Monday, April 29, 2013

God and Farmers

I like the old timey farmers. They're not afraid to talk about death. They look me in the eye when they ask how I'm doing and they keep looking me in the eye until I've answered all the way through.

It's easy to answer an old timey farmer honestly because they get it. They have dealt with the cycle of loss on so many levels. They know what it's like to have sore, bloodied fingers from griping too tight on to something you can't control, and they know what it's like to finally let go and realize it's all God's doing - whether the crops will be plentiful or if floods will wash them away. That it's up to God to give the blessings and it's up to God to decide when we need a challenge to make us stronger. They understand that the only thing we can do is wake early and work hard late until the night, remembering to thank God Almighty for the seemingly tiny moments of grace He gives us throughout the day... because when you add up enough of those tiny graces you find you've got more than one person deserves.

Matt is not an old timey farmer. As much as I love him, he is not capable of knowing how to ask and what to ask and how to listen to the answer. He doesn't understand that sometimes the answer is as simple as chewing on the end of a wheat stem, looking far off into the setting sun for an uncomfortable amount of silence before emitting a low mmmm. He does not understand that in that moment of mmmm I hear:

Nothing we can really do about what God chooses except get back up in the morning and have another hard go at it. Gonna have to take the bad days because they all lead back to a good day, sooner or later, even if it seems to take too long by our own timing. God made all this earth here for us to enjoy and He gave us life to live while we're waiting to be called home and He don't want us sittin' around feeling sorry for ourselves when there's work to be done.

Because, to an old timey farmer, work means taking care of others. He works hard for his family and even harder for his God. He cuts through dirt so tough it'll break your back just so the neighbor down the road can have fresh vegetables on the table. He wakes before the sun and sweats throughout the hottest of the summers so some family he's never met two towns over can give milk to their twin daughters. On his day of rest he rises early to milk the cows before scrubbing his neck and heading off to church where he'll shake hands with people who have never held a shovel and he'll pray for their kids who are about to get married. And he won't tell you about the calf he just lost or the tractor that broke, because that just comes with the territory, he supposes.

And when he walks away towards his car that only gets driven on Sundays (or to the occasional funeral or wedding), we'll all shake our heads and wonder why he works so hard for a whole lot of little.

But the answer is simple: his heart is in his soil. He can no better extract his soul from the furrows of the fields than I can bring back Avery. He is living his Legend - regardless of what that means to those who look in from the sidelines. He is answering the call God placed in his heart. He is, for better and for worse, ploughing the fields, scraping the barn, filling the feed, stacking the hay, all to make this world a better place.

And when his calloused hands and sun wrinkled face reach out to ask me how I'm doing, I know he understands. Because God has led him through those losses, through those sleepless nights, through those pace-worn floorboards... and straight into me, on a random Monday afternoon to ask, "how've you been holding up?" in a way that speaks volumes about his character. In a way that tells me there are men with tired legs who have walked beside God and their eyes have seen what I have not. And, with the stillness I imagine God has, he waits patiently for my reply.

Friday, April 26, 2013

With or Without

I can feel each and every beat of my heart, each breath I take. It is as if my heart and my lungs are being held in place with barbed wire, so that each time they move, I am cut. With each deep breath I try to take, I taste the metallicness of blood dripping on rusted wire. Except that's not what is happening at all. It just feels that way.

Firsts are usually celebrated. First time you found out you were pregnant. First time you heard the heartbeat. First time you found out if it was a little boy or a girl. First delivery. First cry. First feeding. First diaper. First time rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking. First time saying mama. First time riding a bike, going to school, putting the ponytail in all by herself. First dance recital, first sleepover.
I find myself now navigating this precariously fragile world of Firsts Without.

First spring day where she isn't going to ride her bike. Instead, the bike is just going to sit there. Waiting. Waiting for a girl who cannot come.

First time going to Anchor Inn and not ordering a cheeseburger because she isn't here to eat it.

First time being woken up by a storm and realizing there will be not footsteps scurrying down the hall, the door will not open, and her slender body will not fold back the blankets and slide in close.

I feel overwhelmed by Firsts Without. I could drown myself in Firsts Without: first time going to the gas station without. First time grocery shopping without. First time going to the dentist without. Without, without, without.

And then I think: did I realize there were this many Firsts With?

Did I seek out and take joy in the first time my child stood on tiptoe to fish out the mail? Or did I only notice the "important" firts? Did I seek out and take joy the first time I walked into Bed, Bath and Beyond holding the hand of my child? Or, instead, did I rattle of a list of rules: hold on to my hand, don't touch anything, don't get lost. Did I sit back and take notice of the first time she snapped her pants all by herself? Or did I just note how my life got that much easier now that she was one step closer to self-sufficient?

