Monday, September 12, 2016

15 Years and the Morning After

What do you do in the moments after the shock of a trauma have passed?

This morning, I think back to the day after our nation's terrible losses on 9/11. It was fifteen years ago, and that day lives in my memory as a feeling, not simply an event.

Time travel IS possible; all it takes is one photo to deliver me back to the shallow breathing and staggering disbelief of that morning. I still physically react to the photos of the airplanes hitting the Twin Towers, and the aftermath.

My memory is so intense, I feel 9/11 instead of simply recalling it: the crisp newly-autumn feel in the St. Louis air that day. The feeling that I forgot to breathe and needed to gasp in order to catch up with the four heartbeats that just pounded through my chest. The woozy waves of disgust that churned my stomach as I realized human beings willingly did this to other human beings. The tightened shoulders that intangibly grabbed the weight of grief for survivors who started posting photos of missing family and loved ones in New York City - and grief that dog-piled on when I realized two more planes were involved.

My mind raced, too: the topsy-turvy doubts because what I believed to be safe was called into question. The human instincts of fight or flight that took over as I swung between wanting to kick someone's tail and wanting to run to the arms of my family and neighbors so I could again feel the safety of community.

I was afraid. We were afraid.

Mercifully, 9/11 ended and the sun rose on the morning of September 12. As a nation, we weren't capable of comprehension yet. It would be months and, for some, years before we would reach that point. And to be honest, on yesterday's 15th anniversary, there were still pieces missing for me in the puzzle of comprehension.

What did we do between the trauma and the comprehension? How did we face the morning after?

I remember doing the same thing then that I find myself doing today: I watched and listened and felt and held and prayed and learned.

I was hungry for stories that would help me own the grief. And even though the grief was not a burden I wanted to carry, I knew turning from it would mean allowing evil to cozy up close to me.

This is why, fifteen years after the day after, I am still seeking stories. I want to feel the heaviness again, because I want to remember the feelings and not only the moments as detached events. Remembering the loss and the incredible compassion that came after it is how we fight back against the darkness and evil.

Our enemy wants us to forget how we felt fifteen years ago. Our enemy wants us to be numb to the pain; numbing equals a lack of feeling which equals inaction which - to our enemy - is just as good as getting permission to stir the chaos all over again.

NOT on my watch!

So, even fifteen years later, I seek and I feel and I pray and I learn. I hold space for sadness to come sit with me again, and I don't push it away prematurely.

This year, I invited sadness to come sit with my kids for the first time, too. This wasn't like in years past, when I glossed over the details to spare them pain. This year, we watched the videos of what happened on 9/11 and I retold them stories of sacrifice from Flight 93 and New York City and Washington, D.C.

Grief and remembering are intertwined like the arms I wrap around my kids at bedtime. I won't forget the losses of 9/11, and I won't stop spending my September 12s learning and seeking and listening and watching and telling.

If you would like to join me, here are just a few of the stories and tributes I'm watching and sharing with my kids:

  • This music video helps me remember the day's extreme evil and extreme goodness.
  • The Man in the Red Bandana tells the story of Welles Crowther and his heroism in the South tower or the World Trade Center.
  • Todd Beamer was one of the heroes of Flight 93. His oldest son is playing football at his dad's alma mater.

And here's a video of my own, taken last Friday at Art Hill in St. Louis, MO. A group called America's Heartland Remembers placed 6,783 flags with dog tags and photos to commemorate the military members who gave their lives in the war on terror since 9/11. The video shows the wind blowing through the flags and shaking the metal dog tags, each representing a life that ended too soon. The dead still speak, if we stop long enough to hear their echoes. #FlagsOfValor #HonorTheFallen

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

September 7s

September 7th is a day that has the entirety of life embedded in it.

It is the day I celebrate the birth of the most important human being in my life, my husband Dan.

It is also the day I mourn the single most influential person in my life: my mother, who went Home on my husband's birthday.

Ever since 2004, September 7 has been full of conflict in my heart. I celebrate his presence and mourn her absence, which is the truest reality of ALL our lives as we live each day "in between."

On any given day, we ride the spectrum between highs and lows, joy and sorrow, dancing and mourning. I choose to face the September 7s of my life as a reminder of God's fulfilled promise in Isaiah 61:3, when He replaces despair with praise, mourning with joyous blessings, and ashes with crowns of beauty.

Happy Homecoming anniversary to my mom, and happy birthday to my best friend! Thank you both for giving me the best reminder of God's goodness.

