Monday, January 9, 2017

A Prayer for the Merciful

God, thank You for this spiritual gift that pulls me off the sidelines in the game of life and puts me in the middle of the fight. I am grateful that You allow me to reflect Your light into the hardest moments of another’s life. When the rest of the world runs from a person who is suffering or grieving or recovering or grasping for hope, You gave me the gift of mercy that eases her ache.

Thank You for weaving mercy into the fabric of my being. You did that slowly, stitch by stitch giving me mercy lessons as You sat beside me in the devastating losses of my life. You comforted me so I could comfort others one day. You gave me a good memory that holds tightly enough to my past pain so it can fuel me for the future comfort of others, yet holds pain loosely enough to allow Your healing to enter my loss. I learned mercy from You, Father. When I saw You bring beauty from my ashes, I was ordained as a mercy minister to follow in the steps of my Teacher.

I am still learning from You, knowing these mercy lessons don’t have a graduation date. The school of mercy is ongoing and everlasting, and the first days of sprinting have given way to a marathon.

God, this is such a hard road to run. The mercy You instilled in me means I cry when others cry. I bleed when loved ones bleed. I am restless when sleep doesn’t come to the mourners around me.

I need Your protection, Lord. Show me how to walk into the pain and share a portion of the load instead of carrying another’s crisis solo. Nudge me when I push my boundaries too far. Slow my steps when I am trying to dance to my own mercy rhythms, instead of letting You lead. Most of all, God, don’t let my prideful self get in the way of the only true Healer: You! I am the echo of Your love, not the source of Love itself.

I love doing Your work, God. You made me for silent sitting and tear wiping and hand holding and heartbreak hugging. You blended encouragement into my mercy gift, enabling me to offer hope and a smile in the darkest nights. Thank You for choosing me to help your Beloveds feel Your presence and see the tangible works of Your hands.

Amen.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: The Year of Quitting

It's the last day of 2016. It's been a hard year locally, nationally, and globally. It's also been a hard year for me personally: in parenting, in marriage, in personal struggles, and in painful grief. There were *some* good moments this year, and I'm tenaciously clinging to them so I don't throw out the entire year.

I started this blog post with a plan to rehash all the bad so I could also note the good and attempt to find praise in the pain. But I really don't want to drag myself back to January by way of fall then summer then spring, and I'm sure you don't want to go on that ride either.

I do want to view 2016 from a bird's eye rise-above-it perspective, so I am looking at the year with a focus on progress. More specifically, progress through quitting. In no special order, here are the things I quit in 2016 - some good and some bad.
*I quit saying yes to all proposals to hustle.
*I quit Christmas cards. (I may send Happy New Year cards instead, but I quit deciding that until next year.)
*I quit sending immediate text responses, opting to pause at least a few moments before most replies.
*I quit underselling myself and raised my photo session rates.
*I quit trying to please church leaders.
*I quit big holiday decorations and went with the minimal.
*I quit worrying about the cost of traveling and said yes to being with family when their milestone events called for a visit.
*I quit letting fear dictate and finally launched my website (www.HisEchoes.com) where I'm posting devotions weekly and housing my photography portfolio.
*I quit worrying what people would think if they read my personal blog (www.sixgoldencoins.blogspot.com) and went public with it. [And it hasn't killed me... yet!]
*I quit nursing a cut from an old friend when loss stung deeper than the cut.
*I quit wondering WHAT IF about that tattoo and finally got it!
*I quit sitting in pain and fought for my marriage.
*I quit being a stand off and showed up for people I love even when their beliefs were a contrast to all my regimental Pharisee rules.
*I quit wondering what anyone else but Jesus would say when I spoke at my friends' wedding.
*I quit sitting on the sidelines and said yes to skin in the game.
*I took the bite out of a specific insult and turned it into a compliment, letting my raging mercy flag fly.
*I quit waiting to be invited and decided to do the inviting instead, forming a book study group of women who challenged me to Live Loved.
*I quit making excuses for a small group commitment and said yes to a Two/42 group with friends.
*I quit expecting forgiveness to appear magically and began the hard work of repairing wounds and getting help by starting counseling again.
And tomorrow, the first day of 2017, I am quitting one more thing: Facebook. I can't fully withdraw from it because of business usage, so I'm limiting it to one day a week. As much as I love the connections I make there and the opportunities it's given me (our annual pillow fight day or caroling for a cancer patient or making a friend in the airport), the Facebook negativity isn't worth those connections right now.

