Dear Dad,

Recently I went to Lowes and saw a mom and her daughters, one a preschooler, shopping for their dad. As I exited Lowes I saw the same woman leaving empty- handed with an angry, stiff as a board preschooler lying in her arms like an uncooperative piece of lumber, tears streaking down her tiny little face.  Shopping at Lowes makes me feel that way, too, little girl, but sometimes we have to take one for the team.

Dads are worth every second spent shopping for things us girls couldn’t care less about. In fact, the importance of dads, at least according to our culture as a whole, seems to have diminished even since my childhood, which was surprisingly recent. So while I don’t have statistical data to back up my aforementioned statement, I’d like to take this opportunity to honor fatherhood. This blog is for all the dads out there; regardless of genetics, you have the highest calling there is and I’d like to encourage you in this journey I know very little about.

Dad, my whole world revolved around you when I was a little girl. I cried when you left for work and my day was complete when you came home. I remember sitting on your lap or falling asleep in your guitar case to the sound of your voice singing bluegrass. I recall the days leading up to Christmas when I was 6, being shooed away from the basement and feeling rejected, only to discover on Christmas morning that you had been making me a cradle for my babies. Addison’s and Aubrey’s baby dolls slept that same cradle. When I was 14 and watched “A Nightmare on Elm Street” without permission, I used to wake you up every night for a month to double check the windows. Sometimes I even fell asleep beside you. I knew nothing bad could ever happen to me if you were there.

There are so many other men who have stepped up to the plate and are fulfilling God’s calling. I wish I could highlight each of you. I count it a privilege to observe the precious relationships between wonderful, godly fathers and their children. It gives me hope. Thank you for everything you do to build the next generation. Sorry for all the ties, slippers, weird shirts, cheap tools, stuffed animals, macaroni art, golf balls, coffee mugs and whatever other random, useless love offerings you received on your special day. Actually, I’m not sorry. They represent a tangible reminder of the intangible investment you pour into the lives of your kids.

I know there’s a dad out there right now who feels like he can never do enough, like everyone else has this parenting thing figured out but him. Let me speak into your life: if you feel that way you are doing just fine. Being aware of your impact and striving toward creating stability and safety in the lives of your children is the foundation of being a good dad. Always know that even if you are not outwardly acknowledged by your kids for how amazing you are, inwardly you are imprinting on their souls in a way that will pay dividends for generations. Hang in there. The proof is in the pudding, and your pudding is NOT made of spoiled milk.

Retrospective Rainbow

Grieving feels a lot like navigating through hostile territory without a map, or any defenses. There are moments I am grounded and solid in my acceptance of what transpired these past few weeks, and then out of nowhere I step on a grenade and my emotional leg gets blown off. Not being able to anticipate the landmines of sadness is unnerving at best, devastating at worst. I always need a plan. I want to know what happens next. I hate surprises. Grief is a jerk. It doesn’t care what I need. But God definitely does, and has shown His Hand at work in this circumstance long before it became a reality to me.

Early this past December I was having an incredibly bad day. Add to that the cold weather and the recent rain and my mood was almost as low as it had ever been. I needed hope, so as I drove east I turned on the radio to my favorite Christian station, and soaked in words I knew to BE true but I could not FEEL their truth. I needed something concrete from God. I wanted a tangible reminder that I had made the right decision and that He had my best interests at heart. I was vulnerable, exposed and desperate for reassurance.

As I rounded the corner, I looked to my left and arced perfectly over the cross on the steeple of a little white country church was the most brilliant rainbow I had ever seen. The scene struck me so profoundly that I pulled into the parking lot and took a picture and afterward prayed and thanked God. That rainbow was explicitly for me that day and I could not have felt more at peace. Just knowing He loved me was enough to quell the monster of insecurity from winning that day.

Fast forward almost 6 months later…God’s mighty hand has placed beauty and peace in every part of my being, building me up and creating in my life a foundation for my ultimate purpose. But suddenly there is no mom with whom to share my joy, leaving an empty place in my heart once again. 