God, thank You for the gifts of September 7!

Friday, September 2, 2016

Finding My Voice

Two nights ago, on the way home from youth group at church, Katie and I were the only ones in the car. We played our favorite worship songs and held a private concert for each other.

Katie knows I'm insecure about my singing voice. After one of the songs she said to me, "Mom, you are a really great singer. You don't think you are, but I love when you hit the high notes and sing!"

I wanted to remind her of the times I've been told I howl like a hound or the time when a recording artist stood beside me in church and told me I was *way* out of my range. But I didn't, because my 13-year-old daughter didn't need to hear reinforcement about my shortcomings.

She thinks I am a lovely singer, so it must be true. Right?

The truth is I don't have a spectacular voice, but I am very good at mimicking other singers. I have an ear for subtlety, and can hear the nuances of melody or the beat hidden behind the tempo. The drawback is I am musically uneducated, so I can't explain what I hear in language that someone else or a musician would understand. But I know how to copy someone else's style pretty darn well, thankyouverymuch.

The problem with this is that being a "mimicker" means I silence my own original voice or, worse, regurgitate someone else's voice instead of the voice of my life: the Voice of my Creator.

I don't want to be a mouthpiece for anyone else but Him. I want my words to echo His voice. I want to sing songs that sound like Him. I want to drink so deeply from his well that my breath smells like His refreshment.

It's a constant refinement process, making sure I'm keeping my eyes on my Master and following His lead. Especially when I'm scared of failing or looking like a fool.

Yesterday, I faced a BIG fear of mine. I went public with my website ( and published my first photo devotional.

Yes, these are the same photo devotionals I dreamed of turning into a book when I went to the She Speaks conference in 2015. Only now, the "book" isn't printed on paper you can keep on your nightstand or tuck in your backpack. It lives on the interwebs, and I'm pretty ecstatic with the work my friend Ashley did to make the website a reality.

The website is a huge part of me finding my voice. It's a line drawn in the sand, marking the spot where I stop singing like other people and echo what my Father speaks to me.

If I'm going to mimic anyone, let it be Him!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Skin Color and Shame

Last Friday was the end of a week where the news was all about two black men killed by police in separate cities. It was also the day after five Dallas police officers were killed during a protest of those shootings.

I was skimming Facebook and saw the first seconds of a video about how to act when a police officer pulls you over. It was Coffey Anderson, a black man, giving the information in the video. The video has since gone viral; it's likely you already saw it.

When Jackson saw it, he made a joke and said, "Everyone knows how to do that!"

So I reminded Jackson that he has white skin and probably doesn't have to fear what might happen if he were to ever be pulled over, while some people with darker skin might.

The only thing I've ever feared is paying a fine or the chance of increased insurance rates.

I explained some neighborhoods aren't as safe as ours and sometimes people are told not to trust police. And sometimes police get so overwhelmed by their jobs they turn to violence and hurt people. I told him how two men were killed this week and someone else turned their gun on police.

I told Jackson we live in a neighborhood where we aren't afraid and feel safe, but not everyone feels safe in their towns. Some people with darker skin are afraid or dislike people with lighter skin because that's all they've ever known or been told to do. And some people with lighter skin are afraid or dislike people with darker skin because that's all they've ever known or been told to do.

That's when Jackson responded, "I wish I wasn't part of a skin color that does bad things to other skin colors."

My breath caught in my throat.

I explained he should never be ashamed about the way God made him. God gave him a specific eye color and hair color and skin color, and we won't be ashamed about that; no one should ever be ashamed about that!

I went on to tell him, "If you wish people with other skin colors didn't feel so afraid, then make them your friends. Be the reason they aren't scared of white skin!" We can help each other learn and help each other have courage.

And then I had to walk into a different room to cry.

We think our kids are oblivious to what's been happening in our country from Ferguson to Baton Rouge, and I've personally tried to shield mine from the harder horrors. This conversation with Jackson helped me realize we - collectively, WE as in all of us - can't change what's happening if we don't start talking about it. And we need to start talking about it early, even at my son's young age of nine.

I barely know how to parent on a good day, when we're facing sibling spats and chore accountability. Throw in the biggies like sexting, online bullying, addictions, porn, human trafficking, sexual ambiguity, the war on ISIS, Trump vs. Clinton, and race relations (just to name a few), and I feel downright overwhelmed.

