Lessons from Nana…The decision

Image may contain: 2 people, including Kristi Buttles, people smiling, eyeglasses and closeupAs anyone knows who has traveled a health journey, things can change on a dime.
Nana will not be having surgery nor radiation. She knows she is dying and she is finding peace with it.
Today in the radiation oncologist’s office, the NICEST doctor spoke softly and slowly to her. His amazing nurse stood behind him, quiet and caring. Truly healthcare professionals are real live superheroes.

He listened to Nana talk about having a terminal illness. All three of us hung on her every word.
She said, “The key is to not feel sorry for yourself. That’s it. It’s that simple. I trust God to take care of me. And with the days I have left I’m going to enjoy them.”
The doctor replied, sitting motionless on his stool, captivated by her words, attitude and outlook, “I wish you could talk to other patients. They could really hear this.”
To which she said smiling, “I’d be happy to.”

I swallowed down hard the lump welling in my throat. This wasn’t the time or place for that. Then I counted my blessings that I was there today. Sitting in a small exam room under grey skies and a chill in the wind outside. Sitting among other families who have no joy, no peace. They snap at each other in the waiting room…as we all wait for our names to be called.
An appointment that made me weak in my knees, as it is the last time to finalize a plan with all doctors on board. An appointment I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend, or had the strength to attend.

But to hear her talk so openly about living and dying, I tried to let every word, every smile of hers seer itself into my memory. This is, in fact, her legacy.
Every time she said with a smirky grin, “I’m a tough old broad, I can take it,” flashed a timeline of 30+ years with her, and I sat in amazement that yes, yes she is a tough old broad.

She’s the last of the matriarchs and patriarchs of the family. She’s buried her husband, parents, brother and SIL – who was her best friend, and her niece. She’s moved and moved again trying to keep up with the undertow of life pulling her into its current.
There’s so much. Just so much water under that bridge that could’ve made her drown.
But she kept swimming and smiling.

Just yesterday, as we left Waffle House, she literally danced her way out the door with her walker as the music played overhead. I laughed and she said laughing back, “Hey! I’m never gonna get old!”

She is so right. Nana, you are so right. You will never get old. God has planned a day when you will push that walker to the side and two-step right into heaven.

And when you’ve finished your Father/Daughter dance with Abba, our Father who is in heaven, there’s going to be a very familiar man, who has waited 15 years to dance with you, asking you to dance again.
You two danced together for more than 40 years. I have no doubt he’ll que up the choir of angels and you guys will dance again.

Thank you, Nana, for showing me how to be strong in spirit when the body is weak. How to laugh instead of cry. How to rise above instead of being pulled under.
You are dancing your race beautifully. We’ll dance with you until it’s time for you to change partners.
In your words, keep being Silly Salli. We’d expect nothing less and want nothing more. 

The last, best gift my mom gave me

It’s Mother’s Day. A nationally recognized holiday in America since 1914. For me, it’s a bittersweet day, celebrating the children I have and remembering my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who have passed away.

I lost my mom to breast cancer when she was 44 and I was 16. That was twenty-eight years ago. Right now I am the same age she was when she died.

This age brings new somberness to my yearly mammogram. I wrestle with thankfulness and guilt from tipping the calendar to a new season of having outlived her.

Her battle was short – eleven months from diagnosis to death. One minute we were like countless single-parent families squeezing out a living, sharing laughs and tears along the way. The next minute I am standing beside her coffin in a borrowed dress, not sure where I would live or how I would survive.

In those last months, my mom gave me three gifts I hold more dearly than anything else: a book of poetry written by a mother to her daughter in which my mom underlined words and sentences that she could not speak to me; a “Sweet 16” birthday angel, an annual tradition since my first birthday; and the last night of her life.

It was Valentine’s Day, 1987. My boyfriend at the time made plans to take me to dinner and a movie. My mom and him had a great relationship, once she got passed the fact that he was six years older than me.

She was alone on Valentine’s, with cancer. Neither my boyfriend nor I could reconcile that, so we invited her to join us. He brought each of us a bouquet of flowers. Those are the last flowers she ever received. We enjoyed a nice dinner, then a movie, in which he sat between us and put his arms around both of us. I was so appreciative of his compassion and thoughtfulness toward her. After the movie, he took the sides and top off of his Suzuki Samurai and took her on the ride of her life. I sat in the back, smiling and savoring every squeal, holler and giggle she made as he took her on a joyride down quiet, street-lit streets.

It is a night I will never forget, because it was the last time I saw her let go and really enjoy the moment.

She always gave my sister and me a little something for Valentine’s Day, and this book of poetry is something I would grab if my house ever caught fire. It’s her last words to me. I am thankful and grateful that, although she couldn’t speak them to me, she left them in print so I can read them whenever I want or need to, studying the lines of ink that she drew under special words and phrases. No one has ever seen this book except me.

I am passing down my collection of birthday angels to my only daughter. On her most recent birthday I gave her the last one, the Sweet 16 angel. I’m not sure what I’ll do about year seventeen and address this struggle in my post Sweet 16.

The last gift is one I’m not sure at the time she would have thought of as a gift. She was very sick, but I had plans to go out with some friends. Don’t judge. It’s an impossible world to live in for a teenager – trying to be everything to a dying parent while still trying to live like a normal teenager. Straddling the two is impossible and only winds up tearing the teenager in two.

My family didn’t have the heart to tell me that she wasn’t expected to live through the night. I had no idea, so I kissed her on the forehead, looked into her pale blue, jaundice eyes and whispered, “I love you. I’ll be back.” My grandmother stood crying a few feet away. What a burden she must have carried knowing a reality that she couldn’t bear to tell me as the sound of the oxygen tank rhythmically rumbled near Mom’s Hospice bed.

It was only a few weeks before that I came home from school and knew something had radically changed in Mom. We were living at my grandparents’ home by then, as Mom was unable to care for herself. I made my way to the back of their small, ranch home to the bedroom where Mom was resting.

