An Unlikely Victory

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The gentle flutter within her was the reminder she needed that life would go on, even after this day. Her hand instinctively went to her abdomen, as if the small life within her held the strength she needed to keep moving, to keep walking.

nature-3244120_1920A smile wearied itself on her face, but not one of happiness, realizing then that she was a walking oxymoron–an equal blend of life and death. Her eyes flickered to what had been a shrub next to the cracked front step, the leaves dried and shriveled, but still clinging to the once strong branches. The vivid teal and red welcome mat was another blinding oxymoron.

She took one last deep breath, a vain attempt to steady herself, and walked across the threshold.

Her eyes instinctively searched for her brother. She knew he would be the voice of reason–the calm one– he was always the calm one. She had no desire to look into her mom’s eyes, or worse, her dad’s, but they were both rushing toward her now, desperate to hear what she had to tell them.

She continued looking at the floor as if the answers to their questions had fallen at her feet.

Breathe, Claire. Just breathe.

“Okay, guys. I really need you to back off a little and have a seat. I will tell you everything if you just give me some space,” she struggled to keep her voice from quivering.

When she did finally look up from the floor, her mom’s deep green eyes were imploring her so profoundly, Claire was sure she was staring through her, instead of at her.

That’s when her brother walked into the room.

“Claire! Did you find anything out?” he asked as he sat down next to their parents, taking his mom’s hand.

“Yes,” her gaze immediately hit the floor again. “It’s…not good news.”hallway-867226_1920

Her mom was already sobbing and her dad began to visibly tremble.

Now she was speaking like a computer program, like the information she received from the doctor had been programmed into her, so she could spout it off with the press of a button. It is stage 4. Inoperable. Begin first round of chemo early next week. Three rounds to start with. Probably more. Side effects would be very damaging. Hoping to stop the spread, to extend life, but unlikely it will ever go away.

Except for her mother’s hysterical sobs, a suffocating silence enveloped the room.

Claire felt the room begin to move, the ground heaved beneath her, and then her brother’s arms were around her, leading her decaying body to the couch.  

As Claire’s parents collected themselves in the kitchen, Grant sat with Claire, holding her hand, saying nothing.

“Claire, you need to tell mom and dad about the baby. What did the doctor say to do about the baby?”

She tried to speak, but nothing would come. You are dying. You are dying. You are dying. This fact was the only one she could comprehend, the only one that currently mattered.

“Claire. I will support any decision you make. You know that.”

She did know that. You are dying. You are dying. You are dying.

After an hour of this oppressive silence, Claire’s parents finally came into the room. Her dad knelt in front of her, while her mom stood motionless behind him.

“Claire, we are going to fight this. We are going to trust God’s plan. This is not going to defeat you, do you understand me?” Claire found it ironic that her dad’s words were so confident, when his voice sounded like that of a little boy’s.flower-316437_1280

Claire raised her eyes to his. The words she said next came from a different atmosphere; they were heavy and felt strange inside her throat, “Dad. I am not going to do treatment. I am pregnant, and I am going to let this baby live. After I am gone, he will still be here. My baby.”

You are dying. You are dying. You are dying. After these words were out of Claire’s mouth, she finally had the power to answer this torturous voice within her. But the life inside me is not.

Claire hardly noticed her mother fall to the floor, or her dad begin to curse into the air as he crawled from the room.

Grant just sat there; his facial expression impossible to read.

The strength that flooded into Claire after she pronounced her decision left her feeling a strange sense calm, a peace she had never experienced.

Grant knelt down to help their mother into a chair, where she sat motionless for many minutes, no doubt wrestling with losing her daughter and becoming a grandmother in the same day.

“Grant,” Claire still didn’t recognize her own voice, “I need you to be behind me on this. I need you to tell me this is the right thing.”

That’s when the expression on his face changed, becoming one of unmistakable admiration, similar to the look he had when his little sister hit her first home run, but that was when life was simpler. 

“I have never been more proud of you in my life. We were raised to believe that life always defeats death, and I don’t think there is a better way to tell death to screw itself than to continue to allow that baby inside of you to grow,” tears were streaming down his face now, “and besides, I am gonna be the world’s coolest uncle!”