How on earth do I parent through the things facing Katie and Jackson? I have no idea what I'm doing and I'm pretty sure I'm royally messing things up.

But when my son tells me he's ashamed of his skin color, I know it's time to dig in deep.

God, help me be a parent who can talk through the hard stuff and lean on You through all my inadequacies. Remind me that staying silent is worse than my bumbling attempts at honest and grace-filled conversations. Please put wise friends and family in my and my kids' lives - people who can help me navigate parenting and also give my children counsel when I don't know how. Give me courage to speak up, speak truth, and ask questions - even when I run the risk of asking stupid questions and looking like an ignorant bumpkin. Thank You for modeling humility and sacrificial love by sending Your Son, Jesus, to pardon all of our messes. Please take my messes, including the parenting ones, and make a masterpiece of them. Amen!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Charlie Brown Cycle

I'm currently in a Charlie Brown life cycle: two weeks in the valley of credit card fraud, virus (food poisoning?) vomiting, battling a mouse in the house, a deep clean and reorganization (thanks, ya darn mouse!) and the mid-summer throes of sibling spats.

Last Thursday I took the kids to see the Peanuts movie, and deeply related to Charlie Brown.

It isn't like things go monumentally wrong for him (no cancer or bankruptcy or abandonment or divorce), but he just never seems to get ahead. He keeps trying, but his kite crashes or he slips on a puddle or his little sister needs him so he helps instead of going his own way.

After the past two weeks, I wanted to pump my fist in the air to show solidarity with him.

I know my current Charlie Brown cycle will end, so I'm hanging on.

My favorite quote from the movie was when he said, "It's the courage to continue that counts." Amen, Charlie!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Mother's Heart

My love for you is intense.

I will put myself in harm's way in order to save you from it.

I will fiercely protect you, standing firmly even when my fear screams I'm crazy for doing so.

I will offer myself as bait when evil comes knocking at the door, if it means protecting your innocence even one day longer.

I do all of this without financial reimbursement, monetary gain, accolades or expectation of advancement, knowing the possibility - and probability - that I won't be noticed or get a passing glance.

I have become the invisible guardian of your life.

I do this because I love you. I do this because it was done for me. I do this because it's a calling and I've been told it's the most important job on earth.

But on the days when I'm invisible, the calling feels like a curse.

It hurts to be the one acting as the Electronic Police or the catch-all for every entitled pout or the annoying mom who just wants to visit the classroom to see your robotic project along with the other parents. For the person whose life centers around yours, it hurts to get shoved out of the way.

I know it would be too much for me to expect to be included in every celebration you have, every moment you experience, every breath you take. It would be a lot for me to require manners and reverence of me at all times (even when you're low on sleep or failed a test or fell on the playground or lost the big game). I get it. So I'm not asking for monumental depths of grace and inclusion from my (new!) teenager and grade-schooler.

But here's the secret to a mother's heart: we don't need much. I don't need much!

Just throw me a bone.

Hold my hand on the way into Walmart. Turn to smile at me when you step on the bus. Tell me the funny joke that made you laugh. Thank me when you get into the car without your lunch and I remind you to go back and grab it. Invite me to sit with you on the couch.

My mama's heart is like a flower: simply shine a little light on it and I will unfold and blossom, exposing you to incredible beauty and heavenly scents.

It doesn't take much light, and the results will bless you tenfold. You'll have a mom energized and inspired to do more and feel more and be more - with you and for you!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Happy 13th Birthday, Katie!

Dear Katie,

I started this day - this milestone birthday of yours - with a full circle moment.

Thirteen years and two days ago, I spent Father's Day 2003 celebrating Daddy. He was a pre-father already, since you were so close to being born. We went to a movie with his dad and mom. I remember sitting with my hugely pregnant belly, thinking this would be the "last time" Daddy and I would get a chance to go out on our own for a long, LONG time. And even though we weren't technically parents yet, our "last time" out was a classic parenting move: we went to see an ANIMATED movie. The title?

Finding Nemo.

This morning, I woke you - my sweet teenager (!) - singing Happy Birthday To You. We ate a slow breakfast, and then headed out to treat you to a birthday movie date. The title?

Finding Dory.

For me, this was a perfect illustration of life with you the past year. Age 12 was beautifully sweet and tender, and overflowed with full circle moments.

There is one moment that is crystal clear in my memory because it is - to date - the most holy, most sacred parenting moment I've experienced.

