Stepping Into the Ring

I have distinct memories from elementary school that involve me and another student after a minor disagreement on the recess yard. I’d run to the teacher as fast as I could to be the first to tell my side of the story. I’d squirm as my teacher gently pushed me towards my fellow offender as we tried to stay as far away from the other as possible. My body would be facing away from the student as we’d discuss the disagreement. I’d say anything to get out of there as quick as possible. With our eyes permanently rolled to the back of our heads, we’d reconcile. It was downright uncomfortable.

As theatrical as that might sound, I feel like I’m the squirming third grader, trying to say as far away from God as possible. I feel like I’ve been wronged. Like a good friend has utterly disappointed me. I can’t imagine lifting my head to look Him in the eye or seeking reconciliation. Rather than addressing Him, for now distance feels better. For a little while, if I use that distance to collect my thoughts and gain perspective, I think space is okay. Space away has let me understand what I expected of God, what I thought I knew of Him and where I think He’s been the last few months. How did God let my mom die? Why didn’t He protect her? Does He know how many of us are heart-broken because of this mighty loss? Does He care about our grieving hearts? Is my mom safe now? Many times the pursuit of answers and conclusions, leads to many more questions than answers. I’m grateful for the space to reflect.

Space for me has been stepping away from things that I’ve typically found solace and joy in. I’ve stopped going to my small group. Rather, I prefer to talk one-on-one with close friends. I haven’t journaled since August 17 but blogging has been a great alternative. I’ve mostly stopped praying because I have no words to pray, just tears to offer. I still enjoy going to church but always cry so try to sit near the back, rather than with a lot of friends. My spiritual walk feels more unfamiliar and new than it ever has. But what a gift to have the time to explore what my heart needs and then do just that or find an alternative. Space is healing and even still, allows me to develop as I shift.

But now, again like many times over these last few months, I feel a change coming.

I think it’s time to re-engage.

It’s as if I’m a boxer. After getting the wind knocked out of me during round one, stepping out of the ring for a water break and a few deep breaths is necessary for my physical body. Not only is it necessary, it’s also wise. Taking time to pause, adjust my strategy, bandaging up for round two requires patience to sit in the break between rounds to assess and then restore. But then, once I’ve caught my breath, hydrated and picked my head back up, it’s time to step back in. Time to fully engage with the conflict or opponent at hand. It’s not going to be easy — it is a struggle after all. For a little while, God has felt much more like an opponent than a friend. He’s felt like a competitor that I just can’t escape. But it’s getting to the point where I think I’m ready to talk about it.

For the last few months, I’ve been upset with God in defense of my mom, angry for the way I perceived He let her down. Almost as if I’m fighting a battle I was never engaged in to begin with but have taken up the sword in her honor. I’m not sure I’ll reconcile this any time soon but I have also recognized that I’ve not considered that even in death, there is relief in heaven. In my mind since August 18, death has had the final say. I lived and reacted as if my mom’s story ended at a cemetery.

But her life also began anew.

My mom is in heaven. I know that as sure as I know my name. She’s safe. She’s at peace. She’s not anxious. She certainly isn’t burdened by clinical depression. My mom is free. How long can I stay upset about that? I don’t believe we are ever supposed to accept or get used to death. But I do believe that we can be joyful again, albeit in a way we never would have expected or wanted, without the physical presence of someone we love. What I’d give to see my mom just one more day or for even one last hug. I’d truly give anything. And what perspective that gives me. What matters? The things I have or the life I’m living. I will see my mom in heaven but until then, I have a reason to be on this earth and I’m determined to find it and live it out.

Whistling: Jamming to this song all the live long day.

 

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Not Always Rainbows and Whistles

As much as I wish it were, not everything is rainbows and whistles. Some days are just hard. Some mornings, you wake up and know that particular day will be tougher than your regular daily allowance of TOUGH. Usually, my first instinct is to holler out to the world “I’ll just be in my bed today. Let’s try again tomorrow.” But alas. Frikin’ alas. The world spins on and so must we.