Why do so many of the Firsts With seem overlooked... while all the Firsts Without seem glaringly obnoxiously cruel and hurtful?

What causes us to overlook the plentiful ordinary Firsts With? Do we convince ourselves they're not that big of a deal? Are our lives too busy? Are we that all-consuming that we forget to even take notice the first time she puts a stamp in the right corner of an envelope? Or the first time she squeezed the toothpaste on without oozing half the tube on counter?

What would happen if we slowed down? What would happen if we all took a Mommy Time Out, pushed everything out of our head and just watched with? Today, I challenge you...

I challenge you to take the most beautiful First With you can take... for the next twenty minutes forget about the laundry and the dinner that must be made; forget about the bills and the garbage and the sticky stuff on the kitchen floor you can't identify. Instead, for the next twenty minutes, get on the same level as your child. Lay on the floor, sit on your knees, climb up the tree house take a seat and criss-cross-applesauce on the rough plywood floor.... and really look at them. Memorize the curve of their neck and the mole by their left temple. Watch their fingers as they put together Lego's and drink in the way their lips move when they talk. Take a mental photo of that unruly cowlick, the pointed elbow and the feet that surely one day they'll grow into.

For the next twenty minutes, take full and complete notice of how truly beautiful, how truly wonderfully made this child is. Your child. Do it now. Because you will not have the opportunity when you are Without.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tomorrow, Six Months Will Have Passed Without Her

Worn by Tenth Avenue North

I'm tired

I'm worn

My heart is heavy

From the work it takes to keep on breathing

I've made mistakes

I've let my hope fail

My soul feels crushed by the weight of this world

And I know that you can give me rest

So I cry out with all that I have left

Let me see redemption win

Let me know the struggle ends

That you can mend a heart that's frail and torn

I want to know a song can rise from ashes of a broken life

And all that's dead inside can be reborn

Cause i'm worn

I know I need to lift my eyes up

But I'm too weak

Life just won't let up

And I know that you can give me rest

So I cry out with all that I have left

Oh, Let me see redemption win

Let me know the struggle ends

That you can mend a heart that's frail and torn

I want to know a song can rise from the ashes of a broken life

And all that's dead inside can be reborn

Cause I'm worn

My prayers are wearing thin

I'm worn

Even before the day begins

I'm worn

I've lost my will to fight

I'm worn

So heaven come and flood my eyes

Let me see redemption wins

Let me know the struggle ends

That you can mend a heart that's frail and torn

I want to know a song can rise from the ashes of a broken life

And all that's dead inside can be reborn

Yes, all that's dead inside will be reborn

Though I'm worn

I'm worn.

Lyrics to Worn by Tenth Avenue North

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Remind Me Not

I walk around the corner, glance to the right, flip the channel, check my newsfeed, and get stabbed in the heart. My eyes bleed tears that burn my cheeks. Throat clamped shut I cannot breathe, cannot speak, cannot understand how the gangly, awkward teen with the thick purple plastic framed glasses who just wanted to grow up able to walk tall through the day has morphed into a Mother Who Has Lost.

It takes me by surprise each and every time. I feel like a fool. How can my hurt be so acute, so crippling, and yet I find myself checking through the doorway to see if her Sunday School class has let out. I stop myself short before reminding Matt that he should make sure her bike tires are pumped full of air. I foolishly suggest something I know she would love. And each time it hits me: she is not here.

My soul is not mine.

At least, it doesn't feel like mine, doesn't fit like mine. I once took a sweatshirt that wasn't mine home from a college party. I could never wear it because each time I put it on I knew it didn't rightfully belong to me. I wasn't meant to wear it; it wasn't mine. I try to fight, arms flailing, back arching, head ducking -- and yet someone insists this wounded soul is mine to wear. I don't want it. Take it back! TAKE IT BACK!

I struggle with normalcy... or what others perceive as normal because I don't think complaining about overcooked steak deserves anger and rage and I don't think the middle finger deserves to be flipped because someone didn't realize it was their turn at a four way stop and I don't think people of power show be purposefully demeaning to others. Instead I only want to walk in the sun and attempt to plant purple calla lilies and leave sliced apples for squirrels and laugh too loud at the wit others share. I want to paint my bedroom bright and I want flowers to replace my grass. I want music to accompany the wind and good food to be found in great abundance. I think if I try super hard to paint my world light that light will flow to others around me and once I'm surrounded by light and love then I will never hurt again.

Except I will.