As best I can, I'm quitting the negative Republican/Democrat political posts. I'm quitting the hustle of more more MORE from acquaintances who want me to buy/sell/launch/promote in a type of relationship that isn't truly relating. I'm quitting the lie that I need a platform to become a writer, instead opting for a couch where I can become a friend.

I'm ready for the fresh and simple hope and encouragement that 2017 *might* bring. Of course, it might also bring pain and loss and fear again. If so, at least I know I can survive it. I've made it through 1993, 1996, 2004, 2005, 2013, and now - blessedly - 2016.

Happy new year (and happy quitting!) to all of you!
via Glennon Doyle Melton

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 in Review

January started with the waters receding after major December floods in St. Louis.

Personally, January was marked by raging mercy and a promotion for Dan. That promotion set the tone for the year to come in more ways than one.

The highlight of February was the first weekend, when Katie and I went on our church's youth retreat called WinterBlast. It was a fun (tiring!) weekend.



My third Holy Yoga retreat started March off with a bang. I thoroughly enjoyed the photography sessions I had and the women (and one man!) who became more than clients to me: they are now my friends!



I also spent a glorious March day with my friend Cindy as we went on a photography hunt in a field of thousands of daffodils.

In March, the kids and I took a spring break road trip to my hometown Marietta, GA. It was my high school's 50th birthday party.

I also had a senior photo session with my niece Peyton.

April was a book launch team (Looking for Lovely), the annual International Pillow Fight Day, and an earthquake of a conference by author Dan Allender that Dan and I attended.

I also had 3 photo shoots in April, plus our own extended family photos in celebration of my mother-in-law's 70th birthday. (April also meant her big birthday party.)

May was a daytime Cardinals game with my friend, a visit to the Botanical Garden (and LOTS of beautiful photos for future devotions yet to be written), a senior portrait session, hail damage, a solo trip to Arlington Cemetery, a business trip with Dan to Las Vegas, the end of the school year, and a mother-daughter art retreat.

We started June with a trip to Asheville, NC on the way to my niece's high school graduation in Pinehurst, NC.

Almost as soon as we got home, Katie and I left for a five day church youth summer camp.


Right after that, Katie became a TEENAGER. Eeeek! That was followed by our church's baptism blowout party, and the start of a deep funk for me.

June further unraveled with me and the kids sick on the couch, followed by a mouse (or mice) invading our house. We clung desperately to happy by adventuring out to Knockerball as a family, just before our piano arrived.

This brings us to July and some summer adventures: fireworks on the 4th (this year at Innsbrook), our annual day at Six Flags, graduation parties, and camps. Dan's job had become even more high pressure with a larger time commitment. At the end of July, we traveled to Kansas City (on fumes) for the wedding of our friends Brad and Andy.

August started with one last summer adventure with friends to Anheuser Busch's Warm Springs Ranch.

The Olympics found us on the couch a lot, being inspired by the world's best athletes. School started back up, and I flew to New York City to help my sister move into her new home.

August ended with another trip: this time, Dan and I flew to North Carolina to celebrate my brother-in-law Wally's military retirement.

September marked the beginning of the Mizzou football season as Dan and I escaped on day trips to CoMo for the games.

September is also when I waved the white flag and started seeing a counselor again. Right after that, our friend Sean died and we're still struggling to grasp the loss.

In early October, Dan and I took another trip - this time to New York City to celebrate my sister's 50th birthday.

October included more photo sessions, fall break, more Mizzou games, camping, and having coffee with an author whose book deepened my faith and changed my perspective.