It was my job to coordinate mom’s memorial in West Virginia. I began looking for churches to host her memorial the day after she passed and got met with closed door after closed door. I had 5 days left until the actual memorial and less than 5 hours before my self-imposed deadline so I could let everyone know the location and give them time to plan accordingly. On my way back home from a meeting, I saw a car and stopped at the little church where my grandparents are buried. I knocked on every door, but got no response. As I got into my vehicle that day I prayed, “God, this is all you. I have no idea where else to look.” 

As I drove, I listened to music and happened upon the same church that served as a backdrop of God’s promise that cold December day. There was a car in the parking lot and a fluffy white dog happily wagging his tail as I pulled in, ready to beg. There was no need for begging, however, as I talked with this couple and realized they were the parents of a wonderful friend of mine. Quickly we all came to the conclusion that God had predestined this meeting and the location for mom’s memorial was discovered. 

Before my mom was even sick, God was setting the stage, preparing the prequel, laying the foundation…isn’t that just like Him? I can see it play out in so many aspects of my life when I allow Him to lead me. The path is not always easy, but when it’s His will, the doors open and hearts are prepared in ways only the creator of the universe can orchestrate. He didn’t have to send me a rainbow that day, and I had absolutely no idea the depth of that promise of peace at the time. Looking back on life, I see the ways He’s prepared me for what is next. Mom was an integral part of that preparation, as she helped make me the person I am today. 

I’m ready to take on whatever it is God has planned for me, because I know He has gone before me and prepared the path, as He has for all of us who believe. 

My Mama

The purple paper of the annual cash raffle tickets for Aubrey’s cheer team caught my peripheral vision a few days ago and sent me into an emotional downward spiral. It’s in the little things, like needing to vent about how disrespectful my child is being and not being able to, or picking up my phone to send a group text to my family telling them it was time to buy the tickets, and having one fewer person to include, that the reality hits me head on – my mom is dead.

I’m trying to keep all the emotional pieces of my kids intact as they deal with the loss of their “Nanny” but all I want to do is run away and pretend it isn’t happening. All I want is to send the pictures I took Tuesday evening of Avery receiving his pole vault championship award to my mom. The last text I sent her was the picture of him taken in Charleston. She was so proud. The last text my sister received from mom was her telling Alyssa Avery’s picture was in the Messenger.

So much of who I am today is attributed to my mom – either because of her example or in spite of it. There were many ways I did not want to be like her, and she supported me in my individuality. She listened to me as an all-knowing college student expound on the discrepancies in the Bible, patiently waiting until it was her turn to talk and reminding me gently that God doesn’t make mistakes, a truth I would cling to when I found myself pregnant at 22. I used to be so annoyed with her whenever we would go anywhere because of how long it took her to get ready; I made it my life’s mission never to be like that and I’m not. If it takes longer than 10 minutes to get ready, I better be going somewhere spectacular.  

It’s difficult to capture a specific moment that demonstrates who she was to us. I remember when I was really little and would get sassy with her she would tell me not to patronize her. I had no idea what that word meant but after a few times I understood it based on its context and her tone of voice. That is important because she is the one who made sure we spoke respectfully, minded our manners and treated other people well. She cared about everyone, but no one more than her own family. Hell hath no fury like a mother protecting her children: mom embodied that completely.

Her generosity set an example for all of her children, and because of her we give freely whatever resources we are blessed to have. I learned as an adult I had to be careful what I told her I liked, because she would buy it for me. I could have used this to my advantage, but she raised me better than that. She taught us to take care of each other, and that we do, so very well. Mom knew the reward was never on this earth, but she had no problem buying herself a $700 purse. I loved that about her. She was worthy of nice things and she made sure her children knew they were too. Whenever we settled for less than, mom was always there to try to give us perspective about our value. She told us consistently that she was proud of us, despite the many unbelievably shortsighted, fear-based decisions we made that undoubtedly broke her heart.

When she became a grandmother, her love was evident in her presence. There is no way I would have been able to navigate those early years without my mother. Her wisdom and experience guided me and gave me the fortitude to be the parent I became. There is no greater love than a mom who comes over, scoops up your baby and makes you take a nap because you haven’t slept in a week. She had tea parties and football games, cooking shows and arts and crafts, nature walks and shopping trips…what I wouldn’t give to say, “Mom, do not let them bring another toy into this house” or “Where were you when I was a kid?” referring to her indulgent candy-is-a-food-group mentality with her grandbabies.

