A Bittersweet Birthday Gift

Every year since my mother passed away, I can’t help but think of her on my birthday.  It was on my 50th birthday that I was by her bedside, 2000 miles away from friends and family.  It was a very poignant and bittersweet birthday.  It wasn’t at all how I planned to celebrate turning 50.

50-birthdayJanet, one of my friends had planned a birthday party for me—something I was looking forward to for weeks.  It was going to be a big celebration, with invites to women who had all jointly participated in a series of emotional healing classes.  It was how I really wanted to mark this major birthday milestone in my life.  But God had other plans.

An Unexpected Trip Back Home

I had not seen my mother in several years.  We didn’t have much of a relationship.  Her mental illness had driven a wedge between us.  Over the years it didn’t bother me much—on the surface.  I told myself it was all for the best.  Deep inside though, I carried a lot of guilt and shame around my relationship with my mother.  It was my choice to turn my back on her.

I never knew what it was like to have a mother to confide in, to mentor me, or to teach me how to be a good wife or mother.  I certainly didn’t think I needed one either.

joann-ny-2

My mother, JoAnn, circa 1956.

Then came the dreaded phone call.  You know the one.  When bad news is delivered, shaking your world.

My mother had a major stroke leaving her partially paralyzed and barely able to talk.  Medical decisions were made to give her the care she needed and life returned to status quo.

A few months later, after she had another medical emergency, I felt it was time to go.  It wasn’t an easy decision, but somehow the Lord was getting hold of me.  I needed to be an adult and face not only the difficult end of life decisions for my mother’s sake, but I also had to face my own pain.

A Change of Heart Towards Mom

I arrived in the St. Louis area on a roundtrip ticket with a return flight home a few days before my 50th birthday.  Seeing my mother that first time was difficult.  She didn’t look like herself.  She was pale, thin, and aged.  Years of bedridden medical care and living in a nursing home environment had turned her into a much older looking woman.

Despite her limited ability to speak, her eyes said “I love you.”

My heart ached for her.

My days were split between time with my mother and in meetings with her healthcare team.  Day after day I immersed myself in my mother’s care and living environment.  Occupational speech therapy was underway.  Hospice care was recommended and initiated while I was there.

Every night I talked with friends and family back home.  Their prayers gave me the courage and the strength to carry on each day.

When the time came to leave, I couldn’t bear the thought.  There still seemed like too much to do.  I didn’t know when or if I would see my mother alive again.  I didn’t want any regrets. God was softening my heart toward my mom, giving me compassion and empathy for her.

A family reunion with mom.

A family reunion with mom.

My sister-in-law, Carol, came to the rescue.  She sensed my angst.  Carol made arrangements for me to stay longer and made plans for us (my brother, her and myself) to return in December, for one last family reunion.

When it came to telling Janet about my plans to stay and to cancel my party, she made it easy for me too.  Janet was very understanding and loving.  She offered up prayers and to throw me a party another time, when I was ready.  (That party was five years ago and had a totally different meaning and feel to it.)

A Bittersweet Birthday

When my 50th birthday arrived, the day wasn’t outwardly that much different than any other day of my visit: time with mom, feeding her, gently massaging her feet and legs, talking with her care team.  Inwardly though, God was reminding me of the significance of the day.

It was bittersweet.  I couldn’t help but think that she brought me into the world 50 years ago and cared for me day and night as a baby.  She helped me to start life well.  Now I was returning the gift to her—helping her to end life well.

My final gift to my mother on this trip was the gold cross pendent I received from my godmother for my first communion.  I treasured that gift for decades.  But now, as I left my mother in God’s hands, and returned home, I wanted her to have something to cling to—to remember me.  It was my promise to her to return again.

My 50th birthday with my mother.

My 50th birthday with my mother.

A Legacy of Healing

That bittersweet day was eight birthdays ago.  My mother passed away 15 months later.  I made two more trips back home to see her before she died.  Each time her health deteriorated more and more.

That first trip opened my eyes to her suffering.  It opened my heart for the healing between us—much of it never verbally spoken, but shared in the gentle touch of my hands and the tears in our eyes.

