Thursday, February 28, 2013

Third re-run of "My Cousin Barney is a Liar"

(Today's Kimberly story was "told" to me by Jeff Easter, one of my dearest, kindest, funniest friends. He has made me laugh on some of my saddest days and cry from laughter on some of my happiest. The other character in the story is my friend, Barney, who was always my family's version of 911, and a pretty funny guy in his own right--that's him in the picture. I love them both. I'm re-running this story in honor of Jeff's birthday.)


"It's an easy job. All you gotta do is answer the phone."

I should've known better. After all, my cousin Barney is a liar.

I should've paid attention to the chill that ran up my spine as I thought of the shadowy, casket-lined rooms and the pre-recorded, macabre organ music piping out strains of "Rock of Ages." I don't even like that song. Nor do I care for the smell of carnations--the funeral bud of choice among lower-income Southern mourners.

What if I got trapped in the embalming room? Or had to touch a dead person? Doesn't the Old Testament speak against such things?

But, Barney kept assuring me, "All you gotta do is answer the phone!" (At that point in his vast and sundry career, Barney was apparently serving as Messmer Funeral Home's human resources director.)

Truth be told, it was sort of expected of me. I was a 16-year-old Harden, and working for Mr. Messmer had become a rite of passage for us Harden men.

Besides, I'd make three dollars and fifty cents an hour. I'd be rich!

So, I said "OK, I'll do it."

My boss was Mr. Messmer himself, a kind and portly man who had earned the trust and, therefore, the newly-passed members of most families in the Kimberly-Warrior metropolitan area.

My first assignment was the Thursday night viewing for the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor. The plan was for Mr. Messmer to greet the grieving family, get them settled in and then leave me to "answer the phone."

At 5 o'clock sharp, the mourning Taylors arrived en masse. There were tall Taylors, short Taylors, fat Taylors and skinny Taylors. There were ugly Taylors and foxy Taylors. Taylors in suits and Taylors in overalls. There seemed to be a thousand Taylors, all packed into the small confines of the parlor, which was unchangingly decorated in faux-wood paneling, naugahyde chairs and crushed-velvet drapes.

Shortly before 6 o'clock, with Mr. Messmer long gone, a steady stream of grievers began arriving to pay their respects and to comment on how "natural" Mrs. Taylor looked--yet another reason Mr. Messmer was the regional undertaker of choice.

At four minutes past 6--I noted the time because it was my first official duty--the phone rang. "Messmer Funeral Home," I said, with a sudden swell of manly-Harden pride.

"Who's dead?" screeched the voice on the other side of the phone.

Somewhat rattled by the irreverent inquiry, I blurted back, "Mrs. Taylor. She's being buried tomorrow. Thanks for calling." And hung up.

Just then, a wiry Taylor woman, with a trail of what appeared to be dried snuff running down her chin, marched up and informed me, "There ain't no toilet paper."

As I sat there, blinking at her snuff trail, the only thought I could muster was, "Is that my problem?...My job is to answer the phone. Barney said so." But Snuffy just stood there, chewing on something, clearly expecting me to solve the encroaching toilet paper crisis.

Well, before I could get up out of my chair, both phone lines lit up. "One minute," I signaled to Snuffy....And there it was again...that screeching voice. Only this time it was angry and crackling, insinuating that I had hung up on her.

After repeating the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor's arrangements--twice--I finally began making my way through the sea of grievers in search of toilet paper...all the while doing everything I could to avoid "Snuffy," who had stomped off in a huff while I was dealing with Screecher.

As I maneuvered toward the mystifying no-man's land of the ladies' room, carrying an armload of toilet paper, I remember thinking, "I could be at home watching Gilligan's Island."

Now, for some unfathomable reason, Mrs. Taylor had chosen to pass in late July, the very apex of the Great State of Alabama's annual inferno. Each time the doors opened to welcome the seemingly endless tide of friends, neighbors and church "family," the evening's hot, humid blanket rolled in with them.
Who was this woman? How could one gain so many admirers in one short lifetime?

But, apparently, Mr. Messmer's air conditioner was no respecter of persons and, on that Taylor-congested evening, it decided to give up the ghost. Within seconds of its final, sputtering, lukewarm puffs, I was sweating life a farm animal.

Right then, one of the short Taylors in overalls reached out and grabbed my arm, practically shouting, "I been lookin for you everwhere. I think there's somethin wrong with that-there air condition."

"Ya think, Shorty?" was what I wanted to say...right after a much-needed cussin fit.

Instead, I strived to assume the kind countenance of a funeral home director, which seemed to work so well for Mr. Messmer, and told Shorty, "I'll see what I can do."

