Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I am Broken Pottery

Eighteen years ago this week, I went through devastation that fully demolished my life. The person I was before this event no longer exists, because she has been fractured into a million tiny pieces. But my story doesn’t end with a mess on the floor and shards to sweep into the trash. The shards are being reassembled and glued back together. (Present tense, y’all… the process is ongoing and won’t be finished this side of heaven.)

Have you ever tried to piece back together a piece of pottery or a ceramic item you dropped on the floor? No matter how hard you search, there are some fragments that you won’t ever find. So you use the pieces you DO have and assemble them into their original shape. My life is like that: there are some fragments that will never be glued back into place. They disappeared and the holes they left are noticeable and present.

1995-06-30 MAJS CloseOn October 26, 1996, my big brother Jackson died of rhabdomyosarcoma. He was 26 years old and in the prime of his life: a take-charge, good-looking, lively, honest, loyal, funny and driven man. I was 22 years old, and had spent twenty-two years in the shadow of this larger-than-life person. Even though he had been fighting cancer for 14 months, I was somewhat in denial that the cancer would win. There was nothing my brother couldn’t do, so why would defeating cancer be any different? And then the phone rang and a crying voice said my name, and I knew my brother was gone.

If I could get a do-over of 10/26/96... if I could relive the entirety of 1996… if I could even go back to 9/26/96 (the day I last saw him alive)… these are questions that still haunt me. I wonder how I would choose to spend my days differently, and then I think about some distant day that has yet to happen in my future. Will I wish I had spent 2014 differently? What about this season of my life, or even today, and this specific instant?

That is the question that has percolated and floated to the surface of my heart for 18 years now. Losing my brother deconstructed the life I had, the one that was based on one simple premise: tomorrow will always come.

Jackson’s death stole that from me. For a few years, it robbed me of hope and peace and life. I shut down my heart, did a smidge above the bare minimum required for living (showed up at work, planned outings with friends, called home to my parents, watched movies with Dan), and skated through the world as a surface-y person, maybe going an inch deep now and then. There was no depth in my life, because depth required me to feel and feeling required me to cry because grief was the only feeling I felt.

So I stopped feeling for about four years. The odd thing is I know I “lived” during that time, because I have photo albums to show the places I visited and friends I saw and karaoke bars I sang at (yikes!), but those memories only exist in my head as snapshots of events. I don’t have the “experience” memories from actually being there. When I turned off my feelings so I couldn’t feel grief, it means I turned off happiness as well. I turned off the ability to be present and savor life and actively engage in growth and relationships. I was married to Dan, but my tender-hearted husband hardly had a wife. I was phoning in our marriage and every other position I held in life as friend, daughter, sister, neighbor, and coworker.

You can guess how this ended: with a crash. As much as I sometimes wish this weren’t true, the fact is I wasn’t made to NOT feel. I wasn’t made to live on the surface of a world full of mile-deep caverns and caves. It was only a matter of time before I crumbled and EVERY.FEELING.CAME.OUT: sadness, anger, despair, wretchedness, remorse, regret, and isolation. But, this... THIS is where God picked me up after I sat on my bed and cried out, begging Him to rescue me. I gave up, and gave Him an ultimatum: “If You really DO exist, You gotta fix this. Please!”

It took a long time, because I didn’t trust God. I assumed He wasn’t who He said He was, because if He was, He would’ve saved my brother. I blamed God for letting Jackson die and, in my head, that was the same as actually killing my brother. If you don’t step in to effect change in a terrible situation, that makes you an accomplice, right?

Remember that broken pottery I already mentioned? That was me. God had to start gluing me back together a piece at a time. He started by immediately answering that ultimatum I gave Him. That was piece #1. Piece #2 came when He helped my unemployed self find a job [in a ministry – that God sure is a joker, isn’t He?!]. Piece #3 (and a few others) came when He would – literally – drop scripture into my lap that described who He is and what He stands for. A couple more pieces came when He brought committed Christ followers into my life who could see through my inch-deep fa├žade. A HUGE piece came when one of those people connected me to a lifesaving Christian counselor. Slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, He took my brokenness and bound it back together with His special formula Krazy Glue.

And that Krazy Glue was so strong that when I was knocked on the floor again a few years later by postpartum depression and the pain of losing both of my parents within six months of each other, it wasn’t as catastrophic as it had been when Jackson died. In fact, it turned out to be beautiful in a messy-masterpiece-kind-of-way.

That question, that wondering from 18 years ago… the one about how I would spend my todays? It’s still there. I don’t consciously think about it every day, but God has woven it in the fabric of my being. Over time, He taught me how to live my life and feel it again. And what’s more, He taught me how to redeem that pain by gifting it to others when they are suffering. When I say “gifting” it to others, I literally envision holding that brokenness of myself in my cupped hands and sitting beside a grieving person and showing it to them, sharing it with them. I am a living, breathing testimony to 2 Corinthians 1:4, which says:

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.

The first part of that verse is what God did: He comforted me. He nestled each broken piece of me in His hands and showed me how to love and live again. He gave me hope and a future, and brought me back to Him. The second part of that verse is what I do in response to the first: I give others the same comfort God has given me.

I usually do it in little ways that aren’t very noticeable or remarkable. I’m not going to win a medal for them, but I know my Papa is proud of me when I give these little gifts. However, this week I get to live this out in a VERY noticeable way. It causes me a little anxiety, but every time I feel anxiety bubble in my stomach, I hear the words “cast your cares” in my head. So, I’m casting my cares and asking God to use this for His glory.

