I’ll Have a Pepsi, Please. And Super-Size It.

This past weekend I had a chance to chat with my grandmother (my dad’s mom) on the phone for almost an hour.  I always enjoy our conversations.  Usually there’s a story or two that is recounted, like the time when I was a toddler and, as soon as my grandmother came over to our house, I grabbed her hand, took her to my room, and closed the door, apparently wanting to keep her all to myself.  “Do you remember that?” Grandma always asks, smitten by the story.  I don’t remember the incident when it actually happened, but I do remember it from the previous conversation when she shared it with me, and from the time before that, and each time before that. It’s a favorite memory of hers, so I’m glad to listen as many times as she’d like to share it.

We also talked about her life as a navy pilot’s wife, a young widow after 20-some years of marriage, and a mother of three.  She told me about the people for whom she’s cared and about her faith over the years.  For her it’s just her story, it’s just the hand that she was dealt and the life that she’s lived.  For me it’s this example of strength, of endurance, of sacrifice, of devotion.  Sometimes you just need to hear perspective from someone who’s been doing this for 85 years.

Oh, and there’s a matter-of-fact quality to my grandmother.  If she has a question about your bowel movements, by golly she’ll ask it without lowering her voice or using delicate language.  No sugar coating here.  This straight shooting usually makes me laugh, more so when someone else is in the hot seat being asked how often they wash their face or if they use the quilt that she hunched over for months to make for them.

I told her about my recent state of overwhelmedness.  Trying to make headway with my comprehensive exams while juggling work in the lab and a big load of personal stuff at times leaves me falling short in all I do.  When these feelings of defeat peak I can become almost paralyzed, leading to, among other things, inefficient use of my time, which of course feeds in to the cycle of feeling overwhelmed and falling short.  To this Grandma responded: “When I start to get that way I drink a Pepsi and it helps me to get going.  And I know that it’s not good for you, but it’s either that or shoot myself, so I figure the Pepsi’s not so bad.”

She’s funny and she’s blunt, but she’s right.  I have dozens and dozens of pages to write and only a few weeks until my deadline, so yeah, I need to get going.  And maybe life for the next four weeks (or five or six weeks) is going to be a little disjointed and wearisome and out of balance, but this is my spring.  It’s either get going or give up, so even if I need to cheat here and there on my healthy eating plan, ignore a few emails, or let the bathrooms stay a little dirty, it’s not so bad.  It’s worth the trade off of not giving up, of meeting another goal along this (sometimes very painful) journey, of knowing that I never really was defeated after all.

One!

The March masthead came about when I realized that 1) I haven’t taken any pictures in the last month, and 2) a year ago this month we purchased a new car, a 2008 Toyota Prius.  I have never had a brand new, driven-less-than-ten-miles-when-we-drove-it-off-the-lot vehicle, so owning it has felt like living in luxury, even when I’m driving while wearing my $9.99 pajama bottoms and a spaghetti-stained race t-shirt.

When we bought the car every inch of it was so shiny and flawless, a state that I knew we’d never see again, so I drove it to a municipal park near our house for a little photo shoot. Thank goodness there were no baseball or soccer games going on at the time, because I didn’t need dirty, toothless children staring and pointing at me to clue me in to my quirkiness.  I recognized on my own that I looked strange snapping photos with such extreme detail.  But hey, at least I wasn’t shouting, “Work it!  Work it!  Look right at the camera!  Now give me pouty lips!”

Here are just a couple shots of the car as the photo shoot waned in to the sunset and post sunset hours.  Note the sunset sky reflecting on the car in the first photo and the full moon in the second.  Ooooooooo.

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I originally thought that I would use this photo as the masthead for this month…

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…because when is there any other time that your car’s engine is so abnormally clean that you want to lick it or cut fresh fruit on it? There is no other time. Further, how often do you see a lickable car engine as the masthead to a blog? Probably not too often. While I was excited about this rarity, Brian vetoed it in favor of the dashboard view masthead. In the name of love, I let his first choice prevail.

(After I added the dashboard view to the website, I tried to think of something profound that I could say about the photo, but all that came to mind was Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, and the harder I tried to think the louder the lyrics “DO YOU LOVE ME? WILL YOU LOVE ME FOREVER?…” resonated in my head. Ah well, instead of thought-provoking I got memories of junior high dances.)