By this time, the smell in the over-Taylored parlor was a hot, cloying concoction of body odor, perfume, spearmint gum, Aqua Net and those blasted carnations.

I wound my way back to the desk where both phone lines were blinking...holding my breath and loosening my suffocating necktie.

And...I kid you if on cue..."Rock of Ages" began piping through the speakers. At that moment, I would have gladly traded places with the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor.

As I sat lines still blinking...the ugly truth hit me. I couldn't call Mr. Messmer. I couldn't fix the "air condition." I couldn't stand on my desk and shout, "Will all you people just please go home?"

We were and those sweaty that stinking, hot place of death. Hell took on a whole new meaning.

At 8:35...with just 25 minutes to go...I thought I saw the proverbial light at the end of the proverbial tunnel...until I realized it was just a reflection off the sweaty forehead of the rapidly-approaching, panicked-looking Taylor woman.

"May I help you?", I reluctantly asked. To which she responded by covering her mouth and speaking to me in low, hushed tones, as if we were sharing some long-held secret.

"Umh," she began. "I really don't know how to...umh...tell you this. But, you see, Mrs. Taylor is my sister, and...well...y'all have too much 'stuff' up there," she stammered, gently patting her own well-endowed chest area. "Could you possibly take a little out?"

What!...Could I what? That was definitely NOT in my job description. I had never touched a live woman's chest...I was certainly not about to touch a dead one!

"I'll tell Mr. Messmer," I spewed, as I took her by the elbow and ushered her out the door.
Forget Gilligan's Island. I'd rot in the Jefferson County Jail for murdering that lying, no-good Barney before I'd ever do this again!

By that point, I had shed my tie and jacket--a certain violation of Messmer's employee policy. (Good thing I'd listened to mama and put on clean underwear because the pit-stained, blue Oxford was the next thing about to be shed.) But, just as I began unbuttoning it, I happened to glance at the clock and noticed that its little hand was on the longed-for 9. "Thank you, sweet Jesus!"

Thankfully, one endearing quality of Southern mourners is that, except for the few disturbed outliers who threaten to fling themselves into their loved-one's casket for the night, they know when to call it a day. (After all, the food's back at the house.)

So, at 9:01 sharp, the tired, hungry Taylors began emptying the foodless, inferno-like parlor. By 9:05, everyone was gone...except for me and the newly-passed, newly-endowed Mrs. Taylor.

After tucking her in for the night, I snapped off the organ music--how could Rock of Ages possibly be playing again?--and, with neck hairs standing on end, beat a hasty path through the shadowy, casket-lined room and out the back door to sweet, blessed freedom.

....My cousin Barney is such a liar!
For everything there is a season,
a time to be born and a time to die....
a time to cry and a time to laugh....
a time to grieve and a time to dance....
(from Ecclesiastes 3 NLT)

Friday, February 15, 2013

"The Mighty Yazoo" by Greg Easter

In our family, major purchases came from one of two places--Sears Roebuck or Western Auto. My daddy, Fred, had credit at both! And, as a United States Postal Worker, who delivered mail in Tarrant City, Alabama, his post office was a mere block from each. 

On a special Friday payday, in July 1967, on his way home, daddy stopped by Western Auto to pay his monthly bill. He called from the store phone and alerted my mama (Joann), my brother Jeff and me that he was on his way home with “something special” in the trunk of the Plymouth.

After hanging up the phone, mama guessed excitedly, “Maybe it’s a new TV.  Oooh, won’t it be wonderful to watch that handsome Dean Martin and The Fugitive in living color.” 

But I had a much better guess. It could only be that gold-colored, 20-inch racer bike with butterfly handlebars and a rippled plastic banana seat that daddy knew I wanted. I was already planning how I would mesmerize my friends with wheelies, ramp jumps over small Volkswagens and my sheer speed.

My four-years-younger brother, Jeff, murmured something about a swing set with ropes and a slide…something only meaningful to juvenile eight-year olds.

When daddy’s Plymouth turned onto Manning Street, I was perched and waiting. From a distance, I saw that something special hanging out the trunk, held secure under a beehive of twine, plastic and pieces of torn cloth.

But, my heart sunk fast. Daddy was smiling way too big for that beehive to contain a bicycle. 

Maybe it was its bright, new shininess. Or, maybe a long-held dream just overcame him as he stood there paying off his Western Auto bill. Or, maybe he just liked Jerry Clower. But, whatever the reason, on that July-payday-Friday, daddy brought home a Yazoo.

