Out of the Picture

It’s my very first, oh-so-long-awaited Mother’s Day. And there we are, posing for the camera: my sister, Anna, nine-month-old Ellie perched on my Mom’s lap, smiling at the photographer. Her perfect, chubby little hand pats my arm, as if to say, “Yeah! This one is my Mom!”

And if you look very closely at the crisp little red-and-white-checked dress her grandma made for her, you’ll see two tiny, round, white buttons with candy-red hearts in the center sewn on between the waist and collar. I can picture my mom at the fabric store, delighted to discover she could top off her Mother’s Day creation with such a tangible symbol of love. But focus in even more closely, looking at the crisp white collar edged in red stitching, and you’ll notice my favorite part of this photo–my favorite because of the story it tells. The little scallop shape at the front of the collar is missing. It’s missing because this sweet little dress is on backward!

You see, while I was ambling through lush Marin County gardens on a tour with my Mom and Anna that morning, Steve was home feeding and bathing Ellie, then dressing her up in her new outfit, complete with sturdy white shoes and anklets. Given his relative inexperience with the often complex protocol for baby girls’ dresses, he had assumed it would only be logical for those tiny red heart buttons to go in the front for all to see.

So when I look at this photo, I see the man behind the camera who was so pleased to celebrate Ellie’s presence in our lives and honor me with a little time off to recharge, followed by lunch all together at my favorite Chinese restaurant. I can see him standing up, calling Ellie’s name, grinning and chuckling as he mugged behind the camera to get her attention.

It was a perfect moment captured in this picture. And in the little backward dress, I see Steve’s generous love for me, for us.IMG_1644

Thank God for this photo and for the man behind the camera.

Happy Father’s Day, Steve.

Ripples

1.29.18

Life keeps pushing on.

My lemon tree is bursting with fruit this year. I guess this must be the fourth season since Steve died that it’s transformed bud to blossom to perfect sun-yellow fruit.

Life just keeps moving forward. My life keeps moving forward, even though at times it feels as if it should have stopped on that surreal day–like a clock whose hands are frozen at the exact moment it got knocked off the mantel. But no, insistent life keeps surging on, as if Steve never existed.

So I hold the evidence of his life here tightly in my clenched fist, loosening my grip from time to time to lay open my palm and savor what’s there, looking over the tattered snapshots of my days with him, frustrated that I’m powerless to keep them from fading with so much time.

Meanwhile, I hear the cars driving by my house. Mothers, fathers, children…each one busy doing their own life, living out their particular allotment of time.

Death gives you new perspective on life. I can feel now how Steve’s life, my life, are each like tiny pebbles tossed into an enormous lake. Our entrance breaks the surface tension of the water, briefly altering it, perhaps even making a little splash. And over time, we pray the spreading ripples moving out from our lives will have some lasting positive effect on this world before they quiet and disappear. Because that’s all we get here on earth: just a heartbeat of a moment.

In Steve’s case, I see his life’s impact on his daughter’s diligent approach to work, picked up from so many hours spent building alongside her dad. I hear it in the notes I continue to receive from clients who write of the ways he used his gifts of sensitivity, intelligence, and compassion to help them heal, and their children along with them.

Please, God, use this tiny, lovely pebble of a life you’ve given me to have some lasting effect on the people you’ve placed around me before the ripples emanating out from my life spread farther and farther apart, gradually flattening and melting into the same smooth, quiet surface that was there before my pebble ever made an appearance.

Kaleidoscope

January 9, 2018

I saw a miracle tonight. Faces which, a month ago, were shell-shocked and drawn began to show subtle signs of a shift: some had a bit of fresh color in their cheeks, while I could see a small spark of life in others’ weary eyes.  And rather than an anxious tension, there seemed to be a more relaxed openness as they caught up and shared stories with each other. And given what they’ve been through, this is such a welcome sight! They drove in from rentals, hotels, and family members’ homes to gather with other families who lost their homes in the October firestorm.

They were greeted with live jazz music filling all the empty spaces, as well as an amazing dinner, cooked and served by enthusiastic volunteers–eager to express their love in this tangible way.

The families huddled together to talk about the ripple effects of losing their homes: the losses and challenges that all pile on top of each other, leaving stressed minds spinning and hearts floundering. There was laughter, more than a few tears, heartfelt sharing, and generous listening.

These meetings remind me a bit of the kaleidoscope my grandmother kept in her toy drawer. I never knew what designs I would see when I slowly turned the bright, cardboard cylinder to see all those fractured pieces of glass tumbling into one stunning pattern after another. Those pieces could never return to their original, intact state. But because they were broken–and broken together–they were creating beauty all the same.

The trajectories of these families’ lives have been forever altered by the fire. And they themselves have been changed, but they are not broken. Instead, they are healing, discovering the new pattern of their lives, one piece at a time.