So I was enamored with the pristine newness of the car, but as I celebrate the first anniversary as its owner, please realize that the anniversary excitement is less about the car and more about the opportunity to count something.  I can’t help it; I was born in to a family who has a strange affinity for numbers.  My father teaches math, and my grandfather, mother, and brother are accountants.  Am I forgetting anyone?  Well, most of the rest of us without a bean-counting job title still enjoy numbers in our spare time.  We monitor baseball and football stats, count stairs, find patterns in phone numbers, take heed to random dates (e.g. insignificant anniversaries), and oogle over the odometer in the car, to name only a few examples.  Heck, even before one of my nephews started kindergarten he was counting by 11’s and playing games with people’s ages.  Just like The Count on Sesame Street, we cry if we do not get to count things and we will sometimes send letters to ourselves just so we can count the incoming mail.  Okay, maybe we don’t do the latter, but cry if we run out of things to count?  Yes, yes we cry.

Does anyone else think of their odometer as a little dial of magic?  When my brother was in high school trying to decide what topic he should choose for a paper, my grandfather told him that he should seriously consider writing his paper on how my grandfather’s car hit 66,666 miles that week.  Similarly, my mom and I will often call each other to excitedly announce that our odometer struck a number like 80,000 or a fun palindrome like 105,501.  In every car ride, a surprise awaits.

Anyway, as The Count would say about the Prius today, “One!  One anniversary!  A a a a a!”

Worthy

Every Wednesday during the semester my department has Research Round Table, or RRT.  Research Round Table is a great name to describe the weekly meeting; RRT is a horrible acronym.  It may not look like a horrible acronym, but try saying it out loud.  Quickly.  You sounded like a hungry gawking seal, didn’t you?  So when I am in my lab and someone asks if I can meet with them or go for lunch on Wednesday at noon, I almost always blush when I say, “No, I’m sorry I can’t, I have RRT,” because I know the person listening to me cocks their head a little and crosses their fingers hoping that I don’t grow a flipper and slither onto the floor like Daryl Hannah did in Splash.

Last Wednesday at RRT we had a different format than the typical journal club or think-a-loud or research presentation.  Instead the graduate students threw out questions for faculty about the writing process, the publication process, and managing professorial responsibilities in academia.  The meeting was enlightening and inspiring and daunting and discouraging.

At one point, the conversation tail-spinned into a discussion on the peer review process.  When a manuscript is submitted for publication to a scientific journal, if it is deemed worthy by the editor it is sent to other scientists for peer review.  The reviewers have at the manuscript like hungry paper-eating wolves, critiquing everything that is weak and wrong in the writing, and then deciding whether or not the study is worthy of publication.  All this goes on while it is thundering and lightning outside with ominous music playing in the background, and the reviewers are throwing their heads back in uproarious, evil laughter.

In rare circumstances a manuscript is accepted with no modifications.  Although I can’t say that it isn’t a good goal to aim for “accepted with no modifications,” my sense is that the result of having such a lofty goal would be similar in result to getting on the Tilt-A-Whirl ride at a carnival, leaving your wallet on the seat next to you as you spin and twirl madly, and then expecting your wallet to be there on the seat at the end of the ride – in either case you will be let down.  Also your hair will be ridiculously disheveled.  More likely when submitting a manuscript one can expect to see “accept with modifications,” “modify and resubmit,” or “reject.”

The purpose of the peer review system admirably is to improve the quality of published articles, and likewise comments are meant to improve the conceptual and technical aspects of these manuscripts.  Perhaps on occasion this process unfolds beautifully as intended, like a budding flower opening to the warmth of the sun.  On the other hand, my beloved faculty shared one woeful experience after another about frustrating reviewers and outrageous comments.  All this from a group who I admire, who are profoundly intelligent, and who are well veteraned in writing and publishing.  They continued to explain that no one in academia has time to dwell on the strengths of a manuscript; if a paragraph or concept is not red-marked so to speak, then it is considered to be good, or at least good enough.  It’s the epitome of “no news is good news.”

I floated out of the circle of conversation for a moment to reflect on this.  There really are few moments in this profession where someone comes along, pats you on the back and says good job.  The positive feedback is not extinct, but certainly endangered.  This predicament trickles down into advisor-graduate student interactions as well.  Compliments can take on strange forms.

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Not far off from this satirical comic is a particular instance where I had emailed a paper to my advisor.  In her return email she said that I really did do a great job on the paper…and then I opened the attached document and saw an obscene amount of comments and changes.  Hard to believe the “great job” in the body of the email was written in reference to the very file that had been subjected to the dreaded advisor review.  Of course in this case many of her comments substantially improved the paper, but that doesn’t mean that the imbalance of feedback wasn’t difficult for me.  In my thirst for affirmation, I read the “great job” at least fifty times so that it felt more like fifty compliments instead of just one.  It helped to offset the three thousand comments in the paper.

So during this RRT discussion the overall message was that the critics can be harsh.  The advice on how to deal with this stark reality was 1) to allow yourself time to cool off before responding and 2) to grow thicker skin.  For a person that craves positive feedback and approval, these were grim coping strategies.  I left the meeting with angst over my future.  If I continue in this profession, who’s going to tell me “nice job,” or “well written,” or “great idea”?  With constant focus on what is wrong with my work, how am I going to feel any sense of worth?

