Still Standing

10.9.18

After it first happened, I would feel myself wince as I caught glimpses of the blackened redwood trees on both sides of the highway in Santa Rosa, bearing the scars of the fire’s assault as it catapulted across all six lanes. Somehow, the crispy-brown scrub oaks or incinerated grassy banks didn’t hit me in quite the same visceral way as the redwoods did.

Maybe it’s because redwoods have stood as our county’s proud “mascot” for so long. Seeing them in this victimized state was just as shocking as it would be to see our beloved Snoopy with a black eye. And now, on this one-year anniversary of the firestorm, these trees are showing us they are still “mascot” material.

While brand-shiny-spankin’-new (or at least newly-restored) buildings have sprung up on both sides of the freeway, I can’t say I have a lot of respect for them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for the people who own and work in those businesses…it’s just something about the buildings themselves. Bottom line, they look too good. So clean. So perfect, with no soot or singed landscape left. Instead, everything, everything new, new, new.

It reminds me of the face of an actress who has had so much “work” done that the furrows and smile lines hinting at her life story have been erased. And the softening and wrinkles that would give us a clue about how much life she has lived are gone. All that’s left is a generic face. I guess, in a way, it feels like a sham.

But not our redwoods. They wear their rugged honesty well. When I take in their still-blackened trunks supporting old brown and gray-green branches alongside soft, full-of-life spring green ones, I just want to walk up and …hug?…er…congratulate and thank them.  I want to congratulate them for enduring hell, yet still standing. And I want to thank them for their humble testament to what we already know: While this cataclysmic tragedy has marked us all in different ways, those “marks” are now a part of us, adding perspective, shading, and depth to our life stories. No “makeovers” necessary.

And just as I will be paying more attention to those trees’ magnificent foliage as they grow taller and broader with time, I am determined to look more closely as I drive by–close enough to see the marred bark that remains, because I never want to forget what those trees survived. Then I will take in a deep, full breath and exhale, giving thanks that they are still standing–that we are still standing–before I move down the road toward another day in my own scarred, beautiful life.

 

Free

There was a certain symmetry in my daughter’s first clear act of rebellion.

She knew her mom was not a big fan of tattoos–all those worries about judgment from others, not to mention how well her daughter would like this permanent statement at thirty…fifty…eighty, when both styles and skin would have shifted significantly.

Fortunately, other parents had warned me of the freshman tattoo phenomenon (and Ellie had hinted there might be one in her future), so I wasn’t too shocked when she showed up with one only about a month into her first semester. The biggest surprise was how much I liked it!

A delicate vine twines around her lovely ankle, then deftly metamorphoses into the soft tuft of a single feather, followed by a line of sparrows in flight. And below the birds, there is a date and one word: “FREE.”

The date represents the day we believe her beloved dad died. But rather than some morbid symbol, or simply his initials, she chose to focus on the one and only positive aspect of his death: his freedom.

She knew he was now free from pain, free from grief, free from fear. Now he could leave all of that behind and spend the rest of time totally immersed in the presence of the very author of love, soaking up his healing, grace, and unconditional love. Picturing Steve’s face as I write this, I imagine his brow smooth, without furrows, his jaw relaxed, and his eyes clear and radiating a deep peace. Oh–and even more, I picture him with deep smile lines–the result of much laughter. I feel certain God has a “wicked” sense of humor!

And now that Ellie and I (with the support of so many of you) have made it past this dark “anniversary” yet again, we too are free–free to focus on living well the lives we’ve been given. So thank you for the many ways you have helped us move forward over the past few years. Through your love and sacrifice, you have given us a healing preview of heaven on earth.

 

11:59

8.1.18

I’m leaning back, digging my heels in, doing everything I possibly can to ground myself down, right here, right now. If I have any say in the matter, I will not take a step forward.

There’s a small, childlike part of me that actually seems to believe my stubborn antics can keep the inevitable from happening. But no, I’m really not that powerful.

I can stare at my watch with what feels like enough intensity to break the glass; but I cannot keep those hands from moving forward–perkily ticking away the seconds.

I feel like I’m trapped in a conspiratorial Rube Goldberg experiment. The clock hands reach midnight. The bell chimes. A bright red ball bumps and rolls its way down the track toward a ridiculous-looking figure at the base of the contraption: She’s short, with a curly, blonde mop of hair. Her lips are pressed tight together and face reddened with the effort of making herself immovable.

The ball crashes into a lever, which then opens the trap door she is standing on, dropping her through the floor, landing her in the last place she wants to be: tomorrow.

There have been quite a few times in the last few years when she has found herself in this predicament, facing a day…a person…a situation she must find her way through.

And she does. She will. She’ll take a deep breath, pull up her big girl panties, and remind herself that she is loved and never alone. These two truths.

And then she’ll take one step forward.

A beginning.

 

The Heart Knows

Sometimes my heart knows what my head has yet to wrap itself around. For the past couple of weeks there’s been a kind of restless static buzzing in the back of my mind. It’s been gradually getting louder and louder, making its way to the foreground, demanding to be named.

What a week ago I would have labeled a sort of benign distraction, today can only be called dread. It’s been taking shape when my back was turned–setting up a home for itself deep in my belly .

This seems to happen every year toward the end of July, and every year it continues to surprise me. My heart is definitely more skilled at tracking the passage of time than my head is. And so it mercifully tries to prepare me, sending up clues, hoping this year I might pay attention. It seems it’s been patiently waiting for me to turn the calendar page and realize it is August once again.

August. Of course.

And so Ellie and I will plan how to take care of ourselves around yet one more anniversary of Steve’s disappearance and death. In some ways, it gets easier. Memories are not so vivid, and more immediate experiences compete for our attention, filling in the days, months, and years since we lost him.

If I had my choice, time would bleach out the garish colors of shock and trauma, while leaving our memories of Steve bright and alive. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way it works. Now, four years later, all of it feels so muted.

So we will bring back what we can of him by looking at photos, telling our best stories, and once again opening the doors of our hearts–hoping he will join us there.

 

 

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…”