The end of October brought the 20th anniversary of my brother Jackson's death, and I marked the day by finally getting the tattoo I've been planning for years.

Jackson started wrestling at the end of October. We had another funeral to attend, another Mizzou game, and we sputtered into Halloween with hardly a fall decoration on display. (I felt drained, y'all.)

November's election just about did me in, as well as the rest of the country. Thankfully, I had some distractions to keep me moving: more photo sessions, lots of Katie event (a trip to MOYIG in Jefferson City...

...a smashed iTouch screen, science project, and Metro8 performance where she was selected first chair), a last Mizzou game, and a Blues game to celebrate Dan's sister's 40th birthday. Whew! We made it to Thanksgiving. Just barely.

Our family attended our first ever wrestling tournament at the start of December. Dan and I were in desperate need of connection with each other, so we had an adventure day with a St. Louis city scavenger hunt.

I made my last trip of the year, back to North Carolina to see our niece Hannah graduate from college.

Katie and I attended a Christmas concert, an ice storm hit St. Louis and wrecked lots of plans and property, and we finally had our siding repaired. (Remember that hail storm back in May? Yep. It took us THAT long to get the work done.)

Dan and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary with a lunch date and a visit to a new float spa in the area.

Christmas Eve services at church involved bell ringing, hearkening back to the 2010 services that will forever be our favorite.



And, there you have it: 2016 in a nutshell. I didn't describe the ick in extreme detail, because I do want to honor privacy. Plus, if I open that can of worms I'm not sure the lid will fit when it's time to shelve it. There are parts I want to forget, but I know forgetting only results in repeating the same patterns. So I'll remember 2016, but I'm hoping the good stuff outshines the pain that 2016 brought with it.

I'm praying 2017 brings rest and joy and hope to you and to my family, too.

Friday, December 23, 2016

21 Years and All Grown Up

Our marriage celebrates its 21st birthday today. It has finally come to legal fruition. It has all the rights and privileges of an American adult: the ability to vote, drink, and buy tobacco. (It will have to wait 4 more years for the privilege of renting a car.)

Like any living being I know aged 21 years, our marriage has gone through typical growing pains. It has experienced the first years of learning to talk and walk and feed itself. Like a toddler, it had to learn the boundaries of You and I, then the boundaries of We. It went from gross motor skills to fine-tuning the rhythm of life shared with someone else.

It assumed bogus autonomy around age 5, when it acted like all the things of life had already been lived and there was nothing new to learn. It got a little bossy-pants attitude that was quickly squelched in year 8 with the arrival of a child. Parenting stripped away the "ME" parts of marriage and replaced it with "WE" as both husband and wife realized the only way they'd make it out of parenting alive was by leaning on each other.

By age 9 almost all of the husband's immediate in-laws had been wiped out, leaving the wife shipwrecked. The marriage was the life preserver that kept her afloat during the worst Perfect Storm.

The wife learned true dependence in the marriage's early adolescent years, since year 10 marked the beginning of her stay-at-home career. Most 10-year-olds have learned and earned enough trust in ten years to spread their wings and test their flight just ever so slightly. This was true for the marriage, too. Both partners felt able and safe enough to entrust their futures to each other. He trusted her with the raising of their children and she trusted him as provider of their livelihood. The marriage nestled in safety as a second hatchling was added to their nest in the 12th year.

Most new teens experience a bit of upheaval when 13 hits, and the marriage was no exception. Year 13 marked a medical diagnosis and a spiritual awakening that continued into year 14 and beyond. That awakening kept blossoming in the 16th year and culminated in a father/daughter baptism.

The late teen years involved a new stage as the wife worked outside the home and the marriage had newly adjusted boundaries involving lots of solo parenting to accommodate weekend work shifts.

Balance was difficult and by the end of the second decade in the life of the marriage, changing job titles helped the marriage "find itself" as all early 20-somethings are wont to do.

You'd think by age 21, the marriage would have itself all figured out. It would know its likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, potholes and speed bumps to avoid and answers to pesky questions like "Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?"