***

Danny Gokey’s song, “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” brought me such comfort after Steve’s death. Here are the lyrics to the first few stanzas:

“Shattered, like you’ve never been before.

The life you knew, in a thousand pieces on the floor.

Words fall short in times like these. This world drives you to your knees.

You think you’re never gonna’ get back to the you that used to be.

Tell your heart to beat again. Close your eyes and breathe it in.

Let the shadows fall away. Step into the light of grace.

Yesterday’s a closing door. You don’t live there anymore.

Say goodbye to where you’ve been and tell your heart to beat again.

Beginning. Just let that word wash over you.

It’s all right now. Love’s healing hands have pulled you through.

So get back up. Take step one. Leave the darkness, feel the sun.

Because your story’s far from over, and your journey’s just begun…”

A Very Real Christmas

12.23.17

I remember a certain sense of dread as my trauma-fogged mind tried to wrap itself around the approaching Christmas season. In my case, it was four months post-tragedy. But for those of you who are still so fresh from the fires, it’s coming even more quickly.

Gifts?…  Decorations?…  Holiday Cheer?! Even in a normal Christmas season, the expectations we have of ourselves can be overwhelming. But trying to create a “Merry Christmas” for our families when we’re still in those first tender stages of recovery can feel like trying to decorate the perfect cake for a six-year-old when all you have to work with is black frosting.

There is no guidebook for how to care for our children when we’re all navigating a crisis at the same time. So I’d like to offer a few suggestions (most learned the hard way!) for how to move through your first holiday season post-fire. I hope these thoughts make it just a bit easier for you…

**Slow Down and Simplify

You can’t expect your mind to operate as efficiently or effectively as it used to. That’s just the way “trauma brain” works for most of us. (The good news is, you will eventually be reunited with your now-absent mind!) But for the meantime, slashing your “to do” lists down to what’s absolutely necessary is helpful. Ask yourself what core traditions you and your family value most that are possible in your current situation and focus on those.

As for everything else, let it go. Friends and extended family really will understand if they don’t receive cards or gifts from you this year, or if you don’t bring your famous apple pies to the family gathering (assuming you go).

And since processing trauma and high stress is so absolutely exhausting, give yourself the gift of the ultimate “slow down” when you can. If you attend family celebrations, enlist the help of back-up ahead of time to watch your kids so you can take breaks. Be gentle with yourself and slip away from the festivities when conversations or chasing the kids become too much. Even thirty minutes in a quiet setting can recharge your batteries enough to allow you to be more present with your family when you return.

**Snuggle and Savor

While your every fiber may yearn to somehow protect your children from grief over what is gone and disappointment with what is, that’s a kind of magic even the best of parents cannot muster. But while we can’t step into some kind of time machine and undo the night that took so much from young and old souls alike, we can be our children’s safe harbor, their “landing place” for now.

You may be feeling so inadequate to meet their complex needs when you’re distracted and distraught yourself. But you are not only adequate–you were made for them. Your arms are the perfect shape, and you are the only ones on this earth that can provide the comfort of familiar scent, voice, warmth, and love. In a word, you are “home” to them.

So snuggle in whenever and wherever you can: at the end of a long day, first thing in the morning, when you’re laughing, when you’re crying (or both at the same time!). And as they drink in the comfort of your presence, let yourselves savor them–in their stillness, their curiosity, their anxieties, and their fearlessness. They are so amazing. You are so amazing.

** Soak it In

You can’t begin to know how many prayers for healing and hope are rising up for all of you from those of us who don’t know you, yet care deeply all the same.

I am convinced that, in my case, it was the unwavering care and support of family, friends and even strangers that made moving through the sludge of trauma and loss during the holidays possible. For me, those acts of love were spirit-sustaining gifts from the very heart of God, delivered in wonderful and unexpected ways through his people. They held me up as I did my best throughout that first holiday season of single parenting and for the long months of recovery to follow.

So go ahead and ask for what you need, then sit back and let people love you and your family. You will have plenty of years to be a “giver,” but maybe this is your year to soak in the beauty of receiving.

Voyeur

10.28.17

I had prepared myself to see it (or so I thought). Now that the road was opened, post-fire, I could take the more convenient route from home to my office in Santa Rosa. Over the past couple of weeks, I’d heard the stark litany of familiar landmarks that burned: the schools, historic buildings, even sprawling neighborhoods. And now, my imagination was working overtime–trying to piece together an image of what I would encounter.

On this first trip through the burn zone, I was struck more by what was left after the fire had its way with these homes and businesses than what was gone. As I approached what had once been a lovely, unpretentious, neighborhood, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I could see the redwoods and pines that gave it its charm had gone over to the “dark side”. They stood black and gnarled, stripped of any minty-green softness, presiding over charred homes like sinister sentinels.

I wanted to look away; but then curiosity kept me scanning the destruction. Could that be a dryer? A car? A gate? Flat, ashen ground was studded with mangled doors and appliances in all their naked shame. Crumbling brick facades and fireplaces hinted at the simple homes that did humble duty here, holding the lives of these families.