Because that's what grief is. The reminder that she is never coming home. And sometimes that reminder comes at church during a song about blessings and sometimes that reminder comes as I'm folding laundry because she would always come and sit with me. Sometimes that reminder comes when I try to picture a vacation and sometimes that reminder comes when I turn out the light. It happens when I'm grocery shopping and cleaning the bathroom and walking into the library and backing out of the driveway and painting my fingernails and watching the Brewer's play and flipping through a magazine and waiting for a table at a restaurant... my soul whispers, "she is not here."

And it'll be that way every single day until God calls me home.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

AVERYday: God Plans a Concert - Part 30

"You know, Mom, I really am a God Girl."

The last sentence I ever heard my 11-year old daughter speak to me. Nine simple words that spoke volumes about her soul. Nine words that I'd go back to over and over and over again: she was a God Girl. She loved God.

Word spread quickly through our small community; tragedy tends to. But then something else was being spoken. Amongst the gossip and speculation was a declaration: this faith filled little girl was special. Really special.

And then I got that email: "You are Avery's voice. Don't silence her."

And I knew.

I just knew.

I was going to have a concert and Jamie Grace would play at it. Yes, Grammy Nominee, Contemporary Christian Singer, actress in the upcoming movie Grace Unplugged - yes, that Jamie Grace would play at this concert. Avery needed to share the message that was so important to her, that was taught to her through the songs written by and performed by Jamie Grace. I needed the woman whose lyrics blessed my heart as Avery's last words to me. It was as if God was whispering in my ear: you will have a concert and Jamie Grace will play.

Except I knew nothing about organizing a concert. I had no idea where to begin. There was no way I could do this by myself. I needed help.

I told my sister. "I want to have a concert and I want Jamie Grace to play at it." I had planned on Shannon telling me how ridiculous it was. How out of my mind I was. A nobody from Southeastern Wisconsin doesn't "have" concerts. Not with popular Christian singers.

But she surprised me by looking at me and asking, "what took you so long?" As if the answer was decided long ago and I was just figuring it out.

I was excited and giddy and beside myself. It just made so much sense! It was so obvious! It was going to be just so perfect!

And then it became completely obvious quite quickly that concerts are expensive and there is no way that I had the kind of money required. What had seemed so perfect now seemed so idiotic. What was I thinking?

I drove home talking to God, "look, I don't get it when people say they hear your voice, okay? I mean, I'm just being honest. I thought I heard your voice telling me to do this, but maybe it was just my own mind wanting it. How am I supposed to know? Do people hear an actual voice? Like out loud? How will I know the difference between my thoughts and your direction? It's all confusing and I'm new at this and I don't know what to do. I just know I want to do something awesome for Avery and Avery would want something that glorifies you. Avery would want something that tells people about Jesus. So, I thought it was going to be this concert, but maybe it's not. So if you could just tell me. But like in a really loud, obvious voice, I'd appreciate that."

I parked the car into the garage and looked at all the stuff filling it up. A two car garage, I thought, and we can only fit one car in here. What's the point of all this crap piled up making this space unusable? I chuckled. Isn't that what we do in life? Fill up all our inside spaces with piles of crap. The boyfriend who said I'd never amount to anything. The girl who told me my nose was too big. The I-thought-you-were-my-best-friend who raged and hated and wouldn't explain why. All this stuff I still hang on to. No wonder it's hard to hear God's voice, I thought. I'm allowing too many people to talk at once.

I grabbed the mail. Two envelopes. Just two.

One was red with my name scrawled on the outside. I tore it open and found a Christmas card from a special little girl. It wasn't the words themselves that got me - it was the five gold foil wrapped chocolate coins tucked inside. As I dropped them into my hand my mind thought, "the money will come. Don't worry." What? Where did that thought come from? Did I think that? Or did God just tell me....?

I stared at the chocolate coins. It was chocolate. A child's innocent way of sharing. Nothing more. "The money will come." I shook the thought away, slapping the coins to the counter and picked up the second envelope. There was something inside that one, too.


I laughed and laughed, tears streaming down my cheeks, remembering a summer conversation with a light breeze flowing through chestnut brown hair and cigarette smoke, where I revealed my secret desire to collect buttons. Not to go to a store and buy buttons, anyone can do that. But to collect buttons with a story. Off a particular blouse, or from a particular location. A button held in the hand of an exhausted mother who just wanted to go to sleep yet she sewed anyway. A button of wood or glass; pink or green or brass. It didn't matter. Buttons hold things together. They each hold a story. I wanted to collect buttons.

And there they were.... buttons. "I remember...." the note said. My dear, dear sweet friend, telling me from across too many miles that it was time to start collecting my buttons.

