I don’t often choose a word or a phrase as my word or phrase for a new year.
It seems like an exercise in futility to try to harness a goal or an idea or a theme for a coming year full of unknowns. I guess 53 years of living on this planet of ours has made me hesitant – or cynical – or both. Honestly, sometimes I think I was born this way.
It feels safer to not hope.
I don’t really like this about myself. I don’t revel in it – or maybe I pretend to revel in it, but I do see the flaw – and I know my people see the flaw. #eyeroll
I see how it makes me not a lot of fun to be around at times. I shy away from goals, hopes and dreams, anticipation and even excitement…right up to the moment when I can be certain of whatever the thing is and confident that it all will go according to plan.
I know it’s problematic. Thank God I have a good therapist. She earns every penny I pay her.
But the truth is, I’m not sure this part of me can change this side of heaven.
So I’m trying something.
I chose a phrase for the year 2023 that both fits within my somewhat complicated paradigm and nudges me in the direction of hope.
Be here now.
I think there’s potential in the present moment. In fact, I’m starting to believe that each present moment holds more hope and fulfillment than any planning and goal-setting and anticipation for something in the future can ever give me.
I’ve been practicing this for a while now, so I have a bit of solid data to back up this theory. Plus, loads of research by people way smarter than me seems to point to something healthy about choosing to live in the here and now, even though it goes against the grain of our way of living here in the modern western world.
The here and now is where we are in the best position to do the thing we are meant to be doing. The here and now is full of opportunities for joy and contentment and connection.
The here and now is where my people are, so it’s for sure where I want to be. It’s where my grandbabies come running through my front door and into my arms for a SheShe Day. It’s where my 13yo stretches out his arms for a hug as I walk through the living room where he is playing his video game. It’s where one of my kiddos or a friend or a mama in the midst of great challenges with her children reach out for connection, encouragement and advice. It’s where my children (ages 25, 23, 22 and 13) still gather around and on our bed in the evening when they’re all home to just BE with me.
It’s where my husband faithfully and tirelessly leans in and draws me in to connection.
And it’s where Jesus does exactly the same thing.
The here and now is also where pain finds its way to my awareness. I don’t like this part of it. But the truth is, the pain is there whether or not I am aware of it. And choosing to acknowledge it, embrace it and FEEL it is the kind of presence that allows me to heal from it. And I don’t mean heal from it as in it goes away and doesn’t impact me any longer. That’s not actually the way it works. I mean heal from it as in making peace with its presence in my life.
My father died fifteen years ago today. This feels big to me. I’ve felt a sense of anticipation for this particular anniversary that has been absent literally every other year before now. In fact, some years I’ve forgotten the date altogether. When I brought this up to my therapist last week, she asked if I had any idea as to why I was feeling differently this year. My answer? Well, I’ll admit I gave her the easy one.
I don’t know.
Insert eye roll here.
But honestly it’s taken a good deal of sitting with what feels like dread in order for me to figure out that what I’m actually feeling is much more complicated. This is weird to me because I don’t miss my dad. There isn’t anything to miss. There aren’t memories to cherish. So I don’t experience that deep ache and longing for him that I still feel over the loss of my mom almost five years ago. Yesterday I had to go shopping for dress clothes for my thirteen-year old for his upcoming band concert. (#Godhelpme) After exhausting EVERY OTHER department store in Tulsa, I begrudgingly made my way to Belk. Why begrudgingly? Well, I thought it was because walking around another store was more than I could take. And while this was true, as soon as those sliding doors opened and I walked inside, I realized that I also felt way too much of my mom in that store. She loved Belk. To her, this department store represented the ability to provide for us in a way she’d never been able to before – before she left my father. So it just hurt too much to be there. I left as quickly as my broken body would allow.
My dad died in the middle of one of the most severe weather events in Tulsa history. The ice storm of December 2007 left much of the city buried under 1-2 inches of ice and led to the worst power outage ever experienced in the state of Oklahoma. Families, including mine, had to pack up and relocate to the homes of friends or family who had managed to keep power. As the ice fell, I drove myself to my father’s apartment. Just two weeks before, Dad had been discharged from his seventh hospital stay that year and finally placed on hospice. I was reeling from the horror of it all and feeling very much alone and afraid.
And cold. So crazy cold.
Over the next two days, as the ice fell and the power flicked off and then back on again – and with it the machine providing my father’s oxygen, I huddled under blankets and hovered over my dad’s failing body. I tried to keep his fever in check. I washed his face and hands. I helped him swallow what medication he could. And as I felt the warmth of him slowly fade away, I felt my own heart chill and harden much like the ice that covered the world outside his apartment door.
They say anger keeps you warm. They’re wrong. It makes you ice cold.
My husband tells the story of a stunt he participated in at a work party. It was called the pregnancy test because plunging your arm into icy water and breathing through it was supposedly the closest a man can get to what labor feels like (insert more eye rolls here). Pregnancy test involved placing your arm in a cooler filled with icy water, breathing through the pain and seeing how long you could leave it there. At first the frigid water was brutally painful – something akin to fire. It was an agony that could only be surpassed by that inner drive we as humans have to WIN (which I guess is a whole lot like how I got through the birth of all four of my children #competitivetoafault). Mark was determined to win. So he pushed through the pain until, after a few minutes, his arm went completely numb. Suddenly the whole thing became easy. Terribly dangerous, but easy. In fact, it became clear that he could leave his arm in there as long as he wanted because it just didn’t hurt anymore (and this is where the whole labor and delivery comparison falls apart). He also knew that when he pulled his arm out of the water and it began to thaw IT WAS GOING TO HURT LIKE HELL. But my husband is a smart man. He realized that eventually a frozen arm is a dead arm, so he pulled it out. And after a few minutes of writhing in pain while cradling his thawing arm, he was just fine.
Unfortunately, the heart isn’t as quick to thaw.
It’s too easy to say that my heart hardened with anger towards my father. Anger with him is a part of it, for sure. There’s a lot there that is worthy of anger. But buried within the layers of anger – when I choose to go digging – I can also find disappointment, loneliness, resentment, guilt, fear and so on…
And maybe the most important find of all – ambivalence.
The dictionary defines ambivalence as the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person… simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.
Because I loved him and I was afraid of him. Because I wanted to care for him and I was deeply relieved that I didn’t have to anymore. Because I wanted him to live and I wanted him to die. Because I blamed my father for what had become of him and of us and I blamed myself for failing him.
It’s a brutal push-and-pull.
And it’s just much easier to keep my heart down in the icy water and allow it to freeze over.
But fifteen years is a dangerously long time to keep your heart on ice. I know this. Mark isn’t the only smart person in this family. And so I’ve been slowing pulling my heart out of the ice. The thaw has begun. It hurts like hell. But I can tell there’s life under all that ice. There’s warmth and new growth and the potential for spring.
Look around you: Winter is over; the winter rains are over, gone! Spring flowers are in blossom all over. The whole world’s a choir – and singing!”
Growing up, curse words were strictly forbidden. And rude gestures.
To be honest, they were so taboo that I didn’t even clearly know what they all were until I was well into adulthood.
At the age of five, I found myself embroiled in one of my first knockdown, drag-out girl fights. I have no recollection of the origins of this particular battle. I do remember the other girl was a bit too prim and proper for my liking… until she wasn’t. We yelled. We pulled on hair and clothes. We threw rocks at each other. It wasn’t pretty, but it sure was fun.