Yes, some of those things are clarified in a way they've never been before. But some of them are murkier than ever before because the two people in custody of the marriage are living and breathing beings too.

But one thing is certain. There is only ONE answer to the question, "Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?"

TOGETHER. It's as simple as that.

*****

Please raise a toast to 21 years of saying "I do" and "Yes" and "What do YOU think?" and "Can we..." and "What if..." and "I'm sorry" and a lifetime of "I love yous."

Dan, I love being your wife. During the triumphs and the tragedies, whether we're laughing or irritating the crap out of each other: I love you and I love us. Our marriage is worth fighting for, and I love having you by my side in the trenches.

Thank you for teaching me the value of going where the wind blows us and being open to adventures. You make every one of our adventures better! Happy 21st anniversary.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Sit By Me

My mercy-gifted heart was shredded this past week, watching intolerant people perpetuate a vicious, hopeless cycle. After the events that have happened so far this year, many of us feel isolated, unwelcome, and alone.

The only way this cycle gets broken is through seeing the humanity in each other and bridging the distance. As Pastor David Anderson says, "Distance demonizes."

In that spirit, I am inviting those of you who feel unwelcome and tattered to come sit by me. Whether in a virtual or literal sense, sit by me and share your life in a safe space.

If you're a ME TOO person instead of a NOT ME, sit by me.

If you're for fixing instead of breaking, sit by me.

If you're for friending instead of unfriending, sit by me.

If you're for solving instead of whining, sit by me.

If you're for learning instead of stagnation, sit by me.

If you're for singing instead of insulting, sit by me.

If you're for understanding instead of proving, sit by me.

If you're willing to let love outshout your fear, sit by me.

If you're committed to aggressive acts of forgiveness, sit by me.

If you want someone to remind you Whose you are, sit by me.

If you want someone to listen and you're willing to listen too, sit by me.

I am FOR vulnerability and mercy and safe grieving and wiping tears and cheering and championing and holding sacred space and hugging and hand holding and steadfast hope.

I stand AGAINST whining and shoulding and name calling and attacking and truth twisting and Chicklen-littling and fear panicking.

Can you say, "Me too!" with confidence and compassion? Then I have an open seat beside me, and you're invited to sit a spell.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

GOOD PEOPLE

If anything makes me want to run away to another country today, it isn’t the newly elected leaders: it’s the rest of you nincompoops who are acting like Chicken Little! But I’m not going to run, and I’m not going to freak out. I’m standing firmly rooted in truth.

I choose to cling to the basic truth I know about the world: PEOPLE ARE GOOD. And to reinforce that fact, I decided to spend the morning actively seeking out reminders of goodness.

I’m started by looking at my friend Sean’s Facebook wall. He’s been gone for 7 weeks now, and I’ve watched GOOD PEOPLE write letters to him and his family. I’ve listened to countless YouTube music videos people have posted to remember good times with their great friend.

Next, I moved on to the stories I know from authors like Bob Goff. This man has founded a movement of GOOD PEOPLE who are committed to love in action. I’m remembering stories I’ve read about Bob Goff’s whimsical view of the world, and the way he’s loved in the face of hate and recklessly given of himself when giving just didn’t make sense on the balance sheet.

Then I thought of another author I love, Glennon Doyle Melton. I read something she wrote yesterday, on election day: “WE BELONG TO EACH OTHER AND WE CAN DO HARD THINGS AND NO MATTER WHO WINS, LOVE WINS. We get to decide that. Let’s decide that. Let’s show up for each other. Let’s love. It’s the only thing that will heal us. And it's what will best define us this month.”

There's a phenomenon happening right now, this very day: an Election Recovery Party of sorts called Holiday Hands that Glennon is hosting through the TogetherRising website. I wasn’t quite sure what this is about until I started poking around the website.

It’s all GOOD PEOPLE, y’all!

But before you get all, "I don't have money to donate!" or "We already adopted a family for Christmas!" or blah, blah, blah... know that this event isn't simply about donating an "unwrapped gift in unisex sizes."