When Claire left her parents’ house that evening, neither of them had spoken to her. She didn’t know if they were angry, confused, or grief-stricken. Grant had begged her to stay, trying to convince her she shouldn’t be alone.

beach-1822598_1920What Grant hadn’t realized, however, is that Claire was not alone. Her child grew within her, and her Lord walked beside her. She did not know what the future held, and when she allowed her mind to think on it, it was nearly unbearable–fear viciously stopping her breath inside her chest. The only thing that Claire knew for sure is that she’d made the right decision–she had chosen life, when death threatened to consume every corner of her existence.

Now she knew that what she’d learned in church all these years was true: death never wins.

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Beauty in a Fallen Leaf

I have seen death’s merciless determination three times in my life. The first was when it 20171013_133140chased after my best friend’s mom, then it went after my Grandma, and finally it took my first child, whose face I never saw.

Death appeared to have won all three times, but I know, as a follower of Christ, that this is not the case.

God says He has conquered all death, and surely this must be true for death was left utterly immobilized when faced with the Savior of the world (2 Timothy 1:10).

We clearly see in the Bible that Jesus did not fear death, and was even able to reverse it in the case of Lazarus. However encouraging this reality is, death still has a powerful sting for those of us left behind. It is a great comfort to know that our loved ones are spending eternity in a painless and perfect Heaven, but we are left to face unbearable pain after they are gone.

20171013_132941Unfortunately, this earthly life is full of innumerable painful experiences, even when death is not involved.

However, if we were to see past our grief I think we would find something quite pristine in our pain. For as I sit here on this breezy October afternoon and gaze out my window to find the trees wrapped in the most vivid and electrifying colors, I am reminded that God creates beauty out of the most brutal of circumstances because, you see, these stunning leaves are, in fact, in the throes of death.

This is when I hear God whisper, “You see, my child, some of My most striking work is found in the midst of pain.”

Whether it is death or an ache less permanent, I rely upon God’s promise that He works for my good (Romans 8:28). Because He leaves me completely in awe of the death of a leaf, I know He sends even more beauty to surround me amid any turmoil.

So take James’ advice, rejoice in your trials and watch God transform your hurt into something spectacular (James 1:2).

A New Creation

I’m dead.

Yep, dead as a door nail.

Nail down the coffin, people.

I am entirely unresponsive to the world around me.

Dead.

Don’t plan my funereal yet though, that would just be weird.grave-2036220_1280

Allow me to explain…

In 2 Corinthians 5:17, the Bible says that in Christ, we are a new creation. In fact, Paul explains it further by saying that old things have passed away and all things have become new. Notice that Paul does not say some things have become new, or you have become new, or the world has become new. No. Paul says all things have become new for those who live in Christ Jesus.

I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with Paul’s words. There is nothing more encouraging or edifying to know that Christ frees us in such a way that we become a brand new creation.

Just as many times as this verse has encouraged me, it has confounded and alarmed me. I am not certain when I became a Christian; I pretty much just always loved Jesus. I could tell you when my faith became my own, instead of my parents’, but I did not have a defining moment where the Lord saved me. I often wonder if Paul’s words would have a more potent impact upon me if I hadn’t always been a Christian—if I had a “me before Jesus” with which to compare myself.

I know I have grown more in love with Christ as I have entered adulthood, and I know my faith has matured in immeasurable ways; however, I don’t know that I see myself as a new creation. I am still pretty much who I have always been. I continue to struggle with the same sins I was struggling with as a young girl; they may look different now, but they are the same. I can be unimaginably prideful, and impeccably self-absorbed; I tend to envy one’s success long before I rejoice in it; I seek my own glory before I seek my Father’s, and I am impatient beyond logic.

How is this kind of mess a new creation?

Romans 6:4 says, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”grave-2115941_1280

Read that verse again. I mean, really read it.

Paul says we were buried with Him…Whoa. I don’t recall being held up in a tomb for three days with the Son of God. I guarantee I would not have been as chill about it as Jesus was.

