the receiver.

What would you do?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

20 Things We Should Say More Often

I saw this video during a meeting at work today.  Watch it to the end and take heed to the advice on how to treat others.  What a wonderful world it would be if we would all put these suggestions into practice every day - at work, school, play, church and at home.  I love this little guy.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Uncluttered Life

I'm on a mission to clean out some of the clutter in my life, one closet or dresser drawer at a time.  I've been meaning to get to it for months but the task was put on hold for various reasons.  This past weekend, I found renewed energy and focus to finally start the task.

As with any decision to start a new project, many questions arise.  Where to start? What to keep?  What to throw away? What to donate to a worthy charity?  I decided to start with my clothes closet.

I believe that my closet is a good example of my gift for organization.  Most of the time, my shirts are lined up by short sleeve and long sleeve. Solids are grouped together as are the striped ones.  Flip-flops are in one place, brown shoes together, black shoes together.  Tennis shoes and golf shoes sit side by side.  Sweaters and sweatshirts are arranged on a shelf together.  However, the closet was in disarray for months, but it's back in order now.

Dresser drawers are similar - t-shirts in one, pajamas in one, shorts in another and socks are organized by color, of course.  I'm beginning to think I'm a little OCD.  You think?

Well, don't let my closet and dresser drawers fool you.  There are other places in my little home that are not so organized.  Take all this stuff in the middle of the floor that was once hiding in other places.  There are yearbooks from high school and college.  One box holds many notebooks, complete with all of my notes from Old and New Testament, Systematic Theology and Christian Education classes from my time at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1980s.

Another box holds all of my team planning notebooks from Caswell Youth Conferences, 1996-2001.  One container holds many years worth of youth ministry files. Some boxes are filled with slides and photographs. Two containers hold bill and medical receipts, tax returns, and other financial records related to my mother's care over the past few years.

In my kitchen cabinets there are containers without lids and utensils that I never use. In my closet there were clothes that were only being worn by the hangers.  I've run across clothes in sizes that more closely match my shoe size rather than my hip size.  I had to part with them.

Doing some much need cleaning and clearing out has also made me think about other areas of our lives that may need to be uncluttered.  Perhaps we need to give up some bad habits and take up some good, healthy habits.  Maybe we have found ourselves in a relationship that has become toxic and we need to mend it or end it.  Perhaps our mind is filled with negative thoughts or we find ourselves being too judgmental of others. What is cluttering your everyday life, your thoughts, your soul?

In all my cleaning and clearing, I've tried to focus not so much on what I want to get rid of or throw away (though I've bagged up lots of stuff), but more on what I want to keep.  What will be life-giving for me?  What gives me joy?  What do I really need and what can I do without?

I hope you might consider a cleaning and clearing time for yourself. Organizing your mind, your heart and your life can be done - one thought, one choice, one step at a time.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Psalm of Lament

For the last six weeks, I've been participating in a grief group at my church.  The small group was led by Rev. Lauren Efird, Minister of Youth and Congregational Care.  Tonight was our last meeting and I didn't want it to end.  The time has been good for my soul.

The weekly sessions provided intentional time for reflection, talking, crying, singing and writing.  It became a safe place and space to talk about all the feelings that have surfaced since the death of my mother two months ago.  There were various opportunities for faithful remembering, dealing with unfinished business, expressing gratitude and finding hope.

One of the most meaningful times for me was completing the weekly homework assignments which provided a creative outlet for expressing my grief.  One week I created a mixed media piece in an attempt to describe what my grief journey looks and feels like.  Another week I wrote a letter to my mother, expressing my feelings, telling her things I was never able to say, how much I miss her and how my world is different without her.

For the last session, my homework assignment was to write a psalm of lament.  I chose to first spend some time coloring a mandala, which I found to be a very creative way of illustrating my grief experience.  After completing the mandala, I wrote this psalm of lament.

I'm sitting here, O God, in this pile of ashes, waiting for you.
Where are you?
I'm listening for you, God, as I sit here in the darkness.
Do you have anything to say?
You know I want some answers.

I've been sitting among the ashes for a very long time - since I was eleven to be exact.
But you know that, right?
Was it not enough that my father died at a young age?
Was it not enough that my daughter left the world much too soon?
Was it not enough that I watched the cancer slowly take my mother away?
What more do you want?
How much more do you think I can take?
How long must I bear this pain in my soul?
Will this dark night of the soul ever become well with my soul?

All around me is grey and my world smells of death.
I am standing knee-deep in this pile of ashes.
My heart is broken.
I lift my eyes to the skies and all I see is darkness.
Even the stars have grown dim and sometimes it feels as if
  they have left the sky - much like it feels that you have left me
  sitting here alone with these ashes.

Is it okay if I raise my voice at you?
Is it okay if I yell and scream?
Is it okay if I raise my fist to the night sky, to the moon, and to you?
Much like Job, I feel as though you have given me more than my portion of grief.
It's not fair, you know.

Nevertheless, I sit and wait for you.
I trust that you will come and be with me.
I trust that I will let you be present with me.
I trust that the stars will shine brightly again in the night sky.

As I stand knee-deep in the ashes,
 I will wait for the peace that passes all understanding.
I will wait for you to wipe the tears from my eyes,
 to heal my broken heart.

Help me to trust that even when I can't feel your presence (or even want your presence),
  you are here, knee-deep in the ashes with me.
I can only pray that this time of barrenness and darkness
 will be made new in the springtime,
 the time when ashes will be placed on my forehead
 and I will remember that I am yours and you are mine.

One day I will rise from these ashes, and with strength renewed,
 I will soar on wings like eagles,
 I will run and not grow weary,
 I will walk and not be faint.
 I am waiting for that day.

The grief group provided a place and space to grieve, but it also became the catalyst that helped me start writing again.  Stay tuned for more regular posts here. I think Cottonhead Confessions has made a comeback.  Thanks for reading and sharing the journey.