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.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

For Those Who Mother Me

In church this morning, we sang an old hymn called "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty." I flashed back to the Sundays of my childhood when I stood by my parents, singing the same song.

This memory was a heavy one and tears pricked my eyes because it is Mother's Day and my mother is gone. But before we even made it to the "hallelujah" chorus of the song, God had already filled my heart with images of women who have mothered me and loved me well.

My sister, Mary, came to mind first. Our family lore says she started mothering me the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. She took on the physical chores of nurturing me when I was an infant, but those chores have since matured into nurturing my soul. Over the years she's become my sounding board, my memory keeper, and my bossy kick-in-the-pants surrogate mother.

Next, images of my friends' faces flashed in my mind as I sang. These are the women who text me morning greetings and prayers to start my day, much like Mom used to wake me in the morning before school with a chorus of "Get out of bed you sleepy head." These women regularly check in with me, care about the state of my heart, ask about my kids (and love them) as if they were their own, share my grief by sharing theirs, and encourage me to be vulnerable and authentic. They call me on my crap when I try to hide my pain or when I get all sassy and crabby over the lemons life dishes out. They struggle in the trenches with me and carry my burdens with me.

Other faces flooded my memory while I sang:

My mother-in-law mothered me well last year when she told me to chase my dreams now saying, "Do it now or you'll regret it the rest of your life." She's one of the people who compelled me to attend a life-changing conference, and her words still echo in my head when I feel small or crazy for pursuing my passion.

My kids' teachers have shared their insights about my children's temperaments and honed my mothering skills with their observations and encouragement. I am forever indebted to Jackson's second grade teacher, whose presence and words lifted guilt off my shoulders when she shared a story of her daughter's growth with me.

Jackson's third grade teacher tenderly leads me to advocate for him and she encourages me immensely when she tells me the things she can see in his character that reflect our shared values. When I became a mom, I assumed my kids' teachers would help them grow; I never guessed they'd bless me too!

Nothing and no one will ever replace Brenda Steele, the mother I lost on September 7, 2004. I will forever have a piece of my heart missing, until I am reunited with her again.

But in God's infinite goodness, He has gifted me with people who have helped me feel less alone, supported my dreams, prayed on my behalf, and reminded me Whose I am.

Mothers have taken so many forms in my life: Neighbor. Former coworker. Pastor. Therapist. Cousin. Aunt. Stepmother. (Heck, even my husband has taken on the role of mothering my heart when it was broken and needed mending.)

Happy Mother's Day to the people who treat me like one of their own!


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