Just a few weeks before you turned 12, you started showing signs of a struggle within your soul. I immediately knew what was happening, because it is the same struggle I started around the same time in my childhood (and I'm still in that same combat thirty years later). This struggle has been ongoing all year and hasn't ended yet. It has been the deepest ache you've faced in your life so far, and watching you flounder and fly has been one of the hardest things for me, too.

Because I've been where you are now and I've experienced what you're experiencing, I've had to be more vulnerable and authentic with you than I ever anticipated. This is what led me to that holy/sacred moment I mentioned above.

You were broken, laying in our LoveSac and crying over this struggle. Even though you'd been struggling for months, it was the first time you opened up and put words to how this pain was making you feel. It was the first time *I* had put words to what I felt at your age, too. I looked in your eyes as the tears spilled down your cheeks, and told you the words I desperately wished I had heard at age 12:

You are lovely. You are wanted. You are safe.

I told you if I had heard those words (repeated often) as a twelve year old, it would have changed my struggles. It would have healed some of my pain.

That's when YOU turned to ME and said with wet cheeks, "Mom, you are lovely. You are wanted. You are safe." The tenderness in your eyes made my breath catch in my throat, and something broken inside me started to come back together.

Thirty years after my 12-year-old self most needed to hear it, I realized a new chapter had begun in my relationship with you. This chapter is where we both lead and both follow, and end up walking side-by-side, together.

Somewhere along the way, we learned to lock arms with each other and fight the struggle together. I don't think it's anything we did alone; it's a God-given binding of our hearts. Oh, Katie! You are healing me, teaching me, inspiring me, and convicting me with your innocence, commitment, and faith.

I am in love with the young lady you've become, and it floors me every time I hear an echo of the future woman you'll be.

I couldn't be more proud to have a daughter like you in my life. You astound me with your depth of soul, compassionate heart, and the way you observe the world yet choose to go your own way. You encourage me with your faith, and I've enjoyed watching you learn your own rhythm of dancing with Jesus.

While I would love for your future to be filled with a successful career and financial gain and a healthy marriage and the proverbial two-story house with a white picket fence (and my grandkids! Ha, ha...), that's not the focus of my most recent prayers for you. For years now, since I recommitted my life to Christ, my desire for your life has been crystallized into one thought: my biggest hope for your future is that you will grow into a committed Christ follower. The rest is simply icing on the cake.

This past year, I felt vibrations and saw your faith unfold in a way that put the first bits of flesh on the hope I've been holding for your deep relationship with Jesus.

Your blooming has been breath-taking, and the roots God is growing in you have inspired me. You are a darling, beautiful, spectacular, magnificent, lovely-wanted-and-safe girl. And now, I can add TEENAGER to that list. (!)

Happy birthday, sweet Katie. I love you!


Monday, May 30, 2016

On Arlington & Memorial Day

The car came to a stop. I looked to the right and I looked to the left, and as far as my eye could see were little jagged teeth planted upright in the grass. Knowing there were more white monuments on the other side of every hill around me added to the weight of the moment.

I stepped out of the car and my sandals sank into the wet grass and mud. It had rained buckets just an hour before, but the sky was clear now. The rain made the colors around me pop: the green grass, the blue sky, the white tombstones, and the flowers and mementos left by loved ones.

My family skittered ahead in search of a specific friend on this hillside of comrades, but my steps were slowed as the names on the tombstones whispered to my compassion: Richard. James. Bruno. John. Patricia.

A bird landed on her tombstone and I stopped to watch him tweet and flit about, as if this field of stones was like any other random field.

But this one isn't like any other.

The names kept pulling at my memories. Edwin. Carl. Robert. Don't I know someone by that name? What if this field were full of MY friends instead?

Oh, but these are my friends. These are my brothers and sisters, my human companions in this world, and my national compatriots. These are the ones who stood for me, fought for me, endured training schools for the "privilege" of standing knee-deep in a muddy field or pushing forms and paperwork through the system (if they were the soldiers who protected and processed in the administration of office duties).

I'm not going to over-romanticize and pretend every grave in the fields of Arlington holds a soldier who died on the battlefield. Some soldiers who died in battle never made it home to American soil, and are buried in Normandy and Iwo Jima and throughout the world.

We have 147 national cemeteries across America, where our brave fallen find their final rest. But these cemeteries also cradle their spouses and some children. These graves hold the soldiers who returned home from battle, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These graves also hold people who died from other causes, like my brother's grave in Louisville's Cave Hill National Cemetery. He didn't die in a battle for his country; he died in a battle for his life, against cancer.

