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. 

Candy-Coated Summertime Lies…

It’s almost here! Here’s a little gem I wrote back when all 4 kids were still at home. Guess what? ALL 4 kids will be home this summer, and history will repeat itself…Yay!!! (Mostly)

Summer vacation is a time to relax and unwind. It is during these months that we decompress and refuel our body, mind and soul… Is anyone else scoffing? Do you know WHY you scoff at that rose-colored description? Because it’s a LIE, that’s why. A big fat lie that does NOT deliver on its candy-coated promises. Thanks to the summer, I have more gray hair, more of a grocery bill and less sanity. I will initiate a grass-roots movement to have mandatory labor camps for school-aged children so that the following does not occur:

Me (In middle of an intense meeting, my phone rings. It’s from one of my children, so I answered, fearing a catastrophe): “Hello?”

Ayden: “Mom, what do you want me to mow?”

Me (Trying not to yell because I’m being stared at, so I whisper psychotically): “The grass.”

Ayden (Oblivious to my deteriorating sanity): “Ok! Love you. Bye!”

That is just one example of many. One time I got a call from Aubrey telling me that Ayden kicked her. Well, it was more like a tap, but it hurt her feelings. Then I got a call 5 minutes later that she couldn’t find her iPod, and then she texted me to say hi and ask when I would be home. I told her 30 minutes. When I got home 37 minutes later, she was angry. I asked her why and she told me I was late.  Let me explain that I’m gone 3 hours at the most and I live across the street from my grandmother and have 2 teenagers and an 11-year-old that are more than capable of holding down the fort for that period of time. One day it took me an extra hour, an HOUR, people, to do what I needed to do because it’s the law that EVERY time your child calls or texts you MUST respond. When I got home that day I was almost certifiably insane; I had to stop shopping and respond, then I had to pull the car over and respond, 3 times. When I walked in the door I had grown horns. I said very calmly and slowly, “Unless you are bleeding or dying or otherwise mortally wounded or desperately ill, DO NOT CALL ME.” I later modified that directive to a more reasonable, “Only send me a text or call me if you need to.” That was stupid, just so you know.

And the food bill! Good grief, these people eat a lot of cereal, and fruit snacks, and grapes, and and and. I feel entitled to a reserved parking spot at the grocery store. I sometimes have the urge to walk up to an employee and remind them that I’m the reason they have a job. Me, the lady you see every other day buying milk and eggs and bread and frozen pizza and Capri Sun and Gatorade and reduced-for-quick sale meats. You’re welcome, employee. Hope you’re enjoying your summer.

I say all this to say that in spite of the chaos, I’m kind of sad that school begins. We live in such a busy culture that there’s no room for a season of calm. So we have to make it intentionally. I’m not sure how to do that, exactly, but it starts with give-me-your-phones-at-9 every night and we-cancelled-cable. It’s something. I may add mandatory-board-game-night, but that may get me excommunicated. Wait, maybe that’s the answer. My next blog will be written from the blissful silence of my shed. 


Plastic

Alyssa and I have a horribly inappropriate line of Barbie and Ken dolls based on some very politically incorrect stereotypes. We began creating them about 10 years ago but decided not to market them because God wouldn’t think it was very nice. We have one called “Perfect Christian Barbie”. Her name is Joy-Ellen: she wears her hair in a bun with slacks, a button down shirt with puffed sleeves and sensible shoes. She doesn’t allow her children to say the word “fart”. Then there’s Donnell. He’s a skinny white guy who wears his pants below his butt and a flat brimmed hat that’s always sideways. He drives a pimped out 1999 Honda Civic with awesome rims and a kick-butt stereo but the hatch has to be closed with a bungee cord. The Civic is sold separately. 

Stuff like that shouldn’t enter my mind, probably, and here I am broadcasting it for the world (or 10 people) to see. I do have a reason, though, and it isn’t solely entertainment. Sometimes my lenses get fuzzy. While I should be loving people right where they are I’m busy inventing imaginary dolls based on what I think of them, or a composite of similar personalities. So to be fair, I thought I’d invent a Barbie based on myself. 

