Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dancing with a Limp

Have you lost someone close to you?  Have you experienced heartache through loss that you just can’t explain to someone else?  This week I will find myself pausing (more than usual) as I think of John’s dad, Gary.  Thursday Gary would have turned 73.  He passed away June 5, 2009 after cancer claimed him.  Almost 2 years has passed, but it’s still difficult.  That being said, I don’t want this entry to be one of sadness; I want it to be a reflection on all things good that I remember about Gary.  So, I write this entry with a lump in my throat, but a small smile on my face.
John and I met in 1997 at a mutual friend’s wedding.  It didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with John (but that’s for another entry).  Late in the summer of 1997 I met John’s family.  He has 2 sisters and his parents were married over 40 years.  John’s dad was a very gentle man.  He could tell you a story without an end.  Gary loved Ohio State sports, fishing, hunting, eating at Bob Evans, traditional home cooked meals, and sweets of all kinds.  Above all though, family was the dearest thing to him in this world, especially his grandchildren.  Papa Gary was Elliot’s favorite person on the planet.  When Elliot was 3 and 4 years-old, he called Gary almost on a daily basis by phone.  Elliot would practically wear a track in the carpet as he walked circles around the dining room table talking to Papa Gary about anything from fishing lures to tractors to what he ate for dinner.  The coolest part about this interaction was that Gary enjoyed it as much as Elliot did.  Sydney got the nickname “shorty” from Papa Gary.  Standing at 6.2” I’m certain Papa Gary must have seemed like a giant to petite little Syd.  She would sit on his lap for hours and listen to him read stories to her.  I also recall his 70th birthday party when he let Syd eat chocolate truffle after chocolate truffle…her little chin was covered with a small chocolate beard and she just kept looking at Gary and saying “mmmm.”  He laughed at her until he cried.

For me personally, Gary was a gentle father figure.  Sure, at times I found myself zoning out when he would tell me the same lengthy story for the fifth time, but he was always patient with me.  I’ll never forget the night John and I got engaged.  I so wanted to share the news with Gary.  I asked him “how would you feel about having another daughter?”  His response with tear-filled eyes was, “if it’s you, I’d be delighted.”

When we would pack up the car to leave Ohio and head back to Virginia he would spend stretched minutes telling us goodbye in the house only to walk us to the car and do it all over again.  He would lean in the open car window, even after we had started the engine, just lingering there as long as we’d let him.  He had the darkest brown eyes I had ever seen, that is until you look into Elliot and Sydney’s eyes.  That deep chocolate color is a Van Vorst trait for sure.  Sometimes when I look into their eyes it’s like I see part of Gary looking right back at me.

There is nothing easy about saying goodbye to someone you love, especially when it’s the glue that really binds your family together.  In my grief process, I have found small bits that ease this hurt.  Age old Bible verses help such as Hebrews 11:1.  It says, "Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see."  One of my favorite writers is Anne Lamott.  She is witty, insightful and grounded in her faith to God.  Her book Grace Eventually is a book I read over and over.  And, beautiful writing such as Anne’s offers me comfort too.  This is a quote from Grace Eventually that put a Band-Aid on my heart. 

"You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp."

You see, I realize that I will not ever be the same after saying goodbye to this dear man, but I still go on in my dance of life…I just have to learn to dance with a limp.  Dance and learn to lean into my own faith because I know one day we will be together again.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Gift of Empathy

I have learned a powerful principle in my adult life; a message that wasn’t taught deeply to me as a child.  It’s the principle of empathy.  I think empathy is one of the most beautiful of human interactions.  Empathy is defined as “the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another.  Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.”  How awesome is it that God gave us this gift of feeling what another person is feeling through personal interaction?  We are actually able to rejoice in another person’s joy or weep with them in sorrow.  It is through the action of empathy that we truly come together.  It is in moments of despair we are able to let another person know they are not alone in their sadness.  It is in moments of laughing together that true happiness erupts. 