The fight culminated in a face-off in the middle of the apartment complex where we both lived. She was running away and I was screaming something about her chicken-livered heart, when she turned around and gave me the finger.
Now, I had no idea of the meaning of this gesture. I didn’t need to in order to feel the power of it. I felt it BIG. And in response I whipped out my own tiny middle finger and raised it on behalf of all the scrappy girls trying to survive in the world.
It felt amazing. Glorious even.
Until I heard someone scream my name from the sliding back door of my apartment, “Kaysie Deanna DODDDDDDDD!!!! Come inside right NOW!”
Only I didn’t know the word “crap” either, so I couldn’t even say that.
Fast forward thirty-ish years and I found myself raising my own little ones and holding them to similar standards. I did my job well. Naïveté thrived in our home. Once while driving past a billboard advertising a rated-R movie, our then eight-year old daughter, Morgan, asked us what that rating actually meant. We explained that those movies were full of inappropriate content like swear words and violence. Morgan then leaned over to her little brothers and whispered, “Ohhhhhh… I’ll bet they say ‘stupid.'”
Bless her sweet little innocent heart.
Not that all of our kiddos toed the line this sweetly.
Charlie came home from his first week of first grade and announced to me that he had “learned all the swears.”
“Really, Charlie? All the swears? Do you even know what those are?”
“Yep. I learned them all today. Here, I’ll show you.”
And he proceeded to methodically spell EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Well, until I stopped him as he began to spell one that started with the letter “f.”
A few years ago, in the midst of great loss, heartache and stress, I suddenly found that all of these words that had been forbidden to me were popping into my head and coming out of my mouth with greater and greater frequency. Now, let me be quick to say that I didn’t (and don’t) have a problem with this. I think an appropriately-placed swear word here and there allows me a necessary outlet for the expression of another f-word I was taught was undesirable by God and others.
This f-word is actually harder for me to say than the one considered by most to be totally off-limits.
The unacceptability and unreliability of feelings was not only a not-so-subtle message in my childhood home, it was the main teaching point of many a sermon taught from the pulpit of the various evangelical churches I grew up attending. In fact, if you do a Google search for “fact faith feelings train” you’ll find no shortage of clip art and faith-based teachings to support this idea.
Like this one…
I mean, it sounds right, doesn’t it?
Except that this isn’t actually what scripture says. 2 Corinthians 5:7 is the oft-quoted text used to back up the claim that feelings should take a back seat to the human experience if the human wants to follow Christ. Instead, this scripture tells us that we “live by faith not by what we see with our eyes.” (TPT) And by the way, don’t we as humans typically believe that facts are formed by what we see with our eyes? Hmmm… I actually think Paul would say his faith was informed by his encounters with God and his life experiences. And wouldn’t his feelings about those encounters and experiences be crucial? Remember, he didn’t have the New Testament giving him the facts. He was writing the New Testament.
All that to say, I received a very clear message as a child – feelings are not okay, not safe and not reliable.
And tbh, that set well with my temperament too. I liked feeling invulnerable. I liked feeling like I had everything under control.
Except that it just wasn’t true.
Our bodies don’t actually work this way. In fact, when we receive information in any form, the first thing our brains are designed to do in response is to feel. It’s a safety measure given to us by God within the very design of our bodies and brains. Our feelings are meant to inform the way we take in information, the way we relate to one another, the way we survive in this crazy hard world we live in.
Yes, facts are important. Yes, faith is elemental. But as my therapist likes to say, it’s a “both/and,” not an “either/or” situation.
Facts, faith and feelings are all meant to work together within and around us as we grow and develop.
For my part, I wasn’t (and I’m not) invulnerable. I didn’t (and I don’t) have everything under control. And the more I let myself feel my feelings, the more I learn to trust that they have some really good things to tell me.
It kept popping up when I scrolled through my Netflix options – taunting me.
I’ve seen it before.
My brother and I saw it when it was first released in theaters. I believe it was a Thanksgiving weekend, and I was home with the family. We saw the trailer, thought we had chosen a comedy starring Macaulay Culkin (a trailer used to hold the plot of the film secret), and were excited to see something funny together.
Boy, were we wrong.
This is a story about an eleven-year old girl named Vada who lives with her father and grandmother in their home that also serves as a funeral parlor AND an embalming center (pretty much exactly like my own Mississippi family’s business.) Vada’s mother died just two days after she was born, leaving her devastated father to raise the baby alone.
He did the best he could, I think, but certainly little Vada grew up feeling the loss of her mother… and blamed herself for that loss.
Vada had one friend – a little boy named Thomas J. They did pretty much everything together and told each other all the intimate details of their inner lives – as much as any eleven-year old girl and eight-year old boy can do.
Tragically, and completely out of nowhere for the viewer, Thomas J is killed by an allergic reaction to the dozens of bee stings he receives after messing around with a hive.
By the time all the adults have gathered for Thomas J’s funeral and Vada, completely devastated, disrupts the ceremony with a brutal breakdown over the loss, my brother and I were completely undone. Like, moaning with sobs kind of undone.
So undone that I had to pull my car over to the side of the road as we were driving home. It’s not super safe to drive when you can’t see through your tears.
I’m sorry if I’m spoiling the movie for you, but this has been out since 1991, so I’m not that sorry.
Of course My Girl opened the floodgates of my usually locked-up-tight emotions. I knew it would. In fact, I watched it for that very reason. I needed the release I knew it would bring.
Every once in a while I’ll do the same thing with Steel Magnolias. Or Fried Green Tomatoes. Or E.T.
Dear God…E.T. When Elliot is ripping off his heart monitor and blood pressure cuff while screaming, “He came to ME! He came to ME!” I just can’t.
There’s something about familiar pain. Especially when it belongs to someone else.
I struggle to access my own emotions. Well, that’s not entirely true. Anger is always within reach. I can grab hold of that one with alarming ease. But other emotions – particularly the emotions that spring from sadness – feel inaccessible most of the time. I have a tendency to lock that part of myself up and forget where I hid the key. #sorrynotsorry
Not that I don’t sometimes cry. I do.
But not often for myself.
Sometimes, though, I can use the familiar heartache I feel for Vada as she tries to wrap her 11-year old self around the loss of her best friend, Thomas J, as an access point to the repressed grief and anguish of my own heartaches and losses which for some reason don’t feel familiar to me at all.
It’s a decent work-around.
And maybe someday my own child self will feel familiar enough to me to allow me access to those emotions without the work-around.
A few years ago, as we found ourselves watching our oldest three children prepare to leave the nest for college, marriage and whatever else lay down the road for them, we decided it would be a good idea to find an emotional support/therapy dog for our youngest who is on the autism spectrum.
Guess how much therapy dogs cost?
So I turned to adoption and found our Daisy Mae via a local foster organization. And if you’re wondering whether or not that was a good decision, I give you the following photographs as evidence that it was:
This dog. She calms our boy. She calms all of us. She wasn’t trained to do this. We couldn’t afford to train her to do this. Her ability to calm is just a part of her nature. And what’s funny is that as much as she is a calming presence for us, she actually isn’t all that calm. She growls threateningly when a car door slams in front of the house six doors down. She freaks out when someone knocks on the door. She loses her mind when encountering men (young or old) wearing ball caps…especially if they’re also bearded. She doesn’t do well with other dogs. And the vacuum cleaner is tortuous every. single. time.
