Tragedy Down the Mountain

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The Quietness

    The slower pace and quietness of mountain life called out to our family during the 90’s. After the birth of our fourth child we purchased a home in the northwest corner of North Carolina, high enough to see into Virginia and Tennessee, and close enough to the Blue Ridge Parkway we could hike there. Yet the cities lay just an hour drive down the mountain.

Our 3,500 ft. elevation gave us resplendent Indian summers, but before the end of October, bone-cold nights and snow flurries checked in – to stay.

    By late November, Winter fell like the ax on the neck of the Thanksgiving turkey. She hunkered down with diamond-studded frost or snow, and branch-snapping winds. Often, after a solid week of fog, we’d bundle up, hop into the car, and drive “down the mountain” to Charlotte or Winston Salem just for a glimpse of the sun and the more alive smell of fall foliage.

    One such trip took us to a family reunion, making our light-sweater day especially long. Long after dark and everyone’s bedtime, we reluctantly headed home to our mountain paradise. I leaned my head back on the headrest as we accelerated against the incline, around the switchbacks – up and up into cold air. All four kids (two toddlers and two teens) snuggled under their coats and dropped off to sleep. The quietness in the car felt good.

The Event

    About five miles from the summit, my husband spotted what he thought was a deer carcass on the side of the road. A bit lighter in color than the usual deer, it almost glowed in the headlights of a car we thought may have hit it.

Two men stood over it, yet for some reason my husband decided to look closer. I stopped breathing as he made a fast u-turn back to the scene.

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    When we pulled up and got out, my throat tightened and I suddenly felt hot. I saw one of the men sort of kick at it, and in that moment I breathed a thank you to God that our two toddlers stayed asleep. For it wasn’t a deer.

    “You guys stay in the car,” my husband warned. “Try to keep the little ones asleep.”

       I grabbed coats from the older kids, and ran to cover what now was clearly a half-naked woman. She was alive, moaning incoherent, face down, but not visibly injured.

    My husband asked the men what happened.

    “Dunno… got here jis’ a minute ago. She was a-lying here, but we bin drinkin’ an’ well, we gotta go ‘fore the police come. We called 911 anyways and was jes’ fixin’ to take off when yous came.” They couldn’t get away fast enough.

    I noticed a small pile of clothes close to the car but said nothing to my husband who paced, waiting. As night deepened in utter quietness, all I knew to do was pray out loud for this woman. Her nails dug into the grass as I cradled her over the coats.

    In a few minutes the place swarmed with the swirling lights of police cars and men searching, wondering if a perpetrator might still be close. I kept my position over her, praying and consoling her.

   When the ambulance came, the EMTs replaced our coats with their blankets. Rolling her onto her back they yelled, “What is your name?”

    Her response, a loud fear-filled “Aaaaaah!” told that she’d been drinking. That fact and her car’s freshly cut tire provided a rape scenario (or conjecture) which supposedly began at a bar up the mountain. It seemed as though we’d been dropped into a CSI episode. As they prepared to lift her onto the gurney, the men EMTs asked females present to do as much of the steadying as possible. Their utmost concern for her dignity impressed me.

     As I returned to our bewildered teens in the car, I wondered… would this woman be able to tell them what had happened? Would the authorities work hard to find who’d raped her? Would I ever see her again? How will I talk to my teens about this?

The Meeting

    About three weeks later when the phone rang, I happened to pick it up first. The long silence after my hello clued me who had called.

Heart beating fast, I allowed the pause. Be patient. Give her time.

    In an almost inaudible whisper she finally spoke. “You …prayed … I remember your voice…”

    More silence. What do I say? “Are you alright?”

    “Yes, but I had to find you. I asked around. Can we meet?”

    “Yes, of course. Where? When?”

    We met at a local restaurant. The scene felt surreal. In a booth with ordinary lunch banter going on all around us, I sat before a woman in her early forties with pleasant eyes and smooth complexion, talking, or almost talking, about the most horrific thing imaginable. It seemed. As she thanked me for being there, I knew there had to be more.

   “See, my husband beats me. I just wanted a break from it all.”