Yesterday turned into a tough day. The morning wasn’t initially tough so tricked me into getting out of bed. (I’ve got my eye on you, Morning.)  But as the day wore on and my coffee wore off, I felt tired in so many ways.

We rocked Thanksgiving. I even wrote a post about how beautiful it was and how proud I was of everyone. But the hard part came in like a tsunami aftershock. My mom wasn’t at Thanksgiving. She was not there, at least not physically, the way I wanted her to be. We were sad. We were nostalgic. We were taunted with little glimpse of what life used to be like and it made me want my old life back all the more. We all are sorely homesick for my mom and the life she took with her. Like a giant wave, attacking right when we think we’re in the clear, broken-heartedness swept up the puddle it was and flooded back with a vengeance.

I think I (and probably many others) survived Thanksgiving on adrenaline. The urgency of feeding many people, making friends comfortable, and wanting the holiday to be a success kept me going and my spirits high. But when everyone leaves, and the leftovers are all packed up, the house gets quiet again. We allow ourselves to slow down and then we realize how much scurrying around we’ve done and what just happened: The First Thanksgiving without mom.

Sometimes these are the times that provide the fertile soil for darkness to grow and light to diminish. I start with “I miss my mom” and then the next thing I know I’m wondering when I should leave my current job, if I even want to go to grad school (never mind finish the prerequisite classes I’m enrolled in) or if it’s foolish to think about starting my own business. I feel like I just need a few days to curl up by the Christmas tree and get cracking on the stack of books I’ve been wanting to read. I need a minute. I want to call my mom and ask her what I should do (and get caught up on the last three and a half months).

Grief is just a bizarre thing. It’s rarely linear, somewhat cyclical and more likely compared to a bowl of spaghetti. Anyone who’s walking through a season of loss may feel 10 (or more!) different ways throughout a day, all jumbled up and squished together. Not everyday is hard but everyday is dimmed a little with loss, and as a community we can remind each other that whistling can be possible.

Sometimes I feel like climbing Mt. Everest in a bathing suit would be easier than finding a little glimmer of hope to cling to. But alas.

Frikin’ alas. That’s not entirely true.

My whistle: My dad knew yesterday was a tough day so texted me this morning. Our charge: “Let’s kick today’s a$$.”

 

 

Cheer for One, Cheer for All

When you picture a loud, obnoxious, parent or fan that grumbled, annoyed or totally brought down the vibe at any sporting event you might picture the stereotypical gruff exterior, loud voice and exasperated expressions. They might have hemmed and hawed about a play. Maybe their kid did not get a fair call and they SURE made it known that they were downright dissatisfied. Sometimes they would get a reprimand or even thrown out of the stands if they REALLY make their presence known.  Neither of my parents were the loud-angry-type but one of them did have a close call with a referee.

Once upon a time, my mom was almost “excused” from one of my soccer games. The only catch? Not a negative, disparaging word came from her mouth. Rather, the loudest cheering BOTH sides of the stands could account for. That’s right. My mom was almost asked to leave one of my soccer games because she was cheering too loud for anyone on the field that looked good to her. She’d be the first to say that she learned soccer right along with us — maybe not in skill or strategy even — but in passion. She was right there with us. At this particular game, she was too encouraging, too positive, too loud for the coaches to hear their own thoughts. What an image.

“Go, Emily, go!” “Get that ball!” “Yes, TAYLORRR!”  “You got it, Blue!!” Nice SHOT, Red!” (She always but emphasis on SHOT!) She was non-stop. It got to the point that I didn’t even think twice — I could hear my coach, teammates and my mom. So normal.

It wasn’t normal for several reasons. Not many kids can grow up and say that their mom was truly there with them every step of the way. If she had been allowed to run around with me on the field, I can see my mom shrugging her shoulders, looking at me and saying, “Why not!?” (I promise we did have healthy boundaries.)  My mom and dad were our greatest cheerleaders. My mom chose to show it in ways that were quite obvious. Even know, I take comfort that even though I may not feel it and I certainly don’t hear it like I used to, my mom is cheering for me and all of us left broken-hearted here on earth.

