Where my hope comes from

For the past ten days, my mind has been everywhere and nowhere. Sometimes I can barely keep thoughts in my head; driving I-75 today I blinked and was suddenly aware that I had traveled miles without really thinking. I’ve spoken to dozens of people and promised phone calls and emails, but unless I get reminders I’ll forget to make those calls or send those emails. I’m not really even capable of doing my favorite things… reading has been tough because I can’t concentrate on the words and I’m having a tough time putting even these words to paper.

At the same time, I’ve been doing a lot of doing. I’ve worked, gone to church, washed clothes, attended bible study, visited Cari’s school for open house, and registered Cari for soccer—all because life has to go on, even though my heart is broken.

My dad died on Wednesday, September 3, after a long battle with COPD.

We had spent the Saturday before together; Stu and I took Cari to see my mom and dad for swimming and a barbeque in honor of the Labor Day weekend. We got to their house in time to watch Virginia play a terrific game against UCLA (my dad even tolerated watching UVA because Louisville wasn’t on). We had a great time playing in the pool, I got some pictures of Cari with my dad, and we ate my favorite meal before we packed up the leftovers to come home.

By Monday, my dad wasn’t feeling well, so he and Mom called hospice for some additional medications. When he wasn’t feeling better by Tuesday, the hospice nurses decided he needed to be transported to the hospice center. I was in pretty regular contact with both my mom and dad on Tuesday, even getting on my dad’s case a little for not advocating for himself. Even though Dad tried to keep our conversation light, I sensed that this visit to the hospice center was different. I found myself crying over dinner with my husband, who seemed to know better what was ahead than I did. We prayed that the end of my dad’s life would be painless, that he wouldn’t suffer, wouldn’t gasp his last breaths, but we had no idea that it would be so soon.

I texted my mom on Wednesday, but didn’t get any response until I spoke to her at about one in the afternoon. She told me then that I needed to get to the hospice center. When I spoke to her again, at about two, she told me that Dad was gone. The nurses had given him some medicine to help him breathe easier, and he had died comfortably in his sleep.

The moment that my mom told me that my dad was gone was one of the hardest moments in my life. Instantly, heavily, I wept. I wept for the pain of losing my dad, for the heartbreak my mom was feeling, for the misery of being an hour away from my mom and knowing she was alone. I remember tearfully apologizing to my mom that we couldn’t be there sooner, that she was alone to deal with the first moments of her own grief.

But in the very next moment, I cried out to my Lord. And I saw the beautiful way that my precious savior had been orchestrating my life, knowing that I would face that moment.

I’ve never considered myself to be someone who was great at her faith. Frankly, my life isn’t very hard. I have a great husband, a beautiful, healthy daughter, a job, a home, and very little to really worry about. Of course there have been challenges, but I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen God reveal himself so powerfully while simultaneously providing intense comfort.

In those first 30 minutes after learning that my dad had died, I understood why I needed to give up teaching AP English this year, why I was only teaching two classes, why I needed to withdraw my name from an opportunity that would take me away from Hudson. God protected me from the stress and pressure I would have felt to endure this loss while trying to impact my students as little as possible. God ensured that I would be surrounded by friends at school who would do anything to help me.

Sometimes it is easy for me to do life by myself, to relegate God to prayer time in the car before work. But even though I’m trying to hang on to control of my own life—desperately but futilely—that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have the control. He’s been beside me the whole time, and I imagine that he has been patiently waiting to reveal this truth: that I would find myself desperately out of control, but that He would protect me.

I cannot imagine how anyone endures this kind of loss without knowing Jesus. I am sad, heavy-hearted, and lonely for my biggest cheerleader, but I have hope because I know Jesus and know that my dad recommitted his life to Jesus in the months before his death. I have hope because even as my illusion of control was shattered, I learned that God would catch me. I have hope because I can see that God has ordained everything in my life, and even though sometimes things are painful, I am able to bring honor to Him. That is my prayer now… that God would find a way to use this sadness to bring honor to Himself, and that I would somehow be able to help someone else who feels this pain.

So as I grieve and heal over the next few days, weeks, and months, I have the comfort of knowing that my God is beside me, and that my dad is in Heaven, finally able to breathe free. I pray that those who are suffering from the loss of my dad can feel this comfort, too.