You need to click on the link, then click on "browse listings." It's like Craig's List for givers! You'll find people who are asking for help, ranging from people who want a letter saying they're worth loving to a family whose medical bills are capsizing them and they simply want a turkey dinner for the holidays.

You can write a letter, can't you? You can send a grocery gift card to a family, can't you?

Giving of yourself will always, always push the darkness aside.

Today, the day after one of the most painful elections, I’m hoping we can take the angst and energy we’re barfing on the Interwebs and direct it towards making a difference.

THIS is how we'll be "Better Together," y'all. THIS is how we'll "Make America Great Again." We'll do it one by one, human to human, without waiting for an elected official to show us how to give mercy and compassion.

Visit the Holiday Hands website, and spend some time reading through the requests and the responses. It will resuscitate your faith in GOOD PEOPLE and restore your hope in our future.

We can do hard things – heck, YOU can do hard things because you are a GOOD PEOPLE!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Parents Standing Firmly

I'll be honest with you: today was a hard day of parenting. Second chances were taken for granted. Scoldings felt like standoffs. And a moment of rejoicing with one child was bookended by disobedience of the other. I felt like quitting my Mommy Job, and walked out of the house feeling defeated and tempted to escape to Jamaica. (Don't worry, I eventually came back!)

Then we went to church tonight. I sat in the dark, listening to a team of musicians sing praise to my Father and remembered a few of the times I've been a disobedient child.

I was watching one of the men on stage as he sang, and my heart filled with gratitude that I have a place to reset my despondent heart. That's when I realized the dad of the singer was sitting right in front of me. And from where I was sitting, it looked like the son was standing on his father's shoulders. I know the dad personally and know he is one of the most upstanding, steadfast, faithful, and humble men I know.


I felt this moment was God's way of reminding me no child learns to stand on his own unless he's had a parent to show the way. Parents stand firmly so their children can stand taller. The worship leader on stage is the Christ-follower he is because his mother and father gave him the example of a life submitted to Christ.

I needed this reminder to stand firmly even when I want to throw in the towel as a mother. I needed to see that my faith matters even when a disobedient child makes me want to "lose my religion." I needed my Father to pick me up, brush me off, and set me back on His path again.

When I took a broader look around, I saw another set of my friends on the right side of me and their daughter sitting in the front row to my left. She was raising her hands and having some deep worship with God. I looked on stage again and saw the children of other friends of mine, and realized what a blessing they are to me too - and one of the reasons why is because their parents have poured and refilled them for years and years. I am thankful for parents who show me how to parent. And for my own parents, too.

Thank You God, for putting these people in my life tonight and using them to remind me to keep my eyes on the long goal of parenting. You are a good, good Father!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

10/25/96

When I grieve my brother Jackson's death on October 26, 1996, the painful memories find their genesis in the night before the 26th.

10/25/96 dealt me the first blow. It's the night my sister Mary called me after she visited Jackson in Augusta, Georgia for the last time

Dan and I lived in Kansas City and had friends over that night. We were eating chicken wings in our living room, laughing and having a great time. The phone rang and it was Mary on the line. I knew she had planned to visit Jackson that night, so I took the phone to my bedroom to talk privately with her and not disrupt dinner with our friends.

Mary's voice was tense and serious. She told me, "Poozie, you need to come home - sooner rather than later." I thought she was being overly dramatic.

I gave her excuses why I couldn't simply pick up right then and drive 12 hours to Augusta: I told her I had to work. And, besides, I already made plane reservations to fly down a week later to spend time with Jackson. His wife, Bonnie, had asked for caretakers to help so I bought tickets just the day before.

"Mary," I said, "I'm coming soon enough."

I went back to chicken wings and beer and laughing with my pals. I even have a photo of it; I kept it because my later regret wagged its finger at me in shame.

The next morning, Dan and I slept in. I worked weekend nights in my TV news job, so we were having a lazy morning before I started getting ready for work. I was just about to head to the bathroom to shower when the phone rang.