She had spent weeks listening to Dr. Freddy Price’s cassette tapes on healing. She was the hardest fighter I’ve ever known – in cancer, as a single mom, and in countless ways that no one outside the family knew.

On this day, however, I walked into her room and saw a small cardboard box sitting on the floor by the dresser. Glancing down, I noticed all of Price’s tapes stacked neatly in the box, ready to go.

At sixteen, I didn’t know how to talk about what I saw, but I understood what it meant. She had given up, or accepted that, she wouldn’t be miraculously healed.

My childlike perspective couldn’t wrap my head around it. To me, Mom was still invincible and death was nowhere near an option. She had to heal. She had to live. She had to finish raising me.

On what would be her last night, I returned to my grandparents’ home late with a friend who was spending the night. Looking back, I can’t imagine having a friend spend the night in this situation, and can only reason that my grandparents were trying to protect me from the truth about her impending death and were completely numb at the whole situation which would be why they allowed this.

She and I were sleeping on the living room floor when I awoke at 2 a.m. and had to go to the bathroom. I stumbled down the hall, trying not to squeak the parquet floors which had been damaged in three separate floods from past hurricanes.

I went to the bathroom and as I left I looked to my right. The door to my mom’s bedroom was within arm’s reach. I wondered how she was doing and thought it would be good to check on her.

I pressed my ear to the door and heard the familiar rumbling of the oxygen tank and grasped the doorknob to enter.

Suddenly, I heard the strongest, most fierce “NO!” I’ve ever heard in my life. I couldn’t tell if I heard it with my ears or in my mind. Stunned and sleepy, I stood there for a second, paralyzed to move or make a decision.

This NO! was so sure, so concrete, I could do nothing but obey it.

I released the doorknob and crept back to the living room and went back to sleep.

At 7 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of an ambulance and fire truck. Groggy, I sat up and tried to collect my thoughts. Next, I heard the sound of heavy footsteps of men in uniforms walking in a group on the squeaky parquet floors, headed toward Mom’s room.

Right then I knew she had died.

Later, our beloved youth pastor told me that at exactly 2 a.m., his wife sat up in bed and said, “Alice just died.”

How could she know that?

I spent years processing that night – the guilt over going out with friends; the guilt of having a friend spend the night; anger at my family for not telling me how sick she really was; and the strange events of 2 a.m. I am thankful for counselors who sojourneyed with me through the grief and pain of her loss.

There was a time in her battle with cancer when Mom looked at me and said, “I’m only living for you and your sister. Ya’ll are the only reason I am living.”

I had to work through the irrational logic that told me at some point along the way we became not worth the fight and that is why she gave up and died. That voice didn’t sound at all like what my mom would do. She gave everything she had to raise us. She sacrificed her time, energy, and money to pour into us. This couldn’t have been what happened.

A few years ago, God unraveled the mystery of that night for me.

I knew that night it was God’s voice who told me NO! but I had no idea why. To me, I was simply going to check on her like I did so many times in the evenings at the hospital where I did my homework after school, often falling asleep in the hard, pleather chair by her bed.

But I had heard that voice once before. I was fourteen on a youth retreat with my church. God called me to Himself in an unexpected moment. His voice was so loud, so clear, I turned to my friends to see if they had heard it, too.

His voice is like no other. There is absolutely no mistaking it. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, my palms sweat and commands full attention of my heart, mind and soul. There is one God and one voice, and once it is heard it is unmistakable.

As sure as I write, knowing my mom and my God, I know exactly what happened at 2 a.m. in that bedroom. He had come to take her home…and she didn’t want to go.

She was the kind of mom who cheered for, fought for, laughed with, protected, nurtured and loved us. We had already survived two broken marriages, one of which was extremely scary. She endured a dead-end job in an oppressive atmosphere to put food on the table. She volunteered for any position that kept her involved in our lives. She hid her personal agony from us so we wouldn’t bear her pain.

I know my mom. She would never have given up without a fight.

I also know my God. He is caring and compassionate. He is trustworthy and faithful.

I can only imagine that conversation between the two of them. I would love to know what He said to her to convince her to leave us without a mom or dad and me still in high school with no money or anything tangible to survive on.

Something happened in that bedroom at 2 a.m. Something so extraordinary, she (who had told me we were her reason to live) had permission to die.

That something is her last, best gift to me. It has a name.


What I believe with all my heart is that she wrestled with God over staying in unfathomable pain and suffering for us, or leaving with God, trusting He would care for my sister and me.

I do not believe she hopped the first plane to heaven, finally escaping eleven months of pure agony. She would still choose to suffer today if it meant she didn’t have to leave us.

But, whatever God said, whatever He promised, she believed. She chose to have faith that He would watch over us. He would be our Heavenly Father. He would care for us. Provide for us. And, knowing Mom and how much of her time and herself she gave to us, He promised her He would stay with us.

Could she trust God with us? Could she surrender to His plan to heal her in heaven and not forget about two daughters left on earth?

Could she inhale one last time, knowing her next breath would be in a supernatural body? Could she accept the fact that she would miss the majority of our lives – my high school graduation, our college graduations, our weddings, the birth of our children (her grandchildren), and all of the joys and triumphs, falls and failures in between?

The only way a mother, who is wholly and completely committed to her children, could leave them is if she trusts the hands she is leaving them in.

She chose to have faith in God and His promises in the most difficult, painful moments of her life. When He took her home, I’m not sure if the cause of death was cancer or her heart literally breaking for all she was leaving.

But somewhere in those moments at 2 a.m. she chose to believe God and trust Him.

Being a mother myself, I would have fought Him with everything I had to stay for my children. It would not have been an easy battle. I would have gone kicking and screaming, at least proverbially if not literally.

However, I hold her faith in my hands, her last gift, and think, “Could I do the same? Can I trust God that much to step out of this life, believing He is already here walking with my children?”

Can I have that same kind of faith that surrenders to God and trusts that He is trustworthy?