So on my birthday, I feel especially close to her.  She didn’t know it then, but she gave me the most memorable birthday gift.  And for me, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  It’s the gift I give to others who are also helping their parents end well.  But really it’s the gift we give ourselves, if we are open to walking through the pain and turning healing to hope.

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. (2 Corinthians 1:4, NLT)

For more on this story, purchase a copy of Journeys to Mother Love, through my site, or through your favorite book seller.

Coming Up for Air

Blind trust… that’s what it takes to weather a wilderness season—like the Israelites wondering for 40 years in the desert.  The Lord was preparing them for something greater, but first they had to learn to trust Him.

Mount Sinai, where God met the Israelites in the desert.

Mount Sinai, where God met the Israelites in the desert.

I’ve been in the wilderness most of this year. It didn’t start out that way. I recently got a glimmer of hope, a flicker of inspiration, and decided it’s time to surface for some air, so to speak, to bring some Light into the Darkness.

An Unexpected Loss

Earlier this year my life took an unexpected turn when I returned to full-time work to manage a major computer conversion project at my husband’s office. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that decision led to putting my writing on hold.  It was subtle at first, no time to blog led to no motivation or inspiration to blog. That led to no journaling. There were no words. It was as if my writing died and along with it I lost my voice.

It was like I lost my best friend.  I went through the various stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  The only thing missing for this dearly departed loved one was a funeral.

coffin-rose

Work, work, work—the long days, week after week, and month after month caught up with me—physically and emotionally.

When I finally realized it and things began to stabilize, I started to put in boundaries around the number of days I worked and inserted some much needed self-care.  Even with that I’ve found it very hard to write.  My writing muscle is weak and, like exercise, I need to start working out that muscle again!

Left-Brain Thinking

I got some interesting insight into my dilemma about a month ago while reading The Seven Mountain Prophesy by Johnny Enlow.  This book reveals prayer strategies for the seven mountains or sectors of society of every nation of the earth: media, government, education, economy, religion, celebration, and family.  As a prayer intercessor, this keenly interested me.

It was in the chapter on education that I had a profound revelation about my work habits and inability to write.

Left-brain thinking, when it becomes dominant, squeezes out the things of the Spirit of God.  The right brain isn’t the kingdom of God, but it’s the part of the brain God created to be open to respond to His ways.  It’s the chimney through which faith is accessed.  You can quote all the scriptures on faith and understand the logic of faith, but only the right brain can tap into the actual substance of faith.

left-right

It hit me like a ton of bricks.  My thinking was dominated by my left brain.  Day after day, I was sucked into the challenges at work.  I couldn’t get my brain to stop thinking about it.  The work consumed me, much like an addiction.  Or so I wondered at times.

Addiction?  Passion?  Or ADHD?  All I can say is that it is a struggle for me—a constant battle for balance.  It is most assuredly fed by my ADHD and my difficulty in switching gears.  (A common symptom for people with ADHD is a broken internal ‘gear-shifter’ due to chemical imbalances in the brain.)

God’s Thinking

Old habits die hard.  I was governed by my left brain for decades.  Everything was logical, analytical, and rational—until I got into recovery over 12 years ago.

In recovery I started to see and experience things from God’s perspective, like the Beatitudes and their upside down thinking:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Matthew 5:3-6

be-stillWhen Jesus came into the world, he challenged people to use their right brain—to see things from God’s perspective and to live by faith.  He challenged the Pharisees and biblical scholars of his day.

He turned water into wine.  He walked on water.  He fed 5,000 with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread.  To top it all off, he had more food leftover than when he started.  These are things of the Spirit and are derived when we open ourselves up to getting in touch with the invisible things of God.

Coming Up for Air

Throughout this year even though I’ve been consumed with the situation at work, I’ve protected my weekly appointment time with God.  It kept me sane, refreshed and focused on the bigger purpose of why I was called out of retirement back to secular work.  My prayer times also gave me a break from left-brain thinking.  That alone wasn’t enough to inspire me to write though.

With new boundaries in place and a greater attempt at balancing my life, I hope to invest in some writing time again.  It’s been a five-year journey, so maybe I really needed a break.