Colossians 2:11 also describes Christians as being buried with Jesus through baptism, but it goes further to say not only was Christ raised from the dead, but so were we.

Colossians 3 reminds us again that we have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God.

This begs the question that if we are dead, how then should we live on this earth?

It’s hard to be dead and alive at the same time, even for the most gifted of people.

woman-591576_1280Colossians 3 says more, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

Christ is life. Christ is life. Christ is life.

There are countless verses that address being dead to the world and alive in Christ. Galatians 3:26-27 says, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

Colossians touches on this same concept in chapter 2 by saying a Christian puts off the body of the things of the flesh…

If my faith in Christ allows me to drape Him over my shoulders like a blanket and traipse around like a beacon for Jesus, then I must simultaneously clothe myself in newness of life—my new man—killing my old self.  

In fact, Ephesians 4 says this of a Christian: putting off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.

Despite all this evidence, the problem many Christians have with this idea is that our old self seems to still live, lurking in the shadows of our hearts, revealing himself or herself countless times throughout the course of one day—this old self is our sin, and it has the power to eat us alive if we don’t let Christ fight it.

Our old self fears sin, fears the world, fears failure—fears everything. Putting on Christ each day and making Him our life does not mean sin no longer exists within us: it means that sin no longer controls us; it becomes so powerless, in fact, that it is dead. Christ has given us a weapon with which to fight this sin, and the ultimate gift when we lose that fight – forgiveness.

For many of us, choosing to truly believe this is half the battle.

Jesus was buried with our sin, our muck, our nastiness, our filth. It is no longer ours, but His. Being a new creation does not mean that I no longer sin. When the world looks at me, it sees little change between who I am and who I once was. However, it is what God sees when He looks at me that truly makes the difference.  20170309_142125

He sees His pristine and perfect child, dead to the world, yet alive and well in Christ. He sees a woman who has her mind set on things above.

My master is no longer sin; my master is God.

This is freedom.

Sam.

I used to have a best friend named Sam.

She lived on the other side of the forest, a few blocks down. We spent a lot of time in that forest, imagining trouble, and sometimes actually causing it. Sam was bolder than me. She had what my mom would call, a glint in her eye. She wasn’t afraid of adults and she wasn’t afraid to get in trouble. I, on the other hand, earned the nickname Miss Goody Two Shoes quite early on in my childhood, so I always envied this quality in Sam. For instance, when we were about ten, we sent my mom into a tizzy when she couldn’t find us one afternoon. We were on the other side of the forest enjoying some lemonade with some strangers who invited us in for a cup. Without Sam, I wouldn’t have dared, but with her… I was invincible. My mom was not pleased.

sam3Sam gave me Porkchop at my 8th birthday party. I insisted on inviting every girl in the 2nd grade class. It was probably one of the most disastrous experiences of my childhood; however, I still have my gift from Sam. I actually passed it down to my son. A tiny lion, called a pocket pal, filled with beans. I slept with it from the day I turned 8 until the day I turned 18. Since he was easy to conceal, I had him stashed in my college dorm room. Then, I had him stashed in a keepsake box. Now, I have him stashed in my son’s closet.

Sam may have been a bit of a trouble maker, but she eradicated more trouble than she caused. I remember one particular example quite well, another birthday party. I was turning sixteen and was squeezing every minute out of it in my green, cement basement with a large collection of friends—some may have only been acquaintances. Things took a negative turn when two rough looking boys showed up unannounced. Miss Goody Two Shoes was not impressed with some stunts they were pulling in my basement. Sam found me crying in my parents’ exercise room because they had ruined my birthday. She released me from any reason to cry, with her impeccable ability to listen and make things right. It is even more impressive that she pulled this off, since she is the one who invited the boys in the first place.