I can because He fulfills His promises to her every day. He has never left me. He holds me in the hard moments. He picks me up when life kicks me down. He laughs with me. Cries with me. Fights for me. Stays with me. Tends to me. Shows me mercy. Celebrates with me. Calms me down and talks me off my ledges. He loves me with an everlasting love and goes out of His way to show me in the most creative, unexpected and timely people, places and experiences.

He is fulfilling His promise to her. I know that full well because I am the receiver of that promise. I am living proof.

So on this Mother’s Day, I think about what gift, what legacy I am leaving my children.

I want to leave them the gift of faith. Not just some sense of a trending spirituality.

A timeless faith. A faith that has been fire-tested, tires bald, rode hard and hung up wet. Faith that has gotten dirty, been stepped on and doubted. Faith that does not swerve with circumstance and will not be diluted with false doctrine. Faith that stands its ground in the face of adversity and persecution. Faith that protects. Hopes. And overflows with joy that cannot be shaken.

My mom was strong. She was beautiful inside and out. She loved to laugh. She put others first, to a fault. She never stopped trying to help, to please, to give.

In all of the moments that made her the best mom in the world to me, it was her last night at 2 a.m. when the culmination of her life and belief in the One true God intersected and she chose to respond to Him in faith.

This is the last, and best, gift she gave me. I carry her inspiration in my heart and seek to have that same kind of audacious faith in God in my own life.

More than anything tangible I could leave my children, my heart’s desire is to leave them the legacy of faith in God through Christ Jesus because He is faithful and trustworthy. He’s proven Himself to both my mom and me. He is good all the time, especially on Mother’s Day.

I love you, Mom. Thank you.











Last week, our family of five plus one stopped everything to go see The Drop Box.

Our oldest was still incredibly welted, red and itchy from his allergy testing. (Who knew he was soooooo allergic to dust mites! He scored a whopping 19 where the doc said a general allergic reaction would be around .5. Poor guy.) We bought popcorn for dinner (fun parents that we are 😉 ) and settled into our seats. I told my husband I’d have to eat it quickly, because it’d feel almost sacrilegious to chomp away during this kind of documentary.

The theater was sold out, so I’m glad we got there early.

For us, even though the movie takes place in South Korea, we were instantly transported back to all of the countries we’ve served. It’s the same, heartbreaking story over and over. The despair. Helplessness. Voicelessness. But…like with the ministries we served, Pastor Lee and his wife are not without hope.

Photo credit: David Kim

No matter the circumstance, every story has the same beginning…pain. However, what I love most about this ministry is that the moment a baby is received from the drop box, Pastor Lee immediately, I mean immediately, holds the baby tight and prays for him or her. I believe that this is the plot twist that changes the child’s story.

Plot twists don’t stop with prayer. They come in the form of medical help, counseling, food, water, clothing, shelter, an education, a shoulder to cry on, a friend to laugh with, and sometimes simply knowing someone in this world cares about them gives hope for another day.

As a woman, wife and mother, I have a strong sense to nurture. This is true for most women. We want to make things better. We will do it at cost to ourselves and not even think twice. However, this leads to physical, mental, spiritual and emotional fatigue if not kept in check.

Pastor Lee understands this about himself as well.

Leaving the theater, I felt both glorious in that this beautiful baby drop box ministry is happening in our world even at this second, and I felt heavy-burdened for the babies in the world who don’t have this option. My heart exploded with feeling overwhelmed at the millions and millions of children who cry themselves to sleep every night for as many reasons as their are children.

My heart wanted to burst as the nurturer in me raised up in the name of helping.

This week, our high school girls devotion group met like we do every week to study God’s Word. The topic in our continuing journey to discover what being a woman of noble character (Proverbs 31) looks like was staying focused.

Shiphrah and Puah were the women we studied. They were brave midwives who, as part of an underground network of Hebrew midwives, defied Pharoah’s edict to kill all Hebrew baby boys at birth. We talked about their tenacity to follow God even it meant risk to their own safety.

They feared God more than man. They obeyed God more than they obeyed man.

These midwives had a laser-focused calling.

I’m jealous.

Most days I feel like I’m on a small raft in the middle of a huge ocean of need and opportunity. Waves of emotion and passion to nurture in Jesus’ name toss my raft around like a rag doll. I feel like there is no wheel or sails to steer this one soul in a laser-focused direction.

Pastor Lee and his wife have their laser-focused calling. We can name many who do.

But, I am reminded that there is a place for everyone in ministry – even if the place’s destination continues to change.

It’s my most humble honor to serve on mission. Our family is a motley crew who has no idea what tomorrow looks like. We are broken people called to go to the broken.

Years ago, I sat in a sea of preschool moms listening to a testimony from the director of our preschool. She was in the middle of battling cancer. She specifically said, “Some may wonder why I am testifying to God’s goodness now. It seems appropriate to wait until I am past the cancer to give a praise report. But I am telling you now, in the middle of cancer, that God is good. Cancer doesn’t change that.”

Her words burrowed deep into my soul and I carry them with me daily.

God is good and He is enough.

Shiphrah and Puah knew it. Pastor Lee and his wife know it. Each of us who call Jesus our Savior know it. And knowing this truth is one way God qualifies the called.

It’s why the broken can go to the broken.

We don’t have to have a perfect life to reach others. We simply point them to the One who is perfect.

I often think about the prisoners we will meet. I wonder about who they are, but I don’t care an iota about what they’ve done. Who am I to pick up a stone and hurl it at them? I’ve got a rock garden with my name on it that reads guilty as charged.

But, I also know who sets the prisoner free. And as one who has been set free, even in the middle of brokenness, there is a testimony to share – God is good and Jesus is enough.

So whatever venue that looks like (though I’m quite certain it won’t be midwifery) we will continue to go where He leads, schlepping our broken, beautiful mess with us.

I’m learning that it’s Christ’s message that is laser-focused regardless of how, when, where, or to whom He calls us to share it.


Sweet 16

Our only daughter is turning 16. A milestone birthday, it has been celebrated in our society with cars and keys, and in movies and books. For me, it is a bittersweet event because of what my special gift to my girl is…

Every birthday since I was born, my mom gave me birthday angels. They are very fragile, delicate figurines with a number and a symbolic item for each year; a small girl holding a teddy bear, a teenager holding a phone, etc.