An even bigger lesson I learned from my mom through this though, is the equal-opportunity art of cheering for others. The innate ability she had to cheer and encourage everyone is unlike skill I’ve seen in anyone else. She was loud, positive and dangit, you weren’t going to quit on her watch. The way she believed in you made YOU believe in YOU. And even if she didn’t know you, well, like it or not, you were cheered for. So there.

My mom’s heart was put on display time and time again in all kinds of arenas. And nobody was too old, young, rich, poor, bad, good, skilled or unskilled for some Mary Brown Lovin’. It takes courage to encourage others. It takes bravery to say, “Hey, I don’t know you but I see you doing good things. Keep doing those things.” How often do we tell strangers that they did something well? How often do we go out of our way to cheer so loud for someone we don’t know? I know I certainly don’t. It’s much easier to bury my head, keep my eyes on my shoes as I pass folks on the street and keep doing my thing. It’s easy to stay focused on myself and my worries and my fears and my insecurities and my doubts. And when I do, they seem bigger and scarier and heavier. I forget that there is a whole world of activity buzzing around me. I forget that I am not the only one dealing with hard things. I believe that if you are living and breathing you likely know struggle. And since you are living and know struggle then there isn’t a bad time to receive a little encouragement, a high-five even.

I don’t know you, Reader, but I’d guess you have a little (most likely a lot) of bravery in you. I’d also guess you have a discerning eye — you know when something is awesome. Take that courage, build it up and then let it out so loud as you cheer for a neighbor.

Whistling: Finding this pink towel while I was home for Thanksgiving.

When I participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, my mom forgot the sign she made for us at home. She pulled out a pink towel from her car and found a permanent marker to McGiver a one-of-a-kind banner for us.
When I participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, my mom forgot the sign she made for us at home. She pulled out a pink towel from her car and found a permanent marker to MacGyver a one-of-a-kind banner.

Thanksgiving Comedy

Thanksgiving: What a glorious, tasty, heart-warming and heart-breaking day we had. It was a day filled with mishaps, hand-palm-to-forehead moments, tears, cackling laughter, and wonderment in how my mom managed to pull off Thanksgiving all these years like it was no big deal. We had scribbled lists, and schedules, multiple copies of recipes but gosh darnit, we managed to feed 21 great friends and family. Halleloo!

The day was mostly a comedy with the underlying unfamiliarity of a holiday without our beloved mom. My brother, dad and I operated like an Old Man Softball League. (No offence to any Softball All-Stars out there. ) We were missing our coach so played mostly by memory of the good old days. We knew generally what we were supposed to do (i.e., grand slam Thanksgiving meal) but found ourselves in a few pickles, missing a few signs from our stand-in third base coach. We hit a few foul balls. Were threatened by the Mercy Rule. Even still, we hit it out of the park. A comedy of errors, yes. But ya’ll, we came out on top. If someone could win Thanksgiving, we did. Rally caps and all.

I have many mental snapshots and scenes from this Thanksgiving.

The time my dad, brother and I exploded out the door of a friends home (imagine us in slow motion, hurdling shrubs and sliding on car hoods) as we were just beginning dinner when we realized packet pick-up for the 5K we were participating in the next morning, ended 8 minutes later. We got back to dinner before our meals were cold, scattering good cheer and safety pins along the way.

The time I asked my dad what his plan was for the turkey. He shrugged and said “Oh, that? Not sure. I’ve never made one before.” .. Like, not ever? Gulp.

That time my brother beat my dad by one second in the Turkey Trot 5K. When my dad accepted his medal for running the fastest in his age group, my brother reminded him that if he’d been in the 50-54 age group, dad would actually be second place.

The time my brother remembered that we hadn’t planned to make our childhood (ahem, grown-up) favorite: Something Pie. We “created” the recipe when we were younger and creatively naming it a bland, lame name hoping nobody else would want to share it with us. Enter: Oreo, vanilla pudding, Cool Whip. My mom always kept the ingredients on-hand and sure enough all were found as if she had planned ahead for us. My brother whipped it up (plus the crust) by memory.