Well, I went home that night and God decided to use my procrastination for good as I read the following post from Stuff Christians Like (a funny, inspirational, well-written blog that I stumbled upon while doing the ever popular Facebook stalking):

Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Wondering if we’re worth anything.
I interpret any two people closing any door in the entire office at work as a private meeting that is being held to discuss my imminent termination.

When I hear the sliding door sound that our cool offices make when we seal them shut, that little panicked voice inside me says, “You’re going to get fired.” When I am left off a meeting invite, I automatically think, “Why did that guy leave me off the meeting? Does he know I’m a dead man walking? Is he thinking ‘what’s the use of inviting Acuff to this meeting, he’ll be fired soon?” And I start to worry that I might be turning invisible. Like that photograph of Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, I’m disappearing and unless someone plays “Earth Angel” and two people make out, I’m gone.

That’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing that the running dialog in my head gallops to that so quickly like a drunken gazelle. (See, even that analogy was lacking because I’m stressed.)

But as dumb as that is, as complicated and tangled as the thoughts in my head feel, I think they come back to something I’ve written about on this site before, something that is impossibly simple …

I want someone to tell me that I am enough.

I want someone to validate that I matter. That I am valuable and important. Like Thom Yorke said in the song “Creep,” “I want you to notice when I’m not around.”

And it turns out I’m not the only one.

Two weeks ago news broke that Alex Rodriguez, arguably one of the greatest baseball players of our generation, took steroids in 2003. If you don’t follow sports, this was a huge deal. It’s the equivalent of say, Samson using performance enhancements or finding out that David had used a pistol on Goliath instead of a sling.

That a professional athlete used steroids isn’t that interesting to me, but in his confession interview with Peter Gammons, Rodriguez said something really revealing. When asked why he did it, when asked why after signing the biggest, most lucrative contract in baseball history for $252 million, he risked it all by taking steroids, he replied:

“When I arrived in Texas in 2001, I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me, and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day. Back then, it was a different culture. It was very loose. I was young. I was stupid. I was naive. And I wanted to prove to everyone that, you know, I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time.”

He wanted to prove to everyone that he was worth being one of the greatest players of all time. That when the Texas Rangers signed that $252 million contract, Alex Rodriguez was worth it. He wanted the fans and the owners of the ball club and people that watch him on television and journalists and anyone that ever came in contact with him to believe he was worth it.

He wanted to know that he was enough.

The unfortunate thing for me and Rodriguez is that no one on the planet is going to be able to tell us that to our satisfaction. Not a stadium full of fans, not every coworker I’ve ever had. Not a sports journalist. Not my web traffic or technorati ranking or eventual book sales.

That’s the problem with asking other people to tell us we’re enough. They can’t. They didn’t make us. They didn’t knit us in the womb or imagine us thousands of years before our parents danced at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. (That’s Back to the Future reference number two for those playing along at home.)

Even our friends and family members, the people that know and love us best can’t satisfy the deep desires of our heart because they didn’t put them there. They don’t know where they’re hidden or even know what this crazy work of art called “our lives” is supposed to look like.

And when we ask other people to tell us we’re worth enough we end up doing crazy things. Like taking steroids or lying in bed awake at night wondering why your name wasn’t on a Microsoft Outlook Meeting Invite.

Fortunately for you and me and Alex Rodriguez I went ahead and asked God if we were all worth it. He said “yes.” He said He sent His Son because He wanted us to know how very “enough” we all were. He said to feel free to ask Him that same question yourself. Go on, I dare you to. I promise that regardless of whether you’re one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived or a stay at home mom that feels invisible sometimes, the answer is going to be yes.

Duh. In my graduate student haze I momentarily lost sight of this truth.  I have tried to feel worthy by absorbing the words of others.  I have tried to feel worthy by puffing myself up with positive self talk.  But there is nothing that has ever made me feel so worthy and satisfied as the fulfilling love and promises of God.  What a timely intervention.

Gallbladderlessness

In the last two posts (here and here) I had mentioned my “back spasms” and then mentioned that my health had been deteriorating throughout December.  The “back spasms” and “back discomfort” in fact had little to do with my back.  As symptoms progressed – nausea, loss of appetite, exhaustion, weakness, general sick feeling, back pain, itching in hands/feet, darkened urine, and so on – it had become clearer that I had liver and gall bladder issues.

Gall bladders store bile, and I had developed small gall stones (perhaps I had already passed larger ones during those horrific nights spent writhing in pain?) and gall sludge, which were preventing bile from moving through the organ as it ought.  It is not recommended that you try blocking your flow of bile at home.  Oh my painfulness!