Like the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert learning to trust God, I too have been leaning on Him and learning to trust.  I sense my time in the desert maybe be coming to an end or at least I’ve reached a temporary oasis.  The Lord has given me some new inspiration and brought meaning out of this wilderness season.

swim-air

So with this post, I am officially coming up for air and hope to surface more regularly, taking bigger gulps of air and the Spirit of God in the process.

If you’re in a wilderness season, don’t despair. God is nearer than you think.  I’d love to hear how He is stretching your trust muscle.  May this serve as inspiration and hope on your journey.

‘Tis Better to have Loved and Lost…

The title for this post comes from a quote by British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).  You’ve no doubt heard the quote before: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.”

What brings me to this harsh reality at this point in my life?  The death of a loved one?  The end of a significant relationship in my life?

Better to have loved 2

No, it is the loss of some significant mementos in my life, leading to a rather sudden wave of shock and grief.  Some may laugh when I divulge my loss.  But if you have a heart for the sentimental, you will surely understand.

Read on to hear how a seemingly insignificant loss led to such an emotional response…like the death of a loved one.

A Sentimental Practice

The story actually dates back to January 2008 when I started the practice of saving memorable and encouraging voicemail messages on my mobile phone.  The first one was an especially poignant message left by my husband.  The events surrounding that time were a huge catalyst for healing and restoration in our marriage.  Days before that message was left, my husband came home with a dozen roses and a box of chocolates, bent down on one knee and, after 25 years of marriage proposed to me all over again.

That voicemail message from him was like a love letter from years gone by.

Over the course of the next several years I saved dozens of voicemail messages on my phone from family and friends.   There were messages from women who attended the retreat I led.  There were encouraging messages and prayers from friends who supported me in the ministries where I served and at significant milestones in my speaking and writing career.

I remember one friend who left a message the day after I got news of my first manuscript being accepted.  She jokingly called me a “famous author.”  Even now I can get choked up at the thought of that loving message.

The list goes on and on: a cheerful and proud message from my youngest son when he got his first mobile phone, birthday greetings sung by friends, and a rare birthday call from my father who has since passed away.  Some of those messages and prayers got me through some pretty dark times too.

Many messages revolved around the time of my mother’s illness and passing.  There were urgent messages from the nursing home regarding my mother’s condition and several poignant words of encouragement and prayers when she passed away.  It was the prayers of these women who got me through those painful days of traveling home to bury my mother and give her eulogy.

All of those messages disappeared in an instant…a dagger to my heart.

Black Friday Grief

It happened over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend—Black Friday!!!  Yes, it was a dark Black Friday to me.

I made the arduous decision to upgrade my phone AND change mobile service providers at the same time.  It was the latter that killed the messages.

Black-FridayAs my husband and I sat in the provider’s store, they made every assurance to me that everything would move over to the new phone.

Don’t worry.  Famous last words.

In my heart and my mind though, I knew it wouldn’t be so.  My mind raced through my most important apps and how I use my phone.  Then it hit me, and I asked the dreaded question, “What about my voicemail messages?”

The service rep had no idea the magnitude of the bad news he was imparting on me.  But my husband did.

I had to leave the store for fear of breaking down in public.  I rushed through the mall to the other carrier’s store—the one we were leaving.  They confirmed my worst fear.  It was too late.  The messages were gone forever!

Gone were the love letters from friends and family.  Gone were the prayers of hope.  Gone were the voices from people in my past.

‘Tis Better to have Loved & Lost

Lest you think this is really no big deal, it might help to mention that my #1 love language is words of affirmation (as described in Gary Chapman’s book, “The Five Love Languages”).  The other four love languages are quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.

I give words of affirmation to others and feel most loved when I receive it as well.

So it wasn’t a small matter to me.  I grieved over the loss of those messages.  However, I’m not alone in my grieving of such things.

I recalled a friend who recently lost her mobile phone.  She didn’t have her photos backed up or stored online.  They were gone forever.  She had just returned from a family reunion, seeing her grandchildren and her ailing mother.  She proudly showed off her family photos.  A few weeks later her mother passed away, making the loss of those precious photos even more painful.

Another friend shared how she had deleted voicemail messages from her mother who is now deceased.  Over a year after her mother’s passing, it still brought a tear to her eye as she recalled those memories of her mother’s voice.