I stood knee-deep in the sea of Arlington's graves, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of graves around me.

It's easy to look at the tombstones and think of them as things, simple stone markers in freshly-cut grass. I refused to detach from the moment, and started imagining the people these markers memorialized. It was easy, once I started looking around and seeing trinkets and tokens left by the people who grieve for the dead.

I read a poem left at Chris Campbell's grave. It was written as a tribute to his mother, given to her just a few days prior, on Mother's Day. The thought of losing my own son and having to spend Mother's Day at his grave in Arlington brought tears to my eyes.

My family caught up to me then and my brother-in-law, Wally, pointed out the graves of some of his friends. He told us about Heath, and his personality.

Then my sister, Mary, pointed out her friend Jerry's grave nearby. Jerry died during training preps for Afghanistan, and left behind four sons and his wife, Molly. Molly is still friends with Mary and their families remain close.

It's hard to visit the grave of a close friend when all that's left is a cold stone to represent a life that was vibrant and full.

The heaviness I felt in the fields of Arlington was only outweighed by the sense of honor and overwhelming gratitude I felt - and continue to feel - for the people who paid the heaviest sacrifice for my freedom.

I owe a debt I can never repay. And on this Memorial Day, may we remember we ALL do.

"There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13, New Living Translation)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Slipping through My Fingers

I slipped into bed beside Katie this morning whispering, "Good morning to my 7th grader, for the last time." I did the same with Jackson on this, his last day as a 3rd grader. When 12:20pm arrives today, I will be the mother of a 4th grader and 8th grader. *shudder*

I've been calling out these dance cues all week, reminding the kids - and even more so, myself - of the swift passage of time. I'm thanking blaming my sister for sharing ABBA's song "Slipping through My Fingers" with me when Katie started Kindergarten, after I saw it in the movie Mamma Mia! This week, that song has been the soundtrack to my wistful dance.

(Fair warning: I do NOT RECOMMEND clicking that link if you are especially weepy this week! That is, unless you like to have all-out cry fests.)

As they walked out the door to catch the bus this morning, I caught each kid's hand and looked directly into his and her eyes. I praised them both for a school year packed with growth and dedication, chuckled about a few bumps we hit along the way, then slowly, deliberately said these words to each of them: I. AM. PROUD. OF. YOU.

In their excitement to arrive at school for last day festivities, this moment was quickly shelved and they both blew through the door.

This, to me, is parenting in a nutshell: I grasp and cling in my effort to instill weight to the moments of my family's life. I lock eyes in hopes of laser-beaming worth to the souls of my kiddos, while they are busy-busy-busy in the distracted rush of living.

I'm learning that if I wait for the monumentous (new word: monumental + momentous) days to occur before I impart meaning or try to throw up a road marker to designate the milestone of my kids' lives, I've usually waited too long.

The challenge for me as a mother - and for all of us who are in the trenches of parenting - is to acknowledge the passing time of a mundane Thursday in February as well as I do on the milestone "first" and "last" days like today.

How many mundane Thursdays have I let slip through my fingers?

Today, I realized the hourglass of Katie's school years is no longer half-full. We're down to only five more First Days of School and five piddly Last Days. Jackson has nine, which lulls me into a state of comfort with the lie of "there's still time."

I know that isn't true. And I'm also not naive enough to think parenting ends when my kids get their high school diplomas.

I have a few friends who are watching their high school seniors leave for school this morning, second guessing themselves and wondering if they did "enough" to prepare their babies for the harsh world on the other side of the threshold. They vacillate between wanting to punch their cocky senior in the teeth for being all uppity independent, or wanting to tackle them and drag them to the nearest rocking chair for one more snuggly cuddle.

These moments, these nuggets of lasts: they are enough to wear the shine off a mama's soul. What do I do when I get all weepy and heavy? I remember the shine may feel like it's dulling me, but it's just part of the polishing process my Father wants me to endure.

So I carry my joyous sadness to my Him. One friend reminded me today that "He understands the transition of children leaving." He knows the ultimate price His own Son paid to fly the coop and spread His wings in a harsh world on the other side of the threshold.

My Father knows how it feels to hold on while letting go. I pray He shows me the dance moves that will help me with this process, too.

Monday, May 16, 2016

My Brutiful Visit to Washington, D.C.

