Writing your own story

I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:

Writing my OWN story.

I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”

He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”

We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.

He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.

I understood.

It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.

I never got to write with him.

I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.

For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.

To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.

Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.

And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.

Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.

You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.

—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Holidays, holy days

Holidays.

Holy days.

The words roll round my mind as I drive to work, noting how the rising sun gilds the trees in all their fall colors against a deep charcoal sky. The sharp glory of it is beyond my power to describe. It’s beautiful. Haunting. Fierce. How can there be such detailed color and brilliance when the sky is so strangely dark? If a storm is brewing, why is the light so golden-bright? And where exactly is it coming from? The sun itself is hidden.

I cannot quite capture how I feel. It’s more than one thing. Awe. Reverence. Curiosity. A bit of foreboding.

Mostly gratitude for having been here to see it.

Holy day.

Holiday.

I am thinking a lot about the interplay of light and dark this holiday week.

And the fierce beauty of life.

My husband is here after a massive heart attack this summer. His surgeon said that his blockages were such that when the last artery went down that day, he had no reserve; he made a “medically inexplicable recovery.” This coming only three years after my husband lost an eye to ocular melanoma.

Light and dark, dark and light.

He lives to see our son get married the day after Thanksgiving. Not just to see it, but to officiate. After all the years of praying for the boy to go into the ministry and the boy saying, no, Dad, that’s not for me.

He ordained our son into the ministry three weeks ago.

Never say never.

Today the boy took the last of his things out of our house to finish setting up his new home. He’s gone, but not too far away.

He took his dog.

Henry.

The last dog.

In two years, we’ve lost three: Nikolaus the dachshund to old age. Banjo the yellow Lab that I raised from age seven weeks to a new home because my husband can no longer manage a 90-pound dog after bypass surgery. And now Henry, the best of the best, the rescue dog whose sole mission in life is to extract and exude as much love as possible.

I am now dogless for the first time in almost two decades. On every one of those days I could always count on a happy greeting, an ever-faithful warmth, some commiseration or comic relief. No tail thumping tonight, no snuffling, whiskered nose in my hand, no nails scrambling on the floor in exuberance for a pat, a treat.

How strange is it that my son moves out and I write about missing the dog.

And another thing: I recently wrote about the two old mules around the corner, how one of them was sick. I often saw it lying on its side in the pasture as the other mule grazed nearby. The farmer didn’t want to put his ailing mule down, knowing that the other mule would grieve, as they had never been apart. He finally had to. When I rode by the following week, I saw the remaining mule standing bereft in the pasture. My friend who lives on an adjoining farm said the mule hadn’t eaten since its sister died. I dared not drive that way for a few days afterward, fearing what I’d see, or not see. But this week I braved it. I drove past the pasture. There was the mule, grazing, which made me happy. As I watched, a big orange tabby cat came strolling across the pasture to sit by the mule. It looked right in my direction, swishing its tail.

A once-in-a-lifetime photo shoot that I couldn’t stop and capture.

And then today as I went by . . . the cat was still there. In all these years of loving those old mules from afar, I have never seen any other creature in the pasture. That cat is there keeping that mule company. It was sent. I am sure of it.

What is life but a bizarre balancing act, a series of give and take, comings and goings, losses and comforts, laced with love, fierce in itself. A mosaic of light and color, a stark silhouette against a backdrop of darkest gray.

Holy days.

Holidays.

Every day is one to be celebrated.

Tonight I go to sleep in my dogless house, beside my husband who’s still here. We have one more son sleeping upstairs. Although there’s an ache, there’s not emptiness. I am grateful for that big orange cat who’s out in the pasture with the old mule left behind. I am grateful to see the glory and drama of autumn with the promise of celebrations to come. I am deeply grateful my oldest has found his calling at the same time great love has entered his life; on the day after Thanksgiving, he becomes a husband and a father all at once. It just so happens that his wedding day is the second anniversary of his grandmother’s passing; how she’d rejoice for him.

Light and dark, dark and light.

Oh, and on the wedding night, I get to bring home a little girl, officially my granddaughter; she and I will have our own celebration with Bride’s Cake ice cream and peppermint bark Oreos and probably the movie Frozen.

I put the Christmas tree up early, just for her.

Holidays.

Holy days.

How can there be so much light.

********

Note: After publishing this post, I learned that the big orange cat has a name: Sunshine.