To my friends and family who are reading this, I say thank you. I’ve seen such an overwhelming outpouring of love in the last two weeks. I have had so many texts and messages that I haven’t been able to keep up with responding. Sweet (and tolerant) friends have helped with Cari with less than an hour’s notice. A great friend joined me for a pedicure and lots of laughs. My boss has been so patient with me not being my normal, hard working and kinda crazy self. Old, dear friends have called and messaged with sweet memories of my dad. Church friends made the drive all the way to Brandon to support me at Dad’s funeral, eating pimento cheese sandwiches and making me laugh. One of my mom’s oldest friends started a random dance party with Cari and me this afternoon. Plus, my sweet husband has done just about everything to make this easier for me; from making sure I eat to making sure the flowers were beautiful. Saying goodbye to my dad has been easier because I’ve felt so much love. Thank you all.

How to change a life

This week marks the end of another school year, and I’m not sad.  It hasn’t been the greatest year of my career; I’ve grown immeasurably as a leader and a teacher, and I’ve gotten a clearer vision of what I want for myself in my future, but I’ve struggled with frustrations about the nature of my work, sometimes feeling stuck or downright discouraged when I felt like I cared a whole lot more than my kids.

It always seems that when I’m faced with these dark moments that I experience these flashes of brilliance and I’m reminded why I’m in education.  Because teachers really do change lives.  We don’t always know we’re doing it, and if we’re asked, we might say that we hadn’t made a difference for anyone.  But beyond what is expressed on all of the cheesy inspirational images on Facebook about all the good teachers do, we really do change lives.

Stu started teaching four years ago with a very challenging assignment: he was given two sections of Dropout Prevention (I’m not sure if that was the course title, but it was something like that) and three sections of English I.  Those were dark days for Stu.  I tried the best I could to help him (as much as he would allow) but he struggled to keep the interest of those students, to manage their behaviors, to connect with them and help them to achieve.  He tried to use techniques and strategies he had learned in his eduction courses and in his internship with gifted students at the middle school, but one strategy after another failed, and Stu was left to feel useless and stressed.  At the end of the year, he insisted that his schedule change because he had such a hard time with it.  Stu would never say that he made a difference for any of the kids in that class, but on Monday he received a note from a student he taught in English I that year.  She said: “I wanted to thank you personally for helping me enroll in honors and advanced classes, because without having done that I may not be going to USF now.”  Stu hadn’t been in contact with her at all in the years in between, but this student recognized that his involvement in her education changed the trajectory of her life.

Last week, I had visits from two of my favorite students (I know I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I can’t help it).  One student, Lauren, was in town to visit family before spending her summer working at an internship in DC and then heading off to NYU in August for law school.  I’m sorry, Lauren, if you’re reading this because I’m about to tell your story.  I taught Lauren as a freshman, sophomore, and senior in my first ever AP Literature class.  I knew she was something special from the day she walked into my classroom, and she has never proven me wrong.  Lauren was valedictorian of her senior class and attended Emory University where she did even more remarkable things.  I nearly peed my pants when Lauren announced that she had been accepted into Harvard Law School (cue Perfect Day lyrics here).  Ultimately, Lauren recently interviewed for, and earned, a very prestigious scholarship to NYU law school.  In fact, she interviewed in DC with Justice Clarence Thomas in his offices.  At the Supreme Court.  You know, because that’s normal.

Such a remarkable young woman seems like she can do all things on her own.  But Lauren has never let me forget how thankful she was to have had me for the majority of her English courses in high school.  I helped Lauren on her way (honestly though, she would have done brilliantly in anyone’s English classes; I’m just glad I was lucky enough to teach her).

It isn’t just teachers who make this kind of impact.  Our parents or children, our families and friends, our bosses or coworkers, our pastors, the random girl you speak to on a two-hour flight, all have the potential to make a difference.  If we let them.  And we have the potential to make a difference for anyone we come into contact with if we’re engaged enough to recognize the opportunity.

