Living

On our last day, I knew something was askew with you. You were quieter. You didn’t tell as many jokes and stories. You didn’t make eye contact as often. You didn’t even wrestle the kids.

I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Maybe you felt left out of our chitchat. Maybe you had more trouble hearing. Maybe your blood pressure was off. But something wasn’t the same, and I sensed it.

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With my best dad

Other parts of our last day were perfect.

 

We drank a glass of red wine together. We always did that. You commented on your failure to perfect the gravy’s consistency, and I insisted it was perfect already. I always insisted your cooking was great (it was). I scooped up a huge spoonful of succotash and claimed I loved it. I didn’t. But you made it, and you loved making it, and I loved you.

Our last day was the day after Thanksgiving, but it was our celebration of the holiday. For me, lover of gratitude and all things gushy inside, what greater gift than for our last day together to be a day of giving thanks?

I carried my coffee outside. I couldn’t stop yawning; it’s easy to relax at your house. The two of us were observers during the family baseball game, sitting on the sidelines, cheering for the kids and heckling the grown-ups. When the boys argued over taking turns at bat, and my little Maggie became distraught, you distracted her by inviting her to sit on the porch swing. You always had a way of making peace in a tense situation without sticking your nose where it didn’t belong, smoothing out hurt feelings like a delicate linen dress, nice and slow.

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In our woods, 2011

While you sat on the porch swing, rocking gently in the shadows of the late autumn sun, I regretted forgetting my camera, knowing my smartphone would never capture movement and light and real moments. I watched you whisper to Maggie, wondering what you were saying, so lucky to have a grandpa like you, something I never had.

 

When I left, I leaned in close so you could hear me, and said, “Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you. I love you.”

I didn’t take any pictures of our last day together.

But we lived it, the same way you lived 69 years of your life, dodging bullets in Vietnam, driving your truck home down dark highways to make ends meet, crooning radio tunes in your bride’s ear with your big hands around her waist, casting bait into the White River, tossing your little girl up in the air and smoothing her long brown hair at bedtime, heaving two shotguns over your strong shoulder before your son could carry his own up the long hill when you taught him to be a man.

Maggie has asked what you are doing in heaven. She asks if she can talk to you.

Of course she can, we tell her. We tell her she can talk to you any time she likes.

scan_20161204-2We tell her you are fishing with your new fishing reel and taking care of her two cats and baby white chicken. She loves seeing this in her mind before she drifts off to sleep.

Many people, when they pass on unexpectedly, might have regrets. I imagine you have none.

You lived.

Leaning

Our voices reverberated off the cold concrete walls of the isolation room. I held my favorite patient’s trembling hand, his wrists shackled to the hard restraint bed. He swallowed tears while he choked out the lyrics to his favorite song.

Lean on me when you’re not strong. And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on . . .”

His deep chocolate-brown eyes welled up again as he glanced over at me. He gazed at the ceiling and wept without making a sound.

It was my first real job after graduating from a small, private liberal arts college. I’m sure no one deliberately saddled me with delusions of grandeur, but I somehow came to believe that I’d enter the world of work like a boss (literally), wear a suit every day, stomp around in fierce heels, and edit interesting novels while sipping gourmet coffee and eating fluffy muffins every morning. Think Anne Hathaway post-promotion in The Devil Wears Prada.

The site of my first real job :)

The site of my first real job 🙂

As is the case with almost all new college graduates, reality steamrolled me into submission rather abruptly. After applying for countless jobs and receiving not a single phone call or interview, my friend Mike told me about a treatment facility for emotionally disturbed teenagers. Sure enough, the facility was hiring behavioral staff. At first, I shunned the notion. I’d just spent four years studying English literature and creative writing. Babysitting bad kids could not be God’s will for me. However, after three weeks of relying on my graduation gift money to provide groceries, I desperately drove out to the campus for my interview, the winding, quiet road a reprieve from the busy interstate.

“Now this job’s not for everybody,” Don Ray, the supervisor, mumbled through his thick beard. “You just follow me around for an hour, and you’ll know if you can take it or not.”