     She went on to tell me about her clandestine plan to meet “another man” down the mountain. No mention of the bar, or her drink. The car started to act strange, she said. When she pulled over, a car came up behind, and a man came over to offer help. The darkness hid his face. When they walked around to look for the problem, he attacked her, dragged her down the embankment and raped her as she dug her fingernails into the hill. After he sped away, she crawled up the hill to get to her headlights. Temps in the 40’s meant hypothermia, pretty fast.

    Next thing she knew, I was praying over her.

    I met her once again a few months later. They had never found the perpetrator. She was fine, she said. “Life goes on.”

The Questions

    My mind reeled. She just wanted me to know that she knew I prayed.

     Of course I hardly knew how to talk to my teens about the event. Even after clipping the brief article from the paper I didn’t know what to say. 

     Do we think there are answers, or some better situation, down the mountain, up
the mountain, or on the other side of the mountain? Or fence? Will we reach out to
others with whom we can hardly relate? How will we do it? When it seems there’s
nothing we can do, will we simply move on in the face of tragedy? Will we pray out
loud when it seems silly to do so?

    Possibly one of the most important questions is:  How do people cope with life’s knock-downs without a real, rock-solid Home to come home to?

    I walked into our warm house on the top of the mountain that last night we met, and realized that prayer is sometimes all we can do. It was my minimum at the time and I must believe it was also my maximum. She knew I prayed.

Cancer Update: Jesus is More Than Enough

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   Twenty-seven days. That’s the number of days since the final radiation treatment for my husband’s prostate cancer. He still isn’t quite ready for a nice rare steak, but that’s getting ahead of my story. It was quite a summer, not an easy one. Yet ironically, this very summer, of all summers, our pastor embarked on a series from Colossians. The theme? Jesus is Better.

     If you haven’t already, you can read here about the rough times of late 2014 and up to now. How we put off the biopsy for months and finally went ahead with it at the same unfortunate time as his massive oral surgery. We knew the mouth issues would be tough for a long while, but had no idea radiation would dwarf that ordeal. How could we know? I’d undergone radiation during my breast cancer eleven years ago, and it was more or less a piece of cake. He, on the other hand, almost immediately, suffered constant stomach upset, no appetite, and almost daily weight loss.

    With no stamina whatsoever, each day he’d manage our business as best he could, then ask to be left alone to rest. As I grieved, I questioned. Why did he resist distractions like a small outing or a walk? Sometimes we left the house. Then a few miles out, he’d turn the car around and head home.

    Each day, though, he’d drive himself the hour to the treatment center, then the hour home. Five days a week. Alone.

    Jesus is More Than Enough

    I entered church the Sunday after his first five days of treatment, and barely acknowledged the theme’s announcement. For the next several weeks, the pain I felt during church trumped my ability to concentrate. I’d sit there and wonder why. Why he only wanted food and laundry needs met. Why he wouldn’t let me comfort him – no holding each other, not even his favorite foot rubs.

    When I did register the theme, Jesus is More Than Enough, my response was hollow. Well, I’m sure that is true in the grand scheme of things. Of course that’s what God says…The screen behind the pastor glowed with the words, but weeks passed before I actually took them in.

    I felt completely abandoned.

   Then I began to dig into Colossians at home. My pastor pointed out how Paul struggled (ch. 1:29 and 2:1) to make the people see “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I realized that God, through Paul and our pastor, wanted me to ask the question: Is Jesus really more than enough?  Going about the day, I asked, “Is Jesus better than earthly relationships?” I knew I’d have to know, really know, the answer to that someday. But I wasn’t ready to face the question just yet. It blindsided me. I’d read Colossians over and over, and wrestle with God. I’d challenge Him. “Haven’t we already worked this out? Other times of trouble in our relationship sealed the matter, didn’t it? Jesus is enough!”

    But is He More Than Enough?

    In the moments of working alone folding laundry or walking in the neighborhood, I had to face my anger, and this persistent belief that puny me, I, knew better than God what should happen. These unrelenting needs, the friendship and love of a husband who lives in the same house, who surely has many good years left, clashed noisily with the supremacy of Christ. In my head a cacophony of voices screamed against the quiet assurance: No matter what, when all else fails, Jesus will prove to be more than enough. Whether in the resolution of Hubby’s health issues and restoration of our passion.   

        Or in the loss of both.

       To jump off that cliff of trust, find the net solid underneath, then walk in the truth became the challenge of every day. Colossians 1:23 reminded me to continue “in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel…”

        Finally, I had to say, You are not only enough, but more than enough. You know best. You know more. You love me best. You will figure all this out.