What you see when you’re actually looking

A few years ago, some family from Virginia came to visit Stu, Cari, and me in Florida, and we went to Downtown Disney for dinner and browsing.  Our rich meal didn’t agree with all of the members of our party: one of our visitors (who will remain nameless) was pretty uncomfortable, pained, and, most notably, pretty gassy that night.  Fortunately, in that group, she wasn’t embarrassed, and made a joke of her predicament.  In one of the high end shops that sells art glass and figurines, she sidled up to me, feigning interest in a piece I was looking at before leaving a ridiculously stinky fart behind without any warning.  I covered my nose and complained loudly while getting clear of the fumes, and she was delighted in my irritation.  Later, as we walked past a similar family group walking in the opposite direction, she delivered an epically deadly but silent fart that has become legend in our family.  We knew it happened because her step quickened and laughter started shaking her shoulders in the same way she had tormented me earlier in the evening.  But when one of the women in the family we passed said “Oh my god” in a voice that was audible to us even as the distance between us widened, our whole group erupted into spontaneous peals of hysterical laughter.  We couldn’t help it.  I’ve often wondered at how observers of our family interpreted that moment.  For us, it was the culmination of a whole lot of little jokes that had happened all evening long.  It was an example of how free we felt together, comfortable enough to fart in front of one another, and comfortable enough to laugh at one another about it.  But I can only guess at what the crowds around us saw in that brief moment, if they were even looking.

I caught a similar moment today: driving through Pass-a-Grille, I lifted my eyes to watch the beautiful houses for a moment when I watched a woman walking behind another woman and a child brush her fingers past her face, grimacing in the obvious reaction to something stinky.  I couldn’t help chuckling to myself.  I had witnessed such an awkward moment, on the same level as turning to the car next to you to observe a 40 year-old man singing passionately to some Taylor Swift.  A private moment that most people wouldn’t be pleased to know someone else had observed.

It occurred to me in that moment that I had opportunities to see plenty if I would only pay attention, but I hadn’t been–I had my nose buried in my cell phone.  In that moment, though, I decided to watch more carefully.  As a result, I spent the rest of the evening seeing silly and striking things.

We ended up at a restaurant called The Moon Under Water where Stu, Cari, and I were seated on the porch between the bar and the hostess table.  There was a 30 minute wait for a table, so most patrons gave the hostess their names and walked past us to the bar where they would pass the next thirty minutes drinking (mostly) large pints of beer.  It is a pub after all.  After a few minutes, Stu caught on to my game, and we watched the passing customers with great interest.  There was first date couple, two very fashionable young people who tried to navigate the awkwardness of making small talk before settling into the comfort of a table with a menu to discuss.  Then there was the older woman who incongruously double fisted two enormous handled jugs glasses of beer.  Or the woman who applied her pink lipstick to her entire face as she walked from the restaurant.  Or the woman who put on her scarf with such determination that she hit her companion in the face.

I managed to observe some pretty impressive beauty in St. Petersburg, too.  I am still struck by how the trees of Vinoy Park grow so elegantly, romantically.  The boats on the water were proud and graceful, their sails snapping a little in the wind that made my hair fly all around my face.  Then there were people captured in beautiful moments. I caught a very intense conversation between a father and his teenaged son: the father seemed sympathetic and kind toward his son, but his son just looked away.  There was a family much like ours that decided to treat their young daughter to a ride in the Cinderella-style horse drawn carriage, providing the girl with the princess treatment, complete with beauty queen waves to her loving subjects.  And there was incredibly thoughtful trolly driver who told us about the best restaurants in the area and drove us to USF St. Pete (outside of his normal route) because I said I had taken a class there.

There wasn’t anything especially remarkable about tonight.  My family decided to take a drive to St. Petersburg, walk around a bit, share a meal, and take a ride in the trolly.  But because I had managed to take off my blinders for a little while, I managed to see more of the world around me.

I’m so guilty of distraction that makes me lose focus of what’s happening around me.  For the whole year that Stu had an iPhone before I did, I complained incessantly that he couldn’t get his nose out of his phone.  Now, I’m pretty certain that I’m even worse than he was.  I troll Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, commenting on the lives my friends have instead of living in my own.  I guess the lesson is that sometimes it’s important for me to disconnect from the things that distract and force myself to engage in the present.  When I do, I’m never disappointed.  Facebook can wait.