IMG_3787My story is going public through a podcast my magnificent friend Stephanie asked me to record with her. This “Call to Courage” podcast is available on October 30 through iTunes and on the www.couragepodcast.com website. As I write this post, I have not yet heard the podcast and THAT is what causes me anxiety! I remember recording it, but I also remember chiding myself inside my head as I was recording it, telling myself all kinds of nagging motherly things: Speak clearly! Stop saying “um” and “for me…” because they are the hot dog fillers of verbal communication! Project your voice better! Stop talking in circles! and all manner of mean things I we say to ourselves.

I’m anxious to hear me telling my story, because writing it down is vastly different than speaking it. I can only hope you hear God more than you hear me!

Father, I ask that You use my story to speak to someone out there who is going through loss and heartache right this very instant. May they hear the pain in my story and receive courage to ask You for help. I pray for the people who are hoarding the broken pieces of their hearts, convinced that You are a lie and the healing You bring is a placebo. Help them to hear Your truth. Physically put people in their lives who can share their pain and carry their burdens to You. And I pray for the person who will help with the carrying, because helping with the carrying means they’ve likely ached too. May You help that person continue to heal as he or she pours the grief out as a priceless offering to You. Thank You, God, for binding the brokenhearted and making beauty from our ashes. Amen!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Healing My Past

If you were looking for me this past Saturday, in the early afternoon, you would have found me on my knees on the floor of my bedroom. I was crying and mad and just plain upset at my father. You see, I had done one of the things that as a child, I swore I’d never do to my own kids: I made my child cry because of homework.

I remember being in middle school and trying so hard to figure out pre-Algebra. I was frustrated because the answers seemed so close to appearing in my head and onto my homework page, but I just couldn’t grasp how to manipulate the formulas to make them work. I would sit at the kitchen table and do my homework, and if my dad was home instead of working or on a business trip, he would sit down and try to explain math to me.

He was a civil engineer and comfortable with numbers. I loved words and language, and numbers didn’t quite jazz me up. So when he would sit with me, we would rapidly alienate each other because we couldn’t speak the other’s language. I’m pretty sure every time he tried to help me, I ended up in tears. The good news is this didn’t happen often, because I was a smart girl and had observed this same tear-filled exchange with my sister when she was doing math homework a few years earlier. I quickly realized that Dad plus homework always equals yelling and tears. THIS is the kind of math that made sense to me, so after a few times of practicing that type of formula, I decided to stop it altogether. I learned to wrestle with my homework alone, either at school or in my bedroom. I stopped asking for help, especially from my dad. To me, Mom was still approachable for other homework (English papers, theses, etc.), so I wasn’t totally flying solo.

IMG_4706I vowed that when I had kids one day, I would never yell at them or make them cry over something as stupid as homework. Well, one day has arrived and my vow has been broken, thanks to 6th grade math and a daughter who, like me, struggles with perfectionism. Before you start imagining me standing over my daughter and shouting, let me clarify by saying there wasn’t a fight and there was no yelling. So I’ve kept that childhood vow intact, thanks to God rewriting my story. But – as my husband pointed out to me later – the intensity level had ramped up, which is what caused Katie to get upset and start crying. I see it from her perspective: she was trying so hard to find the answer (the one I had all but written down for her), and was desperate to keep up with me and see the solution that seemed to be obvious (but not to her). I, on the other hand, was leaking patience after four interactions that increased the frustration in my voice and tone. The more intense I got, the less she could hear what I was saying. The less she could hear, the less she could say and the more frustrated she got in not being able to express herself – which made me frustrated that she couldn’t even talk to me.

And there we were, two fireballs of intensity aimed at each other. Her tears started falling and I held mine at bay, and then Dan happened into the room. He gave me the hairy eyeball, and I tempered my frustration enough to give Katie a little more direction before I tagged out. I asked Dan to meet me in our bedroom to discuss the interaction.

I told Dan how much Katie’s tears affected me, because they were like a time travel machine that flashed me back to my tears at the kitchen table with MY father. I told Dan I wasn’t nearly as intense as my own dad was, so why should Katie be crying?! He pointed out my homework time doesn’t involve my father any longer, and this is just too much for me and Katie right now. We both agreed that math homework should be off the table for a little bit, and he can help her with that. For some reason, “word” homework doesn’t affect me the way “number” homework does – probably because I personally hate math and fear looking like an idiot when I do it (which is what 6th grade math inherently does to me – makes me look like an idiot, I mean). So, for now, I’m taking a pass at math. Whew.

Dan left the bedroom, I cried (as I mentioned before), then joined the family a little bit later. Katie and I relaxed in the hammock after a while, and we were able to discuss what happened that day. I told her the story of my homework struggles growing up, and explained the term “baggage” to her. We brainstormed ways for both of us to communicate better, and both found peace about the situation.

I know, as we all do, that my baggage has made me who I am. I can’t get away from that truth. But I can turn the rough draft of my past into a final copy by examining what caused my heartache so I can avoid inflicting it on the child I’m raising now: my daughter – and the little girl still inside me – who wants so badly to be acknowledged for her efforts… even when they are less-than-perfect.

So, to my daughter, I hope you know that you aren’t alone in the struggles you are having. I’m struggling, too, and aching with the confusion and the questions I sometimes have about the world around me. The beauty is that while I get to help you through your struggles, you are helping ME through MINE. Parenting is hard. It is scary and mistake-laden, but every now and then I get a glimpse of redemption and restoration through it.

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