When I talked more about the significance of these messages and my grief with my husband, he referenced the above quote by Alfred Lord Tennyson.  I think that was his way of trying to ease my pain.  Lucky for him it had already subsided by that point.  (By the way, don’t share that quote with anyone in the early stages of grief.  It’s like putting salt on a wound.)

As a writer, hearing that quote at that very moment helped me to reframe this grief episode in my life and in my writing.  It REALLY is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

I have loved well, and been loved well by my friends and family over the past several years.  They were the voices I turned to for encouragement, to keep seeking His will for my life and step out of my comfort zone—using my voice to speak and write in ways I never dreamed possible.  I can’t imagine where I would be today without that love and support.  They helped to sustain me.

Messages of love

Words of affirmation and love

Looking at the list of lost calls (yes, I do have screenshots of my visual voice mailbox), I can hear most of them in my mind.  They are not really gone because I have integrated the essence of their love and words of affirmation into my heart and spirit.  I don’t need to lean on them like I did in the past.

Any tears that come to mind now are not of the loss, but are of the beauty, love, and thoughtfulness of these people whom I treasure.  I’m feeling loved.  That love, like the Love of our Heavenly Father, has equipped me to freely give it back to others.

On that note, I gotta wrap this up.  It’s time to pass the love on with words of affirmation to others who need it, including my thoughtful and supportive readers.  Thanks for cheering me on, leaving comments and liking my posts.  May the love I have in my heart for you, inspire you to turn healing into hope.

12/11/2015 Update:  Do you watch “The Middle” on ABC? I laughed so hard when I watched this week’s episode.  One of the kids accidentally deleted all of the family digital photos on the computer (not backed up, of course).  The family then goes on a hunt to find a box of the old printed photos.  The storyline hit way to close to home after writing this post and losing my voicemail messages the week before.

Hope you enjoy this little bit of holiday humor on “The Middle,” Frankie weeps after losing all her photos.

 

On Red Alert for the Spiritual Needs in France

My heart was heavy this morning as I awoke to more news about the awful terrorist attacks in Paris yesterday. As an American, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the attacks on our country on 9/11/2001.

Horrific.  Senseless.  Pure evil.

Pray for Paris

Where were you when…?

Will this be another day in history that we point to like 9/11 saying, “Where were you when you heard the news of the Friday the 13th Paris terrorist attacks?”

Late yesterday afternoon while waiting in the reception room for a chiropractic appointment, to pass the time I scanned Facebook on my cell phone. As seems to be more and more the case lately, that is where I hear of this sort of breaking news.

Friends were posting updates to pray for Paris. My attention quickly switched to the internet for the latest news, but was interrupted when I was called in to see my doctor for an adjustment followed by a well-deserved massage appointment.

Then late in the day my attention returned to the events across the world while watching a network news show dedicated to this topic. I’m not one to watch these sorts of shows, usually focused on sensational journalism and high profile events. However, this was different because I have a connection to Paris and France in general.

Paris police

My French Connection

Ever since my mission to France last fall, the people and this country have more meaning and significance to me and in my prayer life.

I was only in Paris for a few hours between connections while traveling to Grenoble, France where I stayed with my missionary partners and spoke at their church.

I could’ve bypassed Paris, made a shorter layover, etc. However, when I started booking my travel arrangements, I felt God press upon me to visit Notre Dame and to pray for the people of France.

There were many obstacles that I overcame to do that, including averting the Air France strike while traveling. Through God’s providence and against all physical odds, I arrived on the footsteps of Notre Dame Cathedral five minutes before the noon Mass.

I prayer-walked through the cathedral and through the streets of Paris that day. It was a spiritual high for me.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

After having such a spiritual experience in Paris last fall, the sense of darkness hit me again last night as I watched the scenes from Paris: images of people’s bodies lying in the streets covered with white sheets, police cordoning off and guarding areas like armed militia, and hearing eye witness accounts of what happened.

Before I arrived in Paris last fall, I researched the religious history of France. I was aghast at the religious wars that were fought in this country. It led to a huge divide in the country.

Even today there is still animosity and emotional wounds carried down through family generations between Catholics and Protestants in France. This has led to apathy for organized religion in general and a dramatic decline in church attendance.