I answered it, and the words I heard shattered my world. It was Jackson's wife, Bonnie. She was crying and simply said, "He's gone."

Tonight, I type this story and still feel regret about the decision I made twenty years ago, right around this very moment.

I regret that my sister called and told me to hurry, and I placed my excuses in higher priority than my family.

I regret my naivete that made me believe the biggest lie I've ever bought: "There will always be more time."

I regret the chicken wings and the belly laughs I had while my brother lay dying.

Have you ever read the verse in Isaiah 61 that says God will bring beauty from ashes? This promise of God's has come to fruition in my life; God has redeemed the October 25ths of my past.

I can now say God was generous when He allowed the experience of 10/25/96, because He knew my regret from that night would change the days of my life yet to come.

God knew my "no" on 10/25/96 would echo for the rest of my life. What I learned that night was not to wait. When someone asks for help, 10/25/96 taught me to say yes. It taught me to show up and shore up the people who matter to me no matter the request or the excuses I so quickly rationalize.

God shaped a new core value in my character through my experience of 10/25/96: the value of NOW because later doesn't always come.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Letter to the McMullin Boys

Dear Ryan, Liam, Finn and Owen,

It's been exactly one month since you experienced the most defining moment of your lives so far. I say "so far" because I'm hoping it doesn't become THE defining moment of your life long-term; there is so much living ahead for each of you! I trust God's ability to bring beauty from ashes, and I am expectantly waiting to see how He'll continue to define and refine your lives.

But this letter isn't about what's to come, it's about what happened last month. It's about the death of your father, Sean.

One day - probably years from now - you'll read this letter. I am not sure what you'll remember from the days we laid your dad to rest, and I trust the people in your lives will be able to fill in gaps for you.

I asked your mom if I could be one of those people and write this letter to you, and she gave me permission to do so. She also gave me permission to take photos at your dad's visitation and funeral, knowing one day you might want to see the honor that surrounded your dad's farewell.

It has taken me a month to write this letter to you. I have been waiting for the shock to subside because I didn't want this letter to be about your dad's death. I want this letter to be about Sean's life; THAT is worth writing about! But, of course, I have to start with his death or, rather, the days we said our formal goodbyes to him.

Before I get much further, I'm going to ask your forgiveness. I know parts of this letter won't make sense, because I'm struggling to make sense of your dad's death. I should wait even longer to write this letter, but then it won't ever be written because I'll never make sense of Sean's death! I'd love for this letter to flow nicely, but it's going to be scattered and sloppy because the memories are so intense.

Boys, please know this before you read any further: your dad was so deeply loved. The loss we all felt when he died was more than an emotion. It was a physical presence. It's as if the Loss has become a person who pulled up a chair in each of our lives and has refused to budge no matter how desperately we've been ignoring it. Then Loss invited Shock to the table, and Grief became the hostess.

Everyone who knew and loved your dad has been walking around with these "companions" for a month now. I can see it when someone posts on Sean's Facebook page, telling a story about him or simply saying how much he is missed.

We can't shake the grief, because we can't shake the love either.

When I left your dad's visitation and funeral, I jotted notes in my phone because I knew I wanted to tell you about these days - one day in the future. Here are the things I don't want to forget:

On the day of your dad's visitation, hundreds of people showed up out of respect and love. There were so many people, we ran out of parking spots at the Stygar funeral home. There's an unused furniture store next door, so people started parking there and walking over. The parking lot is enormous but when I pulled up that night, it was already half full. Overflow was overflowing! I parked (illegally - it would have made your dad laugh) and hugged some friends in the parking lot. I looked at the fire trucks and the flag flying from the ladders, and started choking back tears. I've seen fire trucks and flags like this before, but never for a friend of mine.

Dan, Jackson, and I started walking towards the front doors of Stygar. The firefighters in their uniforms stood with each other, talking quietly. I wanted to pretend they were all friends of someone else, but I couldn't pretend once I recognized some of their faces. When I saw Nick Hercules in his uniform with Christina by his side, the reality of our shared loss unraveled us all.