No sooner would I let my eyes settle long enough on an object to figure out what it had been, than guilt would swiftly slap my gawking face and redirect my eyes to the road. Had I no shame? I was looking right into someone’s living room. A voyeur. I could only imagine how invasive it must feel for the owners of those properties, knowing the parade of slow-moving cars could see right into the wounded guts of their living rooms and kitchens. In a strange twist, “home” would now be the place where (instead of privacy and relaxed familiarity), they would feel most vulnerable and exposed  One more violation.

I read an angry Facebook post by a fire victim who was beyond frustrated with people pulling out cell phones to video her decimated neighborhood as they slowly cruised by. I can imagine that might feel like being filmed by passing motorists as I lay bleeding on the side of the road next to my mangled car. I would be needing immediate help much more than expressions of shock and pity, and then real support for the long haul as I recovered from my injuries.

So that’s what I want to be to these survivors: a source of genuine love and support, as well as part of the net of community here to circle around and give them hands-on help for as long as they need it.

These are the gifts that were quietly given to me throughout the endless search process that followed Steve’s very dramatic, public death. From my position it was very clear who was “gawking” and who was around because they genuinely wanted to ease my crushing burden. It was their steady, determined prayers and presence in my life that allowed me to survive the unimaginable and move through layer upon layer of healing, finally finding myself able to come full circle and pour all I’ve received into someone else’s numb and shaken existence. Such a privilege to come alongside another human being as they take those first steps in learning to coax beauty from ashes.

Beauty

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10.21.17

This morning a friend of mine dropped by to pick up the equipment I bought to sift through rocks and dirt as we searched for Steve’s remains. He would be using it to look for valuables and mementos amidst the rubble of his incinerated home.

As he stepped out of his car and looked around at my suburban street, with tidy homes and ample trees colored with the tint of early fall, he inhaled sharply, looking for a moment as if some invisible force had suddenly stripped his lungs of oxygen. Here, standing in the middle of my simple street, he was surrounded by such tangible reminders of his neighborhood–now reduced to a moonscape of ash and twisted metal.

The loss of a home and loss of a loved one are both deaths of a sort… I do remember well those early days of myopic numbness and overwhelm following Steve’s disappearance. It was so hard to see past the cavernous gaping hole that dominated my life.

But then a shift began to take place deep within me. I started having a sense that God was trying to get my attention. There was something important I needed to hear. Everything I was already focusing on seemed so vital–how could I take my focus away for even one moment?

But when I did stop long enough to listen–really listen–I sensed he was saying this: “Even though this is so overwhelmingly painful and everything looks black to you, I want you to know that light and beauty do still exist. Look for them. Stop and drink them in wherever you find them. You’ll find sustenance there. You’ll find me there.”

And so I began to open my eyes and look for beauty amidst the chaos. (This was grudgingly at first, I’ll admit. I was like an angry toddler, eyes squeezed shut, resisting the urgings of his parents to open them.) I didn’t expect to see much in my darkened world.

But bit by bit, my eyes and heart became trained to notice the little things: the warmth of my mother’s hand as she held mine, the crimson to persimmon to gold hues of an autumn leaf merging together into a miniature masterpiece, the comfort of an open-hearted, generous hug offered with no words, but saying so much. Like oxygen to my gasping spirit, these are the things that sustained me. It was learning to savor the beauty that appeared right alongside the pain.

So if you (like so many in my community) are walking through your own season of piercing shock and loss, I want to encourage you to open your weary eyes and heart, look around, and see if you can glimpse even the smallest flash of beauty…the steady reminders that a good God still exists in your charred world.

 

Rain

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10.18.17

Over the past twelve days wildfires have indiscriminately ripped through Northern California’s wine country, burning over 179,000 acres, destroying almost 7,000 structures and (the darkest statistic of all) killing at least 42 people. 

***

I’m sure there are many windows flung open in my hometown tonight. The humble, pattering raindrops probably wonder what all the fuss is about. Little do they know the sweet sense of blessing they carry: the gift of moist, clean air for the first time in twelve days, a fresh breeze to evict some of the smoke trapped in our homes and lungs, and relief that all of those toiling fire crews will get at least a bit of a break.

Firefighters came from around the world to attack this greedy monster that consumed so much yet never seemed satiated. Someone had to stop this inferno, and these determined men and women did. I don’t think I will ever fully grasp how any human being can choose to run toward flames while everyone else flees. I am in awe of this strong fiber that runs through their core.

So this rain seems to be marking an end and a beginning: an end to this surreal and at times terrifying twelve days, and the beginning of our recovery, as ordeal-weary, grateful souls stand side by side, holding each other up, holding hope together.

***

There are no words for how thankful we are to all of those who have risked and sacrificed so much for us.