The Ongoing Battle

Centuries ago, the blood of the martyrs was splattered throughout this country. Yesterday new blood was splattered on the streets of Paris—unsuspecting victims in a new battle.

My heart aches. In my mind I pray more fervently.

Centuries ago the Huguenots fought for their religious beliefs against the kings and queens of France. The battle lines were drawn. There were persecutions, forced conversions, and ostracisms from society.

Today Parisians, Americans, and people across the world are also caught up in an invisible battle for our souls. It is terrorist attacks like the one yesterday that remind us of the evil intentions of cowardly soldiers who secretly plot against our society.

Their tactic is fear. They are being misled by the biggest enemy we have.

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44, NIV)

One of many memorial sites cropping up in Paris.

One of many memorial sites cropping up in Paris.

On Red Alert to Pray

As Christians, we are called to put on the Armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). Our strategy is to fight our battles in prayer first. Let’s not be misled by the lies of the Enemy.

It is the Blood of Jesus that overcomes the blood that is splattered across the land in countries across the world.

I am praying for the comfort of the families affected by these horrible crimes against humanity. Like a security alert system that sounds a loud signal of imminent danger, I am also on red alert to pray for God’s power to be poured out on the people of France, for a spiritual awakening and renewal of their Christian faith.

Let us all pray as we feel led for the spiritual and physical needs in France.

In times of tragedy, cry out to God. He will hear you.

In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. (Psalm 18:6, NIV)

He is listening now to our prayers and petitions for France.

To read about the Paris attacks from the perspective of my colleagues in France, click here.

Another Life Lost to Cancer too Soon

I recently heard of another friend losing their battle to cancer. Her name was Mary Ann. She was a part of the group of friends I hung around with back in Illinois at Monmouth College. We were all feeling a loss as the news trickled across Facebook last week.

College friend Mary Ann, Fall 1982

College friend Mary Ann, Fall 1982

Mary Ann was a brave woman fighting for her life against cancer. Fighting that is until about two months ago when she found out that her cancer had spread to her liver. She posted on Facebook: “We have decided to move to hospice care instead of putting me through more debilitating treatments that could possibly shorten what time I have left to spend with friends and family.”

That post sent shock, sympathy, and sadness through our college network of mutual friends. She was in my thoughts and prayers ever since.

Remembering Mary Ann

As I reflected on my friendship with Mary Ann, a woman of Chinese descent, I dug out old Christmas cards and annual holiday portraits from a filing drawer neatly organized and stuffed full of such items from friends and family over the years. It’s one of those things that my husband would probably prefer that I get rid of. But on that night they served me well to pay tribute to my old college friend.

On her wedding day, 1997

On her wedding day, 1997

Mary Ann was young—a mere 56 years old when she passed away. She found love later in life than most of the college gang, marrying her husband Jerry 16 years after graduation.  By that time I had already moved to Seattle and had a 2-week old baby. A trip back to Illinois for the wedding was not possible. They vacationed in Seattle once, and we spent some time sightseeing with them.

In 2005, Jerry and Mary Ann adopted a baby girl from China. Every year since then she sent photos of their darling daughter. At first it was photos of their small family, but it soon turned to photos just of her daughter.

One year she wrote how she loved receiving our annual letter and wanted to do the same herself. Multiple times she indicated her desire to start scrapbooking. I don’t think she ever did. But she did tell me one year that she was hooked on rubberstamping. The year that they adopted their daughter, she sent a nice typed letter describing the adoption process:

Mary Ann family After a year of completing various paperwork for the U.S. and Chinese governments and 6 months waiting for a referral, Jerry and I traveled to China in February of this year to receive our daughter.

We spent about 2½ weeks in China waiting for passports and visas for her. During that time, we did a little sightseeing and spent time getting to know each other. We were lucky to be able to spend a day visiting the childhood village of Mary Ann’s father taking lots of video and photographs to bring home to her dad and siblings.

It has been a fun year watching our daughter grow and learn things on her own and from her cousins. We have been discovering all the family-friendly places in the area.

We have truly been blessed this year.