Matt came in to see what was going on with me. "Look!" I said, pushing my cupped hands in front of his face. "Buttons! She sent me buttons!" He stared down at the randomness in my palms, "I don't get it."

How could he? How do I begin to explain what those buttons meant? I never began to collect them because I never knew anyone who did. I was afraid of being made fun of, laughed at. Yet throughout all these years I always wanted to. I'd come across one on the ground and bend down to pick it up, looking left and right to see if anyone saw. Here I was, almost 40 years old... wasn't it time to start to collect something I had liked for most my life?

I opened the accompanying card and a piece of paper fluttered to the floor. I left it laying at the side of my right foot as I read through the note. It was time, she said. Time to start collecting buttons; time to start being who I was meant to be. And then the paragraph that broke my heart: she knew my heartbreak. Knew it way too well, for she, too, had lost a sister. She knew what the grief and heartache could do to a family. And she wanted to help.

I bent down and picked up the paper on the floor. A gift of money to do with whatever I wanted. To do something that would make me smile. And I laughed. And I cried! Because it was God's voice I heard: "don't worry about the money. It will come."

"Matt!" I yelled out. "We're having a concert!"

Then the doorbell rang. Standing outside in his uniform was a police officer. My stomach sank as I thought, "you idiot. This money isn't for a concert. It's for the incredible expense of attorney fees. This cannot be good." I steeled myself as I opened the door.

But the officer wasn't there with bad news. Just the opposite, in fact! He had agreed to deliver something to me. A thick, bright green envelope. It had nothing to do with the police department, he explained. Just a good group of people who had heard my story and wanted to do something nice. Inside was money. Money meant to make a wish. Money meant to make me smile.

I laughed. "Okay, God! I get it! I get it! We'll have the concert!"

But he wasn't done with me yet. The next morning I received yet another gift from a family who each year chooses not to give gifts to each other, but rather take the money they would normally spend on each other and give it to someone to make them smile. To shine a little light and spread a little joy.

As it turned out, I ended up with the amount I needed to pay the deposit to bring Jamie Grace to Whitewater, Wisconsin.

God is so cool! Do you get that?! I can't even explain how unbelievably awesome and amazing this was. He provided just enough for what was needed. He called on those hearts and they listened. God is good!

I wanted an opening act. I wanted someone local. Avery loved her community and seemingly everyone in it; she would want someone local. My sister suggested a singer/songwriter named Jon Troast. It wasn't until several weeks after he agreed that I learned he had attended our church when he was a kid. That he attended the Delavan Christian School for a couple years - which meant Avery walked down the same halls as he did. Coincidence? Nope. Just God sharing more of His plans with us.

I wanted the concert to be held at the Young Auditorium in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Avery had danced on this very stage with the Walworth County Cloggers. She had milled around back stage. She had sat in probably thirty of those chairs as we watched different performances. She loved the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater. It was where she took gymnastics, where she slept in the dorms during summer camp, where she planned college activities with her friend Katie. Whitewater was the last city that held her on that fateful day last October. The concert just had to be in Whitewater.

I wanted - insisted - that the concert take place before college graduation. There were seniors on that gymnastics team that Avery loved like sisters. I didn't want them not able to attend because they had already returned to their home states.

And so we began the massive coordination of schedules: Jon (who now lived in Nashville, TN), of Jamie Grace (who had an incredibly busy and tight schedule) and of the auditorium itself, with it's own already planned season of events.

Again, I thought, "this is never going to happen."

(Why do I doubt? Will I ever learn?)

I was driving home, down a straighter than straight country road that stretched out for miles in either direction when my phone rang. It was my sister.... screaming. We had just confirmed the concert date. "APRIL THIRTEENTH!! THE CONCERT IS GOING TO BE APRIL 13TH!!!"

"I know. I signed the contract, remember?"


"I don't get it."

"APRIL 13th! 4-13. PHILIPPIANS 4:13 - 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.'"


Like, the biggest woah ever.

Because Philippians 4:13 was my mantra. From the minute I found out Avery died - from the second I knew I had to call my parents, call my sister, stand and make my way to the hospital to get to Jadrian. How could I possibly know how to comfort her? "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

How would I face Avery's classmates the next morning? What would I say? "I CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

How could I plan a funeral? Pick out her clothes? Say a final goodbye? "I can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me."

How would I go back to work? Maintain some semblance of sanity in public? "I can do all things THROUGH CHRIST who strengthens me."

How would I get out of bed? Not slip into the darkness of absolute despair? How would I ever stand on my own again? "I can do all things through Christ who STRENGTHENS me."

Of course the concert would be on April 13th. God didn't plan it any other way.

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