Mama’s now-deflated voice spoke first, “Fred, it’s a lawn mower!” Daddy began his pitch: “Joann, this ain’t no ordinary lawn mower! This is a Yazoo! This machine is a prime example of American Craftsmanship manufactured in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Honey, this lawn mower is the Cadillac of lawn equipment!” But, Mama just disappeared inside, unimpressed. She'd have to keep making do with her black-and-white Dean Martin.
"The Mighty Yazoo"

Daddy continued his speech on me: “Greg, this is one powerful machine, much better than our old Sears’ mower.” After a moment of grief over the death of my imagined stunts and escapades, daddy’s excitement began to rub off.

That new Yazoo had two large bicycle-sized tires on the rear, two smaller tires on front and, come to think of it, the handle even looked like butterfly handlebars.
According to daddy, the extra leverage provided by the large rear tires allowed a person to “expand their boundaries into heavy brush and even mow down small sapling trees.”

Although, as the oldest son, grass-cutting duties belonged to me, it was only right that daddy got to take her out for a test mow. After carefully cutting the front yard with straight lines and 90-degree turns, he ceremoniously turned her over to me. Manhood had arrived!

I mowed the front yard. I mowed the side yard. I mowed the back yard. I mowed all the way down the hill to Stouts Road. I was goose-stepping through that high grass like a German soldier marching into battle. By the time I finished, it was getting dark, so I parked her under the house for the night.

That night, I lay in bed thinking about my new Yazoo. In my mind, I traced Stouts Road from Kimberly Church of God all the way to Morris Cemetery. I made mental notes of all my future lawn-care customers. The cash windfall my Yazoo was gonna earn me was unimaginable. Twenty dollars a week was well within my reach. By next summer I could own a fleet of Yazoos. The sky was the limit.

Next mornin’, I was up early--an uncommon Saturday occurrence for me. Normally, I slept in, then woke up and ate a few bowls of Krispy Kritters while checking on the latest adventures of Bugs Bunny and Wiley Coyote. Our black-and-white TV carried two channels, and I could usually squeeze in four cartoons before the Dialing-for-Dollars scary movies started at noon.

But, that Saturday, I was on a mission. Since I had cut our grass the day before, I started on my BamMaw’s grass next door. Her yard was bigger and had more hills, but me and my Yazoo conquered a half-day job in less than two hours.

When BamMaw returned from getting her hair done down the hill at Margie Kelley’s beauty shop, she beamed with pride at her newly-cut lawn. For a few minutes, I was her favorite grandchild. She bent down--the smell of Aqua Net still fresh on her stacked-up curls, which were reinforced by hairpins and a net--and kissed my sweaty cheek. 

I was a grass-cuttin’ superhero. Onto bigger challenges.

What happened next was…well…back then, I called it a vision. These days, I realize it was probably a mixture of over-inflated ego, dehydration and inhaled Aqua Net.

But, I suddenly “saw myself” mowing a path from our backyard to Walter Kelley’s General Store. (Those Kelleys were entrepreneurs.)

So, I plotted my mission. If I wanted a direct shot from my house to Walter's store, I’d have to mow a 100-yard-long path through six-foot high weeds, and then mow across a corner of Sister Creel’s hayfield. But, the sheer amount of time this shortcut would save me to get from my back yard to Walter’s candy counter would be worth the challenge.

Most certainly, this path would cause me and my Yazoo to face and mow unthinkable heights. But, I believed it could be done. After all, daddy said that Yazoo would allow me to “expand my boundaries into heavy brush and even mow down small sapling trees.”

So…I rared up the front tires and began to mow over high weeds. Ten, twenty, thirty yards…deep into the heavy-brush jungle. In my dehydrated, Aqua-netted imagination, weeds towered three or four feet above my head, and all sorts of wild things cowered before the power of my mighty Yazoo.

Eventually, Walter Kelley’s general store towered in front of me like a welcoming beacon. We had done it.

I shut off the mower and looked back over my shoulder. Like God's parting of the Red Sea, I had parted Sister Creel’s hayfield. The Promised Land lay just across Stouts Road.

I pushed my beautiful Yazoo back home through the newly-parted hayfield, head held high. Mama greeted me. She was beaming as she complimented and rewarded her industrious son. “Take this and buy you and your brother something,” she said as she dropped a dime and a quarter in my sunburned, sweaty palm. Thirty-five cents! That could buy a boy and his brother an array items from Walter’s candy case.

As I proudly marched through my newly-conquered shortcut, tightly gripping that dime and quarter, I contemplated how I would spend it. But, come to think of it, why did Jeff deserve a reward? I was the hot, sweaty son. All Jeff did was sit on the couch and watch Lassie. Why should he get any of my thirty-five cents?