Waiting

We put the cookies in the oven

and we wait.

Good things take a while.

Don’t they.

Like Christmas and growing up.

Like wedding days

and having children.

Like heart-dreams coming true.

Like you.

It took a long time.

I had to wait.

My little boy had to grow up

and finally find your Mom.

It took a while

didn’t it

for you to get your dad.

Know what he told me?

“Mom, you’re getting a little girl

at last.”

So much of life is waiting, waiting,

it’s true

like my long ago-dream

of you.

So many books to read

and stories to share

and songs to sing

and places to go

and just to be

you and me.

So we put the cookies in the oven

and oh, we can hardly wait.

Muleogy

I love the two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.

They do not know this, of course. They don’t know me at all.

They do not know how they stir my soul when I drive by their pasture, or how the sight of them makes me feel like I just might be, for a few seconds, back in time. They are a brief glimpse of rural life as it was in the 1930s. Or 1920s. Or even long before. They are remnants of a time when man lived closer to the earth and life was hard but somehow better. The mules are reminders of my grandfather; I’ve rhapsodized about that before, having been a little girl who grew up in the city longing for the countryside that my grandfather loved and the past that he lived. All because of the stories. Granddaddy said, “Nobody had any money but everybody looked after each other and we were happy.”

So, I see these old mules several times a week and they never fail to lift my spirits. They fill me with an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.

Until.

One day in the last few weeks when I drove by the pasture, anticipating this little stab of joy that the mules always impart, one of them was lying down on its side.

Odd.

In all the years I’ve lived here, I have never seen one of the mules lying down.

The next time I drove by, the mule was still lying there in the same place. Completely on its side, motionless, while the other mule grazed close by.

I didn’t like it. Something was wrong.

On the third day when I passed by, that mule was in the very same spot and position.

I started to cry.

It had to be dead. What other reason could there be?

And where was the farmer? Didn’t he KNOW his mule was lying out there? Why would he leave it to die like this?

I came home and told my husband, sniffling: “I think one of those old mules is dead.”

“Why?”

“It’s been lying on its side in the very same spot for three days. It hasn’t moved at all.”

“Hmmm,” my husband mulled. “Did you see any buzzards?”

“Uh, no . . . .”

“All right then. The mule’s not dead.”

His nonchalance irritated me.

And the next day when I drove by the pasture — lo and behold! — the mule was standing!

I drove by several times, rejoicing.

—It is possible that the mules now know my car, even if they don’t know me.

And it occurred to me that I might be developing an obsession so I ceased mule-stalking for a couple of days.

But I asked a friend: “You know those mules who live just up from you? What’s wrong with one of them? I’ve seen it lying down so much I thought it had died. Except that there were no buzzards.”

Yes, my friend knows the mules and the farmer. Yes, that mule is not well and the farmer is quite aware. He’s had these mules for thirty years, since they were three years old. They are sisters, named Penny and Annie. The farmer knows Annie is suffering; she’s old and she now has sores from lying on her side so much. The farmer told my friend that he ought to put her down . . . except that when he does, her sister Penny will grieve herself to death. They have never been apart.

And my soul is stirred, my heart wrenches anew at this love story within a love story within a love story.

I brace myself every time I drive around the familiar bend, as the fencing and the red roof of the dilapidated barn come into view, not knowing what I’ll see. Maybe on a day when the sky is its bluest blue and the grass is its greenest green, Annie will go peacefully. It’s autumn now; as I draw near I see the shadows of the trees dappling the grass, waving to and fro, and little yellow leaves wafting through the air, catching the sunlight like glittering specks of gold. Maybe it will be a day like today. I suddenly worry about the coming frosts and Annie lying out there in the open instead of being warm and safe in the barn with Penny.

I reach the pasture. I slow down.

Annie’s lying on her side.

I come to a stop.

Penny quits grazing, lifts her head, looks at me.

Then Annie raises up to sit and look at me.

We watch each other for a minute.

I wonder what they think.

I can’t stay here in the road, so I drive on.

That was yesterday.

Today, today . . . when I rounded the bend early in the morning . . . they were both lying down.

Sisters to the end.

I will not want to drive this way anymore when the pasture stands empty, but for this moment, the mules live, they love, and their little pasture is a hallowed place.

More so than ever.

I think again of my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, about autumn, about dying, about the coming of night and being consumed by that which once nourished, about loving well that which you must leave . . . if mules had funeral services and if I officiated, that would be my eulogy.