You may not know…

I’m a little short on inspiration today, and yesterday for that matter.  I only have seven more days of writing for my Camp NaNoWriMo challenge, but I don’t really feel like writing.  I want to snuggle under the covers and go to bed early.  But one thing about NaNoWriMo, or any writing challenge really, is that on days like today, when the struggle is real, I can count on my pride to be enough motivation to get me through.

So I’m going to share some things you, my readers, might not know about me.

  1. I’m afraid of walking on broken glass.  You can thank my dad who let me watch Die Hard a little bit too young.  I haven’t been able to stop worrying about pulling shards of glass out of my feet like John McClane.  Ouch.
  2. I’m blind as a bat.  I started wearing glasses when I was in late elementary school, ensuring middle school would be even that much more awkward.  I almost never wear my glasses now because I see better with my contacts and I’m a little too vain to endure wearing my thick-lensed glasses.
  3. My favorite color is yellow.  Or pink.  But I always wear black.  I’m told I look pretty in blue.
  4. I value time alone.  A friend from church posted a really funny status on Facebook about how she’s likely sleep deprived because she values the quiet of a sleepy house too much to waste it on actual sleep.  I couldn’t agree more.  I value getting lost in a good book, and I am energized by my time alone.  But sometimes I say that I value time alone when I’m not so much seeking peace but pushing others away.  Yeah, not always a good thing.
  5. I’m really sad because one of my favorite foods in the world is movie theater popcorn, but when I went to see The Muppets with Cari, the smell made me a little sick.  Am I growing out of one of my favorite things?
  6.  I took piano lessons when I was in elementary school, but I complained enough that my parents called them off.  I could tell you that my teacher pushed mechanical pencils into my fingers when I played the wrong notes, and that was the reason for my complaints, but I hated practicing.  I’m so sad that I didn’t stick with it and I would love to learn.  I have a feeling that I’ll be a 50 year old taking lessons one day, playing scales and arpeggios or preparing some piece for a recital with a bunch of 9 year olds.  Do 50 year olds taking piano lessons for the first time even play in recitals?
  7. When I was in high school and college I worked as a lifeguard during summers for extra money.  In Virginia, it is more expensive to NOT have a lifeguard and pay for the extra insurance than it is to pay a teenager $8/hour, plus they keep the place clean.  I had to certify to be a lifeguard twice, which meant I had to take a swimming endurance test that involved holding a brick over my head while I tread water for three minutes.  I thought I was a strong swimmer, but that test wore me out.  I made it and worked as a guard through college, taking days off after I had graduated to interview for my first REAL job.  I was super tan.
  8. I dated a boy in college who threw rocks at my window to get my attention.  At the time I thought it was super romantic.  I look back now and realize that he was kind of a creeper.  He had tattoos and a drinking problem.  Not the wisest choice.
  9. I have three tattoos.  I got the first one when I was 18, at college, and didn’t need to ask permission.  But when I came home for summer break and knew I would be wearing a bathing suit all summer (see #7) I decided to tell my mom.  She was driving on Route 66 on our way to Tyson’s Corner Mall (that’s a pretty busy stretch of road).  I started the conversation by saying, “Mom, I have something to tell you.”  We’re lucky she didn’t run off the road for all she thought I was going to say.  She took it in stride, though, and made me tell my dad.
  10. My mom took me on a trip to Thailand after I graduated from college.  I realized how sheltered I had been and how much bigger the world was than I had ever imagined.
  11. Jane Austen is my favorite, but she hasn’t always been.  When I was in college, I studied abroad in Bath, England, with a program called Advanced Studies in England.  A handful of students from my college, Mary Washington, enrolled to take a film studies class on Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock.  We also had to take one of two core classes, and I took Jane Austen in Bath.  Persuasion, set partially in Bath, was required reading.  The experience was phenomenal.  We traveled to Cornwall, to Wales, to Stonehenge, and I fell in love with Austen and England.
  12. I hate folding clothes.  Ugh.  If you came to my house, you would find an pile of laundry on the floor in the living room that no one particularly cares to deal with.  I would rather be reading.  Don’t judge.
  13. I got everything I ever wanted when I started teaching AP English in 2009.  I realized then that I needed to make some new goals for myself because I’m not sure that I’m one of those people who can teach in the same place for 30 years of a career.  There’s a stability and security in that, but I want more.
  14. Stu and I sometimes communicate better by text, especially when we’re fighting.  I guess it helps us to get our frustrations out without saying something that will really hurt.
  15. When we are too busy, we calendar date nights and family time.  We share a Google calendar so we can see the stuff we have on deck.