     I had to say it over and over again, with thankfulness (Col. 2:6 and 7) as I went about caring for and releasing my Hubby.  

     How often do I have to jump, Lord? Okay, You know that, too.

    So, you might wonder, where are we now, as a couple?

    After the treatments ended, he still felt horrible. Days went by. When we woke up to the usual how are you this mornings, I’d take the temperature of the room, remembering my truth. My barometer still wondered, is the glass half full? Or half empty? Is Jesus really more than enough if my husband stays emotionally gone?

    Twenty-seven days. Not long, really. Twenty-seven days since the last treatment of summer. We made it through. The laundry smells sweeter, food tastes much better. One of these days my babe may even enjoy a steak again. It’s a process. And one we don’t take for granted.

   But he did come back to me. We comfort each other now, laugh more readily. Finally. But my heart’s desire is to live in the Jesus-is-more-than-enough mode. I want it to be my default mode. I want His enoughness to infuse every minute of every day. His enoughness will get me through the next cliff I face – and hopefully I’ll jump a bit quicker into his net.

    Until the day I get to jump right into His arms. Won’t that be grand?

Molasses Makin’

Romans 15:16  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (ESV)

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     I began my teaching career with a “boat” of a car, a ‘66 Pontiac Catalina, v-8 engine. Designed for the smooth roads of civilization, she seemed to rebel against the bumper-jarring ride to Billy’s house. He’d invited me to see the fall sorghum molasses-making, and it seemed a fun outing for after school on Friday. As the bumps and potholes banged our heads against the windows, I thought surely this “boat” would soon dock in some gravel driveway in a little farming area. Surely.

      What had I gotten myself into? What was “City Girl” doing deep in the Kentucky mountains? I mean, other than a job?  In 1971 the universities pumped out way more teachers than jobs in which to place them, and the U.S. presently suffered a glut of baby boomer teachers. I really should be grateful to have snagged one – in a nice public, albeit rural, school. I guess the children were my “other than a job.” One soap-deprived angel arrived on the first day with a little hop in her step.

      “Look, Teacher! Shoes! Ah got shoes!”

       Once, when the electricity went out, my windowless classroom fell into complete darkness. I asked the children if they’d like to sing.

       “Oh, yes, Teacher! Let’s sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’” As the students gathered around my feet, I felt something, or someone stroking my leg.  The red-headed lad probably had never felt silky hose before, either on or off a woman’s leg.

    Though the ruddy, freckled faces of the children had won my heart, I constantly worried.

      How in the world will my $5,500 a year salary continue to support me? There’s no way possible to make it through this first year of teaching. No way. Each payday, two hundred forty-five dollars…

     Suddenly my Pontiac ran completely out of road. Now my worry took a different form. No more road? Maybe I shouldn’t have done this. Billy opened the car door and cheerfully directed me out into the woods.

      “ We wawk the rist o’the way, Teacher. The car’ll be jes’ fine.”

     Walk? With nothing but dense woods in front of us, it looked like the beginning of a hike. I could see my panty hose full of holes and runs after this. Half walking, half hobbling, I inwardly fretted. Why didn’t I change clothes and shoes? A branch flipped into my face as if to force me to pay attention. Then, a clearing.

      As my eyes adjusted to the sunlight I abruptly came back to the moment. A dozen yards in front of us, a horse, harnessed to a long bar, trudged around a muddy circle. His strained push crushed stalks of sugarcane while a bucket under the mill slowly filled with juice. I winced at the smells of mud and manure as they mingled with the woodsy aroma of the fire pit nearby. A huge vat on top of the fire held what seemed like a hundred gallons of boiling liquid. I wondered how those ragged men bent over, sweating and stirring, continuously skimming off the greenish foam. The men neither greeted us nor looked up from their work, but Billy pointed to his dad and said they’d keep at it until late into the night, when that batch would be ready to cool and jar.

    Further into the clearing we reached the house. On the outside it looked bigger than I’d expected. Wood siding, a fairly new door. Billy led me to the side entrance where the kitchen greeted us with a chill. Now, away from the fire, I felt the bite of fall. For through the kitchen blew a draft from the unfinished, cavernous house. Studs framed would-be rooms and almost no furniture graced the plywood floors. The barren kitchen housed few utensils, which make me wonder if meals were prepared at all during molasses-making. On the walls, unpainted shelves held jars, some filled, some waiting. Curtains partitioned off bedrooms.