Sam had a quality about her that I could never quite put my finger on. I always thought she was rather nosey, but I never had any qualms about letting her put her nose wherever she wanted. It was because she cared for me, even when we began to grow apart in high school, I knew she really, genuinely cared for all of us. Not only that, Sam was the girl to seek out when you were looking for gossip. She was the queen of knowing everything. I loved that about her.sam4

Some of my most exhilarating memories from my childhood have Sam in them; she is the leading lady in most of them. Sam and I spent an entire summer with our feet hanging off a handsome boy’s tailgate as he did circles around our Podunk town. It would be late and approaching my curfew, but it was hard to care when I was sitting next to Sam singing “Too Much Fun” at the top of my lungs.

Even though my parents believed her to be a rather negative influence on me, I never got into any real trouble with Sam by my side. I mostly just had the time of my life. She always took me home when I mentioned my curfew, and she never rolled her eyes at my inability to disobey my parents. The only time I remember her genuinely “corrupting” me was when she double-dog-dared me to yell the f-word at the top my lungs. Don’t forget my nickname. It took a lot of persuading, but Miss Goody Two Shoes eventually stood up on that dugout (I have no idea why we were sitting on a dugout) and yelled it. This was just another moment that Sam made me feel free, like I had some invisible shell that only she could see.

She eventually moved even closer to me, just a few blocks down the street across from the railroad tracks. I can’t imagine how boring my high school experience would have been had she not been right down the street. Her basement was the location of many unusual, yet always legal and, more importantly, God-fearing activities. Without Sam, I think I would have conversed with two boys during all four years of high school. But in Sam’s basement, I had more boys to flirt with than I ever had in English class. Sam was a great flirt; I sucked at it. The point is, Sam always made me feel like I could flirt, like I had nothing to lose. She made everyone feel like that.

I learned a lot from Sam. Most of the life lessons she shared with me were discussed on the top of a grain elevator. We thought we were such rebels. I didn’t find out until later that nearly every teenager in our town spent a good deal of time on the elevator, but still, we were trespassing and we felt dangerous. One morning, around five a.m., Sam and I snuck out of her parents’ house and walked to the elevator. We weren’t trying to break every rule in the book, we simply wanted to watch the sunrise from the highest point on the grain elevator, and we were determined.

I have thought back to that moment many times in my adulthood, sitting atop a grain elevator, discussing every topic from the most shallow to the most profound. I had seen countless sunsets with Sam, but this was the only sunrise I ever watched with her. I can still see her silhouette against the soft glow of the horizon, but what I didn’t know in those moments, was that I was taking her for granted, that one day she would not be there and I would only have the memory of everything she taught me.
sam5Despite growing apart as we became teenagers, I still remember spending so much time with Sam. She was my first friend, and she was the only one who never completely went away. We were so proud when we would tell people we’d been friends since we were two: We thought we had accomplished some impossible feat. The impossible feat would have been for us to continue to speak after high school—we didn’t.

Sam was not perfect—she’d be the first to tell you that. She knew her imperfections and she had plenty of insecurities, but she was an incredible friend. I would give anything to go back to our college years and somehow stay in touch with her. Even though she’s gone now, I am always surprised by how often I think of her and how often I catch myself mentioning her to my husband, who never knew her. I didn’t realize how big of an impact she had on my life, until the chances of her impacting it again became impossible. I wish I could share every memory I have of Sam—I can’t believe how many there are.

She was extraordinary, and she took away any chance of me ever hearing “Too Much Fun” by Daryle Singletary without lifting my eyes and asking Sam to sing it with me.

I do know one thing. I know she knew the Lord. I don’t know how much she knew Him in the days before her death, but if I know Sam, she never stopped seeking Him.sam

A Room of Lying Shadows

Her breath caught sharply in her chest. The old grandfather clock in the corner of her dining room had just chimed once again–3:00 am. One more hour had passed since she had moved. She was not sure how many hours she had been there. Maybe only two… but perhaps much more than that.

 

She forced her eyes to move off the bed and look over her quaint bedroom. The moon cast a lonely shadow throughout, causing her belongings to bend and twist in an intolerable mixture of the shadow and the tangible. She enjoyed looking at the jewelry box in the corner, least of all. He had given it to her on their 35th anniversary and she had always cherished it; of course now it seemed to mock her in the faint moonlight, its shape sickening.