Last weekend was unforgettable. Here's what I posted Saturday night on Facebook:
My heart is heavy and light, at the same time. How is that even possible? Because I opened my eyes today to witness a community of people carry each other's pain. I was reminded that my loss became dozens of other people's loss - and their losses became mine today - as we honored seven fallen men and women from the West Point Class of 1992 (including my brother Jackson). What an honor it was to hug the people who [still!] love my brother, then cry with them and laugh in the same breath as we shared Jackson stories. Tonight, I can't decide whether to smile or weep in gratitude. I guess it's both.
One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, describes events that are brutal and beautiful with a mash up word: brutiful.

That word is exactly the one I would choose to describe this past weekend: it dented my heart while simultaneously healing it.

For those of you who don't know where I went and what I did this past weekend, I'll start from the beginning.

My brother, Jackson, graduated from West Point in 1992. Four years later, he died of cancer. That makes this year the 20th anniversary of his death. [And I will sit here, dumbfounded, pondering that last sentence for a few moments.]

Jackson's classmates planned a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery as a way to honor the unknown soldiers buried in the tomb and the seven West Point classmates who have died. As Jackson's next of kin, my sister Mary, Jackson's widow Bonnie, and I were invited to the ceremony. In conjunction with the ceremony, friends of the fallen classmates were asked to write articles telling their life stories.

I caught a flight into Washington, D.C. early Saturday morning. I knew the weekend would have its tender moments, but wasn't prepared for the entry to ramp up as quickly as it did.

Before I was in the airport even ten minutes, I came across the arrival of an Honor Flight. [If you don't know what that is, pause here and click on that link. You'll need a tissue.] I rounded a corner and found a team of people in fluorescent yellow shirts, cheering an elderly man who was walking through their mini parade. He was dressed in his military uniform, and I was stopped in my tracks by this scene.

I waited while another veteran followed the first one, then found a bank of escalators to ride to the bottom floor baggage claim. As I rode down, I could hear sounds of the next stop in the Honor Flight celebration: a female choral group greeting the uniformed veteran with the Army song, "The Army Goes Rolling Along." Of course, I stopped here too, tears welling up in my eyes.

The group sang the Navy song for the second veteran who had arrived. At this point, I realized I had to keep moving because I had my own event to attend.

I caught the shuttle to the hotel where my sister and her family were staying and she met me in the lobby with a big hug. We hurried to the room for more hugs with her husband Wally and daughter Peyton, changed clothes, then headed to the lobby to meet our lunch group.

We had fifteen people at lunch: Bonnie, my Uncle Rob and Aunt Terri, my cousins from Mom's side (John and Mike), Jackson's college roommate (Tobi and his family), and twin brothers Paul and Pete, who have known Jackson since middle school. Paul also went to West Point, so he got to play double duty all day!

We had a long lunch and I sat in the middle of the table (anyone who knows me shouldn't be surprised - it's my childhood youngest-child-issues coming to the surface) so I could hear stories from all the groups around me.
Mike, me, Mary, and John
I got the details from Tobi's wife, Kate, about their life since college and updates on Tobi's family. One of his family members is the key reason for my decision to attend Mizzou for Broadcast Journalism, which - obviously - changed the trajectory of this Georgia girl's life.

I listened as my aunt from Dad's side asked my cousin from Mom's side about his life in the military, and resisted the urge to curl up and bawl as the mantra, "Mom and Dad should be here" started playing in my head. It didn't stop repeating until I fell asleep on Saturday night.

At one point I looked around the table and realized out of the fifteen of us there, nine have grieved the loss of an immediate family member very early in life: sibling, parent, or spouse. Of course Mary and I had lost our brother (and Bonnie's husband), but there were four people who lost their own siblings and five who lost parents. Jackson is our common denominator, but grief is our shared language. These are people who get me when others look at me as an alien.
Aunt Terri listens to Mike's military stories,
while Bonnie and Uncle Rob catch up.
The best part of lunch was hearing Paul and Pete tell stories of Jackson's high school escapades. I was reminded of all the reasons I adored - and abhorred - my older brother. He was hilarious and bold and larger-than-life, and also a big pain in the rear. (Aren't all brothers?!)
Paul and Tobi graduated
from West Point together.
Paul told my Uncle Rob the story about their *almost* arrest when painting the high school logo on the road leading up to the school - TWICE. Paul also told a story of their attendance at a Bon Jovi concert, when the ride home ended with Jackson driving the car while hanging out the window and punching a guy in the car next to them. I thought I already knew all there was to know about Jackson, but - clearly - there is still so much to learn about my brother! Even twenty years later...