I recently spent a little over a year working with a therapist. During my intake, she asked if I had ever been in therapy before.  To her surprise (and my own), I counted up 7 therapists 
I had seen in the course of my life!  You see therapists are just like first dates…sometimes you hit it off, sometimes you don’t.  But, I didn’t give up on the process.  My mental health is very important to me.  This most recent counselor gave me tools that I will continue to put to use the rest of my life.  She worked tirelessly with me, teaching me this principle of empathy. 

Empathy wasn’t something I offered those around me and it certainly wasn’t something I offered myself.  Little by little though, with her help, I learned how powerful this tool could be.  I learned that sometimes when my kids tell me they had a “bad day” or they fall down; 
all they really need is some empathy.  It goes something like this….

It was BINGO night at Elliot’s school.  Under heavy florescent lights, we played card after card with no chance of winning.  It was the last card of the night.  We are one call away from winning a prize.  The next number was called.  The person one table over yelled, “BINGO!”  We didn’t win.  Elliot was tired from a full week of school.  The loss hit him hard.  His big brown eyes filled up with tears, the tears flowed freely from his eyes and down his cheeks.  He was crushed.  Under my former circumstances I probably would have dryly said, “Enough. Dry it up. Better luck next time.”  Thinking of those responses makes me cringe now because now I choose to show empathy.  Instead, I wrapped my arms around him and just hugged him close and said lovingly, “I know this is hard.  I wanted to win too.  We are all tired.  Let’s just go home.”

He didn’t stop crying immediately, but by the time we got to the car he was settled down enough that I could then talk to him.  He didn’t need me to solve his problem (read that slowly husbands), he didn’t need me to tell him not to feel what he was feeling, or that other people also felt what he was feeling or worse.  He just needed someone to understand, to offer comfort, to hear him—show him empathy.  I had shown him empathy. 

Romans 12:15 tells us, Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.  That’s an amazing line that I wished I could have digested sooner in life.  I choose to show empathy to my family, my friends, myself, and even strangers.  I’m not saying I don’t ever take a “hard line.”  Sometimes too much empathy just allows someone wallow.  It’s finding a balance that I work at now.  And, I admit too that I don’t always do a great job at this.  My unempathetic ways were a habit that I work to change.  I have to say though; it feels so good to actually feel with another person.  I am more connected to another person’s heart.  I pray those in my life feel that coming from me, and that God gives me the courage to keep working on this important principle.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beyond the Golden Rule

My mom, Anne, with Elliot on his 7th birthday
I grew up close in heart to my mom. She stayed at home with us as we were growing up. I know she made a lot of sacrifices to give us those years. I have memories of her packing our lunches while listening to AM radio in our kitchen. If I close my eyes, I still see our geometric disco era wallpaper (yes, in the kitchen!), and hear the lyrics of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” filling the air. Carly would be interrupted by Bob Conners giving the traffic updates and the news, to which my mom would usually need to “shuuush” us so she could get a taste of existence outside the madness of getting 3 girls ready for school. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off for lunch, every single day. She made indoor tents from blankets, pushed us for hours on swings, taught me how to sew, and was always willing to do our hair.

Now as a mom of 2 young kids I find myself even more appreciative of her efforts. This week I found myself repeating a lesson that she taught us over and over and over…probably because we didn’t listen, just as my own children have selective hearing now and again. “Treat people the way you want to be treated.” Most people refer to this as the Golden Rule. Even if you didn’t grow up in a Christian home, I’m sure that you were told this rule by a parent, teacher, or coach. According to Wikipedia the Golden Rule is defined in two parts. The first, “that a person should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. And, secondly that one should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.” This rule goes back to Biblical times and is seen in the Bible as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable is told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37). The story goes like this…a Jewish traveler is beaten, robbed, and left half dead along the road. First a priest and then a Levite come by, but neither offer help. Finally, a Samaritan comes along. Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other, but the Samaritan helps the injured Jew. They way I see it, the Samaritan did for this injured man what he would want someone to do for him. No wonder it’s called the Golden Rule. That line of thinking is as good as gold!