He fumbled with a monstrous set of keys as we approached one of the houses where 10 female patients resided. As he turned the knob, incessant shrieks and a cacophony of curse words assaulted my ears.

“What in the world is that?” I gasped, turning to Don.

He half-smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“Your job.”

The door opened, and one of the female staff members greeted us, her legs propped up on a metal folding chair, arms crossed as she faced a closed door with Plexiglas separating us from the screams, insults, and punches of a wild-haired 13 year-old girl.

I couldn’t help but stare. This was the stuff of Girl, Interrupted.

A week later, I tried on a straight jacket for the first time during training. It was not exactly the type of suit I’d envisioned myself wearing at work.

I’m not sure if it was due to my petite 120 pound frame, Don Ray’s infinite wisdom, or God’s intervention, but I luckily landed my first stint at the facility in a boy’s house working alongside a slew of former football players and one woman, a middle-aged mother figure beloved by all the patients. I watched those former football players mentoring the male patients in every arena of life. They epitomized the father figures and role models the boys had missed before developing severe behavioral and emotional problems. They taught the boys to play basketball and Spades, to fold their laundry and dust the tops of shelves, and to treat others with the same respect they desired. They also didn’t hesitate to dish out serious consequences for undesirable behavior.

One of the male patients quickly became my all-time favorite. His cheerful smile, polite words, and hopeful attitude melted my somewhat Stoic—but ultimately fearful–exterior. “The Reverend,” as he liked to call himself, dreamed of becoming a preacher someday or a modern Martin Luther King, Jr. He inhaled history books and recanted stories of heroic men like Abraham Lincoln. He kept his room tidy and prided himself on his neat, well-groomed appearance. If I’d met him on the street, I would have assumed he had been blessed with a loving family who had taught him how to live the life of a model citizen and future change maker.

But he had no father, and his mother had abandoned him. Aside from his pastor and church family, whom he occasionally visited on outings, he was alone in the world.

And though he did his best to avoid dwelling on the truth of his situation, it occasionally got the better of him.

And so we found ourselves in that concrete room the week after his birthday. Six days in a row, after several apologetic conversations with his mom over the phone, he waited and watched for her face to appear through the tiny pane of the locked metal door to the house. But it never did. So for six days in a row, the two other staff and I winced as we watched the anger, hurt, and loneliness work its way out.

Even though singing with patients was unorthodox at best, I couldn’t help myself that day. I had to reach out to him with a thin thread of hope, just enough for him to grab hold of for a few moments. I wanted him to remember the people who were there with him and to help him forget about the faces that never materialized outside the door.

That day we developed a closer bond than before, and after that, he always held the door for me and went out of his way to make me laugh. He was different from the other boys.

One afternoon, while walking back to the house after playing cards in the gymnasium on campus, I heard him whispering to another male patient in a stern voice. I almost corrected him for reprimanding his peer, but when I heard the words, I paused.

“Look at that ass. Dang.” The other male patient snickered.

“Stop that. That’s Miss Bethany you’re talking about. She’s a lady.”

I smiled and kept walking.

At my 30th birthday party, a fundraiser in memory of my favorite patient

At my 30th birthday party in 2009, a fundraiser in memory of my favorite patient

That boy, that abandoned boy who loved God and held out hope in the midst of his messed up life, was special to me. So special that I once tried to find a way to bring him home with me for Thanksgiving or Christmas break. I guessed that the facility’s rules wouldn’t allow it, and that the red tape of the government agencies responsible for his care wouldn’t even consider it, but I asked anyway.

When that boy died a year later, I was glad I’d tried. Seeing his dignified, lifeless body lying in a casket broke my heart. I held his hand again one last time. This time, it was my tears that spilled over, leaving dark stains on the satin lining surrounding his still frame.

I stood there for a long time, just leaning on him.