     Then finally, the big reveal. Billy’s bed. A separate, walled room held the beginnings of a bathroom, and as he showed me he beamed with pride. The glory of the room was his bed, the white clawfoot bathtub. Here he slept, he said, away from the noise and the chilled air in the rest of the house. I stood amazed at what I saw, from the production outside to the provision inside. I saw hope. Hope thrived in Billy’s heart because he had a place to sleep – and his daddy was making molasses!

    My fretful thoughts now shamed me. I had a warm apartment in town. I slept in a nice bed. I drove where I needed to go. How could I worry about my salary?

      As my huge boat of a Catalina drove home so many years ago, I asked the Lord to make me thankful for that day, for that tour of molasses-making. I asked Him to keep me thankful for His care, and for a lasting hope that always lay right in my lap.

Dear Father, Thank you for stopping me in my complaint! You are my hope today and always!

Facing Loss

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It was November of 2014. Our mouthwatering ribs on the breezy patio of Longhorn Steakhouse tasted even better being near the ocean. If the first item on our ToDo list was eating ribs, the second item was to discuss our future beach condo. This weekend getaway provided uninterrupted, relaxing time to dream. Retirement, my hubby’s reward for a lifetime of hard work, must include the romantic sound of the surf and sand between our toes.

     In an instant, my husband’s eyes flooded with tears and he buckled in excruciating pain. He grabbed his napkin and covered his mouth with another moan.

     Though we didn’t realize it yet, in that moment, life as we knew it, plus our hopes and plans for the future, vanished. We got through the night with ibuprofen, and headed home in the morning where the dentist confirmed sad news of immediate oral surgery. My husband’s wince of pain had come from a deep crack in a vital tooth. One procedure led to another issue, and in the end he lost all his teeth. I will spare you the details, but bone crushing was only part of it.

     Anxiety and depression mixed with physical pain form a terrible force. Engulfed by sadness, we found that even normal hugging and tender kisses had to be suspended because of pain in neck, jaw, and gums. If that weren’t enough, my husband lost his appetite, and worse yet, his sense of taste. Over six months he dropped forty pounds. Also, we both faced a new face – one I saw every day for thirty-nine years, and one he once knew in the mirror whenever he shaved.

    A few months later, with the hardest procedure only a week past, time ran out for “the biopsy.” During the holiday season our doctor had noticed his PSA lab numbers rise, putting him at risk for prostate cancer. So, in spring, not able to put it off any longer, he submitted to the prostate biopsy.

    When “the call” came, my husband buckled once again.

     Notice I said he buckled. I, on the other hand, sucked in my breath, set my (intact) jaw, and moved ahead. This cancer was caught early! We are in great position for complete recovery. We can get through this. We will be fine.

    “Come on, Honey, we’ll hear the options and take the one best for us.”

     We decided to go the route of radiation. Forty-five treatments, five days a week, nine weeks. As the treatments began, he slipped farther and farther away from me emotionally and physically. Tired to the bone, he fell asleep by eight each night. I inwardly railed. A sort of panic set in. What will become of us?

      In actuality it was me. What about me? What about our relationship? What about our plans? Somehow the “us” got lost in the “me.” And the “him” got left out. As a result he felt even more pressure. He asked for space. He asked for time. Time to grieve and to heal. But I didn’t want to give it to him or take it for myself.

     Walking the house at night, I planned how to engage and encourage. I cajoled him, and (there it is) I lectured him on “trust” in the Lord. I became that “‘dripping wife” of Proverbs. My situation went on the altar, then off the altar, then back on again. But much more off than on. I didn’t help us, or me, and definitely not him. How could I help when all I could see was my own agenda going up in smoke?

      And I finally did it. I reached out. I called the American Cancer Society.

      You thought I’d say I prayed. Well, I’d been doing that. Or you thought I meant I found a certain scripture. I have dozens of them, they are all wonderful. No, I called the American Cancer Society because, well, I couldn’t carry on any more without some expert terrestrial input. I needed someone to read between my “going forth” lines, ask the right questions, and get me to face my reality. It took a while to get there, though. Extremely condensed, our conversation went a bit like this.