Whoa.  That was a much easier 1,045 words than I expected.  Thanks for reading, everyone!

Daddy’s girl

I’m a lucky girl.  I have an incredibly patient, loving husband, a sweet daughter who brings me joy, and sweet kisses, every day, and a set of parents who have shared their best qualities with me.  I’m sure there will be space in this blog to talk about my mom at some point in the future–she’s my best friend, after all–but I want to dedicate some space to my dad.

When I was in high school, a boy made me cry.  I was on a non-date with a boy who had a pretty serious crush on me, and when he found out I wasn’t over another boy, he got mean.  So he drove me home, and I was so mad and hurt, I opened the front door and burst into tears before I knew my dad was waiting up, sitting on the couch, reading some thriller.  I sat next to him and he let me cry and sniffle all over his polo shirt.  In a classic Dad response to my tearfulness, he asked if he needed to get a gun.  He was serious.

I worked as a lifeguard in Lorton, Virginia, about 20 minutes from my home in Alexandria, one summer during high school.  The apartment complex was not exactly the nicest place to live, much less work, but it was good money, and I got lots of hours.  Unfortunately, the clientele wasn’t always the best.  One day, a prospective tenant came to the pool and decided to take interest in a young woman with special needs.  I was protective, as the man was clearly taking advantage.  When I contacted the rental office, they told me to call the police if he showed up again.  When he came back the next day, with trembling fingers, I called 911 for the first time in my life.  My next call was to my mom and dad: both picked up lines in their different spots in the house, and when I haltingly, tearfully told my story, I don’t think my dad even hung up the phone before grabbing the driver from his golf bag and snatching up his keys.  He tore down Telegraph Road in his Pontiac Grand Prix, making the drive in a ridiculously short, ridiculously fast trip.  Fortunately, the police showed up before my dad did or they might have had a messier situation to resolve.  As it was, Dad put the car in park in the middle of the road, got out of the car with his driver in hand, talking to the police with that threatening look of a father whose little girl was upset.

My dad is a lot of things: ornery, loving, generous, sentimental, protective, grouchy.  He picks up the phone whenever I call and tolerates my rambling stories of my daily adventures, only complaining a little that it takes me forever to get to the point.  He’s not perfect: he doesn’t always take my sides in arguments when I want him to and he uses lots of bad words (he’s better about that now that Cari’s around and listening).  But he’s an awesome dad and friend to me, even now.  He cares enough to know weird little details like who my principal was five years ago, and to invest his time showing an interest in my projects like my novel and my blog.

I’m not trying to pretend there haven’t been dark parts of our relationship, too, but those might not be suited for this space.

But my dad is dying.  In 2008, he had to undergo a double bypass (while my mom was in the hospital in need of a quintuple bypass herself… that’s a story for another time).  It took months for my dad to recover from the procedure.  He stayed in ICU for days on the ventilator because his damaged lungs wouldn’t cooperate and start functioning on their own again.  That might be the one of the worst experiences of my life–visiting my sedated dad in ICU, watching as his chest rose and fell artificially, forced, almost erratically, by the ventilator.  When he finally recovered enough to be taken off the ventilator, it was months before he could come home.  He’s never been the same since.  More recently, his health has been deteriorating further, leading his doctors to suggest that he start making preparations.

I’ve known for a long time that Dad wasn’t going to endure forever.  He has never been shy to talk with me about it; even when he wasn’t sick, Dad made sure I knew what his wishes were.  But in 2008, when my parents gave me Power of Attorney, sitting in a bright hospital room the day before my parents went into surgery, the reality of their mortality struck me in a most painful, abrupt way.  I guess I’m lucky to have some warning.  I’m able to value the relationship I have with my dad.  I try not to say things I’ll regret.  I take the time to really talk with him, even if that means sitting in the car long after I’ve gotten home from school.  I read his blog, which is his way of coping with the inevitability of death.  Mostly, I try to cultivate a relationship with him that I can remember when he’s gone.

This one’s a little moody, sorry about that.  Thanks for reading!