I have an angel for every year from birth to 16. This is where they stop.

On my birthdays, I always knew there would be a small, square box, light as a feather. I always opened it last partially because I was anxious to see what else I got and partially because I knew it could easily break in the festivities.

My mom was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer one month before I turned 16, and died eleven months later.

On my 17th birthday, my grandparents, whom I lived with after she died, did what they could to wish me a happy birthday. However, they had just buried my mom, their daughter. None of us were in the mood to celebrate. A small, square box was missing.

I can count on one hand items I have from my mom, literally. That season of life was absolute chaos and sadness. My sister and I lost our home and our stuff. My cat ran away and I had to put my dog of 13 years, my very best friend who was my 4th birthday present, down. She couldn’t handle the stress of everything and stopped eating. There was nothing we could do to help. My house of cards came down with a crash within a couple of weeks of Mom’s death, including a car accident I was involved in that totaled her car the night before her funeral. It was all too much.

I remember sparse pieces of those days. I do remember sitting in my mom’s bedroom, emptying out drawers of photographs into black trash bags and hauling them to the curb thinking, That life is over now. How I wish I hadn’t done that. My stuffed animal collection, bedroom furniture, everything went. My life as I knew it was erased and I was left numb inside and out.

My precious grandmother saved my birthday angels, though I didn’t know it for years. When she gave them to me, it was like opening a time capsule. There they were, all in one piece sans one. They still had thick dust on them. For the eleven months my mom fiercely battled cancer, we lived between two homes – my grandparents and ours. Nothing in our home was maintained between long school days and hospital stays. To see and touch the dust was like touching a piece of my living history. Surreal.

As soon as I found out my husband and I were having a girl, I thought about those angels. I would have a daughter to pass them on to.

Each year commemorating our daughter’s birth, I quietly travel to a secret part of our home where they sit in silence. Like a museum, they rest in a box with a toothbrush and all that dust. Holding them in my hand, I feel the grit of the dust. My heart can only handle cleaning one angel per year. What seems like a mundane task reaches to the bottom of my heart. Touching the dust feels like my hand has slipped through time and space. I am touching a piece of my old life, literally. That was dust from my room – the room stripped and taken from me before I was grown. With the toothbrush and warm, soapy water, I carefully clean each angel year-by-year. It’s a symbolic ceremony of one as I say goodbye to the old and welcome the new, preparing to give them away to my daughter.


For the past twenty-eight years (hoping since I was a child that I’d be a mom one day), I have wondered what would it feel like to give my daughter my last birthday angel.

The pain I feel rests in the decision I must make: Do I continue the tradition by scouring eBay (they aren’t sold in stores anymore) for years 17 to 21, and I even saw a marriage angel once, or do I let the tradition peacefully end with my daughter’s 16th birthday, however heart-wrenching it abruptly stopped with my mom?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

There’s no right or wrong, but I don’t know what is the best decision. For anyone reading, I would deeply appreciate your input.

On one hand, I would love to continue the tradition and search the world over to find the missing angels. On the other hand, I am passing down a tradition that my mom began and couldn’t finish, and a part of my heart feels guilty at the thought of leaving her behind for the renaming years.

Honestly, I’m not sure either decision will ever feel 100% right, but then again few things in life do. Decisions are often a leap of faith, and we don’t know how they’ll turn out until the dust settles.

After touching the settled dust on my birthday angels, either decision still hurts. A decision I don’t take lightly. The point of keeping these birthday angels has been to pass a piece of my mom onto our daughter, who never had the opportunity to know her. If I buy her ones from me, it seems like my mom (her grandmother) would be left out and that makes me sad.

I have a piece of stone art in my office that sums up many thoughts in one sentence…


Anyone who had to finish growing up without a mom understands this. A grown daughter struggling to be her own person also understands this.

Hopefully, I have successfully retained and implemented much of my mother’s wisdom. It’s been so many years, and although I cannot remember specific conversations she and I must have had (or the sound of her voice), the fabric of who she was is woven into who I am. Leaving childhood and entering adulthood has offered the opportunity to see what that will look like for the rest of my life.

In most areas, I have found my own gardens. She tilled the soil through discipline and planted seeds of God, love, laughter and forgiveness deep out of reach from the evil things in this world that would dig them up and and harsh weather that would scorch and starve them.

Her beautiful life watered the gardens in my heart in ways she’ll never know.

I was at my grandparents one afternoon right before she died when my ex-stepdad came to visit her. She was very ill and unable to leave the hospital bed Hospice had brought her. We lived at my grandparents’ home full-time at that point so they could care for her. I still showered and dressed every morning back at our home. The best way to explain what that felt like was to be “in between addresses.” On high school forms, I didn’t know which house address to write.

I didn’t want to see my ex-stepdad. He was a very scary man who left many deep emotional scars on me. But I knew he was there and, even at 16, I knew why. It was that visit that helped shape my relationships ever since. She allowed him to come, despite the traumatizing wrecking ball with which he destroyed her life and my childhood, and she allowed herself to have closure.

It takes a woman who has made peace with God and with herself to do that. I knew then that’s the kind of woman I wanted to be.

Where do birthday angels 17 to 21, and the married one, fit in my gardens? Where do they fit in my daughter’s gardens as she approaches adulthood?

Lord willing I get to celebrate many, many, many more of her birthdays, I will have to make this decision. A decision twenty-eight years in the making.

On her 16th birthday, there will be a small, lightweight gift that she will open last – just like I did and just like she has done all these years. When the box opens, memories will flood my heart of the day Mom gave this birthday angel to me, and how I secretly worried (only two months into her cancer battle) if this would be the last. I remember where I was sitting, what the weather felt like, and the nervous smile she gave me as, I believe, she worried the same thing. I drew no attention to the tears that I saw well up in her eyes because I didn’t want to ruin the moment for her.