There will never be another phone call to talk about the kids, hear disgusting wound care stories from her job…there will never be another cleaning frenzy preparing for her visit after she moved only to be told to sit my a** down, that she would take care of everything when she got here. I’ll never be able to make fun of another one of her weird purses, or pretend to like some item of clothing she bought me and then reprimanded because she saw right through me.  And she did…she saw right through me, and loved me anyway. She was my biggest cheerleader and my most consistent role model; because of her investing in my confidence as a human being, I now know my worth, and Hell hath no fury like a woman who finally realizes her worth. Right, mama?

I’ll see you again. Be prepared to let me “borrow” your shoes when I get there. Until then, there is much work to be done on earth. May all of my remaining days reflect the woman you allowed God to help you shape. I love you.

Sister Sister

            Once upon a time there was a darling little girl whose daddy bought her a pony and whose mama read her stories; she was blissfully singular. Then along came Alyssa, a precious little usurper. When the firstborn realized this tiny, bald, wrinkled person was for keeps, she made it her life’s mission to form a unique, unbreakable bond with her and live happily ever after in sibling harmony. But first she had to be hazed.

            I really wasn’t that bad of a big sister. I may have occasionally broken something and blamed it on her. There could have been times I spit on her head from the top bunk, or told her she was impregnated with a watermelon after she ate a seed. There is a slight possibility I gave her a haircut that made her look like she was attacked by tiny lawnmowers. If she admits to an irrational fear of the Easter Bunny, it is definitely NOT because I hid outside the bathroom window and told her the Easter Bunny was actually an evil jackrabbit. (It made her cry and I got spanked – justice was served.) I’m sure I could go on with more heartwarming examples of sisterly love but suffice it to say it was a hit-and-miss relationship in its formative years.

            It was during those years that I attended Vacation Bible School and learned about Jesus. I decided to ask Him to be the Lord of my life (see John 3:16). From that time until this I sometimes feel like Jesus is hazing me. He wasn’t/isn’t. At least not with the “Let’s do this and see what happens” kind of attitude I had when I put my little brother in the dryer or locked him in the toy box. 

            It has been through these trials, many that are senseless, self-made disasters and some that are not, that God has attempted to raise me up. I have a desire to cooperate, but I fall short every day. I, too, have skeletons just like everyone else. But instead of hiding them, I am using them to build a ladder – every day I reach higher ground until building-sized pieces of the past look like ants as I survey life from the clouds. It’s amazing up here, and nothing short of Jesus Himself will make me step down the ladder, and since He Himself placed me here, I only go up from this point. 

            It’s no coincidence that Alyssa and I are sisters. God’s been knocking on the door of our hearts for years, urging us to tell our story. We have messed up, but that isn’t the end of the story; it’s the part that invites you in to experience the grace and forgiveness that’s waiting for you. Let’s all be sisters together. I promise I won’t come to your junior high school and demand you take off the shoes you stole from me. Hypothetically. (Sorry, Alyssa)

Walk the Talk

May 22, 2019, is another Walk of Success where our community gets the privilege of celebrating this year’s graduating class. While celebrating, many of us will also reminisce about this milestone in our own lives and marvel at what seems like the time-elapsed version of life.

When I was a teenager I remember thinking anyone over the age of 30 was a senior citizen. One time when Grandma Heflin was visiting, she saw a picture of her on our wall taken when she was 16. She looked at it, then looked at me and said, “Honey, when I look in the mirror, that’s the girl I see”.  It never occurred to me, in my self-absorbed stupor, that one day I would begin to feel the exact same way.

Fast forward lots of years. Christina and I had spent over an hour catching up at the house and picked up my then teenage daughter from a friend’s house to accompany us to our 20thclass reunion. Addison was busy ignoring us as she sat in the back seat wondering why she agreed to come to an elderly convention when it occurred to me: one day she will be doing the same thing, possibly with her own daughter. My head started spinning. Clearly I am not old enough to have a teenager…

Krista said it best: It is like picking up where we left off. What a gift to have that opportunity. We are blessed. And we are funny. And we were bad. Ok, some of us were. Not me. (As we were leaving Addison looked at me and asked, “Is the reason you are so strict because you were so bad in high school?” I had no comment.) Navigating raising a teenager for the first time made me want to send flowers to my parents. I’m sorry, mom and dad. Really, really sorry. But it was fun to grow up among such a great group of people. I hope all of my children are as fortunate.