     “Hello, I’m calling about a support group for wives of cancer patients. Prostate cancer.”

     “Okay, tell me your situation.”

     “Well, I uh, so I like to help people, uh, and if there isn’t a group, I’d like to start one… because I want to know if other wives are experiencing the losses, uh, the problems, we are.”

     “My name is Bonnie. Maybe I can help you. What are you feeling?”

     “Well, he says he wants space, but I know he needs connectivity more than space…”

     “He’s asking for space?”

     “Uh, yes. But I just worry that if he sort of drops out of the game now, we might not be ‘us’ again when all the treatments are over.”

     “Do you think maybe he’s asking for space, but you are the one needing connectivity?”

     “Maybe.”

      “Your husband’s cancer diagnosis, as well as his mouth situation, will mean a new ‘us.’ Can you accept that whatever you thought your life was going to be no longer exists? Will you not give him the space he needs to process that? And also give yourself a time of grief?”

     At that, my wall began to crack. She went on.

    “What you do have is today. Only today. We can’t mold tomorrow. Your husband needs support. And so do you. But you need support other than his. He has all he can handle on his plate right now.”

     Saying goodbye to Bonnie, I decided to give in to grief. Just because I’m so good at denial doesn’t mean I hurt less. I work and work and fix and fix. I blame. I manipulate. I deflect the real pain of the situation. I put it off for another day – a day when it may be worse and there are hurt people to whom I must apologize. No, best face it head on. The plans, the dreams, irrevocably changed.

   Yet that is not to say our future is dashed to pieces, either. To say things will never be the same is not failing to trust God. It is just reality. When I read Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes (“a time for everything under heaven…”) I see loss in a more eternal perspective. Loss can be refining. Loss gives us empathy for others. Loss is a vital part of life.

    It seems that in Autumn losses begin to mount up. They actually mount down, because they are really holes. Holes that can swallow our joy and pull us down into their pit of sadness and depression. Yet, does anyone’s life turn out like they thought it would?

    So what do we do?

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    I plan to grieve. I must grieve the loss of what I thought my marriage would be like. Mind you, I give God room to do “above and way beyond anything I could ask or think” for our final years. He’s definitely not through with us yet! But it won’t be like I thought it would. It will be His kind of good, His kind of wonderful, because He is good. Our future may involve ribs by the ocean.

     But it may not.

    

Elegant Brokenness

“I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk 3:19 (ESV)

 “I must file all this paperwork carefully or they will take my apartment away,” she confided.

I sometimes wondered why God brought tall, elegant “Carlita” into my life. Her silky complexion and deep green eyes had befriended me at a Bible study, and we decided to share occasional lunches together, even though living on opposite sides of the city. During our times together she described earlier days of glamour and excitement as a designer and fashion model in both America and Europe — the “high life.”

But all that changed when her children grew up to reject her, travel and leisure succumbed to depression and poor health. Finally, when a devastating divorce robbed her of home, furniture, and stability, she was forced to subsist on government housing and food stamps.

Then, eleven years ago, she found forgiveness and peace when Christ completely transformed her heart. One would think her circumstances would also change. That at least her children and health would return. No. As a matter of fact, some circumstances have gotten worse.

Next week beautiful Carlita will celebrate her 72nd birthday. Never allowing me the luxury of complaint, she chooses the excruciating discipline of praise, often through tears of heartbreak. Daily small miracles keep her going.. “Look at my life!” she says. “Never forget how blessed you are to have a family and a home!”

And I feel ashamed of my whinings.

During a heart-wrenching chat on the phone the other day, she reminded me of this Habakkuk passage. “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food……yet I will rejoice in the Lord. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”

Yes, God sometimes removes many of life’s earthly trappings. Yet, most of us have abundantly more than we need, besides Christ. But if all goes away, He is our strength! He will provide just what we need to encourage another fellow traveler for another day. Paul possessed the amazing gift of praising God “in want.” He said, “I have learned to be content with either want or plenty…”

And God gives that gift to my friend Carlita. What a blessing to have such an example! I no longer wonder why this elegant woman is in my life.

Oh, that I would elegantly praise You, Lord!  Whether little wants are taken away, or in utter brokenness, devoid of everything this fading world has to offer, let me rest in You. Amen