I am blessed that my daughter and I have made it to this milestone. With every milestone in our children’s lives be it walking, talking, starting school, losing a tooth, making the team, learning to drive, SATs, etc. I turn my face toward heaven and thank my Father for letting me be a part of each one – for myself and for our children.

This birthday, I will focus on celebrating the life my daughter has been blessed to live, and will continue to dream with her, laugh with her and love her as she graces each milestone one at a time. We will sing, and she will blow out candles, and we will eat something fabulous and filled with sugar. We will dine at her favorite restaurant and we will make the night all about her.

A party of five that we are, we are often seated at a table for six. The extra seat at the birthday table is a visual reminder to me that my mom is still a part of our lives as she lives on in memory and legacy.

These days, I often find myself asking, What would Mom do? as we duck and weave through teen waters times three. This time I am asking, What seeds were planted in her garden that were meant to take root in mine? 



Breaking Tradition

Yesterday, I wrote about one of our family’s favorite Thanksgiving traditions.  Today, there is a different story to share.

Growing up, I used to come up with all kinds of ideas to hopefully draw our family closer together.  There weren’t many fun times that I can remember living through 2 divorces, a very frightful childhood with my stepfather and my mom dying of cancer when I was a teenager.  Still, something inside me just couldn’t lay down and die – though at one point I thought it may be my only hope to escape the stress and trauma I knew as our “normal.”

My mom said I was an eternal optimist.  I didn’t know what that meant, so she described it as always trying to see the positive in people and situations.  I’m not sure I understood that either as a child, but I knew that something inside me always wanted to look at the bright side of life – even if I had to search hard to find it.

To lighten the unrelenting heaviness that hung over our house laced with financial woes and other issues, despite my mom’s tireless efforts to provide as best she could, I tried to start little traditions.  Most of the time I was the only one who wanted to keep them going.  It’s okay.  I understood.

One tradition I came up with was at Thanksgiving was (this is not a new idea, but it was new to our family) when we gathered around the table with my grandparents and immediate family, we would all say one thing we were thankful for before the blessing was offered.

This tradition stuck for a while…until 1994.  By then, I was married (at 19) and was making the annual trek to my grandparents’ home for Thanksgiving – where our very small family spent all of our holidays.

However, this year, my grandfather was dying of lung cancer.  He was an honorable man.  Everyone in the community knew him and respected him.  He began his work career unloading shipments on the docks at 13 years old and retired with the same company at 65 in upper management.  He was faithful to his wife, said what he meant, and counted every penny.  I feared him – in a good way.  He was steady, consistent – something my home didn’t offer me.  He had a soft side that only we saw and was quietly generous toward others.

Thanksgiving 1994, Bruce and I came over like we usually did for the big feast.  I really didn’t have a thought in my mind about the day, as I had taught myself (for better or worse) to navigate holidays with a sense of numbness.  I allowed myself to feel happiness, but nothing else for those 24 hours.  I was a master compartmentalizer, if you will.

But, not so with Granddad on this day.  He most certainly had something on his mind.

We didn’t know at the time he was dying.  He was very sick, but we thought he was still fighting with hope of beating the odds.  Whether or not he knew differently, I’ll never know.  He pulled me aside.

A private conversation with him was rare.  In fact, I think this was our only one ever.

He surprised me by saying, This year, Kristi, when we sit down to eat, I don’t want to go around the table and say something we are thankful for.

My response was what it always was, Yes, Sir.

He walked away without another word, but I stood in the darkened hallway speechless, with my breath caught in my throat.

First, I was surprised he paid attention to my little tradition.  Being the baby of the family, I grew up feeling completely unheard (Thus, this blog! Hmm.) and oftentimes humored and even laughed at.  Many of my thoughts, convictions and opinions were discounted or just plain ignored by my family.  I really couldn’t believe he paid this one tradition any mind at all.

Second, which was more impactful to me, was that by him saying this to me, it was the first time since he became sick that I saw him as a fragile man.

He had always been larger-than-life to me.  He was…Granddad.  The military veteran, loyal employee, devoted husband, church-goer, excellent golfer and manager of their house. He was also a man of very few words.

When he pulled me aside, he allowed me to see a vulnerable side of his heart.  All of a sudden I saw him as human, not superhero.  I saw his cancer through fresh eyes and realized how serious it was (I was 24 at the time).  It’s like I saw a different man standing before me.  An aged man, weathered from life and illness.

He rarely, and I mean if ever, let his innermost feelings show.  When he asked/told me this, he was heading me off at the pass before we could reach the table where I would blindly begin the tradition.

I was stunned.  Humbled.  Somber.  Sad.  Grateful.

It was the first time I felt he looked at me as an adult.

Out of great respect for him, and for his risk in sharing with me his most private feelings, it was an honor not to bring up the tradition of telling what we are thankful for at the table.

Ecclesiastes 3 says there is a season and purpose for everything.  This was not the season for this tradition.

Although I can be very stubborn for the cause, pulling myself up by the bootstraps for what I believe in and fight for it, it was a humbling decision to lay this down that year.

He died a month later.

At the holidays, traditions can help us relive fond memories, create new ones, and make the season simply more fun and special.  But, sometimes traditions can hurt.  Even if they don’t hurt us, they may hurt someone we love.

I’m all for traditions, but Granddad taught me that it’s not all about me.  Other people are involved and have feelings, too.  Sometimes traditions need to be paused out of consideration of others…and that’s okay.

With the world spinning in chaos, who I am today, because of Granddad, approaches holidays light-footed.  I try to be sensitive to others around me whether it is: inviting those without family to be a part of ours for the holiday; to simplify things so as to not cause a financial burden on my husband; or even quietly let a tradition slip by unnoticed if it helps someone else through a difficult season.

We may not have practiced our thankful tradition that year, but I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give my granddad the gift of compassion.  Something a hardworking, proud man doesn’t easily receive.

No one ever knew about this moment between us until now.  I’ve kept it close to my heart, but want to share it as I know I am not alone in wondering how to approach the holidays – which are no respecter of problems, come what may.

I have found that if I step back, breathe and ask God how to handle certain traditions, He gives me a perspective different than the one I see from where my feet stand in the longitude and latitude of life.