“Stressed Out Summer” comes dressed in jeans she’s worn for 4 days, boots she wears so often they may as well be part of her uniform and we don’t know if she even has a shirt on because her coat never comes off. If her shirt did come off it would reveal stretch marks covering her entire abdominal area. She has a realistic callous on her left hand from logging 3,000 miles per month driving to and from work and taking the children to activities. She only eats one full meal a day and comes with a bag full of Goldfish crackers, a 2-liter of Pepsi Max and an orange. Her crazed, glazed over eyes are bloodshot and her hair is frizzy. She used to have a van from a previous decade but now drives a 2002 Chevy Suburban that she no longer needs since most of her children drive.

“Stressed Out Summer” lives in a cute little farmhouse that is never fully clean for more than 10 minutes. The dining room table doubles as storage for folded clothes her children (all sold separately) seem to believe will put themselves away magically. The sink comes complete with dirty dishes, which have decreased in number since she started buying paper products (because it was either the environment or her sanity, people). Tiny dog can be purchased separately and is programmed never to die, even after she eats Silica gel, Brillo pads and chocolate. 

You get the idea. If I was a doll, no one would buy me. So it’s easy to assume that if people really knew me, they wouldn’t like me. Authenticity is difficult. It’s risky. I struggle with it every day. How do I become the person I’m called to be without offending someone? Guess what? I don’t. Does that mean I sit in judgment of others? Absolutely not – but that does mean I speak the truth in love. It is quite an impossible task without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who resides in those of us who have invited Him. I encourage you to let God, not status, body image, wealth, poverty, race, home life, life stage or anything else define you. Let us all put down our defenses and just be real. You aren’t alone. We are all imperfect. Even Barbie, who, if she was an actual person, would be 5’9”, have a 39” bust, an 18” waist, 33” hips, a size 3 shoe and weigh 110 pounds, putting her BMI at 16.24, which fits the weight criteria for anorexia. I’m not judging you, Barbie, but for the love of all that is holy, eat a cheeseburger, girl. 

Whale of a Life

I’m recycling some of my older blogs because when I read them I notice that I have made progress and that gives me so much hope – hope I want to share with you, because that’s what I’m called to do. If ever there was an overarching theme to my purpose it is to encourage, and also to give a voice to things about which many of us struggle.

2013: “I want to watch Christmas Vacation” said my 8-year-old daughter. She is teaching her “class” of invisible yet apparently very ill-behaved students suspiciously named after her siblings. During their school day she allows them to watch a movie. Best teacher EVER! So I put in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and let Chevy Chase educate them. For good measure I threw in a few beers and some pretzels to complete the experience. I’m joking, of course, but when I realize how accessible our kids are now that every device has Wi-Fi, it feels like that’s exactly what I’m doing. Add that reality to my already chaotic brain and you’ve got a perfect storm inside my soul.

I don’t know about you, but there are times when I just want to put my children in a bubble and keep them from experiencing the harshness of this world. (And then we have 18 snow days and I completely change my mind. “ILOVEYOUGETOUT” I chirp as I spot the approaching blessed yellow bus and then dance around gleefully in my house that used to have visible floors. And food.) The control freak in me has made lists, as if somehow writing down what I think needs to happen to create order will solve the problem. I’d love to show you some of my lists, which include items like “Aubrey goes to bed at 8:45, big kids at 9:30” and “Mom will have dinner ready by 6pm”. I wish I was kidding. The urge to control is overwhelming at times. And exhausting. 

One day recently while I was obsessing over painting our new house that I can’t even enjoy because I’m too busy writing to-do lists, this peace washed over me. It was like God was telling me to breathe. I’ve been living small because when I’m in control that’s the only size life can be. I want to live HUGE and FREE. God wants me to live abundantly. That doesn’t mean material wealth necessarily, but that we see each day as an opportunity to have an adventure with God. He creates order from our chaos. The more I try to create order, the crazier I become. I’m dangling by thread as it is, and the more I try to be the captain, the surer I am that we will sink. 

Bad people exist. I can’t change that, or even fully protect my children because unless we teleport to 1850 or join the Amish in Pennsylvania, they will have access to the internet. And unless we all actually live inside a bubble, there will be schedules to arrange and things to clean and paint. (Besides, a bubble is a perpetual snow day. Please refer to paragraph 2.) I’ve realized I have to put down the pen and paper (and the paintbrush) and simply pray. Why do I make it so complicated? Because I’m human, and humans are stupid. Well, not you. Me. I’m stupid. But God knows that, so He fills in the gaps. I’m so grateful. Without God, I’m a goldfish in a bowl. With Him, I can live like a blue whale in the Indian Ocean.