So as I continue to put my childish ways behind me, I am careful not to lose my child-like excitement for life. Maybe it was the sugar high, but I left our reunion with a renewed sense of purpose. God puts people together. It is no coincidence that we were in the same school at the same time. When people’s lives intersect, great things can occur. When we are young we don’t yet have the ability to see the big picture, but now that we are parents, we can instill in our children the gift of each and every day. One day they, too, will be meeting with a group of adults who helped shape the people they will become.

Our childhood friends leave a legacy. Thanks to all of my friends from high school. I’m proud of the grown-ups we became. We have imprinted on each other, like fossils. Because I am me, I had to remind my kids that every interaction they have with someone could leave a lasting impression, for better or worse. I’m eternally grateful we didn’t have Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram when I was a kid. And I’m even more grateful for the wake-up call that told me I needed to turn my life around before my mug shot ended up forever memorialized in the archives of the local paper. If my picture is ending up anywhere, it will be on the back cover of my book. And each and every one of my friends will take a piece of the credit for helping me become the person I am today. I know it wasn’t easy…

So graduates, this week as you prepare to cross the stage and move toward what God has in store for you, know that although you’ll never be in high school with these people again, your shared history has a profound affect on who each of you are and will become. Never take that for granted – treat every day like what you say and do matters, because it does. 

My Avery

Foreword: Given the current circumstances of our town and the heart-wrenching sadness as a result, I wanted to take a moment to honor the love we have for our children from before birth, how that love grows every day, and to encourage all of us to cry out to our Father in Heaven for the peace that surpasses all understanding to encapsulate the hearts of the families grieving loss, experiencing uncertainty and coping with unimaginable pain.

January 2014

I just wrote a thank you card to the greatest pediatric surgeon my world has ever known. It has been 12 years yesterday since I gave birth to my precious son, and 3 weeks shy of 12 years since his life-saving operation at WVU, correcting a congenital defect and making Avery’s life possible.

Avery came along during a tumultuous time. He was my 3rdchild in 37 months. I remember sitting in my hospital bed a few hours after he was born contemplating, or maybe panicking, about how I would ever be able to successfully raise 3 such tiny people. My thoughts raced as the gravity of a preschooler and 2 babies sank in. I wasn’t ready. Our circumstances were less than ideal. I hadn’t even been able to fully freak out when the pediatrician on call came into my room. What he told me made everything I was fretting about seem so petty; I was instantly ashamed.

Avery’s belly had been incrementally distending since his birth. It was the doctor’s opinion that he may have cystic fibrosis, and needed to be flown to WVU immediately. I can’t accurately tell you what happened in those next few hours. I remember a nurse coming in and making my calls because I was sobbing. I remember being escorted into the nursery and handed a gown to put on as they placed Avery in my arms and instructed me to say goodbye in case he didn’t make it to the hospital alive. I can still feel the numbness – the inability to grasp what was happening.

Somehow we made it to the hospital. The NICU cleared as they admitted my baby boy. His tiny body endured needles and tubes as they made a way for him to get nourishment. The next 9 days would prove to be harder yet as we faced the uncertainty of his diagnosis. It wasn’t cystic fibrosis, but it would be 9 days of tests until the diagnosis of Hirschsprung’s Disease was made and then another week until he was strong enough for surgery.

Surgery came with risks. The surgeon told me to be prepared to homeschool Avery because there was a good chance he would not be fully potty trained by age 5. This specific surgery was usually part 1 of 2 and included an extended period of in-between time with an ostomy. There were permission forms to sign outlining the inherent risks of surgery on such a small person. And then after all the meetings with doctors, after all the signing, and after I once again kissed my baby for what could be the last time, all that was left to do was wait. And pray. 