After lunch, we had to run an errand for Wally, then headed to Arlington.

We found our friends in the Welcome Center, and met some other classmates from West Point. As we were waiting for everyone to arrive, so did the rain outside. Uh oh!
Robert is on the left side of this photo,
wearing the lighter gray sport coat (and the boots).

My cousin Robert (from Dad's side) also arrived. At one point, I looked down and saw his snazzy snakeskin boots. I commented on them and Robert replied, "Do you know whose they were?" Immediately, I recognized them as my brother's old boots. Mary saw them too, and told us how Jackson bought them in Texas while visiting her and Wally when they were stationed at Fort Hood.

It was time for us to leave the Welcome Center and walk up the road to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The rain wasn't letting up and we couldn't wait for it to clear, so we huddled under umbrellas and started hiking. In a dress. And strappy sandals. With only a windbreaker as a raincoat to shield my camera. (You didn't think I'd leave that at home, did you?!) I was especially glad I wore my hair curly and didn't spend time making it all pretty.

After a 15 minute walk, we arrived at the Tomb as a guard changing ritual was taking place. We crowded on the steps to catch a glimpse between open umbrellas while trying to dodge the raindrops and maintain silence (a requirement at the Tomb). In the photo below, can you see the people in yellow, blue and white ponchos on the far right? It was an entire busload of Honor Flight veterans who were visiting the Tomb. Cue the tears, again.

If you've never been there, you must know the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is sacred ground.

Guards patrol 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Even during rain, blizzards, and hurricanes. The depth of commitment is only overshadowed by the ultimate sacrifice given by the fallen soldiers buried in the Tomb, whose names we don't know.

While I took photos, the crowd started murmuring as people were moving about after the guards transitioned. All of a sudden, the soldier on duty stopped his patrol and stepped off his mat to face the crowd and shout, "It is requested that all visitors maintain an atmosphere of silence and respect at all times!" Trust me, there wasn't even a slight peep after that and my nerves shot through the roof.

After a few more minutes, we went inside the museum building beside the Tomb. We were all dripping wet, standing almost in the doorway without much room to move as cemetery visitors looked at exhibits and West Point families greeted each other.

I realized my hands had started shaking and my heart was thudding, and I recognized all this as a signal that I was on the verge of an anxiety attack.

Here's the ironic thing: I started having anxiety and panic attacks after Jackson died, but I haven't had any since I finished my grief counseling thirteen years ago. I forgot how overwhelming an anxiety attack feels, but it didn't take long for me to remember.

With anxious tears threatening to overflow my eyes, I stepped over to a quiet corner and silently prayed with my eyes open. I worked on breathing and calming, and got myself back to a centered heart. My family came over to join me after a little bit, then the time came to go back into the rain for the wreath-laying ceremony.

Mary, Wally, Peyton, Bonnie, and I made our way to the bottom of the steps to stand at the railing. On the top of the above-ground Tomb, there sat the most brilliantly red cardinal bird. It was tweeting, even in the rain, and jumped off to flit around the area. Mary turned to me and whispered, "Did you know cardinals symbolize someone who has died and has come back to visit?"

Tears sprang into my eyes and I told her, "Why on earth would you tell me such a sad tale at this exact moment? Do you want me to become a complete mess?!"

The ceremony began with the guard announcing the crowd was about to witness a wreath-laying ceremony by the West Point class of 1992.


I recorded the rest of the ceremony on my phone, but the file is too big to post here. I have posted it here on YouTube, if you are interested in watching it. (It is about two minutes long, so it won't take too much of your time.)

I am proud that I held my phone relatively still during the ceremony so the recording isn't quivering like the rest of me was. "Taps" always breaks me, so I'm surprised I didn't sob audibly.

After our ceremony was finished, a second wreath was presented in the exact same way by students from a local middle school. Before I knew it, our group was stepping away and leaving the Tomb area. I followed, taking a few last photos with my phone. I was never able to use my nice camera during our ceremony, so I only have lower quality phone photos to share.

All of us walked to the back of the amphitheater behind the Tomb museum, and that's where I texted my friend Anji and finally met up with her, her husband, and their two kids.