She loves car rides. LOVES. But she can tell when I’ve tricked her when I turn into the drive to visit our lovely vet and by the time I’ve parked the car, she has huddled as close to the opposite door as possible – shaking and whimpering and giving me her classic Olivia Rodrigo “you’ve betrayed me” eyes. The girl is a bit on the hefty side (no judgement here, Daisy Mae – I get you) and STRONG. It takes all of my strength to pull her out of the van for those visits, and we both end up traumatized by the time we get home.
Despite the mildish irritation that accompanies these little quirks of hers, we have come to the conclusion that the secret to a good emotional support animal is to get a dog that has her own set of neuroses. Not only is she keenly aware of how to navigate the emotional minefield often present with our son’s autism, she also makes us feel safe. There is zero doubt in our minds that an unwanted intruder in our home would find himself (or herself – women can be criminals, too, ya’ll) at great risk of losing life or limb.
She sure is scary when she gets scared.
Same, Daisy Mae.
I can be scary. I’m an eight on the Enneagram, so anger is always hovering just below the surface. It’s my most dominant emotion and usually my first reaction to danger, to sadness, to frustration, and to pain – to name a few. I am innately designed to challenge others – their actions and ideas. Life experiences have enhanced this tendency exponentially. I’m not dissing myself. I like my eight-ness. I think good ideas are good because they hold up to challenge. I also think the safest people for me are those who are okay with my push back – or at least those who are willing to tolerate it. Within reason, of course…and my safe peeps are also really comfortable with telling me when I’m being unreasonable. Yes, that happens sometimes. A lot of times, actually. And yes, it makes me angry. They’re cool with that, too. #eyerollsfordays The truth is, the rest of the people eventually fall away anyway. I’m good with that, too.
The wisdom of the Enneagram (plus…#allthetherapy) has taught me a great deal about the angry energy that often spills out of me. The most disorienting discovery was that my angry stance is rooted in fear. When I first heard this from my therapist, I’m positive I gave her thelook. You know the look. Well, if you know me then you know the look. I hear it’s scary. I hope it’s scary. Actually though, the moment I realized my therapist wasn’t scared by the look was also the moment I knew in my gut that she was the right therapist for me. It’s probably important to acknowledge that this was also the moment I wanted to run like hell out of her office.
I don’t think my anger looks like fear to others. At least, I like to believe it doesn’t. I want to feel big and strong in my angry stance. I want others to feel like I’m big and strong. I like what I’m able to accomplish from my angry stance. And I’m pretty sure I wield it well on behalf of others most of the time. I try to, anyway. And Daisy does, too. She never had puppies of her own, but she loves my people like they belong to her. She’s marked them as “in” which means she will protect and defend them at all costs. This is all well and good – pretty wonderful, actually – except for the times she moves into protect and defend mode when there’s nothing to protect and defend us from. Like when I’m sitting at my computer writing while she lays nearby and suddenly, out of nowhere, she leaps up and explodes with ear-splitting, ferocious barking that causes me to jump out of my skin. Or worse, when she’s sitting with our rarely calm and peaceful youngest child – helping to create a space of calm and peace for him – and then suddenly flips her lid because an Amazon package has been placed on our doorstep. For. The. Love.
Bless her hypervigilant little heart. Although there’s a certain level of hypervigilance innate to all dogs, it sometimes feels like hypervigilance is her resting state. I’m guessing that something happened to her when she was little that hardwired her nervous system to respond quickly to threats.
Same, Daisy Mae.
Anger is my way of shoring up defenses against the threats I sense around me because it’s WAY more palatable to me than fear, and it has served me well over the years. It has given me a sense of empowerment that I have needed time and time again.
The thing is, though, I don’t want to be an angry person.
And I really don’t want to be a fearful person.
My therapist has this maddening habit of using a white board during our sessions when it’s clear I’m struggling to feel anything but anger and overwhelm in response to whatever challenging situation I’m facing. As much as I hate to admit it, these little charting exercises of hers help me get to whatever is at the bottom of all the big feelings and bodily sensations that swell up inside me when something in my present touches on something in my past. I wish I could be more subtle with my irritation when she does this, but unfortunately, I’m kind of a pain in the ass. The best I can do in those moments is to limit my angst to eye-rolling, big sighs, and shifting uncomfortably on the floor. It’s embarrassing, but she usually decides to ignore it and keep going.
Also, yes. We sit on the floor. That’s a story for another post.
Inevitably, every time we do this white board exercise I end up realizing that the core belief underneath whatever it is I’ve said I’m feeling – be it frustration, anger, overwhelm, sadness, disappointment, and so on – is the one I least want to acknowledge.
I am not safe.
And guess what emotion is associated with this core belief?
This is a brutal realization every. single. time.
Which of course makes me mad.
I am so predictable. #insertmoreeyerollinghere
But despite the great discomfort over the revelation, I have to admit that learning that the rage often swirling around within me is fueled by terror has begun to bring me to my knees before the only One who can really calm and soothe my terrified little self.
And it’s not Daisy Mae.
Jesus sits with me. He hears me out. He helps to still my soul – slowing down my racing heart, guiding me through deep, cleansing breaths, and calming my stressed and shaking body. Sometimes He does this through my therapist because I’m too human and need another human guiding me through it. Regardless of how it happens though, slowly, but surely, my whole self responds to His presence with me. And the anger and the fear both fade. They don’t fade away. But they most certainly do fade.
My kitchen has loads of counter space. It was a selling point for me when we bought the house a dozen years ago, and we use every square inch of it whether we’re cooking, eating, playing games, or just needing a place to put all the things.
When we moved in and settled ourselves, we inadvertently – like most folks do – chose a collection spot for the things we didn’t care to sift through in the moment. It was conveniently located by the phone and worked as a place to keep lists, the mail, coupons, extra keys to things unknown, and so on. You get it.
It also worked as a locator of sorts. If I left something for Mark and wanted to make it clear to him where it was, I could say, “It’s by the phone,” and he knew exactly where to look. It was easy to hold the kids accountable for chores assigned to them when they knew the list was “by the phone.” They couldn’t argue that they didn’t know what I wanted them to do. Obviously, they wouldn’t dare do that anyway because I’m a bit scary… but still. And when the mail came, it was stacked “by the phone” so everyone knew where to sift through the pile for whatever was delivered to them.
Pretty much all of the things most often needed by anyone in our family could be found “by the phone.”
Car keys. Coffee. Sharpies. Coffee. Medications. Coffee.
You know, the basic necessities of life.
As our lives have evolved (or devolved for the glass-half-full types like me) over the last decade, though, one key component of this space in our house – the focal point – the phone – has disappeared. We cut our landline several years ago and fully embraced the digital age with smart phones for everyone. No regrets here. It’s surprisingly handy to be able to carry little computers around in our pockets wherever we go. Cell phones have at the very least made our lives as much easier as they have made them complicated.
Except for this one thing.