Still contemplating, I walked in the store and said “mornin” to Walter, who was leaning over the counter talking to Bo Waddell. Bo sat at his usual spot, perched on top of an RC Cola crate turned on its side. They were immersed in smoking Winstons and discussing how George Wallace and his wife, Lurleen, were going to save us all.

Quickly, I surveyed the pegboard wall behind the cash register that held a little bit of everything--including batteries for your flashlight and, way up high on the top pegboard, a real transistor radio sealed in plastic covered with a thin layer of dust.

On the shelves, many of the canned goods held two or three price stickers on top of each other, cataloging the rising inflation and the length of time they had sat on the shelves. There were loaves of Merita Bread, cans of Vienna sausages and small silver tins of Bruton snuff. The glass-domed cooler at the back of the store held bacon, eggs, butter, those delicious Stewart sandwiches, whole milk, buttermilk and chocolate milk.

The metal racks at the front of the store held banana flips, honey buns, fried pies and all sorts of candy. Man, did I love those flips and candy! Spoken by a boy who wore “husky jeans” from Sears Roebuck. And, as if the icy-cold drinks in the dark confines of the CoCola ice boxes weren’t enough, on hot summer days, those boxes were also home to GooGoo Clusters.

So…as you see, I had to be careful and maximize my purchasing power. But, unbeknownst to Walter, I had become skilled at beating the system. I had learned that, with thirty-five cents, I could save three cents worth of tax if I made purchases of ten-cents or less, since no tax was charged on items costing less than 15 cents.

First, I purchased a Dr. Pepper for 10 cents. I drained the entire bottle in a single swallow. Now, with only twenty-five cents left, I had to purchase my main course and still buy something for that undeserving Jeff.

As I stood there surveying my limitless choices, it dawned on me. I’d buy the pack of pink marshmallow/coconut/chocolate Snowballs. That way, I got two cakes for the price of one—one for me and one for Jeff. And, dadgum it, I ended up spending my last dime on a Dr. Pepper for the Lassie-watchin’ freeloader.

After I completed my purchases, I retired outside to enjoy my Snowball, leaving Walter and Bo inside, engulfed in their Winston cloud, dreaming about the glory days ahead with George and Lurleen at the wheel.

Life was good! I sat down next to Walter’s gas pumps, leaning against the 55-gallon drum he had cut in half and filled with water. Walter would dip tires in this mosquito-larvae-wiggly-tail infested water to check for flats.

Sitting there, looking up that 100-yard-long path directly to my back door, holding my delicious Snowball, I savored the moment, reflecting on what a wondrous person I must be to have accomplished God’s will by “subduing the earth” with my wondrous Yazoo.

I savored each fluffy, pink bite until my Snowball was gone. After a bit more daydreaming about my greatness, I looked down and realized I had drunk Jeff’s Dr. Pepper. Mama was gonna kill me!

Maybe I could say there were ants in it…or that Bo Waddell had wrestled me to the ground for it…I could come up with something. After all, I was the boy who had both subdued the earth AND beaten the State of Alabama’s tax system.

While sitting there trying to invent a good story, I took a big bite out of Jeff’s Snowball. Apparently, the devil was now in me!

And, at that very moment,  I looked up, and there, walking down my newly-mowed, shortcut, comes Cottontop himself—Jeff—my undeserving, heathen brother.
"CottonTop" (aka Jeff)

So, I shoved the remaining evidence into my mouth. I tried to swallow, but dry cake and sticky marshmallow only lodged in my throat. It would not come up. It would not go down. That Snowball was stuck. I had no Dr. Pepper. I had no money. I was getting light headed. I was going to die!

I looked around, desperate, panicked. Then, I remembered the tire barrel I was leaning against. So I jumped up and was just about to gulp down a two-cupped-handful of mosquito-larvae-wiggly-tail infested-flat-tire water, when God (or maybe it was my jumping) caused that fist-sized pink conglomeration to burst forth from my windpipe.

Evidently, it was not Jesus’ time for me to go. I would live to mow another lawn with my mighty Yazoo. To eat another pink Snowball and drink another cold Dr. Pepper!

....That is, if Ol’ Cottontop didn’t kill me first for enjoying his.

But, what was I thinking--my mighty Yazoo could handle him.

By: Greg Easter 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Lenten love story

The first Ash Wednesday service I ever attended was a bit of a comedy of errors. I'm sure everyone realized, "She's never done this before." (Frankly, I've decided Catholics and Episcopalians have strong synapses and amazingly good motor skills, because much multitasking is involved in their services--at least the ones I've been to.) The ability to juggle the bulletin, Book of Common Prayer, hymnal and pew altar at designated points in the service requires focus and dexterity! 