—My muleogy.

Ah, Penny and Annie, you can’t know that when you go, you’ll take a little part of me with you.

Maybe it’s illogical.

I only know it’s true.

For I love you two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.

Homecoming

I live in the country, where I hear a rooster crowing every new morning, where mists rise like swirling specters from glassy-surfaced ponds reflecting the pinkening sky. Where geese fly over my house so low sometimes that I hear the rustling of their wings as they call to one another in that rusty honk honk honk.

I think together together together. Home home home.

On Sundays I drive past fields, dilapidated tobacco barns, fences, pastures, goats, ponies, donkeys, horses, chickens, and peacocks that like to stroll along the roadside as if they own this pastoral kingdom. Around the bend are mules, cows, woods. Eventually I reach a clearing. The church, nestled between the fellowship hall and the graveyard. Gathering places. The place of worship connects the place of eating and celebrating life with the place of the dead, remembered and still very much loved.

This Sunday, the fellowship hall was crammed with tables laden with casseroles, salad, friend chicken, ham, deviled eggs, cakes, pies. This Sunday, family, friends, and former church members returned to celebrate their ties to the church. This Sunday, I rejoined the choir for the first time in many weeks, singing a song of gratitude to God.

This Sunday, my husband — the pastor — returned to church after four heart bypasses, four stents, two hospitalizations for nineteen days, two heart attacks, one cardiac arrest and one resuscitation. Thinner, slower, easily tired but gaining strength with each passing day, he came for Homecoming. To honor the life and legacy of the church. To celebrate his life being given back to him. To his ministry. To thank our oldest son, who filled the pulpit and even conducted a funeral in his father’s absence.

And to tell the church that this boy, who was seven when we came to serve here, who was baptized here, who grew up, left home, and returned to go to seminary in his father’s footsteps, has just been called as pastor of another church on the other side of the county. That this boy, now a man, is simultaneously getting married and becoming the father of three-year-old girl. She looks up at him with adoration, a big bow in her hair, so excited that they’ll all be able to live together. Their first home will be a parsonage.

Together together together. Home home home.

As his father returns, our son leaves to build his own life and legacy. To establish his own home. I think, as people cry and smile and hug, that for every homecoming is a homegoing.

Home. It is tied to place, yes, often in the context of where one grew up; but home is ultimately about love, about belonging. I heard an educator speak about his childhood. He and his brother were abandoned by their parents, spent their lives moving from one foster home to another. At seventeen, just as he was about to exit the system, his last foster parents adopted him. He went to college and one day, on coming home, realized that “success isn’t about leaving home, getting a good job, making a lot of money.” He understood, as his adoptive mother opened the door and threw her arms around him, that success is about living and loving well. It is about caring and helping and trusting and sacrificing. It is about family, about belonging. About carving out home.

I look at my son, standing tall and strong beside his worn, weeping father at the altar in the sanctuary, as an invisible torch is passed. The benediction. It pierces me, but not like an ending. It feels like a beginning.

Home. It doesn’t begin with physical place. It’s not external. It begins with finding home within yourself, with who you are, with the love you have to give as well as that you receive. It is about believing. Then it becomes the story of belonging, of rising to meet life each new day.

Together together together.

—Godspeed on your journey home, son.

On his father’s shoulders

Stream of social consciousness

SONY DSC

Ray of light. KumweniCC BY

Sunlight. Blinding. Hotter than I expect after a week ensconced deep in the techno-bowels of the hospital. The netherworld. A parallel universe of tiny details and proportions. I remember a book where characters forgot the sun, were told it didn’t exist, that it was something they’d imagined, but I can’t think about that now, I have to get my husband—so uncharacteristically frail and fragile—out of this blazing reality and into the doctor’s office.

—Just wait there by your side of the car, I am coming, I’m coming. . . . Hold my arm, take your time across the sidewalk. I know every step hurts. I’ve got the door. Lovely waiting room, isn’t it. Near-empty. Relief. Maybe the wait will not be long and we can go home. He can rest. Except that he can’t rest. Cardiac arrest isn’t as brutal as being resuscitated. There’s a painful price for being brought back to life . . . .

—Sit here. I’ll check in. Two women behind the counter, working on computers. The woman on the left reminds me of someone but the one on the right is asking a question. My husband. He was released from the hospital two days ago. We were told to follow up with his regular doctor within seven days, thanks for getting us in. This woman on the right nods her head. Her hair is very black, long, pulled back. Over her shoulder on the wall is a sketch of the Buddha with the words GOOD VIBES.  