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It was determined on Thursday, December 11th that I would need to have my gall bladder removed, so I scheduled a surgical consultation.  After scheduling the appointment, my symptoms worsened to the point where I had only about four good hours in me a day.  By Sunday (just one day after Ro passed away), I turned jaundice.  Seriously yellow.  That was enough to have all procedures expedited, and I was admitted to the hospital that day.

I really have so much to say about the hospital experience.  I’m not just talking about my 3-night stay or the unflattering gown or the fact that from Sunday to Wednesday the only thing that I was allowed to eat/drink were two liquid meals consisting of Jello, popsicles, broth, and juice.  I’m talking about what I learned about advocating for yourself, trusting your body, and communicating with hospital staff what your body is telling you.  This sort of hospital drama is a story for another time – like maybe when the medical bill arrives.

I had two surgical procedures.  First, I had an Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP; scoping procedure) to rid my biliary ducts of the gravel-like gall stones and sludge.

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The procedure was supposed to take 30-45 minutes, but due to my “notably J-shaped stomach” and the doctors’ several attempts to clear out my duct-work, my ERCP took almost two hours.  As I was coming out of the anesthesia and clearly still incoherent, I explained to the doctor that “J” is for “Jesus.”  That was right after giving him a fist bump instead of a hand shake and asking him if 1) he found any macaroni and cheese in my biliary duct and 2) it was okay that I kept farting.  I do recall Brian apologizing on my behalf; I saw nothing wrong with my behavior at the time.  Moral of the story: If possible, always have a friend or family member take you in and bring you out of surgery so that they can make excuses for your ridiculous behavior.

The next day I had my gall bladder removed laparascopically.

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The surgeon told Brian that this surgery went perfectly.  I have this foggy memory of screaming and thrashing as I came out of anesthesia this time, and in the first recovery room I had noticed that they put weights on my legs.  As far as I know, it is not normal to put weights on people’s legs for this type of surgery, so I am assuming they were placed on me due to the thrashing.  Recovery was strange and scary for me, but after about 3 hours of recovery time I was discharged.

By the evening of my gall bladder surgery, Wednesday night, I was home.  Ro’s funeral service was in Cleveland on Saturday morning.  If you would have asked me Friday morning at 6am if I would have been well enough to travel for the service I would have said no.  In fact, Brian did ask me that question at 6am on Friday morning, which is why I cried in response: “We’re not talking about this now!”  I couldn’t deal with no.  But by the strength and healing power of God I rallied to a point where I could travel.  Okay, so maybe I wasn’t in best form, and maybe traveling set my recovery back a day or two, but it was completely worth it.  To be a part of such a wonderful tribute to Ro and to be with family during that time was completely worth it.

Recovery has been a process, but I have been living in a state of gallbladderlessness (thanks for the term, April!) for just over a month now and am fairly well acclimated.  And you know, I may not store bile like all of the people in this world with gall bladders, but I think my J-shaped stomach, the rest of my GI tract, and I will be just fine!

My Favorite Baritone

On Sunday morning, December 7th, I received a concerning phone call about my step-father.  (His name is Robert, but decades ago the nickname Ro was given to and seamlessly stuck with him.)  Ro was in the ICU with renal failure.  The situation looked grim.  I was in a sickly state myself, but felt a tug at my heart to venture to Cleveland, so we went.  Brian and I were greeted at the hospital by my brothers and mom, and we all waited for Ro to return from a surgical procedure.

The nurse finally gave us the go ahead to see him, two at a time.  Brian and I went first.  Ro was tired but alert.  I tucked my hand into his clenched fist and used my other hand to stroke his hair.  I tried to lean over the bed rail to plant a kiss on his cheek, but my torso wasn’t long enough.  I stretched onto my tip toes and puckered out my lips as far as they could go.  The three of us chuckled as I worked my lips out a nanometer at a time.  It didn’t work, so I went flat on my feet and took a step back, ready to attempt this again with more momentum at the start.  Lips ready, the second attempt was successful.  Ro nodded and smiled in approval.  We had a short conversation, exchanged I love yous, and then Brian and I returned to the waiting room to tag in the next pair.  The visit wasn’t easy, but the strength of family together made all the difference.

After exhausting Ro, we watched football in the waiting room and dined in the cafeteria so he could rest.  A couple hours later, Brian and I went with my mom to see Ro one last time before returning to Pittsburgh.  I took the same position at bedside, gripping his hand and petting his hair.  I once again leaned over the bed rail for a kiss, and once again we laughed as I found myself trying to reach his cheek by straining my puckered lips.  Didn’t work.  Just as I was about to lean back in a failed attempt, Ro turned his head and puckered his own lips to bridge the gap.  Such a sweet kiss.  Eye to eye we both said I love you to one another.