If a special tradition isn’t observed this year because of a difficult situation, it’s okay to grieve it and let it go – for now.  However, sometimes it’s important to celebrate a tradition in spite of the situation, but it can be difficult to discern which way is best.  Rest knowing that God is bigger than all circumstance and loves us so much He is only a prayer away.  He’ll carry your burden and give you wisdom if you ask Him.  He may even give you back an unexpected blessing in return.

For me, the blessing was getting to share a moment with Granddad that we otherwise never would have had.  That moment is now one of my most special memories with him.  And when my family sits around the table this Thanksgiving and says what we are thankful for, I’m sure I’ll have lots to say, but one I will be feeling in my heart is the Thanksgiving of 1994 when, for the first time in my life, I could give back to the man who always selflessly sacrificed for me.  And for that, I will always be thankful.

Untangle the web of lies – eating, loss & labels

Hello!  Welcome back!  We are trudging through the waters of the tumultuous teen years on this blog right now.  Whew, I am reminded why adults say they’d never want to relive them again. :O  I’m ready to tackle another cultural lie.  Are you?

You are what you eat.  Isn’t that how the old saying goes?  For all intense purposes, I agree.  Yes, nutritional value plays a huge part in our well-being.  I gave up soft drinks, juice, fried foods and candy (not chocolate :)) eight years ago.  I may splurge for special occasions, but none of those are a part of my normal diet.  So then, why do I struggle with my weight?  Consistently inconsistent exercise is one element, but it’s not the main culprit.

To answer this question, perhaps the old saying should be revised…You are WHY you eat.  Bingo.  This familiar trap is as welcome as a tooth ache or flat tire.  It’s so uncomfortable because I believed that I was WHY I ate for so many years.  It’s something I still struggle with to some degree.

This is today’s lie we are exposing.  It goes back to my post about circumstances not defining us – but do we really believe it?

When my mom was nearing the end with her breast cancer battle, I had no one to help me through the emotional maze and stress of it all.  Not only was I trying to convince myself that she was going to be okay, but I also had eyes in my head that saw she was not.  No one would talk to me about the state of her health.  I warred with myself about this every minute of the day.  Add to that the pressure from school and trying to be a “normal” teenager, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a friend (to barely a few), and a student.

I seriously think that adults cannot comprehend the stress that teens go through with a sick or dying parent.  Nothing in the teen’s entire world makes sense.  Nothing.

There were two things in my life that I felt were safe zones.  God and food.  Both were vying for all of me.  God was radically pursuing me with passionate grace, mercy and love.  Food didn’t pursue me, but it offered momentary relief from my troubles.

When my mom was still able to eat, I remember one morning before school (I straddled living in two houses at the time), I reached into the fridge to get something for breakfast.  I mistakenly took one of the only foods that my mom could tolerate.  My grandfather said to me, That’s your mother’s.  In an instant, I decided to use this moment as a cry for help.  I didn’t know how to express my need to talk about her, so I intentionally replied, Sure it is.  It all is.  It’s all about her. Wow.  That was really the wrong thing to say to a man who was nursing his dying daughter.  I know I sounded like a brat.  I meant to.  For me, what I said was my huge S.O.S. signal that I was in trouble and needed rescuing.  To him, what I said was solely ungrateful, mean-spirited and rude.  Even in that moment, I understood his reaction.  I would’ve felt the same way if roles were reversed.  I was going for shock value – and got it.  Let’s just say I never used that tactic again.  Actually, I never made another cry for help again.  I pulled away from everyone.  From then on, I internalized everything.

I now know physical bodies are not strong enough, nor have the capacity, to hold all of our emotions, feelings and thoughts.  Issues will find a way of coming out in the name of sheer self-preservation and survival.  For me, I came down with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), but had no idea it was a real medical issue.  It was a living nightmare.  Mom had just died and I was secretly spinning out of emotional control.  IBS, at first, made me lose a ton of weight.  I was average, okay, maybe holding an extra ten pounds, but soon my clothes were literally falling off of me.  I remember seeing an old friend who hadn’t seen me since before my mom died.  As she walked toward me, her eyes grew huge and she covered her hand over her mouth as she looked me up and down.  I think people thought I simply wasn’t eating out of distress.  No.  My body was blowing up inside and I had no clue how to stop it and was far too embarrassed to tell anyone how sick I really was.

With IBS (and daily migraines!) in full swing, I remember standing in my grandparents’ kitchen one day.  I had drank a half of a glass of orange juice and set the half full cup in the sink.  Remember, my grandparents were from a different era and I truly understood that in my head, but my heart was another story.  No sooner did I set the cup down in the sink, did my grandfather come right behind me, pick up the cup and drink the leftover juice.  He looked at me and reminded me not to waste.  However, I was also living with my precious grandmother who had no idea how to help any of us 0r herself.  So she did what came natural to her.  She cooked.  She offered me food all the time, and my grandfather told me not to waste any.  Ug.  It was the perfect storm.

Then it happened.  One day, I felt a huge hole in my stomach.  I mean, literally, I felt a gaping emptiness overpower me.  Sensing this crossroads, Jesus spoke to my heart immediately and said, I am the bread of life.  Eat of me.  I paused and responded ever-so-eloquently, I have no idea what You are talking about.  Then I picked up whatever was on the counter and devoured the entire thing. Thus the food cycle began.

Food became a god to me.  It gave me something to do.  It kept me company when I was lonely.  Eating was a positive experience (though the IBS that followed wasn’t).  Eating let me put my nervous energy to use.  It was legal.