Once we dropped the landline, the collect-all space on the counter could no longer be called “by the phone.” And we’ve struggled to rename it. We’ve tried. I promise. Nothing works. “By the coffee” is too vague because the coffee beans are there, but the coffee POT is to the left…so that direction leaves the other person searching a 2′ length of countertop with futility. “In the junk place” feels beneath us. “Over there on the counter” is ridiculously aimless. “Stash spot” is too cutesy for our family.
And I couldn’t just say “by the phone” anymore even though by the phone still meant the exact same thing it had always meant. I tried, I promise. It usually played out like this…
“Mom, where’d you put my keys?”
“On the counter.”
“Where on the counter?”
“By the phone.”
“They’re RIGHT THERE.”
“What?!! I don’t see a phone!”
“They’re WHERE THE PHONE USED TO BE.”
After stumbling through these kinds of complicated interactions for way too long, we settled on that mouthful of words as a name for the place.
Where the Phone Used to Be.
Suddenly, everyone knew exactly where to go. The place it used to be ended up being the place it still was…even though, by definition, it was no longer that place at all. The problem was solved.
And yet, we still often find ourselves stumbling over the name because first of all, it’s just too many words even for wordy people like us. And second, because we feel a bit silly referring to this place in the present as the place that it was in the past.
I have a “naming things that existed or happened in the past as if they exist or are happening in the present” problem. The residual fallout from my life experiences makes it difficult to translate the belief that in Christ all things are made new to my day-to-day experiences – moments that are rife with echoes of painful or scary things that have happened in my past. Unfortunately, this condition I have has often kept me stuck in old patterns and with old labels that made sense in the context of the past, but just don’t describe me well anymore.
I am a victim.
I am too much.
I am broken.
I am not safe.
All of these have been true at one time… but they’re not true anymore.
Okay, fine. Maybe my people find me too much at times. I’m no walk in the park. But who is? And, yes, my body is pretty jacked up. But the essence of me is not broken or too much.
You guys. It’s taken a LOT of therapy and hard, hard work to be able to say this – especially out loud – and to believe it’s true at least much of the time. Bless my therapist, Lord. Like I said, I’m no walk in the park. I identify with Jacob, the son of Isaac, who wrestled to the point of permanent injury with God. GOD, you guys. God. Now THAT is stubborn. But though fear makes some of us retreat – a reasonable response to a perceived threat of danger, some of us lose all intelligent thought and, instead of running, we come out of the corner fighting. Solidarity, Jacob.
This wrestling is worthy work, I think. Yeah, it can feel good to beat the crap out of the thing or person you’re resisting, but mostly I think the value is in the release it gives you. I mean, it’s not like he was going to win that fight. And I think he was smart enough to know that. He just needed to work it all out. I can imagine Jacob throwing all of his heartache – the deceit, the emotional manipulations of his mother, the angsty father who just didn’t get him, the outright betrayal of his uncle. It’s a lot. A lot, a lot. And I bet it felt amazing to gather up all that angst and throw it right in God’s face.
Isn’t it interesting that after all that fighting, God sat him down and gave him a new name? I love that his new name, Israel, named Jacob as he was in the present while at the same time honoring what he had suffered and experienced in the past. God took all that pain and loss and summed it up with a name that puts an unexpected spin on things – someone who struggled and struggles with God.
Past and present. Was a victim. Now is a contender.
I wonder if it was a hard sell? Did Jacob sit across from God with his arms crossed – disbelief and distrust written all over his face? Did he argue and demand God stick with his birth name – dismissing the moniker as just another example of how little God actually knew him? #askingforafriend
Or maybe he was so empty and worn out by then that he found it easy to surrender to his new name? A fight with God can really wear you down.
Either way, I don’t think Jacob was the easiest of God’s children.
Same, Jacob. Same.
The truth is, I still often find myself in a wrestling match with God as He continues to gently coax me towards a place of acceptance of my new name(s). It’s hard to do! There’s a sometimes-not-so-subtle interplay within – parts of me stuck in the past with my old names and parts of me aching to move into the present and embrace what God says about me – You were broken, now you are mended. You were a victim, now you are an overcomer. You were unsafe, now you are safely connected. What identified me then doesn’t identify me now. I’m all safe and grownup in the present moment and able to handle whatever thing(s) I was once afraid of and victim to. This is where my therapist’s role is so crucial – because when I am caught up in the past and slip back into identification with those old names, she is able to see me in the present and remind me of who I am now. And she’s quick, that one. It’s maddening. Lifesaving, but maddening.
You might think that this handy little metaphor compels me to rename the place where the phone used to be.
Some old names are good to hold onto, and this one is an excellent reminder to the parts of me that like to stay stuck in the days of landline phones with curly-q cords – a reminder that my truest Self is in the present.
They say boredom is good for children – that it inspires creativity and individuality. I’m not sure that was true for me. My experience tells me that unsupervised boredom (NOT unsupervised activity – there’s a difference) in the hands of children leads to ER visits, soul wounds inflicted by neighborhood bullies, or at the very least, ill-conceived schemes where someone (not me) runs crying home to mom.
In the summer of 1979, in the midst of true boredom, my friend and I set a goal for ourselves. We decided to jump off the roof of every house in our neighborhood. We were ten years old, but we were undeterred by our age or our size. We believed in ourselves. And by the end of August, sure enough, we had done what we set out to do.
One by one Dena and I scaled the side of every house on Archwood Street. We sat on the shiny black shingles of each roof in the sweltering summer heat while we worked up the nerve to jump off the house and…about three hours later we jumped to the ground below. Hey, it’s harder than you think.
Sometimes we had friends cheering us on at the bottom. Sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes the houses were simple one-story structures requiring very little chutzpah. Occasionally, we faced a real challenge with the steep, slanted roof of a two-story house.
But we did it. We successfully jumped off the roof of every house on our street.
I know. Crazy. It’s a fun little anecdote to tell at parties, but you can be sure I kept this little ditty about my childhood from my own children until they were old enough to know better than to do anything like it. Although, funny enough, even with my safety hypervigilance, my kids didn’t make it through childhood without a few broken bones of their own. I guess kids will be kids.
It’s pretty clear the 1979 Summer of House Jumping, combined with some other dumb, boredom-induced, thrill-seeking stunts done in the first 25 years or so of my life… as well as a couple of other events and conditions mostly outside of my control – eventually gave me a back that all the kings horses and all the kings men tried their best to put together again. I feel ya, HD.
My back now looks like this:
And my neck looks like this:
Lucky you – I don’t have pics of the spinal cord stimulator in my left hip, but it’s there – connected to wires threaded into my spine and humming along 24/7, doing its darnedest to block the pain signals running from my low back, through my right leg and down to the bottom of my right foot all of the freaking time.
I’m basically a living, breathing bunch of screws and electronic devices. My kids call me Cyborg Mom.
Turns out the surgery that fixed the broken bones and instability in my back also triggered a rare disease called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). This condition is perfectly named. It’s complex because it’s rooted in the neurological system and because it presents with a host of symptoms not commonly connected. I’m talking poor circulation, poor temperature control, swelling, spontaneous hair or nail growth (I know… blech), discoloration of the skin, and pain, pain, and more pain. It’s regional because it’s usually isolated to a particular part of the body. And it’s a pain syndrome because the pain signals are stuck in a loop. They never stop.
And since it’s neurological, and our nerves are necessary for function, CRPS often leads to permanent disability.
Permanent is a tricky word. People don’t like it very much… unless of course it’s attached to something wonderful.