The week to follow was a whirlwind of emotion and turmoil.  I was struggling with my own health, which was deteriorating by the day, but that seemed so irrelevant compared to Ro’s fight for life.  For us, it was this roller coaster of feeling hopeless about his outcome one moment, but then in the next moment getting an encouraging update that maybe the next procedure they attempt will make all the difference and he’ll improve.  Ultimately, procedure after procedure failed, and by Thursday Ro was unresponsive and in transition to hospice.  Over the years, he had fought his way through so many ailments, but this time the battle was too great.

Saturday morning he started singing again…in heaven’s choir.

***

I struggle with the word “step-father” because it sounds so second rate, like when you put the word ‘step’ in front of ‘father’ it somehow lessens the parent-child relationship.  Sure, I have a father who I know and love, and sure, my mom tended to make the big decisions for me and my brothers during our childhood, and sure, Ro was closer in age to a grandparent than to a parent, but there is nothing ‘step’ about the relationship that I had with and the love that I have for my step-father.  He has been a father figure in my life from about the age of four.  There aren’t many memories that I have of my life before he entered in to our family.

He did all of those parenty things, like make me eat my vegetables, drive me to extracurricular activities or to friends’ houses, encourage me, love me.  He was my tooth fairy and my teacher at the piano bench.  He would watch me swim in our pool when I was so desperate to get in the water, but wasn’t old enough to swim alone.  When we went camping and I had a distraught look on my face as I took my first bite of sour cereal one summer morning, he told me that I shouldn’t eat that because the milk sat out on the picnic table all night.  He mowed, he raked, he buried our dead pets in the backyard.  He teased that I always had to be on center stage, but I knew he loved it when I sang, danced, or raised my voice louder than anyone else in order to be heard at the dinner table.

He helped me learn to ride a bike and was the chaperone of my very first drive with a learner’s permit.  In my high school days, I joked with Ro – though it’s true – that one of the most important lessons I learned from him is that, when in a bind, your socks can be used to wipe dirty hands.  I still laugh about the one morning when he served as my alarm clock – he opened the bedroom door, threw a shoe at me, and left.  So random.  But just as randomly, one day he walked through my bedroom door and gave me a watch that he had bought for me earlier that day, just because he was thinking about me.  I don’t know how old I was or the day it happened, but I remember the moment when I recognized that he had stopped pushing me to study and instead reminded me to make sure I didn’t overdo it.  All along he encouraged me to pray and to read my Bible, and most certainly led by example in this regard.

Do you see this theme of me, me, me, what he did for me?  Yes, kids are needy little creatures, and Ro was such a big part of meeting those needs and wants during my childhood.  It’s such an unselfish act and he did it willingly as any loving father would do for their child.  There was nothing second rate or ‘step’ about any of this.

For the past decade he had grown dependent and in need of increasing care and I have long been married off, but even still there was a special bond between the two of us.  And even though we have lived a state apart for many years, there has been a comfort in knowing that my roots are just…there.  They are a constant in my life; they ground me.  Ro is part of my history and has had a hand in who I’ve become.  I miss the comfort of this root just being there.  I miss him.  I will miss our breakfast dates where we talk about politics, current events, the end times, and the Bible.  He always listened when I shared about my most recent adventures and believed that I could succeed in whatever I was doing.  I will miss his laughter and his song.

Ro had so many wonderful attributes – he was a great listener, humble, a prayer warrior, hard-working, encouraging, supportive, and patriotic, to name a few.  Jesus was on the throne of his life, and because of the relationship he had with God he studied the Bible like crazy.  My mom found a note that he had written from a devotional referencing Psalm 98:1-3.  He wrote: “Victories in sports, business, or politics must be won again and again, year after year, but there is a victory that was won once for all.  The psalmist celebrates the victory of God’s power and holiness, beautifully prefiguring the final victory of Christ over sin and death.  Our greatest victory is receiving God’s gift of salvation, and this victory need never be won again.”  Ro lived in the light of this victory.

There’s no mistaking – his God-given gift was his voice.  He studied music, taught music, and had music seeping from his pores.  He performed in a multitude of choirs and was a professional soloist.  As he would practice at the piano in our living room, I always felt this great privilege of being serenaded on any given day.  Beyond all this, his music was an offering and helped people connect with God.  I remember sitting in church during a duet he sang, “Household of Faith.”  I was not even a teenager, but still recall the power of the two voices – not only did they have the chill factor, where my arm hair was on end and I was pushed back in my seat breathless, but those voices also invoked a connection to the lyrics and a call to respond.  I remember this same response as Ro sang “He is No Fool” and “He’s Alive” as well.  This was not just a talent, but a powerful spiritual gift.