At this busy (but beautiful) Ash Wednesday service, through song, sermon and prayer, the minister called us to repentance. However, I must confess that his only words I remember are the ones he spoke as he painted the cross-shaped ashes on my forehead: 
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Looking back, I realize the reason these words affected me so deeply was the frail, elderly couple sitting two rows in front of me. They “preached” me a crystal-clear sermon about just how quickly all of us "return to dust," and how we are called to live and to love in the meantime.

You see, when it was time for me to go receive communion and the "imposition of ashes" (as they call it), I waited at the end of this couple's row to let them step in front of me. All the way out the pew and up the aisle, the husband took halting, shuffled steps, which seemed possible only with the help of his wife's tiny, mottled arm, which wrapped protectively around him.

I wondered how he would ever manage to kneel and get back up but, with her help, he did. While I did not see him take the bread and cup, I couldn't help but hear him because...every movement, every breath...was labored...costly...seemingly uncertain.

The two of them lingered there...kneeling at that altar...for several moments, with her frail little arm never unwrapping from him.

As I watched them laboriously rise from that altar and walk back down the aisle and into their pew, I wondered what sort of devotion was required to get one’s self and one’s frail husband dressed and into the car…one’s self and one’s frail husband out of the car and into the church…one’s self and one’s frail husband up the aisle to painstakingly kneel at an altar to take the bread and the cup and to get back up again.

Watching the two of them, with the newly-painted ashen crosses marking their made me sob...and I bowed my head to try to pull myself back together.

When I opened my eyes, I noticed tiny gray spots on the pages of the Book of Common Prayer, which lay open in my lap. I touched one of these spots, and it smudged. When I saw another one drifting down and landing on the page, I realized what was happening--the ashes from the newly-painted cross on my forehead were flaking off.

As I tried to brush them away without smudging the pages, I realized, “That’s where such determined devotion begins…in the flaking off…the flaking off of selfishness…the flaking off of "the old me.”

And, Jesus' cross...the forgiveness and power found the only way that “flaking off” can ever begin and can ever endure.

I've often wondered about that couple. I feel quite certain that was the last time those ashes were painted on his forehead...perhaps the last time he ever took the bread and drank the cup. But what a beautiful picture of a sacred, foot-washing kind of love he and his bride painted for us that night. 

In his book, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," C. S. Lewis also paints a beautiful picture of this "flaking off." One of the book's characters, Eustace, through pride, self-pity and greed, has taken actions that have caused him to be turned into a dragon. But, once the newness of being a fierce dragon wears off, he is miserable and very sorry for how he has treated everyone. Listen to what happens:
"I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming toward me...It told me to follow...And I knew I had to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me to...a garden. In the middle of it was a well, which was more like a very big round bath...and I thought, 'If I could get in there and bathe, it would ease the pain in my leg' (from the jeweled bracelet that had become more like a shackle).
But the lion told me I must undress I started scratching, and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then, I scratched a little deeper,...and my whole skin started peeling off if I was a banana...In a minute or two, I just stepped out of it. I could see it laying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.
But, just as I was going to put my feet into the water, I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkly and scaly just as they had been before....So I scratched and tore again and (it) peeled off beautifully again and out I stepped...and went down to the well for my bath. And exactly the same thing happened again, and I thought, 'Oh, dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off?'...
Then the lion said, 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay down and let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the old stuff peel off....
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off...And there I was as smooth and as soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me--I didn't like that very much for I was very tender now that I had no skin on--and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that, it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing, I found that all the pain had gone....
After a bit, the lion took me out and dressed new clothes....And then, suddenly, I was back here...
Then Eustace asked, 'What do you think it was?'
And Edmund answered, 'I think you've seen Aslan.'....
Now, it would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that from that time forth Eustace was a different boy. But, to be strictly accurate, he (only) began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But...the cure had begun."
"Before the Passover celebration,
Jesus knew his hour had come to leave this world
and return to his Father.
He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth,
and now he loved them to the very end....
Jesus knew the Father had given him authority over everything
and that he had come from God and would return to God.
So he got up from the table, took off his robe,
wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin.
Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet,
drying them with the towel he had around him.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter,
Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing,
but someday you will.”
“No,” Peter protested, “you will never ever wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”
(John 13:1-8, NLT)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rerun of "You Have to Breathe...."

I don't remember the first time I met her. But, I'm certain singing was involved.

Her husband had come to our little country church as youth pastor, and she was part of the bargain. She became director of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir. (I never asked her how she felt about that--as a self-involved teenager, I rarely wondered how adults felt.)

One of my first memories of her is clear as a bell--she was teaching us how to breathe. "Breathe as though you're trying to breathe air through a straw deep down into your belly," she instructed us as she stood there with her hands on her hips, demonstrating this technique. "If you're raising your shoulders, you aren't doing it right."