 

She lowered her gaze once more to the frail body lying in her bed. She did not need to check to assure herself, she knew it no longer embodied life. The strange form before her and the belongings around her were all that remained of 78 years together.

elderly

She briefly allowed her thoughts to wander to the neighbors. Once word of her dark, lonely night in a room with her dead husband got out, they would be all talk. They had always been all talk–assuming they understood her life. She could just imagine what they would say about her. The teenager in 1504 would call her a “creepy, old lady” to his friends, and the chatterbox gossip in 1512 would pretend to pity her but call her a “sad, pathetic old wretch” when she was alone with her friends.

 

It should be her lying in that bed. Everyone assumed it would be her. But it was him. The man she thought couldn’t die was just that.

 

“Lily… Lily, c’mon! Go out wit’ me jus’ once. I’ll  git you some iced cream. Your favorite… Rocky Road.”

 

“Carl, I’d rather eat dirt then eat iced cream wit’ you!”

 

“Aw… c’mon now…ya know that ain’t true. I seen the way you were lookin’ at me in schoo’ yestidee.”

 

“I’s lookin’ at you wit’ pity, Carl. Tha’s all.”

 

“I saw a who’ lot mo’ then pity, Lily.”

 

Her eyes crinkled at the faded memory. He started chasing her in the 4th level, but she held him off all the way until the 8th grade when he quit to work on his daddy’s farm. She couldn’t remember why now. Everyone told her to play hard to get, so that is what she did. Now that it was over, she could have added four more years to her life with him, if she’d played easy to get instead. He had her all along, anyway.

elderly

He was all she had. She didn’t know where she would go now. She could not remember the last time she swept the floor, made dinner, or washed the bedding. A woman like her couldn’t possibly get along alone. Maybe if she prayed hard enough tonight, the Lord would take her home too. The remainder of her years without him seemed unbearable.

 

She tried to calculate how many years she must have left of her life, although technically her life was lying in the bed in front of her. She was 96. No one lived until 100 nowadays. She would surely be taken before then. Four years. The irony of the significance of that number before their life together and after their life together failed to make an impression on her.

 

“Four years without you, my love,” she whispered into the shafts of silver light.

 

Her heart flitted with hope when she thought it might be shorter than that. Her breath was short now and she could hear her heart pounding in her ears all the time, drowning out all logical thought. She was aware of the weakness of each beat. It used to scare her, but now she relished the thought of death.

 

“How could you do this to me, my darling?” she imagined briefly that his hand moved in the direction of hers, shaking her head at the foolish turn her thoughts were taking.

 

The world outside her shades was beginning to lighten now, and she could hear the birds chirping in the Spruce tree at the corner of their lot. He had hated that tree, every year having to trim it back, trying desperately to control his world.

elderly

“We have no control…” she said this to no one in particular; she certainly did not want him to hear her, still following the habit of being his optimism.

 

She desperately wanted to not see him in the light. It would be all too real in the light. His lips would be blue and his face ashen. The warmth of her hand would no longer be enough to conceal the coldness of his.

 

She must get up. She must make herself move…pick up the telephone…call the police…

 

“Um…hello. My husband has passed away. Can you come retrieve him immediately?”

 

It would be easy. Pick up the phone. Pick up the phone. Walk away from him and pick up the phone.

 

It took her a moment to realize the phone was ringing now. The silence of her husbandless home had enveloped her eerily, so her ears did not immediately register sound.

elderly

She tried reaching for the receiver without taking her hand from his, the weakness of her body failing her. She still felt his hand in hers even after they were separated. Reaching for the telephone was an act of heroism while the stiffness of her body and desolation of her heart worked against her.

 

“Hello,” her voice came out in a whisper.

 

“I woke up worried about you. Is everything okay?”

 

The voice, at first, seemed unfamiliar and distant.

 

“Mom, are you there? I’m worried about you. Please tell me you’re okay.”

 

Ah, it was Carol. How could she have forgotten Carol? The only thing that remained of her life with his, their daughter.