Permanently rich – yes, please
Permanently healed – hallelujah, yes and amen
Permanently abundant in coffee and chocolate – I mean, of course
We like things permanently fixed, permanently settled, permanently resolved. But when the permanent is attached to an unpleasant and debilitating experience, it’s understandable that we are willing to try just about anything to change it for the better… permanently. I have spent much of the last 20 years doing just that as I’ve battled first with the busted back and then CRPS.
Chiropractic care. Physical Therapy. Massage. Essential oils. Supplements. Every form of exercise (EVERY. ONE.). Diet. Prayer.
So. Much. Prayer. All in a forceful, determined effort to permanently fix what was wrong with my body. And I believed for a very long time that permanently fixed was an option. The goal. The end point. Maybe even the fulfillment of a promise without which I was less than – not whole. And I for sure believed that giving up on this made me a quitter.
When the reality was and is that some things in this world are permanently broken. And sometimes surrender to the broken places is the ultimate goal – the end point.
That’s hard to accept.
It’s hard to see acceptance of brokenness as anything but defeat, and it’s hard to reconcile a state of acceptance and surrender with the survival instinct to keep trying to make things better. And maybe acceptance and the determination to keep fighting for something better are two sides of the same coin. Maybe that’s where hope lives. Somewhere between acceptance of the broken and painful places and an innate compulsion to keep trying to make things better. Maybe that’s where we live our best lives, too.
It seems to me that this is how the Apostle Paul lived his life.
Somewhere between the harsh realities of Romans 7…
I know that nothing good lives in me.
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
And the hope and courage of Romans 8…
We know that all things work together for good...
In all these things we are more than conquerors…
Paul was way more enthusiastic about it than I am, though. Of course, I’m guessing he’d done a lot of work to get to that place. But I’m guessing he’d also accepted that successful living in this in-between place was a lifelong work in progress.
For years now my long-suffering therapist has been trying to help me live in this space.
It’s super fun.
I hate it.
But I’m beginning to understand that good therapists (or pastors, or mentors, or friends) help us live more wholly as we journey.
It’s a subtle shift in thinking.
But it’s a gigantic shift in how we experience our often painful realities.
It allows us to mark and honor the myriad of little – but excruciatingly difficult – decisions and choices made throughout our journeys. Choices that propel us forward while at the same time acknowledging the parts that are most likely permanently fixed in a state of brokenness until the day – the end point – when all things work together for good as we are transformed into the image of Christ – the promise of heaven.
We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
In September, I had rotator cuff surgery as well as some other painful, but necessary cleanup in my right shoulder joint.
It’s hard to write when your dominant arm is confined to a sling for six weeks.
And unfortunately, getting out of the sling only marked the end of Phase One of this journey.
So now I’m in Phase Two of a three or four phase journey.
I’ve been here for weeks.
And the length of Phase Two seems to be unknown to all.
Phase Two is hard.
It’s that in-between space that holds everything that’s in process. Nothing is done. In fact, we don’t really have a sense of how it’s all going to work out. We have to do #allthethings and feel #allthethings and be #allthethings without any sort of guarantee that #allthethings are going to be alright.
Actually, it’s the space that often redefines what it means to be “alright.” Because often, when the journey is complex and full of undesirable events and experiences, the end result isn’t actually where you had intended to land. Part of the end (Phase Three?), then, involves some sort of acceptance of the new normal.
I’ve sometimes heard this referred to as liminal space – the space between what was and what will be. Often it’s used to describe a place of expectancy and is compared to the process of conceiving a child, carrying the child through its development in the womb, and then delivering the child into the world. It’s an appropriate comparison, I think. The problem with the use of this metaphor for me, though, is its emphasis on the end result, and its tendency to forget what those nine months of pregnancy are like for most women. In my case, at least, those nine months were quite miserable.
Just a few weeks into my pregnancy with our first child, I was given a book called Supernatural Childbirth. The book is a testimony to how faith in God’s love for us and and in His power to heal us can make pregnancy a blissful experience – with no morning sickness, no pain as your body adjusts to the growing little one inside you, and little to no pain during childbirth. For the author of this book, this had been her experience, and I think she genuinely wanted every other woman to have a similar one.
I devoured that book.
I embraced the ideals she put forth as if they were promises given to me by God.
I really expected to have a pain free pregnancy and delivery.
I didn’t, though.
Instead, I ended up on bed rest at 16 weeks because I couldn’t stop vomiting and was at risk of being hospitalized. Once I got the vomiting under control – meaning I threw up once or twice a day instead of all freaking day long – I continued to fight overwhelming fatigue throughout the pregnancy, along with the typical aches and pains most everyone experiences as a HUMAN BEING grows within your body and forces it to make more and more space for it and less and less space for your internal organs. Still, I hung on to the hope that my delivery would be a breeze. I believed this was something God wanted for me. Truthfully, I embraced the idea that, as a Christian who was following Jesus, I should have access to rescue from pain and suffering in my life.
In retrospect, I’m surprised I felt this way. My life had been full of a sizeable share of suffering and disappointment – even as I tried to live as I had been taught by the church and even as I loved Jesus from an early age. I didn’t actually have any experiences that justified this expectation I had.
I think I just wanted it, so I believed I should have it.
I didn’t get it, though.
And I’m SO grateful to the labor and delivery coach who, while embracing the teachings of Jesus and intertwining Christian values in her coaching, made it clear to those of us in her class that it didn’t make sense to her to believe that the resurrection of Christ eradicated the consequence of pain in childbirth placed upon women when Eve sinned against God in the garden, when it was clear that it hadn’t eradicated the hardships that were promised to man. So when I asked her about the pain-free experience of the author Supernatural Childbirth, my coach replied with, “Kaysie, 10% of all women have pain-free or very low-pain childbirths. It’s NOT a guarantee. It’s a statistic.”
At hour 24 of a 27 hour labor, my labor coach’s teaching on this matter was very comforting to me and helped me lean in to Jesus instead of causing me to feel abandoned by Him when the waves of pain engulfed me before our beautiful baby girl was born.
And it helped me when pregnant with my other three babies, dealing with the same or worse along the way. I mean, I carried the last (and very much a surprise) baby as an almost 40-year old WITH A BROKEN BACK. That did not feel good.
I guess I say all this to say I have rarely been rescued from the pain and suffering of life in my world.
I have. But not often. And with little-to-no rhyme or reason as to why God steps in to rescue me or He doesn’t.
But of course it’s one thing to struggle and suffer while waiting in anticipation of something you’re pretty sure will be wonderful (i.e. a beautiful baby girl). It’s an entirely different other thing to wait in that same kind of space when it’s also full of uncertainty about what will come in the end.
We struggle with this, don’t we?
In a culture accustomed to solving problems quickly, satisfying needs the moment they come up, and soothing whatever lack we are experiencing by filling the void with something else we deem equally satisfactory, we are uncomfortable with holding patterns of pain and suffering.
At least I am.
The last eight to nine months have felt like liminal space to me. As a culture, Covid-19 seems to be effectively smashing our ideas around what we are entitled to, frustrating our expectations of how long something hard should last, and stretching thin our tolerance for a lack of whatever makes us comfortable.
Especially when our line of sight doesn’t extend past the end of our noses. And, let’s be honest, we all struggle to see further than that.