At Ro’s memorial service, my mom did such a beautiful job honoring Ro’s life.  At the end of her reflections, she shared a story about Ro auditioning for a choir in the Cleveland area about 17-18 years ago, the Singer’s Club.  She didn’t think he should have to audition given his ability; he humbly shrugged his shoulders and went to the audition.  When he returned, my mom asked him how it went.  He sheepishly replied, “They said, ‘To what do we owe this honor?’”

I echo my mom’s words:  It has been an honor to listen to this man, to know this man, to love this man.  But Robert would say, “To whom do we owe any honor?”  To his Lord and our Lord, Jesus Christ, who won that greatest victory.

(Click here to hear an excerpt from “God’s Great Grace,” Ro’s last public solo in 2001, age 76.)

Perspective

Yesterday afternoon I went to the doctor to find answers for the back spasms that I’ve been having. The first episode was in late September, here and gone in a painful, scary night. The spasms didn’t rear their ugly face again until early November, but again they were over within a night. The past week or two though, the spasms, or at least an aching and discomfort, have been nearly constant. On Saturday night it was painful to the point of inducing vomiting.

During the doctor’s examination yesterday, we discussed what might have caused this recurrence with such intensity. Among a number of possible culprits, the doc asked me if I have been stressed.

For the two seconds that I said, “Uhhhhh,” the last three months of my life zipped through my head. My grandmother’s death. The October grant deadline, the intense two-week deadline for part one of my comprehensive exams, and the general chaos of graduate student life that keeps me straddling the edge of sanity. My brother’s November house fire. Tough conversations about travel expectations to visit family, especially around the busy holiday season. The busy holiday season. My step-dad’s admittance to the ICU with numbers in his blood report skyrocketed to levels that bodies don’t survive. Crying with my mom as we discuss end-of-life decisions for this husband, this father of ours.

“Uhhhhh, yeah. I think so.”

***
Saturday night around 3 a.m. I thought Brian was asleep. I was tossing and turning in bed, frustrated that no position worked comfortably and feeling hopelessly miserable with the aching and throbbing. I swung my arm behind me and gripped mid-back where the pain was the worst. Moments later a hand touched me in that same spot.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“What are you doing?!”

“I just felt like I was supposed to be praying for your back right now.”

I burst into hot tears, “It hurts so much!” Brian prayed. He put a hot cloth on my back. He held my hair as I threw up. He made me a bubble bath at which we laughed as the bubbles seeped over the edge of the tub. He coaxed me to sleep after 4 a.m. even though he had to be up in less than two hours. I tried to apologize over and over for the inconvenience, but he never let me.

***

What would we do without the strength and support of our loved ones during our stressful, weak times in life? I feel the touch of their hands on me, praying for me, lifting me, easing the weight of my burden. Sure, when the doctor asked me if I have been stressed all of these events from this fall flooded into my mind, but the woes from the past three months have rarely been in the forefront of my thinking. It’s the blessings that I see. I see the fortitude and devotion of family and friends. I see love and joy that surpasses understanding. I see the eternal perspective in my soul that tells me that a house, a job, suffering, life on this Earth,…these are all temporary. There is so much more for which to hope and to live.

Yes, I am so richly blessed.

It’s Genetic!

I took this picture of Brady and Paige (nephew and niece) two summers ago. What I love about it – other than their cute faces – is that they are in their pajamas grabbing some ice cream from my brother’s ice cream truck for breakfast.

I identify with this picture on days like today when I am working from home wearing a t-shirt and my Hello Kitty! pajama bottoms all day and eating a Dairy Queen Buster Bar for breakfast.

A Promised Land

Last night, Brian and I boarded a massive, double-decker jet and flew halfway around the world to Israel.

This tiny scrap of land about the size of New Jersey is celebrating its 60th birthday as a new nation this year.  Ever since its rebirth, Israel has been a political and religious battleground.  Enemies within the country fight for territory.  Middle Eastern neighbors surrounding Israel would be pleased to remove this country from the map.  In fact, the battling over this land began long before 1948.  Disputes trace back to the Biblical accounts of Genesis and continue through the Old and New Testaments.  So much attention given to a land whose size pales in comparison to the countries around it.  It has hardly known a time of quiet and stillness.  Yet, amidst the wars and the invasions and the changes of power, over two millennia ago a baby was born in Bethlehem who forever changed the face of this Holy Land.  He was Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  Such a good and perfect gift in Jesus arriving in such a tumultuous place.