For all of it

My mom’s infamous bikini-clad turkey

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. This year, we’ll celebrate it a little differently since we’ll be caring for a brand new baby and won’t be able to participate in family festivities. I’m hoping and praying that our families will feel sorry for us and deliver some of their delicious dishes to our doorstep :).

Regardless, we will have plenty to be thankful for–namely, our brand new baby girl who will undoubtedly change our lives.

A simple gratitude prayer has resonated within me the past few days. It seems that my husband and I have been bombarded with blessings, surprises, bad news, and challenges all at once. With our baby set to arrive any day now, we’ve been feeling overwhelmed, broken-hearted, and hopeful, all at the same time.

“God, thank You for all You’ve given me

For all You’ve taken away

and for all You’ve left me with.”

This prayer captures our lives right now–and really, it defines my life in general at any given moment. While most people tend to have an overabundance of things given, things taken away, or things left on any given day, sometimes the categories blur together. In fact, I find that my faith grows the most during blurry times when I simultaneously feel hopeful, desperate, and sorrowful.

In times when it seems He has taken away many things from me–or at least allowed things to be taken away from me–it’s easy for me to dwell on despair, depression, and grief. And while it’s healthy for me to spend some time grieving and even digging into pints of Ben & Jerry’s while watching old Humphrey Bogart movies accompanied by Kleenex, it’s not healthy for this season to last for too long. When I’ve lost the most significant things in my life–marriages, my role as a stepmom, my father to divorce and drugs, my innocence to rape at age 16, loved ones to death, and my own financial well-being–I’ve shamelessly participated in self-pitying-ice-cream-time on each occasion, in one form or another.

But I can’t stay there.

Because there are two other lines to the prayer. It’s not just about dwelling on the sad, pathetic things I’ve lost and throwing my own pity parties. It’s about recognizing and being grateful for all He’s given me–and after losing precious gifts, no matter the source of the loss or the identity of the taker–recognizing and being grateful for all He’s left me with.

Me and Beijing

Rather than spill my guts about one of the bigger losses in my life, I’ll share a story about my cats. I once adopted a kitten named Beijing. This kitten was seriously the most affectionate, infant-like kitten I’d ever known. He was neutered too early, and immaturity resulted, which is a common outcome when clinics don’t follow best practices for neutering. However, I accepted Beijing for the baby he was. He slept right next to my face. He nuzzled himself in fleece blankets and attempted to nurse corners of the blanket. He ate anything and everything (as his weight and size reflected). He played well with others and knew no strangers.

Unfortunately, his love for others might have led to his demise when he was attacked by some creature in the woods behind my house in 2009. Bleeding profusely, I wrapped him in his favorite blanket and drove maniacally to the after-hours vet clinic. After examining him, the vet concluded that his chances of survival–if he underwent surgery upwards of $4,000–would be about 15-20%. Not only did I lack the financial means to pay for said surgery, but I also knew that the odds were against him. I saw his pain and knew the best thing for him was to let him go. So I did.

I didn’t want to. He was a real source of joy and comfort to me. Losing him, and particularly losing him in the midst of my rapidly unraveling marriage, crushed me. I grieved his loss heavily for a few weeks. The feelings of sadness were never totally eradicated; I still feel pangs of grief and sorrow when I see pictures of him or when friends remind me of the funny things he used to do.

But I thank God for helping me to let Beijing go and to end his pain as quickly as possible. I don’t believe God killed my cat. I know that God’s in control, and He could have miraculously healed my cat, but for some reason, He didn’t. I don’t have to understand why; while my losses have been great in life, my gains have been greater.

Me and Tigger

In February, I awoke one morning to a tiny cry outside the back door. I still had two other outdoor cats, but I knew the cry was too tiny and too shrill to blame on either of them. I opened the back door in freezing temperatures to find a miniature tabby kitten hiding on the porch beneath objects. I brought him inside and fed him some milk and wondered how my then-boyfriend would react to this new addition to our family.