The season of Advent begins today. For followers of Christ, this is a time when the church collectively begins to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. It’s a season of expectation. We spend time reflecting on the promises of God laid out during the thousands upon thousands of years that His people had to wait – in the midst of great suffering – for His rescue. Advent helps us to sit in and pay attention to the experiences we have that often mimic the pain seen over and over again throughout the history of man. And it helps us remember that rescue is coming…Jesus.
But rescue doesn’t look like we expect it to.
I can’t imagine that it looked like Mary expected it to either. Or like the disciples expected it to when they chose to follow Jesus during His ministry years.
So why does it surprise us when rescue doesn’t look the way we thought it would…or should?
It seems to me that living in liminal space – waiting in the tension between what was and what will be – is more similar to the experiences of those early followers of Jesus we so often say we want to emulate.
And it seems to me we are living in this kind of space now.
As we move into the Christmas season, I hope we can settle into the interminable Phase Two of the pandemic – not knowing how long it will last, who is going to get sick, who will experience it like a bad cold and who will lose his life from it, whether or not the things we are asked to do for the sake of our communities will work, and how much all of this will cost us in the end – with grace for one another and with a sense of hope and faith in the One who actually did come to rescue us.
In the One who knows that the rescue we really need is the rescue of His presence.
My mom often told me the story of when I was about 15 months old and had to be rescued by firemen.
It seems I had squeezed my toddler-sized head through the slats of my crib and no amount of pushing or pulling would release me from its grip.
I have zero memory of this event, but after so many retellings of the story, I find that I can imagine what it must have been like for baby me in those moments.
I can take an aerial view and see myself trapped in what was meant to be a place of rest. I can see me screaming and inconsolable while my mom did everything in her power to release me. I can see her crying and saying my name over and over and over again – “Kaysie! Kaysie! Oh, baby, hold on! I’m so sorry! I’m going to call for help!”
I can feel the fear explode in its intensity and take over my body.
And I can imagine terror really setting in as strange-looking men came in to rescue me.
The whole thing probably lasted about 30-45 minutes, but I’m sure to both my mom and to me it felt like an eternity had passed by the time the firemen cut me out of that crib.
With the crib now destroyed, I was moved to a big girl bed…which I’m guessing I was all for. I have always preferred wide open spaces, and regardless of its actual purpose, I can imagine that the crib made me feel confined rather than secure. The vastness of my new bed, while also rife with its own share of complications (Hello alligators living under big beds just waiting for your feet to hit the floor, so they can grab you and pull you under…amirite?), made me feel one step closer to being all grownup and FREE.
I was pretty confident that adulthood came at the age of 18 (🙄); that it would provide me with all the freedom I craved; and that it would allow me to escape from the responsibilities and burdens of being my parents’ daughter. In fact, I so looked forward to this time that I announced my departure plans to my parents at the age of five. I thought it was a pretty solid plan.
I’m going to move at least 750 miles away from my family – probably to Liberty University so I can sing with the traveling ensemble there.
You guys, I was a baby. A teeny, tiny indoctrinated Southern Baptist baby. Don’t judge.
I bet that was hard for my mom to hear. Hopefully, my charm and precocious nature made up for my lack of tact.
I’ve written a lot here and here and here about the kinds of childhood experiences that surely contributed to this longing to escape, but I can see now how I set myself up for great disappointment.
As an adult hanging on to childish notions about autonomy, it’s oppressive and isolating to experience limitations – to feel like my wings are clipped just as they’re about to spread wide open because my circumstances keep me trapped and unable to live my life freely.
I’ve had a lot of independence as a grown-up girl, but the vast majority of my experiences with freedom have come from internal states of heart and mind rather than from my circumstances. In fact, when I’m unable to access freedom despite my circumstances, I’m unable to experience freedom in any circumstance.
Unless I choose to define freedom in some other way.
In July of 2007, I found myself trapped in Houston.
A week had passed since the day Molly and I attempted to drive dad back to Tulsa following major surgery at MD Anderson…only to find ourselves right back there as dad was re-admitted for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – a highly contagious staph infection resistant to many of the antibiotics used to treat infection.
My brother had flown in to join me, and we spent our first few days there walking the halls, visiting Dad in his isolation room, and asking #allthequestions of the doctors, but never getting any real answers. Finally, we decided it was time to take matters into our own hands. We both had families with young children at home, spouses shouldering it all on their own, and Patton needed to get back to work.
We couldn’t afford to be stuck in Houston indefinitely.
But discharge from the hospital was nowhere in sight.
And the staff of doctors treating my father couldn’t seem to get on the same page in order to make a united decision on when and how to release him.
I think everyone was tiptoeing around for fear of some sort of liability after the disastrous discharge we’d experienced before.
But we didn’t have time for that nonsense. We needed to go home.
Dad was better. I mean, he was better from MRSA. He was still a very sick person, but he was getting stronger. Patton and I felt pretty confident that he could withstand the drive back to Tulsa, and his doctors at home were ready to take over his care.
And still the staff at MD Anderson avoided a decision.
Plus, my dad was living his best life – waited on hand and foot by nursing staff, both of his children there, visiting him dutifully, and responsible for his care. He wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere.
It felt like I was destined to be trapped in my father’s brokenness for decades to come. I believed freedom lay in one of two outcomes – with my dad’s death or with my choice to cut him off completely.
My brother and I called for a meeting. We asked for the entire team to be present because from our perspective, the real problem was that there were so many various doctors caring for our father – oncology, pulmonology, cardiology, infectious disease, speech and physical therapy. It was a long list because pretty much every bodily system in my father was the squeaky wheel trying its best to get all the attention. We all gathered around a conference table in a painfully bright hospital room, and Patton and I insisted they work together to come up with a discharge plan or – if they felt dad needed to remain in the hospital – a transfer plan to a Tulsa hospital.
It must be hard to work in a cancer hospital, constantly confronting death with grit, hope and persistence in the face of formidable odds. It must be hard to accept defeat when the inevitable is upon you – upon the patient you’ve been trying to save. It must be hard to acknowledge when death is winning the fight.
I know it is.
I’m confident my father’s medical team was deeply committed to continue fighting for him to live and not die. It also makes sense that sometimes doctors feel trapped by the fight for life when death is actually the more humane choice. Oh, how we needed just one of them to tell us that we could shift out of fight mode and into release mode- to tell us we wouldn’t be trapped there forever.
As it was, dad’s medical team was convinced that they had saved him, and all he needed now was time to recover. They also had no idea that their belief that he would recover and continue to live was devastating to us. It didn’t instill hope. Only dread.
This promise of recovery bestowed upon us felt like a death sentence to me. I knew that whatever recovery he achieved would be fraught with pain and suffering – physically, yes, but the real pain lay in the sickness of his heart and mind.
And even though the little girl in me still hoped her dad could become whole and healthy here on earth, the grown-up me knew it was never going to happen.
God – ever the Gentleman – would never force Himself or His ways upon us, and my dad was not going to be the exception to this rule. Dad had been given more opportunities than most to turn his life around, and he just could not do it.
This was a devastating conclusion, especially in light of the medical team’s promise of more life for dad. More life for dad felt like it meant less life for me.
Friends, that is a horrible space to live in. I don’t recommend it.
I sat in that meeting with dad’s team of doctors and felt the familiar weight of unwanted responsibility wrap itself around me.