That time we listened to the Macy’s Parade from the kitchen while we all prepared our assigned dishes. We sang Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. We made a mess of the counter-tops and floors. (My mom was so good at cleaning as she cooked. My dad, brother and I rarely followed suit.) I pulled the mixer out of the sweet potato casserole a little too quickly, spraying a little extra sweet potato to every dish near by, plus the sugar jar. We sipped and tasted and recalled flavors of Thanksgivings past. We added a pinch of salt, one more shake of the pepper, more butter, a little more pecan topping, and licked the bowls clean in the name of assisting with kitchen clean up — we all have our own methods, I guess.

That time the green bean casserole got lost in a shuffle of I-thought-you-had-it-NO-I-THOUGHT-YOU-HAD-IT and ended up getting nuked in a casserole dish ten minutes before we sat down for dinner.

That time the Mac n’ Cheese was already in the oven when someone reminded me I forgot to add the milk and eggs.

That time we high-fived when we had the tables set for exactly nineteen guest just as two unexpected guests walked in.

And then, just before we got to taste the fruits of our labors — and see if my dad could consider himself a Turkey Master — we paused. We gathered and circled up, symbolic of how we’ve been postured since August 18. We prayed and toasted and cried. We got choked up but spoke anyway, undeterred by shaky voices. We were honest. We missed Mom. We missed her usual toast, beginning with “Well, Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday.” We missed the way she made everyone feel so stinkin’ welcome. We missed the way she’d gather us up post-meal for a nighttime walk before dessert. We’d pretend we didn’t want to go but secretly, getting a little fresh North Carolina air sounded pretty nice.

We admitted this isn’t the Thanksgiving we thought we’d be having but those of us remaining were glad to be there together. We lit a candle, let the tears roll but then lifted our heads. We have the honor of remembering my mom every day. Having so many people remember her at the same time, in the same place was powerful. I felt love. It was a stirring in me that urged me to smile. Even though I was hurting, I was also watching love actively keep us together like pearls on a necklace. It was different than feeling loved. It was witnessing what love can bring out of us. Love and caring can draw us out of the darkest places.

No, not all is bad.

And, there’s my whistle. Even amidst such deep sorrow and longing, love can prevail. 

Even still, Thankful

It’s Thanksgiving. A time that our house usually fills to the brim with friends and family. We have at least one casserole per person and enough turkey to last us for days of leftover turkey sandwiches. We have cranberries, Grandpa Filosa’s Stuffing, the weird Jello Salad (that my brother and I secretly love), sweet potatoes galore and then a whole table full of desserts. There is certainly an abundance.

There is a small part of me that wants to be bitter and angry. My mom is supposed to be here. She and I are supposed to add too much butter to the mashed potatoes when everyone else looks away. She is supposed to do her usual Thanksgiving toast before we all dig-in. She was supposed to write down all the little kitchen tricks that she only knew so I could attempt to re-create her dishes. All these things and so much more, in the plan I had imagined. But God has other plans.

And while a part of me wants to be angry and bitter this holiday season, a much larger piece is grateful for the abundance that my mom left us with. Even though she is gone, we have an amazing tribe of friends and family that are relentless with their love for us and each other. We have a house full of warm memories. We have stores of stories to be told for ages to come. Certainly an abundance.

I was talking to a good friend after my mom passed away, telling her how my Dad, brother and I had a regular conference call most weeknights around 10:30. How my mom’s friends wrote the bulk of the thank-you cards for us because there were just. so. many. How my aunts, uncles and cousins have been checking in and making sure we are clued-in to the happenings of everyone’s life. She looked at me and said, “I know you’ve been through so much so I hate to say this but Em, you’re so lucky.” She went on to say that with her parents divorced, if something happened to her mom, her dad would probably be even further estranged from her and her sister. Her mom had several girlfriends but none she considered that would write hundreds of thank-you notes on her behalf. She said rather than bringing family and friends together, an unexpected death in her family could be disastrous.

I had been so well taken care of that I hadn’t considered the possibility of going through something like this without such support. How does anybody make it? How could this be done alone? Life is hard, but even still, it could be worse.