 
Perhaps, there was hope after all.

Grandaddy’s Story

Whether the deep, greying grooves of his face marked his years of crying or his years of laughing, my respect for him reached much higher than the mournful atmosphere of the room. As I watched him slowly bring his cup of coffee to his lips, I pictured the way the spidering fissures around his eyes and the salt-and-pepper caterpillars above them illuminated guile when he would start into one of his stories, always beginning with, “This ol’ boy…” and always ending with an unuttered question, spoken only through the eyes of his listeners, regarding its credibility. There were no stories today, however. His eyes were not wily; they did not spring joy and laughter as I was accustomed. Instead, the creases around them curved downward and would act as drainage ditches to his tears, while the liveliness of his eyebrows had ceased, replaced by a perpetual furrow. He had always been somewhat of a mystery to me, a promise of revelation, unkept.

 

I tried to eat my toast, tried to remember a time my parents’ house was more somber than that day, tried to look anywhere but his eyes, tried not to wonder about his pain–all in vain. Then, as if the silence of the house acted as a key to the story locked within him, he began to speak. His voice, a Southern vernacular he often referred to as “the King’s English,” was worn and soft, almost imperceptible, but gained strength when he said her name, her very existence keeping him from crumbling.

 

“When I firs’ saw her wawkin’ down the wawkway, she was wearin’ a yella western suit; she was meanderin’ amongst the corrals, and she was the mos’ beautiful woman I had ever seen. I am usually shy and bashful around beautiful women but I jus’ had to stop her, so I stepped out and interduced myself–found out she was married, I was recen’ly divorced, as ya know. We wawrked togetha ever’ summer, and fer three months out of ever’ year, I got to be with her.”

 

He paused to take a drink of coffee, dampening his scratchy voice, tattered from years of living. I looked at him now, unable to restrain my captivation; his wrinkles had become shallower and cast less shadow on the parts of his face still untouched by age, but his eyes told me he was no longer sitting with me in the early morning hours: he was somewhere in the 1970s, dreaming of the woman I called Grandma.

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“Durin’ my third year at the track, she stawrted workin’ in the same area as me.” Finally, a laugh, strange because of his situation, slightly suppressed by the thickness of his grief, escaped.

 

“We had mo’ fun. There was mo’ fun and laughter thar, with ya Gramma, than any otha’ place. I never ast her for a cup of coffee; we jus’ wawrked togetha and laughed togetha. I know how to respe’t a married woman, but boy, was she a beauty. When I wasn’ with her in the summatime, I was thinkin’ about her.

 

I din’t show up for our fifth summer together cus my dad had died. She panicked, thunkin I warn’t gonna show up. When I did get thar, I found out she had been thinkin’ about me over the winter, too.” He spoke now like a teenage boy, full of hormones and promise, having just scored a prom date. “Her marriage was in trouble, and we began discussin’ seri’sly ‘bout gettin’ mawrried. When we decided ta get married, I ast her if she went to church. She said, ‘No, I’m a Heathen.’”

 

The creases on his forehead had vanished now as he remembered a time when his skin was as unsullied as his love for her.

 

“I wull never foget that. When I ast her if she would go ta church wit’ me when we were mawrried, she said, ‘Sure, what church do you go to?’ The look on her face when I told her I was Southern Baptis’ was nuthin’ I’d ever seen: I coun’t help but laugh out loud. I dunno what she had heard about Southern Baptists, but it coun’t have been good.”

 

Now, he inhaled the motionless air, laden with the unmistakeable scent of coffee grounds, trying to acknowledge the reality that surrounded us. Then, he finished his story with the only certainty in his life,

 

“She came wit’ a lot of baggage, and I din’t know how much she had ‘til we were mawrried. I had to pay a lot of her firs’ husband’s bills. It din’t matter though, she was wort’ it. She’s still wort’ it.”

 

Up until this moment, my Grandaddy was a riddle I was always trying to solve. It became clear as he told me that long awaited story of irrefutable love that he was in fact a very simple man, controlled by a love still stainless and unrelenting even in the midst of death, a love many will never know.