Yes, my friend trucked her whole family 45 minutes from home so they could hike the cemetery and stand IN THE RAIN to witness the wreath laying. In order for you to fully appreciate this gift, please understand this: I have only known Anji for ten months. We met last July at the She Speaks writer's conference I attended in North Carolina. We spent three days with each other, and have been in daily contact ever since. It was so good to see her in person again!

I greeted Anji, met her family, then turned to introduce her to my family. I saw Mary talking to one of Jackson's classmates and his family. I was waved over to meet them too, and was introduced to their 15-year-old son, who is named after my brother.

All of a sudden, every emotion I was desperately trying to suppress came exploding out of me and I, embarrassingly, went into the ugly cry. I had to turn away from this sweet family in order to avoid falling on the ground and curling up into a fetal position. My Uncle Rob had a look of alarm on his face, and I knew I had to Get. A. Grip! Tobi stepped into the circle of people and hugged me and I calmed enough to gather my breath so I could turn and properly meet this young man named Alec Jackson; his middle name is my brother's middle name. I apologized for being so emotional, then thanked his parents for such an incredible honor, especially his mom for graciously allowing her child to be named after a guy she never met. Her eyes were filled with tears, too.

After a little more chatting, we made our way out of the amphitheater and started walking back to the Welcome Center.

When my sister got a chance, she sidled up to me and told me something I am GRATEFUL I didn't know when I was standing with Alec's family: he was just diagnosed with cancer two weeks ago. TWO WEEKS AGO. I winced at this news and teared up, yet again.

Sometimes your brain receives just one more piece of information and decides to shut down. My brain did that, and I was saturated with emotion. I simply couldn't take on one more drop of heaviness.

In the second mercy my friend Anji brought me that day, we began discussing life since we met in July then Anji and Mary compared notes of where they lived while being military spouses. I am grateful I had someone there to chat with because the news of Alec's cancer was overwhelming me

As we walked, I got my camera out and took some quick photos of the graves in Arlington. It is such a breathtakingly beautiful place, made even more so by the rain-saturated colors.

At the Welcome Center, I said goodbye to my friend Anji (three times!) and went with my sister's family to their car. We had a pass so Wally could go to Section 60 of the cemetery, where most of the soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried.

Uncle Rob, Aunt Terri, and Robert met us there, and we searched the graves to find a bunch of Wally's friends.

And, sadly, yes: there are a bunch. Wally has lost too many friends.

Section 60 is full of graves of men and women from MY generation, which means their families are still alive to visit the graves and leave mementos and flowers.

There are placards and photos...

...and stones...

...and this grave had a poem written for the deceased son's mother as a Mother's Day gift on the previous Sunday.

At one point, I turned and saw this beautiful barn swallow sitting on a headstone.

(Sidebar: did you know swallows represent hope? Some sailors believe if they die at sea, a swallow will carry their souls home. And ancient Romans believed the swallow was a "totem bird for mothers in sorrow, and that it embodied the souls of children who had been lost in childbirth." See here.)

As we left Arlington, we were passing by another section of the cemetery when we saw a man sitting in the middle of the graves. He had brought his own chair and umbrella, so I assume he had been there for a while and probably visits regularly. Once I zoomed in my camera, I realized he was sitting there talking to his wife. My heart ached for his lonesome vigil.

We were invited to a reception for family and friends at the house of two West Point graduates. It was a beautiful reception where we toasted each of the seven deceased classmates.

All the graduates gathered for a photo before we broke off into groups to talk and eat.

I spoke to Alec's family, and his parents told us more details about his recent diagnosis. They don't have a full diagnosis or prognosis yet, and aren't even sure exactly what cancer he has. They are waiting to hear if he'll start radiation or any other treatment. Before we left, I asked Alec if I could take his photo. I planned to tell my kids about him so we could start praying for him and his family.

Bonnie had to begin her drive back to Kentucky, so we said goodbye to her and her mother.

Mary and I stayed for a while to share stories of Jackson with Uncle Rob, Aunt Terri, and Jackson's classmates. Tobi and Mark told us stories of pierced ears on spring break, and the time Paul left a melting snowball on Jackson's desk blotter (which he was extremely particular about, using a ruler and highlighters to draw lines and track daily dress codes and upcoming events). It was so SO good to hear people talk about Jackson again, because not very many people in my regular St. Louis life know about my brother.

As the rain started up again, it was time for us to leave. We thanked our hosts and drove back to the hotel (and Wally gave us a driving tour of monuments and landmarks).

Now, do you see why I described the day as a healing dent in my heart? It was a really BRUTIFUL day.


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