I am certain my mom spent many days feeling like I do, drained, worn out, sick of endless laundry, tired of cooking different meals to please different tastes…the list goes on. However, more often than not she treated me in a way that she hoped to be treated. Most of the time I was a decent daughter; though in my teen years I am sure I didn’t go out of my way to help her “do” much of anything. There was a time though that stands out in my mind when I got the chance to give back and go beyond the Golden Rule.

In 2003 my mom had a lumpectomy to remove a benign tumor. It was a serious surgery that put her in great after-pain. She knew she was going to need physical care in her healing after the surgery so she asked for help. Here was my mom, the one who had always taken care of me, but needed me to take care of her. I drove to Ohio from Virginia to help. There were some complications; an infection at the incision site even took us to the ER. The healing was slower and more complicated than we had anticipated.

After the first few days passed my grandma came to visit. My mom was feeling a bit better and gram had offered to bring lunch. In the grogginess of pain medication my mom agreed that would be a good idea. My little gram with her silver hair, and good intentions arrived with a lunch of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The smell of the lunch permeated the house. Gram prepared a plate for my mom. “You can have a lovely lunch in the comfort of your home” was something she more than likely said. My mom was sitting on the couch with a prepared plate of the KFC. I watched as she began to take on the composure of a cartoon character. It was as if I could see the color draining from her face. I knew immediately the food needed to go. As soon as I took the food away my mom looked relieved. She didn’t ask for me to take the food, I just did it.

Gram was convinced she needed the “nutrition.” I worked on convincing Gram that not everyone craves the gift of fried chicken. Not upset or hurt at all, Gram busied herself with household duties (you just have to know my Gram to fully grasp the moment). I left my mom to rest for a few minutes. Then, I made her some tomato soup (one of her favorites). I sat quietly in the living room with her as she ate the soup. Her eyes filled with tears and she said, “How did you know just what I needed? Grandma brought me what she would have wanted, but you brought me what I like.” The only answer I could come up with, and it’s how I still feel, is that when we know someone else’s heart—their likes and dislikes, we are able to not just follow the Golden Rule, but beyond the Golden Rule. Was my Gram not as tuned in to my mom for what she did? Not at all! It’s just the way I looked at the situation. My mom has taken care of me so many times and has not only done what she would want someone to do for her, but also what she knows I would do for myself if I could. I think of it as the Golden Rule, but with sprinkles on top.

The poor Jew left on the road surely hoped someone would help him. Luckily someone did. The Samaritan did what the man needed, helped him. But, imagine what he could have done had he really known him. Maybe the Samaritan took him home and fed him fried chicken, when what the poor guy really wanted was tomato soup. We’ll never know, but for myself I’m thankful for the Golden Rule and even more thankful for the opportunity to go beyond it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Nudge

Have you ever felt an urge to do something?  Some refer to that as a nudge.  I was reading a blog about a nudge today and the writer described that feeling as “like a bee that has somehow trapped itself inside my ear. I know it's there and it's driving me crazy! Would love to set it free so I can have some peace, but the bee doesn't know how to free itself. We are both stuck with each other." 

I feel those nudges all the time.  It can be something small like, leave the mess in the kitchen and just play with the kids instead. Or, call that friend; send that email; give that compliment; don’t eat that cookie.  Sometimes it’s something bigger…invite someone to attend Lifepoint Church (Pastor Daniel encourages us to do that every week and I’m thankful for his reminder), say ‘sorry,’ forgive .  Other times it’s something else entirely. 

It’s been over a year since I first felt a nudge to get back to writing.  I studied psychology and Spanish in college.  I can never decide what I love more, learning about how our minds work, and how they are connected to our hearts, or the art of communication through written word—this includes reading and writing.  I’ve been a self-proclaimed book worm since about the 4th grade.  I am always reading something.  Books that I love are stacked beside my bed, overflowing onto the floor from my nightstand.  It’s a real variety…there are various self help topics (communication, mothering, Al-Anon materials, marriage, dieting); a few easy-to-read novels; devotional books; memoirs; cooking and DYI magazines.  Mixed in with the books are journals I’ve kept over the years.  At times, when I was growing up I would feel drowned in emotions.  My mom would say “maybe writing down your thoughts will help to sort them out.”  It did help.  Seeing my thoughts on paper (or a computer screen) made them seem smaller, less serious, and more organized.  And, writing takes me in new directions. 