She was smart enough to realize that you had to breathe before you could sing.

And, boy oh boy, did she teach us to sing! (That's her in the picture a moment when it looks like we're causing her to at least want to pull her hair out.)

That group of awkward, pimple-faced teenagers ended up winning our church's State Teen Talent Competition, and coming in second at the national competition. (Losing to Mableton still sticks in our craw.)

One summer, we loaded up on a bus and traveled all the way from Kimberly to New York City, where we sang on street corners and in churches and sang "The Cross Is My Statue of Liberty" at the DADGUM STATUE OF LIBERTY! (Now, how many people can make such a claim?)

One year--I believe it was for our Easter service--she decided we needed to learn a musical titled "Celebrate Life."

...We did...We learned it so well that we performed it more than 100 times at churches across the Southeast.

It was a season of celebrating life that we will never forget.

To this day, I can recall most of the songs' words. One of my favorites was "I Quietly Turned to You," which is the song sung by the woman whom Jesus healed from 12 years of hemorrhaging. My friend, Joy, usually sang this solo. (If I close my eyes, I can still "hear" her clear, young voice.) After Joy died several years ago, I'd find myself sometimes singing those words--
"There was nowhere else to turn, and nowhere else to go.
My body knew all the pain a body could know.
Then I quietly turned to you; I quietly turned to you.
Help of the helpless...hope of the hopeless...I turned to you."

Then, there was the beautiful song about the last meal Jesus shared with those He loved most:
In remembrance of Me, eat this bread.
In remembrance of Me, drink this wine.
In remembrance of Me, pray for the time
When God's own will is done.
In remembrance of Me, heal the sick.
In remembrance of Me, feed the poor.
In remembrance of Me, open the door
And let your brother in....
In remembrance of Me, don't look above,
But in your heart, in your heart, 
Look in your heart for God.
Do this in remembrance of Me.

Whenever we would sing that particular song, my eyes were drawn to the bathrobe-clad actors who played Jesus' disciples--Greg, Jeff, Bob, Michael, Kevin, Joey...others I can't recall now. I always wondered if they felt a little of what those 2,000-year-old disciples must have felt.

I don't remember the exact date we stopped taking our traveling "Celebrate Life" tour on the road.

By then, all of our lives had become a little more complicated.

In the growing-up years since then, a few of those teenagers have gone on to sing in places around the globe. Some have stopped singing. Some have died, and are now with that Jesus they once sang about with such exuberance.

Each of us has learned in our own way that life is hard, but God is good.

Over the years, whenever kind, gracious people have asked me, "Where did you study music?," my response has been, "Marla Wilson taught me." They usually follow up that reply with, "Where does she teach?" And I answer, "She was my youth choir director at the Kimberly Church of God."

But, she was much more than that. Yes, she taught us to sing. But, more importantly, she taught us that a precious gift. She taught us that, because singing is a form of worship, we should approach it with an attitude of excellence. She was one of the first people to teach me about the role and importance of excellence in worship...and in life!

She also taught us the difference between performance and worship, and that worship should always be at the heart of singing.

Because of her vision for that little rag-tag group of singing teenagers...AND her and Jerald's faithful, hard work that vision required...we experienced people and places and things that opened our eyes and hearts to just how large this Kingdom of God really is.

Last fall, she offered to reunite those now-middle-aged teenagers to come and perform "Celebrate Life" for my mom, one of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir's biggest fans and most consistent chaperones.

But, the chaos of the season caused me to decline her sweet, generous offer. While I still believe it was the right thing to do, I'll admit there have been days when I've regretted having to make that decision. One of those days was when I learned that Marla has been diagnosed with some pretty major health challenges.

When I read the sweet, encouraging notes sent to her on Facebook and CaringBridge by so many of her "kids," (forgive us, April,...we all know she and Jerald were just waiting for you!)...I realize that what Marla was building with each rehearsal, with each "performance" (I never liked that word), with each trip on that converted school bus...was something that will outlast time.

She was building Levites (if I might be so bold)....She was building disciples.

So, thank you, sweet Marla, for teaching us to breathe so that you could teach us to sing...sometimes even in the dark.

I believe the Bible passage I read today is meant for you and your beloveds--Jerald, April and Glenda--from your Abba who loves you:
But now...listen to the LORD who created you...
The one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.
For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior....
“ is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
....Yes, I will make rivers in the dry wasteland
so my chosen people can be refreshed.
(from Isaiah 43, NLT)
And, for your birthday, here is a reminder, which I believe you'll recognize:
He is alive! Jesus is alive!