We learn to do things on our own. My dad is making a turkey at Thanksgiving for the first time. I’ll make the macaroni and cheese over the phone with my cousin, like my mom used to. My brother is making the stuffing like my mom used to. And so many friends are working to recreate so many of my mom’s recipes, saying they want it to be exactly the same, which is appreciated but already a lost battle. It will be different but it will still be celebratory. A celebration that we’ve made it thus far, that we had such a great mother and that the turkey is moist and decadent (You got this, Dad!). A celebration for sure.

Whistle: Adding extra butter on my own, knowing my mom would be egging me on to do it.

 

Peppermints and Prayer

My mom left me an unbeatable group of women to be my Team. Made up of Aunts and some of my mom’s great friends, they are always at the ready when I call on them. After my mom passed away, they made the mistake of telling me I could call them any of them anytime, day or night. They get calls from me that run the gamut of topics: How to remove burned macaroni from the bottom of a sauce pan (I’m 25 and still haven’t mastered some kitchen basics…), pursuing God in tough times or even wordless conversations where we just cry. We joke that it takes a team to stand in for my mom. (Although, individually, they are all remarkable women as well.) I’m honored that they take their position seriously, in the best-most-fun, honest kind of way.

One night I was talking to a member of the Team, one of my Aunts. I was preparing to take the GRE, the only outstanding piece of my graduate school applications. I felt like I had studied as diligently as I could but still had a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. Geometry? Algebra? Probability? The proper elements of a nightmare, that’s for sure. My aunt told me she had recently read an article that said peppermint has been proven to help test takers concentrate during exams. Seeing as I was willing to give almost anything a try in the final days leading up to the test (other than actually studying, of course), I chuckled with her but quickly found a notepad and scribbled “GET PEPPERMINTS.” Worth a try.

We finished chatting and I saw that a package had arrived for me earlier that day. Not sure of the contents, I opened the package with a little more fervor than usual — unexpected packages and mail (that aren’t bills, gross) are the best — to find a fist-sized, clay plaque with a Winnie the Pooh quote: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Sent from another Team member. They totally rock.

But even more unexpected, as I tugged at the bubble wrap, you’ll never guess! A peppermint fell out of the box. WHAT? I know this seems insignificant but hear me out: 1. What clay potter sends a mint with a plaque? Care instructions? Makes sense. A peppermint? Not as much; 2. When was the last time you talked about a peppermint and it magically appeared just minutes later? Imagine my roommates confusion as they quietly asked, “What’s in the box, Em?” and I hollered, “A PEPPERMINT!” Any gift can be meaningful if the recipient deems it so.

Around 10:20 later that night, I got a call from an unfamiliar phone number in South Carolina. I knew my dad was driving from North Carolina to South Carolina so I answered. “Em, hey, it’s Dad. So glad you picked up! Long story short, my phone isn’t working and I’m calling from a payphone at a truck stop. I have about 3 minutes and 45 seconds to talk. I’m about 2 hours from my destination.” We chatted for our remaining 3 minutes and 40 seconds and then I had to let my dad get back on the road. My dad, brother and I usually check in most nights at 10:30 and my dad knew I would worry if he didn’t answer at our usual time. And right he was. I realized after I talked to my dad that part of the reason I like talking to my guys each night is then I know everyone is okay and in for the night. Let me assure you, I know my role is not caretaker, responsible for all. But if I’m being totally honest, I sleep easier knowing they are accounted for. Minutes after I got off the phone with my dad, I received a text from a close friend who I’ve felt distant from recently, saying, “Love you. Praying for a restful, deep sleep tonight.” I read and re-read the message, taking a long pause. What timing. What precise, impeccable timing with a message that was so perfectly appropriate.

So often I hear, there are no coincidences with God. It’s been hard to remain trusting in the Lord over these last three months but for some reason, the peppermint and prayer gave me comfort, maybe a sign that He was still there, still caring uniquely for me.

Both occurrences, are arguably insignificant. But to the receiver, the importance was measurable and that’s all that matters. Maybe God really is a god that knows how to get my attention, in a way that is specific to me. “He knows the hairs on your head” says Luke 12:7. If he knows me then that means he knows us all. He deeply knows us.