I am serious when I tell you I understand how people begin addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, sex and drugs.  I get it!   My pain was so deep, ominous, continual and merciless, if it had not been for God’s grace (by giving me a conscious the size of Texas!) I would have done ANYTHING to mask the pain.  I would have drank it, shot it, slept with it, snorted it, smoked it, anything to take the life-draining pain and stress away even for a moment.  This from a girl who had never so much as been called down by a teacher.  I was as vanilla as they came.  Not perfect (ha!!), but I had such an unhealthy fear of authority (thanks to my stepfather) that I had to be as good of a girl as possible 24/7/365 – no questions asked.  The pain was stronger than anything I’d ever felt.  It has been said that people will do anything when hungry enough, I believe the same is also true for emotional pain – no matter how out of character it would normally be.  Praise God He kept me from those illicit things, but I chose food as second best to Him.  I told God once, with food in hand, I know You are better for me.  I know I should go pray or read my Bible.  But that takes energy and effort I simply don’t have.  I want to feel better right now.  Food does that for me. I’m sorry, God.  It’s the way I feel.

God was still my heart’s desire, and I sought Him stronger than ever before, as best as I could, but I had this side-kick shadowing me.  I had a hidden idol.  Food.  I didn’t realize how out of control it had become until one afternoon I laid on my grandparents’ couch watching an old Perry Mason rerun.  I had no life whatsoever, so I logged many hours of television a day (which is why I hardly ever watch it now).  During a commercial, I reached down to grab a soda sitting on the floor.  It was empty.  I leaned over to find another one when I realized a startling fact – in two hours, I had consumed 12 cans of soft drinks!  What I know now about sugar and caffeine, I should not have a pancreas left!  I realized then I had a problem – one I didn’t know how to fix.

Food had become my feel-good friend.  It was my adrenaline outlet.  It was available.  It made me happy for a moment.  But, it was destroying my body from the inside out. Then the weight gain began.  It’s been a struggle ever since to retrain my thinking that food isn’t the answer for: good times, bad times, sad times, fun times, angry times, lonely times, celebratory times, bored times, happy times, sympathy times, and every other time.  What an uphill struggle.

This led to layers upon layers of self-hate because now I had added some extra pounds.  I felt horrible about the way I looked and the way clothes looked on me.  I compared myself with every classmate, stranger and magazine cover.  I hated that I overate.  I hated how I looked.  I hated why I ate.  I hated the IBS.  I hated that I had no control over any of it.  Exhausted, I gave up and gave in to the lure of overeating. And, I had grandparents that had no idea of my struggle and served me food and pressured me to finish the plate every time.

I had given in to every lie that was whispered in my ear.  You’re all alone now. Nobody cares.  You’re fat.  You’re ugly.  You’re pathetic!  You are powerless. You’re weak.  You’re hopeless.  There’s no future for you, so what does it matter?

Without realizing it, I had bought the lie – hook, line and sinker – that my circumstances defined me – I was WHY I ate.  It took years to unwind this thinking.  The Truth?

Yes, I was alone, but NO I didn’t have to be lonely.  The LORD is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. ~ Psalm 34:18

Yes, I had a problem with food, but NO God wasn’t going to give up on me. Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” ~ John 6:35 

Yes, my life seemed like a dead-end, but God is the God of new beginnings.  I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.  ~ Psalm 40:1-3

Yes, I was miserable, but God offered a comfort deep in my spirit that not even food could satisfy.  May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant. ~ Psalm 119:76

Yes, all seemed hopeless, but NO it was not.  Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. ~ Psalm 62:5

Yes, I felt like a loser, but God wasn’t finished with me yet!  …being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. ~ Philippians 1:6

Yes, I felt unequipped to fight for my life, but God fights for us!  Do not be afraid of them; the LORD your God himself will fight for you! ~ Deuteronomy 3:22

Yes, I felt like there was no future for me, but the Bible says God has a plan. ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. ~ Jeremiah 29:11

Before people judge others for how they look – their body shape or size; how they dress; or even their hygiene – it helps to look deeper than skin-deep and see if there is something going on beneath the surface.  I was called fat by guys who didn’t even know my name.  And, you know what?  I wasn’t “fat” by scale standards.  I just wasn’t model-thin.  If you are struggling with WHY you eat, I encourage you to talk with a trusted resource.  Food issues like mine (or starving, vomiting, etc.) don’t have to get the best of us.  I’m right there with you on this journey, learning more and more that our souls only find rest and peace in God – not the kitchen.  Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.  ~ Psalm 34:8

<<Check out the companion song to this post on my Tunes page!>>

Untangle the web of lies – loss & labels (re-posted from April 14, 2012)

Per request, this blog entry is being re-posted.

May God use it for his glory. ~ Kristi


Labels.  We all wear them.  Some labels make us feel like we’re on top of the world.  Others plunge us into an endless abyss.  Teens are among the hardest hit by labels.  In middle school, (what I affectionately call The Cannibalism Years) guys and girls spend their energy jockeying for a position of acceptance at least and popular at best.  In high school, labels are still clearly present, but for those who have survived the “lord of the flies” experience of middle school, teens emerge with a little more knowledge of who they are and what they want. Scars may be internal, external, or both, but I wildly applaud those who graduate middle school and are still standing when the first day of high school hits – as long as they haven’t left a trail of casualties leading to their success.

Labels during these years change like the wind.  Popular, freak, cute, funny, smart, nerd, jock, quiet, dweeb, stupid, pretty, weird, shy, daring, promiscuous (the nicer word), and  invisible – are a few off the top of my head. Depending on the day’s events, some of those labels are encouraging and uplifting.  Others push teens to the brink of wanting to end their life.  Oh the power peers have over each other.  (sigh)

Other labels aren’t so easily gained or lost.  Some are branded onto teens without their consent or permission.  Divorce, poor, orphan, and victim are a few.  I remember a teen in my high school that looked as though every day was his last. He was always dirty, his clothes were way too small, greasy hair, and he wore shoes that barely held together.  I cannot remember his name.  He was invisible.  He was poor.  He was never given a chance.  I often wonder what became of him.  I wanted to say something to him like, hello, but never found the courage because I didn’t know what to say after hello.  He wore his label on the outside. Everyone knew it and ostracized him for it.