Our chairs face the TV. El Paso. A woman seated across the room by the windows, sunlight streaming in around her, looks at us: When will it stop. 

The woman at the counter, on the left: It’s racism. Clear, emphatic voice. I know who she reminds me of, now. Queen Latifah. Yes. Same face and eyes, shoulder-length hair. Younger. Less celebrity-ish but exuding confidence. She continues: This country . . . .

The girl next to the woman in the waiting room shifts in her seat. Must be her daughter. Pretty girl, hair in a soft bob of loose curls. Poised. Hard to say how old. Sixteen, seventeen? They’re the only other people waiting. 

My husband:  It’s white guys committing these mass shootings . . . .

Woman across the room (nodding): Yeah, they’re not black. We just shoot each other.

Queen Latifah look-alike: People don’t realize I am half black and half white. My birth certificate says Caucasian. My son is a lot darker and we can tell you plenty of stories about the different ways we’re treated . . . people don’t always know they’re doing it.

Me: Implicit bias. It takes a lot to go that deep in yourself, to see it. 

Queen L look-alike: Exactly. It’s part of you, how you’re raised . . . .

The woman on the left with the Buddha over her shoulder on the wall hasn’t looked up nor said a word this whole time and I am thinking, in the end aren’t we all shades of each other, don’t we all bleed red, doesn’t it all flow from the same source if we trace it far enough back? My own largely Northwestern European  DNA carries a fragment of Nigeria from generations ago, a story I long to know. Human genetics shows we’re all descended from one woman in East Africa. Mitochondrial Eve. “The mother of all living.” Genesis 3:20.  My husband, a minister, is olive-skinned, a tiny percent Native American, although he’s awfully pale at present and the underside of both his arms is bruised solid black. We all bruise the same . . . .

The woman who reminds me of Queen L is speaking about needed changes and education, referencing a county nearby with a racist reputation; the woman across the rooms tells the story of her daughter’s car breaking down there, how her phone battery was dead, how she walked to a store at the crossroads and the white workers wouldn’t let her use their phones.

—What did you do? I ask the girl.

—I got back in the car and left it running, I charged my phone enough to call my mom, and I prayed.

—I prayed, too, chimed her mom, the whole way there. Not that county. Not that county.

I listen, heartsick. I do not say it but “that county” happens to be where my Grannie was raised. My Grannie, who took me to a store to buy a doll when I was really little. When I picked a black doll, she bought it for me. In the late 1960s. A white woman from “that county” . . . suddenly the girl’s mother smiles: But there are still good people everywhere. Thank God.

The front door opens. A man enters. He’s huge. Like an NFL player. Gripped in his big brown hand is a clear plastic jug of water; it gleams in a shaft of sunlight and I think Water of Life as another door from the medical side opens and a small man, black hair in a man bun, comes into the waiting area to greet him with a Spanish accent. They’re workers of some kind, dressed in similar gray shirts, khaki pants. They embrace each other and my mind is too weary anymore to wonder why, what the story is. I just marvel. This is how the world should be, like it is in this room, right now. Brotherly love, one human for another, kindred spirits. United in a common purpose. Heaven must be something like this.

As the men vanish (for I don’t notice how or where), the quiet woman on the left at the counter calls the lady and her daughter up. They’re finished with whatever it is for which they came. They’re free to go. The woman comes over to us on her way to the door: It is very nice meeting you. I wish you the best. My daughter, she’s going to college.

My husband reaches his hand, his bruised arm, out to her: It’s a pleasure.

She shakes his hand. There’s only one thing I know to do. I stand and hug the woman. Her embrace is warm, tight. Genuine. Her daughter stands by, smiling, so I hug her, too. She feels small in my arms. —All the best to you, too. One day I will see you on TV and you’ll be helping to fix all these things and I will remember that I saw you here.

Her smile widens. So radiant. —Maybe so.

I watch her go with a pang of hope, bright as the sunlight, when my husband’s name is called to check the progress of his repaired, restarted heart.

So much pain, yes.

Gonna be a long, long process.

But healing.