This vacation, although I have brief moments of concern for plummeting myself into a contentious part of the world, I am mostly just thrilled to celebrate the life that offers peace and hope to a struggling world and to examine the events of Jesus’ time where they actually occurred.  As we left the Tel Aviv airport earlier this evening and boarded our bus for the 2-hour drive to Tiberias, Lon Solomon prayed, among other things, that we would have a life-defining experience on this trip.  You know, if we are following hard after Jesus, I’m wondering if it’s even possible not to have a life-defining experience.

Bill Shakespeare Would Be Proud

My grandparents used to take my mom and uncle to Nelson Ledges in the fall when they were young.  My mom carried on that tradition with my brothers and me, every fall if possible.  We typically started our day in the picnic area, enjoyed a lunch together, and tossed around a football or frisbee in the open field for a bit.  Afterward, we all hit the outhouses and then walked across the street from the picnic area to the ledges.  Degree of hiking difficulty here is determined by the group.  Hikers could casually stroll above or around the ledges, or could opt for more demanding descents, climbs, and crevasses through which to crawl.  We usually elected for anything that would challenge us or that looked like it had not been explored before.  If I made it through the Devil’s Icebox without losing my footing – which meant drenching my foot in the cold, orange, mineral-deposited water – then the day was a success.

November ’07 we introduced the state park to the next generation’s boys – four of my nephews.  This month’s masthead is a photo of Brian and the three youngest nephews heading in to the hiking area.

My brother, Tod, explained this sign best as “where your pee would go if you #1’d right here.”

It is customary for our family to stand on this balcony and recite, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?…”  Thanks to Brady, it looks like licking the balcony may become a new tradition as well.

Being silly, I had captioned the photo of Tod, Cliff, and me as “Siblings in love” in a family album.  When my mom was showing the album to my nephews, she asked if they knew what ‘siblings’ were?  Evan, seven years old at the time, said, “Yeah.”  “What are siblings?”  He explained matter-of-factly, “People in love.”

At the end of the day, my mom rode home with Tod and his two boys.  Nate, five years old then, must have been observant of the chatting and laughing that my mom and I did throughout the day, and then saw the hug and kiss we exchanged as I headed back home to Pennsylvania.  In the car he asked, “Granny Joanney, how do you know Aunt Michelle so well?”

Must be all those trips to Nelson Ledges.

“Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner”

A week ago today we had the funeral service for my grandmother. Of course there were many moments of tears and sadness, but the weekend overall was really nice. Nice? Yes. Because the entire weekend was about our family. My mom and step-dad, my brothers and their families, my uncle and aunt, my cousins, family friends, other extended family… Amidst our mourning there was room for joy and laughter because of the bond we share with each other and the fun memories we have of Grams.

A couple times my mama asked, “What are you going to say about me when I die?” I think this question arose for two reasons – 1) she knows that there are several things she has done in her day that make her vulnerable, and 2) she, the daughter, spoke at Grams service and if I, the daughter that occasionally is accused of being unrelated because of my total weirdness, would have the charge of speaking at my mom’s service, she would again feel very vulnerable left in my hands.

Well, just as you felt it was challenging to speak about Grams in fifteen minutes, Mama Bear, I also feel like I would need at least five days to sum up what I would want to say about you at your funeral. But yes, I probably would share the story about you telling Tod that you couldn’t figure out how to rewind his DVD. I would have to talk about you letting me stay up until 2am one night when I was in elementary school so that we could all go over to your friends’ houses and mischievously decorate their yards with toilet paper. Celebrating your life would not be the same if I didn’t offer up to everyone the pictures of you dressed as a sumo wrestler in a purple dress or in an old-person mask to greet people at airports or to liven birthday parties. Dress as a horse with a friend and canter in to the church office to wish the senior pastor happy birthday? That’s my mom! When I learned last weekend that you wore an olive barrel to high school on dress down day, at that moment I better understood why you helped me make an outfit out of garbage bags for a high school dare rather than scoff at the idea. We get each other that way.

All these things you love to do, it shows the world that you love life, love to laugh, and love to make others laugh. You have that legacy of joy and laughter from Grams and Grandpa, and you spread it like wildfire into the lives of others.

At your funeral, I would also share about another trait you inherited – your kind, giving heart. I know you often feel tired and spent, which in part comes from being such a diligent worker, but the main reason for the exasperation is because you spend your days giving every piece of yourself away to those in need. Like Aunt Helen, who outlived her husband and her son and didn’t have much family around her, you poured your energy in to helping her move, helping her pay bills, reminding her to laugh, and giving her company when she had none. You answered her frantic, confused calls at the wee hours of the night. You planned medications and treatments for her with the nursing staff. Teens with deficient parents. Your elderly parents. Your aging husband. Ro spoke for so many when he grabbed your hand that one time and said, “I don’t know what I would do without you. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

I have been on the receiving end of this sacrifice and generosity. Okay, so there was the one night when I was a child and I wanted to crawl in to bed with you because I thought there were millions of bugs crawling all over my walls. I came in to your room late at night, explained my predicament, and begged, “Pleeeease could I sleep in your bed just like the kids did on the Cosby Show?” You told me to pretend Jesus was with me and to go back to bed. So not the most shining moment of theology or sacrifice, but in your defense, I did just wake you and I was annoying sometimes as a kid.