My labels were internal, but just as isolating.  I was a product of two divorces, sub-par family finances, and a mom who was dying.  What do teens say to that?  You’re a train wreck and we don’t know what to do with you, was one encounter I vividly remember.  I went to a large public high school filled with people who had more money than we did.  It wasn’t just that we were a single family trying to survive on a secretary’s salary, it was that my mom spent my entire junior year in and out of the hospital with cancer. Unable to work during portions of the year, I really have no idea how our bills were paid – my grandparents helped, I assume, and debt accumulated.

While many classmates had predictable schedules, homes, extra-curricular activities and parents to buy them poster board needed for a project or sign a permission slip or drive them around to friends’ homes and parties, my day went something like this: Sleep at my grandparents’ house, get up, go back to my house, shower, get dressed, go to school, leave school and go straight to the hospital to be with my mom.  There, I made great friends with the stiff, cold vinyl chair in her room in which I did my homework and watched tv while she slept.  One night, with books opened on my chest as I was slumped back in the chair, the nurse came in, tapped me on the shoulder and woke me up.  She said in a soft voice, Honey, go home.  Get some rest.  She doesn’t even know you are here. Although I appreciated her kindness, her words pierced my soul.  All of this is for nothing? I asked myself.  I gathered my books and drove back to my grandparent’s house in a sleepy daze just to start it all over again the next day.

Nobody knew this because nobody asked.  All I looked like was a disheveled mess.  There wasn’t a parent to tell me, You need a hair cut, or Your shoes need replacing, or You don’t look so good, do you feel okay?  My mom was simply trying to stay alive.  She told me once after a hard chemo treatment, The only reason I am alive is for you girls.  You are my reason for living.  

At a time when I didn’t know if she was going to live, and if not, what would happen to me, I was still straddling a world of teenageness where I needed to absorb academic material for tests, not be tardy for school, and keep from falling asleep in class.  I got so angry at other classmates when I overheard their whining about boys, cars, parties, and the latest gossip.  I thought, You don’t have a clue what life is about.  Your stupid little problems are NOTHING on the scale of life.  Get over yourself.  I kept those thoughts to myself so I wasn’t run out of town – or at least out of school.  I was completely unable to identify with anyone at my school – but desperately, secretly wanted to.  If others were having similar life-threatening problems at home, they didn’t share them.  None of us did.  Why?  Because who wants to be around high-maintenance teens?  No one.  In this age of life, teens are incredibly self-absorbed.  It’s normal in their development.  But “freaks” (as I saw myself) like me had a daily inner struggle with wanting to be a typical teenager, but at the same time being forced to be an adult – handling grown-up problems on my own with no dad and a dying mom. (breathe)

I remember at the end of my junior year, everyone was talking about prom.  Oh good grief, I thought.  Can this issue just please go away?  Is there any other high school event that singles out social groups, money and popularity more than prom?  My first limo ride (and only limo ride to date) was to my mom’s funeral barely after my junior year ended.  In the limo I thought, While everyone is taking their first limo ride to prom, I’m taking mine to my mom’s funeral.  

Since we’re being honest about feelings, which is what this blog is about, I’ll mention another extremely painful memory that may surprise some who haven’t walked this road.  The end of summer before my senior year.  Why?  That’s when moms (or dads) take their girls shopping for school clothes.  I can still smell the stale mall air as if it were yesterday, and I remember watching the girls that went to my school walk the mall with their moms and their shopping bags while I sat numb on a bench sipping a Sprite.  As a girl, this hurt almost as much as not having been validated by the male influences in my life in yesterday’s blog.  It seems like such a superficial thing, but digging deeper, to me it was more about not being able to spend time with my mom, ask her opinion on what looked good on my insecure body, and such a time would be a sort of send-off to my senior year that would have been affirmed by my mom.  This one step would have felt like a natural progression toward the beginnings of her letting me go.  Instead, she was ripped from my life by a horrific disease, and I had to let her go.

My mom had died just 2 months before, and I was now living with my grandparents to avoid foster care.  They loved me.  I loved them.  But, it was their daughter who they just buried.  We were all broken and didn’t know how to fix each other, so we just went to our own corners and licked our wounds.  They were from the Depression Era.  They were frugal and financially wise.  A senior in high school is not.  Whether it be they had no concept of buying school clothes because they A: were too deep in their grief; B: too frugal to see the physical need; C: too out of touch to see the social need; or D: a combination of these – the bottom line was I began my senior year in my older sister’s hand-me-downs.  Yes, I am thankful I had clothes to wear at all, but these were nothing to brag about.  They were old and tired.  I didn’t have the nerve to ask my grandparents for new ones, so I wore them without a word.

In high school, when you don’t look the part, you don’t get the part.  It’s really hard to be accepted into social groups where you stick out like a sore thumb.  I didn’t dress right; I didn’t have the right car (I drove my grandmother’s 1972 Cadillac which was defaulted to me from my mom when she died); I didn’t have a home to invite people over to, and I didn’t have parents to take my friends and me to fun places like to the beach or a music concert like others had.

Did I feel sorry for myself?  No.  I couldn’t go there.  If I had stopped for one second to think about the enormity of what was happening to my life, it would have swallowed me whole.  My life felt more like a Jason Bourne movie, where one thing happens after the next and you can’t blink or even go to the bathroom because if you turn away for a second, there is something around the corner that’s going to get you.  In many ways, I felt like it already had.

Today’s blog is dedicated to all of the BRAVE young men and women who are fighting for their lives, or a loved one’s life, today.  I want you to hear the Truth – circumstances do NOT define you.  Don’t believe the thoughts or people that tell you they do.  You are not a label.  You are a person – loved by God.  

By God’s grace, you CAN get through this.  People asked me, When are you going to get over your mother’s death and move on?  I was so offended!  If you love someone, you don’t “get over” their loss, but you can get through it.  It’s too much to handle alone.  Seek trusted help to confide in.

There is more to say on how to deal with teen labels of loss and trauma, and on this blog we’re not afraid to talk about it, ask tough questions, or simply admit I don’t know.  This issue is real for a lot of teens, and every single one of you count.  You are important.  You are loved.  Your feelings are valid, and you need to know you are not alone.

<<Check out the companion song to this blog on my Tunes page!>>