I felt trapped.
It took all of our powers of persuasion, but we were able to convince the medical team to allow us to take dad home to Tulsa. I was given a crash course on changing dressings and IV bags. The sweet nurse who taught me all the things deserves an extra set of jewels in her heavenly crown for putting up with the sudden onset of childish behaviors from Patton and me (mostly Patton, of course). We collapsed into hysterics as practiced the procedures for dad’s care on a medical dummy and were reminded of all the mischief we’d created with tongue depressors, ear and eye examination lights, and gauze and bandages when we played doctor within the various doctor offices we’d found ourselves stuck in through childhood and adolescence.
Or maybe she understood that it was better for us to laugh than to cry because once the tears started, we were afraid they would never stop.
Either way, I was grateful that she was cool with it. I felt more at home as a child in the situation than I did as my 38-year old self. My child self had lots of experience with those feelings of entrapment…and still believed they would go away at some point.
A couple of days later we drove dad home to Tulsa, and Patton flew back home to Colorado. Life became consumed with raising my three children and taking care of the ongoing needs of my dad…and I often found myself struggling against the chains of these responsibilities.
Thankfully, I had people in my life who reminded that freedom was possible even in the midst of great burdens. Even with a life filled with constricting circumstances.
I can experience rest in whatever place I find myself by leaning into the One who is my refuge and my strength.
It wasn’t nearly as pretty as that last sentence makes it sound. It was a season filled with heartache, disappointment, exhaustion, anger, frustration and enormous stress.
Honestly, much of life feels designed to keep us constrained. It feels like the slats of your crib are only there to keep you in your place, and you forget that you are standing on an actual bed complete with mattress, sheets, cozy blankets and maybe a stuffed tiger or a Pooh bear.
Freedom comes when we shift our perspective and remember that even when we are trapped behind the bars of our circumstances, God’s design includes a place of refuge in Him where we can lay down and rest.
They say hindsight’s 20/20. I think this means that our past experiences are meant to inform our present ones. Maybe they are right – whoever they are, but this happens only when we allow ourselves the occasional glance in the rearview mirror. This is a scary thing to do because even though the mirror isn’t showing us anything we haven’t seen and places we haven’t been before, it’s also showing us an image of our selves in the present moment. And that can be confusing.
We might see pain and death and devastation in that rearview glance, but we are also seeing the living, breathing survivor of a person that made it through whatever was back there – and has all kinds of strengths and insights because of those experiences.
I’m learning to let myself take in both – the past and the present.
On a bright, sunny Saturday morning in July of 2007, my phone rang before I was even fully awake. When I picked it up, I heard my mom’s voice – shaky, desperate, distant – “Kaysie, I need you to go get your father.”
It was the morning of my daughter’s highly anticipated tenth birthday party. We had planned a city-wide scavenger hunt for her, her friends, and our friends who were the parents of her friends. It was going to be a blast and perfect and exhausting.
And it was.
But in the midst of the joy of Morgan’s birthday celebration, I now carried a sober reminder that the burden of my father was still very much mine.
Dad was back in Houston – in the hospital at MD Anderson after the surgery that was supposed to extend his life. The surgeons carved along the length of his neck – from his ear down to his sternum – in order to remove the cancer that had metastasized there. They also took much of that ear. They were ready to release him a week later, but refused to do so without a family member present at discharge.
By this time my parents were officially divorced and, even though my mom and aunt accompanied him to Houston for the surgery, they only stayed a few days before heading back to Mississippi. It was all my mom could bear.
My dad literally had no one.
Except reluctant, but dutiful me.
As soon as I hung up the phone after my mom’s call, I turned around and called my friend, Molly, and said, “So I need to ask a very big favor of you.”
God bless Molly. This friend has stayed by my side throughout this wild ride life has had me on – sometimes even getting on the ride with me. There aren’t many better evidences of the love of God in my life than my friendship with Molly Baker Olsen.
“What’s up?” she replied.
“Soooooo…will you go to Houston with me this afternoon to help me bring my dad home?”
“Yep. The hospital says they’re discharging him, but I have to be there to pick him up. And it has to happen today.”
“Well, okay then. Let me pack a bag. We can leave right after Morgan’s party.”
She didn’t even miss a beat.
See what I mean?
Plus, I promised her a lovely kolache breakfast the next morning before we left Houston.
Kolaches are balls of pastry dough stuffed with things like fruit or sausage, cheese, and potatoes. I was introduced to them the month before while in Houston with Keek and my dad for all of his preliminary tests at MD Anderson, and I thought they were delicious and worth a stop before we hit the road to head back home.
So after Morgan’s fabulous scavenger hunt – and the two hours of driving around Tulsa that the party involved – Molly and I headed to Houston. We were still about two hours away at 8pm, when the hospital called to tell me that they were going to go ahead and discharge my father, put him in a taxi, and send him to a hotel of his choosing. We could just meet him there.
I guess they were done with dad, too.
Around 11pm, we pulled into the parking lot of the motel my father had chosen for us to stay in that night – a run down, dump of a place with LITERAL DEAD ANIMALS in the parking lot.
Not even kidding. As Molly and I were unloading the car, a sideward glance revealed an unfortunate feline way past rigor mortis and well into full-on decay. We may or may not have screamed and jumped into each other’s arms. Don’t mock. You would have done the same.
For the love. And again, God bless my friend, Molly. I’m a pretty confident person, for sure, and ready to take on challenges as they come. But I’m also quite confident that one of the few things I simply cannot do is walk past a dead cat alone in the middle of the night.
I was wholly unprepared for the way my father would look when we arrived. Much of his ear was gone and even with the dressings on it was clear the work the doctors had done was extensive and invasive. Dad was happy and relieved to see us, but I think also embarrassed that Molly was there – however much of a help she was to me – and that we had to come get him. He was also heavily medicated and not making a lot of sense.
And we were exhausted, so we all went to bed.
And I tried not to think about that dead cat.
The next morning as we prepared to head back home to Tulsa, I knocked on dad’s door to let him know we were packing up. He mumbled something unintelligible, then opened the door. His face was flushed, he was pacing the hotel room, and he was mumbling incoherently. It was clear to me he was unwell, but when I called my mom and described dad’s condition, she told me to give him some Tylenol and head home where his doctors in Tulsa could care for him.
She was so done with my father. She could only see him in the rearview mirror with all the pain and hurt he’d caused and forgot that the present was there as well – a present moment that included a daughter shouldering the burden she’d left behind.
I get it now. Looking in the rearview mirror. But in the moment I just felt quite abandoned by her. And I also still really wanted to be a dutiful daughter.
Talk about conflicted.
Not knowing what to do differently in that moment, we medicated dad, loaded him up, and prepared to head back home…but first we stopped for a much-anticipated kolache breakfast. #priorities
It was an unfortunate choice. In fact, I will never be able to eat kolaches again for the remainder of my days. You see, when we sat down to eat, my father made his best attempts at eating the sausage, egg and cheese kolache he had requested, but his mouth just wouldn’t work. Or maybe his swallow reflex. Or maybe his brain. Either way, he put bite after bite methodically into his mouth while Molly and I watched those bites fall right back out again. Our previously ravenous appetites were obliterated, and we quickly became repulsed by the food in front of us and very concerned about getting my dad home as fast as possible.