In the lobby of Stygar, there were so many people it was hard to walk. The line of people who were waiting to speak to your mom and your dad's parents and siblings was so long, it wrapped around the perimeter of the funeral parlor.

In the middle of the hardest days of her life, your mom's grace was tangible and fierce. I watched her comfort the people who were supposed to be comforting her, the people who meant to give sympathy but instead received it. Your mom was wrecked, but she wasn't destroyed. I can't explain what it was like to be a witness to her dignity and strength.

Liam, every time a friend arrived at the visitation, you played host and made sure the friend got to see your dad and say hello/goodbye. You also wanted your buddies to see the firefighters who were standing guard over your dad. When you made sure your friends had greeted your dad, you carried on and went about the building in a way that showed your understanding and acceptance.

Ryan, I watched you become a leader for your brothers. You walked with courage through an experience no one could have prepared you for. For years now, your parents have been laying a foundation for your character. When your dad died, that character went from invisible to visible. We saw the heart of a boy who is becoming a man.

At the end of the visitation, everyone who was still there took a seat. You boys sat with your mom, waiting for the firefighters to file past the casket and salute your dad. In the silent waiting, Finn and Owen’s voices could be heard asking your mom things like, “Does Daddy like my picture?” and “Are we going to have fun tomorrow?” Everyone in the room fought back tears as best as we could, but it didn’t help because the firefighters’ goodbyes made the tears flow again. When that was finished, all of our hearts ached when Ryan grabbed Owen and Finn’s hands and led them to your dad’s casket. When Ryan and Finn turned to sit, Owen stayed. The entire room gasped, then sobbed, as we watched Owen salute the casket then make the sign of the cross before folding his hands into prayer. He stood like that for just a moment, then turned to join your family.

When the visitation was over and almost everyone had left the Stygar funeral home, I was standing with Nick and Kevin. One of the Stygar employees walked over to talk to us. She didn’t know your dad, but wanted to share the grief she felt being present during the visitation. Then she looked at Kevin and Nick, locked eyes with them, and thanked each of them for their service as firefighters. It touched me to see the way a stranger could feel the depth of love for your dad and take the time to share it with someone else.

The funeral was on Thursday. Your family met at Stygar to escort your dad to the church. One of the ladder trucks from your dad’s firehouse was draped in black, and all the other trucks followed behind it on the drive to St. Joseph’s.

As we drove closer to the church, the bells rang long and loud in his honor. The firefighters stationed at the firehouse across from St. Joseph’s stood on their driveway, saluting your dad.

Outside the church, firefighters stood at attention to welcome your dad and family.

I remember sitting in the back of the church, looking at the crowd of people gathered in respect for your dad. During his homily, Monsignor invited Owen and Finn to stand so he could tell them about a stained glass in the sanctuary. Owen and Finn, you stood on your seats and all I could see was your heads popping up above the crowd like prairie dogs.

When we left the church and drove to the cemetery, the funeral procession stretched for two miles.

Traffic came to a standstill. Some people even got out of their cars to stand on the side of the road to honor your dad’s service.

We passed another firehouse, and another team of firefighters stood in their driveway to pay their respects.

When we parked at the cemetery, Dan and I realized we parked by the bagpiper. He was preparing for the funeral, and I heard his warm-up notes before I even opened my car door.

During the burial ceremony, your dad’s partner from the firehouse (Kim) rang a bell three times. The tones went off and your dad’s last call was announced by the fire district dispatcher. We couldn’t stop crying.

When the ceremony was over and people started hugging and consoling each other, we didn’t quite know what to do next. It was like nobody wanted to leave, but we knew we couldn’t stay. After one of the firefighters alerted the other first responders that someone had fainted and an ambulance arrived, we all scattered. Some people said their last goodbyes, and some went on to the reception at the union hall.