To think that just weeks before I sat in a hospital overcome with worry about how I would care for 3 small children. How this had changed my whole perspective! I simply wanted my Avery to live. And live he did. He came through the first surgery without an ostomy or a need for a second surgery. He was potty trained before age 3 and has been thriving ever since. I will never forget holding him for the first time free of tubes and needles. I can still smell his baby head and feel his baby breath on my chest… What began as a question of MY ability ended with a declaration by God that with Him ALL things are possible as well as the peace that even if this story had ended differently, Avery’s life pointed to the sovereignty of my Father. But that’s easy for me to say. May the love of Christ surround all those whose story didn’t have a happy ending, and may I live my life as though tomorrow is not promised. Come home safely, sweet Riley…rest in peace, precious Lexus.

Embracing the Tomato

Foreword: I haven’t had time to write anything brand new, but some of the revelations God has given me over the years bear repeating. When I wrote this I can distinctly remember being worried about the kind of people my children would be and being extremely purposeful (in my blind, naïve way) to make sure they were given every advantage I could give them. What I have learned over these years is that the biggest advantage I can give my children is me: my time, my focus, my guidance, my love…and none of that was or ever will be possible without my abiding in Jesus. I lack in so many ways. We all do, but He makes up for what we don’t have. In fact, just like the Bible says, His strength is made perfect in our weakness. I forget that all too often. Thank you to God, and to coffee (which I rarely drink but may reconsider becoming addicted to), for allowing me the presence of mind to stop focusing on what I don’t have and allowing what I’ve been given to be added to by my Creator until my life is full and overflowing. Just like He promised. 

July 2013: As I sit here in my back yard I am surrounded by my sweet little garden. This year I planted peppers of all types, slicing tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. The cherry tomatoes have me the most amazed, though. I thought since they are small in size, their plant would be also, so I put them in a large container with the tiny hot peppers. For a while they were contained and grew as I commanded them to. Then one day after a torrential downpour followed by a ridiculous heat wave, I walked outside to find my baby tomatoes taller than I am and about 3 times as wide. It was like a monster bush – unruly and wild. And it hit me. This cherry tomato plant is a lot like children.

When babies come home they are confusing little screaming tyrants, but then when we figure them out they get a little easier each day and we kind of get the swing of things. At least that’s how I felt. I mean, by the time Aubrey came around, I had learned parenting up through age 6. After she came there was a time of developmental peace, if you will. They were all little kids and they liked little kid stuff. Then BAM, Addison became a teenager. It didn’t happen overnight, but that’s what it feels like. One day I walked downstairs and she had transformed into this young adult, barking orders and rolling her eyes at every word I spoke.

Ayden is right behind her, 2 months away from becoming a teenager. I can remember when he was a tiny little baseball player with tiny little baseball shoes and an itty bitty little baseball glove. He is now almost my height and wears a size 11 men’s cleat. There’s nothing tiny about this person. Where is the boy who used to play with matchbox cars and decapitate Barbies? 16 months after Ayden turns 13, so will Avery. This child used to hide in his dresser, he was so small. He was like a koala, always so portable and cuddly. Now he prefers the solitude of his bedroom so he can listen to music and sharpen his impressive collection of knives. 

I only have one cherry tomato plant left, if you will, and she is quickly approaching the “mom is not the coolest person in the world” part of life. I’ll cherish these next few years of baby dolls and playing school. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little saddened by how fast they are growing. What parent isn’t? It does go by so quickly, just like everyone said it would. But God showed me something that changed my perspective from sadness to excitement.

For months I have been coaxing my plants to grow. I talk to them, water them, and weed their garden, but why? Because I know the end result of that care will be a harvest. I will stuff those peppers, and slice those tomatoes. They will nourish us. (Well, everyone but Avery.) Their purpose cannot be fulfilled until they are ripe. So it is with my babies. Soon enough they will be plucked from my vine and given to the world. Until then, it is my job to see that they are taken care of and prepared for their future. When I look at it like that, the maturing of my children isn’t depressing, it’s a cause for rejoicing! 

As parents, we aren’t capable of being thefarmer, but if we are willing, we can be His tools in the cultivation of the lives of our children. Through Him, we can weed out of their lives what does not belong and give them the things they will need to be spiritually healthy. Someone told me that cherry tomatoes reseed themselves easily. May it also be that way with the godliness we instill in our children – that their legacy will create an environment for God’s will in their children, and their children’s children. 

And all of that from a tiny tomato.