I waited patiently for the LORD to help me,
and he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
and steadied me as I walked along.
He has given me a new song to sing,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
They will put their trust in the LORD.
Oh, the joys of those who trust the LORD....
(Psalm 40:1-4, NLT)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Lessons Learned...A Baker's Dozen

So…a year ago today…mom fell and broke both legs--right femur, left ankle. It happened here, at our home.
We were getting ready to move her into a lovely assisted-living apartment. We had the furniture all in place, pictures and curtains hung, clothes put away.
She had spent the night at our house because I was taking her to the doctor that morning to see if a change in medications would help her not sleep so much. I had woken her up (from the downstairs study we had converted into her “bedroom”) and helped her get to the powder room to get dressed.
When I left her to go back to go get her clothes, she was standing at the sink. Next thing I know, I heard this THUD…and my heart sank.
I sprinted back to the powder room, only to discover that the way she had fallen had caused her to block the door. So, I just had to keep pushing until my weight against the door caused her body to move enough for me to squeeze through.
As soon as I saw her, I knew her ankle was broken…badly…And, she was extremely addled; so, I just assumed she had suffered another stroke. (But they didn’t find a sign of one.)
After unsuccessfully trying a few times to get her up off the floor, I told her we HAD to call an ambulance. Let’s just say she did NOT want that.
But…within a few minutes, they arrived. Thank God for compassionate, capable EMTS and ambulance drivers--they were WONDERFUL! Before that day, I had never stopped to think about the fact that they typically see people at their absolute worst--injured, hurting, frightened, incoherent, soiled--and they (at least the ones who helped us) respond with compassion, respect, professionalism and humor.
Well, the next few days were a roller-coaster ride for everyone. During many of those hours, we thought mom’s suffering might be ending. In her semi-conscious state (from the drugs, trauma, etc.), she held entire conversations with daddy, Mimi and other of “loves” who have made it Home. The sweetest one was between her and daddy--overheard by my brother--when she said, “Honey, let’s go over there and sit under that shade tree and rest awhile.
But…she recovered from the fall and the fractures. Unfortunately, there is no “recovery” from Alzheimer’s.
However…for the most part…she is happy…content. (One blessing of mom’s Alzheimer’s is she has forgotten all the people and things that have caused her so much pain, frustration and sadness over these past few decades.) There's a lesson in that for me--about the happiness and contentment that forgiving and forgetting can bring. 
This is a picture of mom and my brother, Kevin, 
taken at the recent Christmas Eve service. 

Earlier this week, I shared this upcoming “anniversary” with a dear friend. She asked me, “What have you learned?”

And…that got me thinking, “What HAVE I learned?” I’m sure when I think about it a bit longer, I’ll come up with a longer list. But, for now…shooting from the hip…here are the lessons I’ve learned:

1. You need to get prepared. And…you really should have done it YESTERDAY.
If you’re the care-giving “child” of a parent or other family member, you NEED to at least talk about a plan for WHEN is the time to get Power of Attorney. (And, from the day you have Power of Attorney, carry that form with you EVERYWHERE you go, and make extra copies of it for faxing to insurance companies, etc., because they WILL lose that form the first two or three times you fax it.)
Also, you NEED to make sure you’re listed on EVERY SINGLE HIPPA form at each and every one of their doctors, and each and every time they are admitted to the hospital.
And, you NEED to figure out a way to get your head around their financial situation--bank accounts, health insurance, life insurance, etc. Accomplishing the above isn’t comfortable or easy, and there's typically never a good time. But, the health crises of aging generally don’t just slowly creep up on you. They’re more like, “BAM!!! Here we are! What the heck are you gonna do now?”
So…if they are resistant…try to enlist the help of a good friend or family member whom they trust to go with you to have this conversation.

2. NOTHING about Alzheimer’s is logical; let go of ANY expectations.
Expecting a logical response to a logical question is pointless and fruitless (except it WILL drive you BANANAS). No matter how many times or how loudly you say the word, “Remember,” they are NOT going to remember. Spit that word out of your vocabulary, and throw it in the trash.

You have to realize that you WILL repeat yourself several dozen times during a 30-minute period of time. If you know this going in…it will help you keep that frustration "button" turned off.

3. Get to know the facility’s Social Worker and Business Office employees. All these new, confusing forms you’re trying to fill and obstacles you’re trying to navigate …well, these people have been doing it 5 days a week, 8 hours a day for years. They are EXPERTS! Go to them FIRST; they will save your sanity! Then, bake them cookies!

3. You MUST show yourself (and others) lots of forgiveness.
The drive to see mom is almost a 30-minute drive from my house; so, sometimes--with a family and a job to juggle--even on the days when I had planned to go visit--it just doesn’t happen. And, I’ve learned it doesn’t do anyone any good for me to beat myself up about a missed visit.