With those few minor exceptions aside, you gave and gave and gave to your children. Moonlighting so that I could have luxuries like braces or a high school trip overseas, taking us on mystery trips, relinquishing personal time in favor of our sporting events and household upkeep, doing word searches with me, reading Bible stories at the dinner table, leaving a touching note in my sock drawer on my first day of college, loving me unconditionally even when I was a brat – you offered these things and more without asking in return. At the age of eight, I didn’t think about the inconvenience for you when I barfed beef and noodles in my bed and hair in the middle of the night. But I do remember you patiently consoling me and cleaning me up, and the next day buying me a 101 Dalmatians sticker book.

By your words and more importantly by the way you live your life, you have taught me to be committed, to never give up, to be crazy, to work my hardest, to be strong, to walk humbly, to love God, to serve others. You saw my talents and strengths before I did and helped me to develop them. I remember you created a game out of memorizing Bible verses on our road trip to California in ’87, and I am still able to recite many of those verses today (not so hot with the state capitols, though). It was your firm foundation that gave me confidence to go forward courageously in life. Sometimes I sit and think how I could repay you. There’s no way I could. It would be like trying to create a beach one teaspoon of sand at a time. All I have to offer is teaspoons compared to the bulldozers of treasures you have bestowed upon me.

And then there’s this magical bond that you and I have. It’s uplifting and encouraging in times of need.  Other times it takes on the form of plastic bugs, Dirty Dancing quotes (the other day you sounded just like Jennifer Grey, by the way), unabashed laughter, or gentle petting (usually me petting your baby butt soft face). One of my favorite laughing moments was when you called me while we were IMing. We both held the handsets to our ears, but never actually spoke one single word. As we continued IMing, we got to laughing so hard on the phone that we had to hang up and put on oxygen masks. We have this unsquelchable connection that runs mysteriously deep.

At your funeral, I would need to capture your wit and creativity and come up with the best stories to exemplify your strength and athleticism (sooo many stories to tell!). So beautiful, so smart, so wonderful. My job will not be easy. I have an idea – you must NEVER DIE!

Finally, I would share the story that Grandpa shared at his mother’s funeral and that you shared at Grams’…

The young Mother set her foot on the path of life. “Is this the long way?” she asked.  The guide said,” Yes, and the way is hard. You will be old before you reach the end of it. But the end will be better than the beginning.”

But the young Mother was happy, and she would not believe that anything could be better than these years. So she played with her children and gathered flowers for them along the way and bathed them in the clear streams. The sun shone on them and the young Mother cried, “Nothing will ever be lovelier than this.”

Then the night came, and the storm, and the path was dark. The children shook with fear and cold. The Mother drew them close and covered them with her mantle. The children said, “Mother, we are not afraid, for you are near and no harm can come.”

The morning came and there was a hill ahead. The children climbed and grew weary, and the Mother was weary. But at all times she said to the children, “A little patience and we are there.” So the children climbed, and when they reached the top they said, “Mother, we would not have done it without you.”

The Mother, when she lay down at night, looked up at the stars and said, “This is a better day than the last, for my children have learned fortitude in the face of hardness. Yesterday, I gave them courage. Today, I have given them strength.

The next day came strange clouds which darkened the earth – clouds of war and hate and evil. The children groped and stumbled. The Mother said, “Look up. Lift your eyes to the Light.” The children looked and saw above the clouds an everlasting glory, and it guided them beyond the darkness. That night the Mother said, “This is the best day of all, for I have shown my children God.”

The days went on, and the weeks and the months and the years. The Mother grew old. She was little and bent, but her children were tall and strong and walked with courage. When the way was rough, they lifted her, for she was as light as a feather. At last they came to a hill. Beyond they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide.

The Mother said, “I have reached the end of my journey. Now I know the end is better than the beginning, for my children can walk alone, and their children after them.”

The children said, “You will always walk with us, Mother, even when you have gone through the gates.” They stood and watched her as she went on alone, and the gates closed after her.

They said, “We cannot see her, but she is with us still. A Mother like ours is more than a memory. She is a living presence.”

Your Mother is always with you. She lives inside your laughter. She’s crystallized in every teardrop. She’s the place you came from, your first home; she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love and your first heartbreak.

Nothing can separate you. Not time, not space…not even death.

You have always been and will always be a living presence in my life, my friend, my hero, my teacher, my mother. I love you!