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest…

Long, long ago, your mother sat by your hospital bed, not knowing if you would live or die. Acute bronchitis, emergency tracheotomy, impossibly high fever… I can almost envision your little four-year-old self inside the oxygen tent, packed in ice to get your temperature down, and your mother in the chair, wiping her tears as she wrote you a note. Her beautiful penmanship remains vivid on the inside cover of the Bible story book she bought for you:

4:00 a.m. In hospital.

Dearest . . .

When you are well and safe at home again, I’ll read you this little note I’ve written to you during the hours I sat by your bed and watched you sleep so soundly . . . Mommy and Daddy have been so scared . . . We love you so much, our little son . . . Little angels have been all around your bed since you have been sick and Jesus sent them to watch over you and keep you . . . soon all the suffering and fright you have had will pass from your little mind but Mommy will always remember and thank God for giving you back to me.

Your Mother

*******

Five decades later, Dearest, I sit by your hospital bed, typing this note in my phone. When you are well and safe at home again I will tell you how the EMS responders were angels sent to save you, how the doctors repaired your heart, how the nurses watched over you and kept you safe, how – for the second time in your life – your body was chilled in an effort to save your brain. The boys and I have been here with you the whole time. At last you woke and knew us … we will always remember what the doctors said, that everything, everything aligned for you.

At 4:00 a.m. in the hospital – today and every hour of every day hereafter – we thank God for giving you back to us.

❤️ Your Wife

Update 8/6: After a week in the hospital, five days of which were in cardiac ICU, he is home. Weak, sore, struggling with memory, and amazed by his own story. We tell it to him over and over again.

Medical professionals continue to describe the actions of EMS responders – who administered CPR for twenty minutes with defibrillators – as “heroic.”

Live in the moment

I love to write memoir. I usually write it in present tense, as if the event is occurring.

Such as:

The nurse wheels me out of x-rays. I am trying so hard to not cry from pain and fear when I see him standing there in the exam room. He has something in his hands . . .

My Baby Ann doll. Smudged face, short white hair in cowlicks now, from lying so long in the toy box.

Despite my pain, I’m suddenly irritated: I can’t believe he brought Baby Ann! I don’t play with her anymore. Not since I was eight, last year. I want to say Daddy, I am too old for dolls now, don’t you know?

But I look at his face, I see the worry, because of me, because of my arm that the doctor is getting ready to pull and pull, to set the bones . . . and something inside me twists, gives way. I start to cry for Daddy because he’s trying to help me and doesn’t know how. I cry for me, for the pain about to intensify at the doctor’s hands and I don’t know how much.

I even cry for Baby Ann and her smudges and cowlicks.

When I write like this, I am there. It is happening. I see the exam room. I remember my red shirt with ruffled sleeves, ruined by plaster of Paris so that I could never wear it again. I see my father’s face contort, turn grayish-green, when I scream during the torturous pulling of my broken left arm to set it. I see that old doll, so vividly, in Daddy’s hands.

As I write it, see it, relive it, I think, How beautiful, Daddy.

I didn’t think any such thing at the time. Nor did he.

Which brings me to now and the idea of recognizing moments as they occur.

I saw the sign at the top of this post in a shop today. When you’re in the throes of a daily writing challenge, you learn to look everywhere for ideas. I took a picture of the sign as soon as I saw it.

I knew, in that moment, I’d write about it. Somehow.

Because that statement about living in the moment and making it so beautiful that it’s worth remembering speaks on two levels. Worth remembering in order to write about, of course. And being fully present for the people in your life. It is a call to be mindful, to savor every moment together. Moments typically aren’t as beautiful alone. Certainly not in being together and feeling alone (read “UNPLUG,” if you wish).

Memories will live, yes.

But what makes them so beautiful is how we live our now. Be present now. Make time now.

For we don’t know how many minutes we have.

-Do we, Daddy.

You are my song

After walking together, one evening.

 

You were a long time in coming

a long time absorbing the world

and deciding to smile

I know the shadows stretch long

in your young life, but 

if you never knew until now,

You are my song,

you are my song.

Noticing patterns in everything

hearing the music before you knew words

It was always a part of you,

the very heart of you

Just as you are my song,

you are my song.

Life’s a composition of

bright major and dark minor chords

The most beautiful timbre, your voice

in your gentle soul I rejoice

For you are my song,

you are my song.

  At the end of the day, know that 

I love you

You’re heaven’s light shining on me.

The tenor of my life,

a smile on the world.

You are my song

you are my song.

Always, forever, my sweet son

—you are my song.