4. There's this "#5"...that has something to do with "honoring."
This is NOT an easy disease to watch. There are days when it is so tempting to just not go. After all, less than 5 minutes after I leave, she’s going to have NO memory of me being there. But, how can I claim to be a Jesus follower if, at the same time, I’m “copping out” on her? Especially when honoring her made #5 of the Top 10 Commandments...I call this the spiritual discipline of “Doing The Next Right Thing.” (Personally, I think it needs to be up there with prayer, Bible reading, fasting, etc.) John Mayer is right, “Love is a verb.”

5. (Another #5.) LAUGH!
I cannot stress the importance of giving yourself permission to laugh. As my life-long friend (who shall remain anonymous) advised me, “You should look for something to laugh at it in every nook and granny.” Trust me…we aren’t mean-spirited with our laughter…and, quite often, she laughs with us. But, be intentional about doing so-- every day there is something about this disease that could make me cry if I let it. Laughter is one of my ways of not letting this monster win! It is taking enough--I will not allow it to take our humor!

6. When life takes you to your knees, stay there.
This year has helped sweep away any idea of quick, clean, neatly-tied-up answers to prayer. One day as I was praying, it finally hit me, “He knows exactly the sadness and anxiety I’m feeling--I might as well tell him about it myself.” And, I’ve learned He can handle it. Often these days, I engage my imagination during my prayers (Hey…if it’s good enough for C.S. Lewis it’s good enough for me) I imagine that I’m leaning my head against my Abba’s knee; it’s truly amazing how much more “real” that helps me be.
Throughout this year, I often remember words from my very wise father-in-law,
Prayer doesn’t always change things, but prayer always changes us.”

7. Remind yourself often WHO God is.
In His Sovereignty, He has allowed this thing to happen--not caused it or willed it, but allowed it. After all, we live in a fallen world. But, He IS Sovereign. He is Love. He is Faithful. He does care. He IS With us. And, one day, He WILL make everything whole, right, just. In the meantime, He gives us grace and strength for the next step and has promised to transform everything that happens to us into “good” IF we keep trusting Him.

8. Take care of yourself.
When we’re stressed, sad, depressed, it’s so easy to make unhealthy choices…right when our bodies and minds need us to be at our healthiest. So, drink more water; walk; take a multivitamin; get more protein; limit carbs and bad fats; and BREATHE…deeply and often.

9. Give yourself permission to say NO.
No one can do that for you. If your NO makes someone mad or hurts their feelings… well…to repeat some words that came out of my mouth several years ago (and which I and others have now used COUNTLESS times, “They need help that you cannot give.”)

10. It’s OK to CRY.
I find myself crying at the oddest things. I almost always cry a little on my way home from visits with mom, especially if she’s been sad or anxious. And WHEN will I learn to take tissues to church?
Recently, some words found me that painted such a beautiful, spot-on painful picture of this disease that I wept for a long time after I closed the magazine. Well, here, I’ll let you read them too:
“….So today my father is with us, but only in a half-life stage….I can hold his hand and tie his shoes, button his shirt and take him for a walk, but the essence of him, my real father, no longer resides (there). Each time I see him, it takes me a moment to re-register his condition. This present reality requires a painful recalibration of my heart, and I approach him with shifting sensations of (love), devotion, horror and profound sadness.” (Lee Woodruff)

(See #5.)

12. Live Fully…Right Now.
It’s probably no coincidence that, during this past year, I’ve been more intentional about learning to “celebrate” the simple. My mama is both a reminder and a mirror. So, I’ve begun actually doing some things I’ve always said “one day” about--like playing piano again…and, heck, I even auditioned to be a back-up singer in a band!
Again, Lee Woodruff’s words say it so beautifully, “(I’m already) teaching myself to slow down….I stop at the top of a hike to savor the view. I pay closer attention when my children have something to tell me. The gift of fully understanding that you will die is to come to terms with how you want to live.

13. Do NOT look too far down the road. 
Shortly after mom was admitted to Shannondale, I looked WAY TOO FAR DOWN THE ROAD, and it took me to a pretty dark place. Jesus promises us grace and mercy and strength for this day--not for the imaginary "what-ifs" six months from now. 

So...these are some lessons I've learned this past year. Trust me, I'm sure there will be days when I'll forget them. That's one reason I decided to write them down. You see, I've come to believe it's not that we QUIT believing so much as it is that we forget what it is we believe. So...this list is my reminder...for the days when I forget. So I can tell myself, "Remember...."
"Remember, therefore, 
what you have received and heard;
hold it fast...."
(Revelation 3:3)