Before Dan and I left, we watched your McMullin grandparents, aunts, and uncles as they went to your dad’s casket one more time. Your Casner aunts and uncle did, too.

Later that evening, I drove back to the cemetery to visit your dad’s grave. It isn’t far from my house, so it was the first of many visits for me. I sat by his grave to cry and think about his life and all the things I already missed about him: Adidas and karaoke and mix CDs and singing Eminem together and touring the firehouse and Smithwicks and St. Pat’s parades and Sigma Derby in Vegas and beach volleyball in Jamaica. I thought about one of my first memories from the beginning of our friendship, when your parents were the first people I shared our new pregnancy with. Even if I knew then that I would sit by your dad’s grave now, I wouldn’t change anything – except telling him I loved him more often and responding differently in the last texts we shared. When he texted, "Let's get together soon," I wish I had responded with more than, "Yeah, we should do that."

Sitting by the grave, I also thought back over the last six days since your dad died. So many new memories came to mind: the memory of your McMullin grandparents, aunts and uncles holding each other tightly and carrying one another's burdens. They allowed us to share their loss, graciously acknowledging Sean’s reach went beyond the roles of son and brother.

I thought about your Casner family showing their love through their presence. Your mom was never left alone, and every meal and bath and clothing item was handled by your uncles or aunts. Your cousins gladly took you under their wings, giving you a place of normalcy and safety.

I thought about how the loss of your dad affected our whole community. On Wednesday, Thursday and the following days, I noticed flags flying at half-staff at local schools, police stations and fire houses. When I passed the flags, my heart was heavy with a mixture of pride and sorrow: pride that I got to call Sean my friend and sorrow that I won’t get to hug him or laugh with him again this side of heaven.

I thought about you four boys. Over the past few days, all eyes were on you because the four of you are your father's legacies. You are the last - and lasting - gift he gave us. When we look at you, we see Sean. We see his eyes smiling after a good joke. We hear his voice in the way Ryan or Liam phrase their words. We see his lips when you smile, because you have the same light in your face that he did. Even now, it makes me ache to see the echo of your dad in you – but it makes me so tremendously happy, too. As you live, so does he.

There will be hard days, and there will be easy days. There will be days you feel like things have gotten “normal” again and you’ll be lulled into thinking the hard days are past you. And then somehow, things will feel hard again and you’ll remember life in two parts: life before and life after September 24, 2016.

You have a heavy load to shoulder, but I believe in you. You are Casner-McMullins, and your lineage is your best defense for the road ahead.

And even more than that? You have some deeply good-hearted people on your side, and I’m not talking only about your relatives. You have a community of first responders who want to take you under their wings. You have friends, neighbors, school alumni, church members, and random people your dad helped rescue during his career – people who want to help you succeed and are willing to carry your grief with you.

I am one of those people. Although my individual impact is very small in the grand scheme of people who support you, I’m praying for God to bind all our small hands together so we can carry you and your mom through these days.

Your dad's death took us all by surprise, and it reminded us to love deeper and better and more fully. Your mom told me you've been talking about keeping your eyes open for the helpers when tragedy happens, and I hope compassion and empathy help your eyes stay open through the coming years.

Never forget how loved you are, Finn. You have your dad’s wit and straight-shooting character, never mincing words and always “telling it like it is.” You made him laugh. A LOT!

Owen, I hope you never stop hearing your dad’s voice calling you “Owie.” Don’t forget the memories of him letting you sleep on his belly. You were his little guy, and he protected you and carried you close.

Liam, you are like your dad in the way you march to the beat of your own drum. You aren’t afraid to stand out, and you stick to your convictions. It’s like your dad listening to crazy music no one ever heard of or shopping at British clothing stores. He loved the unusual and unique, and you are so like him in that way.

Never stop seeing your dad’s smile in your eyes, Ryan. You are his first child, and firstborn sons get special blessings from their fathers. Your blessing is in the character your mom and dad handcrafted and labored over these last 12 years. He was always so proud of you.

Each of you are so loved and precious to countless people, including me.

I love you boys!
B-Beth

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