Our whistles might be revealed to us only after reflection. At first, something like a text or peppermint can seem like unholy means. It would be much cooler (and easier) if a chorus of angels sang us messages from God –amiright? It was not until I experienced both the peppermint and prayer from a friend that I even considered something larger was at play. I think that’s okay. When things are hard, I’m learning that time to wrestle and struggle is more than alright — it gives us time to really work to understand what we are thinking and feeling. It’s during that time that seeking whistles becomes so crucial because everything can feel hard. And while it certainly doesn’t seem like it, whistling and darkness can co-exist.

Whistle: A great Team and unexpected comfort from acknowledging that the Lord might still be with me (and all of us).

 

Whistle One

I teach a weekly Indoor Cycling class at my local YMCA. If there is any reason I miss my class, I always let my group know the week before. I rarely miss class. Whether they know it or not, I see them as a strong unit that keeps me coming back week after week. They are a diverse group of varying ages, circumstances. Over time I’ve seen conversations move from the weather or local races, to holiday plans and birth announcements. It’s a beautiful thing when such a unique group commits to one another on a weekly basis. I dig them. A lot.

While I was home after my mom passed away I missed two classes (without warning) so the week I got back, I got a few “Where ya been?” and “We’ve missed you!” from my fellow cyclists. Love them.

I wasn’t sure how, or when, or what to tell the group so at the beginning of class I recited what I believe was taken from the nether-reaches of my brain from a management/HR class in college: “Thank you for your concern. There was a death in my family that I needed to be home for but I am here, back and ready to go. Let’s begin.” Barely any emotion with just enough information for the group’s mood to plunge from moderately upbeat for a 6:30 PM on Wednesday to deep in the bellows of sympathy and apprehension. As class progressed, I was well aware of my lack of enthusiasm and internal struggle of addressing the issue further. As I taught — quite basically on autopilot for 45 minutes — I debated. Do I say more? To I tell them it was actually my mom who passed away? Do I let them know that a part of my bubbly, outgoing heart went with her? Do I admit that I may need their help to keep our collective energy up?

I called on courage and as we wrapped up, took a deep breath and just started talking. I knew once I started, I’d have to keep going.

“In the spirit of being honest and because I view this as a safe, welcoming place that any of us could come to whether we are feeling super fantastic or super rotten, I need to let you know that it was actually my mom who passed away. My mom. I want you to know because I think I’m going to need help over the next few weeks as I get my groove back. I might need your energy for us to make this class happen for a little while. I’m saying this because I want you to know that no matter what is going on in your life, you can come here and be welcomed. You don’t need to have it all together or even feel like going on a bike ride. Just be here with us.”

As I was finishing up, one woman hopped off her bike and just said, “I’m going to give you a hug now.” Everyone picked their jaw off the ground, wiped tears and one by one, told me they were so sorry for my loss. And you know what? I felt better. I needed them to know. I needed the balloon of pressure in my chest popped and deflated so that I could breathe out and admit that things are now and forever different. Now and forever more, I am not the same as I was August 17. But I so sincerely believe that “even in the dark we can whistle.” Even in the darkness, I can find something to smile about. That night, I felt brave and courageous enough to admit that life is tough right now. I saw bravery and courage in my classmates as they demonstrated compassion to me in a way we had never before. Together, we are in the beautiful, brutal, sad yet hopeful struggle. In an instant we went from friends who bike together, to friends who carry, support and help together.

Together makes so many things more bearable. 

After class, I called my grandma to check-in. I think back on the pictures my grandma, mom and I have taken to display the generations in our family and how suddenly the middle link that connects us has left us. I tell my grandma about my class and how I really had to work to tell the truth. She said that she’d had a similar experience with a friend and ultimately decided that sharing the full, ugly, heart-wrenching truth at times is exactly what we need to do.

“Honey,” she said. “It’s harder but, boy, is it better.”

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Whistle: Announcing that life is hard and being greeted with hugs, support and “We’ll see you next week!”