He loved him. This surprised me at first because he is not a cat lover; in fact, he has never enjoyed being around cats his entire life. But Tigger is different. From the moment I scooped him up into my arms, I recognized that there was an eerie resemblance between Tigger and Beijing. Physically, they resemble one another remarkably. But it’s more than that. Tigger is just as cuddly and playful and comical as Beijing was. Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes when I realize that God might have given me Tigger to fill a hole left in my animal-loving heart after losing Beijing.

For everything that I’ve lost, there’s something greater and more beautiful I’ve gained, even if it takes time to see it.

How can I dwell on all He’s taken away when He’s given me and left me with so much?

 

Three prayers

Thanksgiving has always been tied with Easter as being my favorite holiday. Perhaps it’s because it’s my mom’s favorite holiday, and she makes a big deal out of it. Maybe it’s because I’m pretty anti-commercialization, and Thanksgiving (for the most part) is not as tainted by the world of marketing, advertising, and bows and packages. It could be because it’s all about family, and I happen to believe mine is pretty spectacular, unique, fun-loving, and quirky. And let’s face it–it’s about the food, folks.

My mom started a tradition years ago of going around the table and asking us to share at least one thing we’re thankful for. This has sparked some interesting conversations, jokes, and tears. One year, my sister revealed her pregnancy to us during this sharing time. Top THAT!

This year, as I thought about that tradition, I decided to take my turn around the table in advance and share with all of you a little something that’s been on my mind this week that I’m incredibly grateful for.

It seems that God has been stepping up His game in the prayer and faith department. I know He knows what I need–spiritually speaking and otherwise–and I’ve been having a sort of faith and trust crisis. Most days, I pray for God’s will. I don’t need to pray for specific things necessarily because I believe He’s got me figured out and can handle the details. But lately I have asked Him for some specific things, and He’s delivered. Every single time, I’ve been like a kid at Christmas when I discover that He’s answered my prayer.

Thursday morning, I prayed for rain in northeast Arkansas. The love of my life needed it. He’s a forester. Parts of his livelihood depend on it. That evening, it rained there. And the forecast changed to include more rain the following week than had previously been expected.

Friday morning, when he went to check his beaver snares on some land he’s managing for a client, I prayed that he’d find at least one beaver in one snare. We’d just talked, and I could sense in his voice that he was doubting himself or had some worries about the job he’d done. He found a huge beaver that morning, one of the largest he said he’d ever seen.

That evening, I had coffee with James, my friend Joey, and Joey’s parents. I decided that afternoon to go hunting with James and Joey the next morning. It was a total impromptu decision. I love the woods, and I’ve become a complete nature fanatic the past few years. But I’ve never had any real desire to hunt, even though James bought me a shotgun a few months ago. I’ve loved learning to shoot, but still, I’m not sure why I decided to go hunting. Anyway, I asked if they’d mind if I went along, and James said, “Of course not!” He looked pleasantly shocked. While we sat there at Joey’s mom’s dining room table, I said, “Oh wait. I have to pray that I’ll kill a deer with antlers. God’s been answering my prayers lately.” So I prayed for that right then.

The next day, we went out into the woods early in the morning and saw a few deer but didn’t get to shoot at any. We ate breakfast, took a nap, and went back into the woods for a few hours before sunset. As James and I sat under a tree hidden behind some brush whispering to one another, a lone spike appeared about 100 yards away. “There’s your deer,” he whispered. I got the gun, sighted the deer, and as I muttered under my breath hoping the deer would move into a clear area, the deer jerked and seemed spooked by something in the woods in a different direction. “If you want to shoot it, you better shoot it now,” James told me. So I shot it right in the lungs where he’d told me to aim.

After he’d assured me I’d DEFINITELY killed a deer, I was elated. We waited for a few minutes and then went and discovered the buck’s body lying about 10 yards from where I’d shot it.

Its “antlers” may have been small, but God heard my prayer, and He answered that one, too. He just has a sense of humor.

All year long, He’s answered my prayers. This is what I’m grateful for. He always knows what I need, even when I don’t. He has given me more than I could have asked for so many times and taken from me what He knew I wouldn’t have been able to let go of but never needed to have.