Through my women’s Lifegroup, I’m learning that a nudge is the voice of God speaking to me, urging me to take my life in the direction of the plan that God has for me.  I’m learning to trust that nudge because when I listen and “do” the thing He is nudging me to do, good things follow.   Proverbs 15:31 says “Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.”  God nudges us into a more desirable outcome.  God is watching out for our best interests.  So then, we better pay attention to the nudges.

My recent nudge was this blog.  I definitely had a bee buzzing in my ear.  I decided to set the bee free and write.  It’s been amazing what has followed.  I’ve read the most wonderful feedback on this blog site and in personal emails.  I’ve been humbled by people’s kind and encouraging words.  Listening to that nudge, that encouragement from God, is paying off in my heart.  I feel a sense of accomplishment, obedience, and peacefulness.  All from a nudge.

I fully intend to keep writing.  If I have followers on this blog, I consider that just an added blessing.  What’s your nudge?  What’s God been encouraging you to do?  I hope I’ve encouraged you to listen to your nudge. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Modern Family

I used to have a job that I thought was really important. I was a Membership Coordinator for the FBI’s National Academy Associates. With John’s blessing, I resigned last May to be home with our son and daughter. I made some really great friends through the NAA. One of the most inspirational people I met, and am lucky enough to call a friend, is a Past President of the Rocky Mountain Chapter.

This friend attends Element Church in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As a Podcast-loving person, I listen to Element’s messages. Over the past few weeks, Jeff Maness, the Lead Pastor, is preaching a series entitled Modern Family. As a fan of the hit ABC show, the name drew me in, but that’s where the comparison ended. The TV show makes me laugh; this sermon series makes me think…a lot. I encourage you to Google Element Church or look up the church on iTunes.

The first installment of Modern Family filled my heart. Pastor Jeff says that only 1 in 5 parents feel they are doing a good job spiritually and morally in raising their kids. Only 1 in 5. I have to say, there are days when I am absolutely part of that statistic.

What really, really hit home with me though was hearing this, “God gave us our children. They are not our kids; they are God’s kids. As much as we love our children, God loves them infinitely more.”

When I heard those words, I had to push “pause.” Then, I wrote that statement down. Then I read the words. Then I listened to those words again while reading what I had written down. Pastor Jeff caused me to look at my children as something else, but something that they completely are…a blessing from God. Go ahead, pause.

Last night I snuggled with Elliot in his bed—the bottom bunk with his skull and crossbones comforter. He was worn out from a busy weekend, but needed a little extra attention to settle down. I told him I was going to lay there for 5 minutes, but before I knew it 10 had passed. In those 10 minutes I listened to Elliot’s breathing become heavier. I watched the time projected onto the ceiling by his rocket ship alarm clock. I rested my head on a pillowcase with pictures of fighter jets and American flags. I was completely immersed in all that is Elliot. In his shadowy room I replayed those words in my head…”Elliot is not my kid, he’s God’s kid. God loves him more than I do.” For me, that’s big stuff, but good stuff. It’s hard to swallow that anyone loves my kids more than me, but God does.

Just those minutes spent listening to that sermon changed my thinking.  If I don’t think of them as mine, it’s not so hard to be patient, extra patient, extra loving, extra thankful.

Being a parent is the most challenging and demanding job I have ever had. Some days the job doesn’t even stop, as our kids are in our room in the middle of the night or beginning their days before the sun even rises. But, many days it’s a job that offers more rewards than I am capable of collecting. And, it’s the most important job I’ll ever have. With God's help, I will keep that sermon's statement in the front of my mind, and it recalling it often will make me a better mom.  A mom that knows she’s doing a good job spiritually and morally. Everything else pales in comparison.