After loading dad into the backseat of the car, I got behind the wheel and, before heading towards Tulsa, made sure my father was in my sights through the rearview mirror.
Then I turned the car towards home and tried not to think about kolaches.
As we drove through Houston and made our way to the suburbs on the north side of town, my father began to sink lower and lower into the seat. I asked him questions in an attempt to keep him alert, and his responses became less and less grounded in reality. In fact, in full view of downtown Houston, dad said, “I’ve always loved this city. San Francisco is really beautiful.”
And I began to cry.
It seemed pretty clear from what I could see in the rearview mirror that my father was dying and we wouldn’t make it back to Tulsa before he breathed his last breath. But I didn’t know what else to do, either. I was my thirty-eight year old, present moment self driving the car on the complex highway system around Houston – knowing full well we were in danger and needed to turn around. Yet there was an eight-year old part of me in the reflection screaming, “But Mom said…!” That eight-year old was very familiar with all of the ways dad had used his various health issues to hold his family hostage. She had also endured the exhaustion that came with one not-so-much health crisis after another. And because she couldn’t separate the past from the very real crisis of the present, she also believed that Mom knew best how to handle these things.
She was wrong.
So as I drove and watched my father began to slip away in the rearview mirror, I simply cried while those two parts of me – the present part and the past part – slugged it out.
Until Molly said I should pull over.
Thank You, God, for Molly.
We pulled into a Target parking lot on the outskirts of Houston, and I called my mom. Again, she told me to give dad meds and keep driving him home. I went into Target while Molly watched over dad and bought a thermometer, a blanket and some ibuprofen… and then I took dad’s temp. It was 103 degrees and climbing. He was delirious at this point, unable to sit up without assistance, and mumbling incoherently.
So I called my mom. Again.
And this time I heard the irritation in her voice.
“Kaysie, he’ll be FINE. I don’t know what else to tell you. I mean, you just need to keep driving and get him home.”
But I knew in my gut that if we did that, my father would be dead before we reached Tulsa.
In the back of the car.
So in desperation I called my friend, Kathy – a kind of surrogate mom for me during this season of my life. Again, I have the best friends. Kathy listened to me describe the situation and, without hesitation, recommended that I take my father back to MD Anderson.
I knew she was right.
But I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to listen to my mother, to trust that she was counseling me well because she was the grownup…and to get my dad home. But with Kathy in one ear and Molly in the other, I was able to gather up my grownup self and turn us back to Houston.
When we arrived at the emergency room of MD Anderson and the attending physician pulled open my father’s shirt, the problem was instantly clear to all of us. From the incision down his neck – like the tendrils of the root system of a tree – was a streak of red inching its way to my father’s heart.
Dad was immediately placed in ICU. He had contracted MRSA – a serious staph infection – in his surgical wound, and it was quickly making its way to his heart.
My adult self was very grateful we’d turned the car around.
My child self was completely bewildered.
Molly and I found ourselves stuck in Houston with one day’s worth of clothing and toiletries, no place to stay…and my father’s brand new credit card. Dad, in his time of need, was suddenly generous toward us and gave me permission to use his card to get a hotel room and whatever supplies we needed.
This is the only time in my thirty-eight years of knowing my father that he freely gave me money.
The. Only. Time. I remember asking him for the money I needed to participate in a church choir activity when I was fourteen. A church activity in which, by the way, he had demanded I participate. I sat in the backseat of the family car as we drove home from church – paralyzed by the fear I felt over how he would respond to my request. Unwanted tears streamed down my face when I finally worked up the courage to ask. And my fear was warranted. My family sat in strained silence in the driveway. No one dared to move. My father became furious in an instant – seething really. Dad was always tight-fisted with the little money we had…unless he was at the local bar or wine and liquor store. His response to my request was to rage, to call me selfish and ungrateful, and to sum up our financial problems by pointing the finger at me.
So it was an uncomfortable feeling for me to take that card.
I wonder if he ever allowed himself a glance in the rearview mirror. Did he see me sitting there crying? Did he see my reflection as his own painful childhood and forget that he was actually in the present?
For my part, a glance back to this moment can cause me to flood with other similar memories and feelings that make me feel altogether unworthy of care. This is why that rearview mirror glance has to be done while remembering that what I see there is in the past, and the truth is that the present is full of all kinds of ways I am loved and cared for.
My dad couldn’t do that.
As a grown-ass woman (and with some coaching from my husband and my brother), I was able to embrace the idea that paying for #allthethings in Houston was the very least my father could do. Molly and I booked a lovely room in the hotel connected to the hospital – with a king-sized bed and the softest sheets in the world.
I still dream about those sheets.
We went to Target and bought some necessities (like underwear, comfy sweatshirts and chocolate).
And we bought ourselves a very necessary latte at Starbucks – the first of many we would consume over the following days.
For the next four days we walked the halls of MD Anderson in between the very involved visits to my dad’s room. Because he had MRSA, visitors were required to don the PPE provided by the hospital. Surely in the pandemic-y world that we now live in, we all know what PPE means but, just in case…those letters stand for Personal Protective Equipment.
Putting it all on was quite the process. At the door to dad’s room was a bin containing yellow disposable gowns, latex gloves and masks. We covered ourselves with #allthethings – which took almost as long as the visit that followed…because, truthfully, sitting with my father wasn’t at the top of the list of things I wanted to do.
By the third day it was clear my father wasn’t going to be getting out of the hospital anytime soon…if ever. Mark was home with our three kids – managing #allthethings with the help of our friends, but he was stretched thin trying to juggle it all. And as much fun as she was clearly having with my very sick father and me, Molly needed to get home to her family – but she was unwilling to leave me in Houston alone.
So I called my mom again and asked for her help.
That was a hard phone call.
Mom refused to come to Houston and take over. Or maybe Mom couldn’t come to Houston and take over. She had nothing to give to my father. And she was terrified of becoming trapped by him so soon after finally getting free. Either way, this boundary she set made a whole lot of sense to me…and it also cost me and my family so much.
I also know she regretted the choice she made for the rest of her life.
And this makes me sad.
You see, my father told my mother on the regular that if she ever left him, he would die.
He said it when reeling drunk; he said it when jobless and without the means to take care of us; he said it when overcome by remorse and self-pity and fear that she might leave.
He said it to hold her captive.
And he must have meant it, because that’s exactly what happened.
Anyway, since Mom wouldn’t/couldn’t come to Houston, I asked her to go to Tulsa to help Mark with the kids. This she was willing and able to do.
My next phone call was to my brother. We’d been talking throughout the whole ordeal, of course. He had been advising and supporting me throughout the whole ordeal, but Patton had also set a boundary with our father in the months leading up to the final dissolution of our parents’ marriage, so he’d intentionally not been in contact with or available to dad that summer. But when it became clear that I was in over my head and needed him, Patton booked a flight to Houston.
The next day I traded Molly for Patton at Houston Hobby Airport. I cried tears of gratitude when I said goodbye to Molly and cried tears of relief when my brother arrived and wrapped his arms around me. As Patton and I headed back to MD Anderson, I felt myself settling into a space very familiar to and comfortable for me – the space in which my brother and I could take on the world…or at least could take on the world of our father.
Both my thirty-eight year old and my eight-year old self felt much better in this space.