My heart aches for this young girl now, just entering puberty and without a mother to see her through the years of seeking her own identity and independence. I pray that the Lord will heal her heart over time.

College Memories

Mary Ann and all of my Monmouth College cronies have been in my thoughts a lot lately. Earlier this summer I was working on some page layouts in my scrapbook from our 25-year reunion. That was in 2006, and was the last time I saw Mary Ann.

That reunion was a marvelous experience for us all. I had been in Seattle for almost 20 years by then. It was before Facebook and social media was popular. Our main contact was through holiday cards and letters or an occasional email. Being back together after so many years was a priceless experience. We shared memories of the past and laughed so hard at times I cried. It was like we had never parted. (Below are some memories from that reunion weekend.)

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I miss those days—days when we didn’t have to carry such heavy burdens and responsibilities, days when we lived, dined, studied, and played together. We were a creative bunch—involved in the college newspaper, yearbook, radio station (me), theater, or music.

The one thing many of us had in common was meeting at the Christian fellowship group, Ichthus, our freshman year.  It also helped that the girls all lived on the same floor in McMichael Hall. We became best buddies.

Mary Ann was only at Monmouth for two years. She was in a nursing program that required a transfer to Rush University in Chicago after her sophomore year. But she returned on occasional visits and remained close to several group members.

When marriage entered the picture for us, some of these girlfriends were in each other’s wedding parties. At my wedding in 1983, Mary Ann greeted guests as they arrived and had them sign the guest register.

Final Thoughts on my Friend

My parting thoughts of Mary Ann go back to an email exchange we had about a month ago. I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to write her about the healing aspects of writing.

I want to encourage you to write as you feel led for your family, leaving them something that will help them when you are gone.  Maybe you could write a letter for your daughter on her wedding day, or other significant milestone.  I know it won’t be easy.  But please rest assured that whatever you do, it will bring them closer to you and keep your memory and love for them alive.

I was glad to hear back that the hospice people were helping her to write. Unbeknownst to me, Mary Ann passed away a week after that communication.

Writing this now doesn’t feel particularly eloquent. (I wonder what grade my former English professor would give me.)  But with the recent knowledge of Mary Ann’s passing several weeks ago, I felt compelled to write—to somehow give back a little bit of Mary Ann—to her friends and family, or just to the old gang from Monmouth College.

The spring of our freshman year at Monmouth College.

The spring of our freshman year at Monmouth College.

I don’t know the kind of impact my life has had on these friends and comrades from the past. I know I’m not the same person that I was back then—none of us are. Although we are thousands of miles apart and our lives have rarely intersected over the last few decades since college graduation, I know we all treasure the memories of that special time in life that we shared together.

The next time we gather together at a reunion, we will all have a hole in our hearts and sadness to share over her parting. We lost a true gem of a woman when Mary Ann passed away. She was caring, gentle, funny, and most of all brave.  If I close my eyes and think of her, I can still hear her cute giggle.  It brings a smile to my lips and tears to my eyes.

Mary Ann, your brightness shines from Above on those whose lives you touched. Rest in Peace, my our friend.

A Mother’s Day Gift for my Sons & my Readers

The last time I saw my mother alive was five years ago over Mother’s Day weekend.  As I wrote in “Walking My Mother Home,” my story in Journeys to Mother Love, these trips back home were instrumental to my healing.

My First Manuscript

That story is very sacred to me.  The writing was covered in prayer by my closest friends.  It was written through tears of joy.

“Walking My Mother Home” was my first manuscript submitted to a publisher.  I was nervous about sharing it with the world.  Only a select few ever read the submitted manuscript.  And it wasn’t until Cathy Lawton, the publisher at Cladach Publishing, notified me that they accepted my story that I even read it again myself.

Toasting the acceptance of my manuscript with a friend, January 2012.

Toasting the acceptance of my manuscript with a friend, January 2012.

In 2012, while the book was still being edited, I decided to give the manuscript and an accompanying letter as a gift to my sons for Mother’s Day.  I had a heartfelt conversation with them after my mother’s passing the year before, and tried to explain the significance of what happened to me.  Now with the imminent publishing of the story for the whole world to see, it was time to give them some more personal insight into my healing and my journey to mother love.

A Gift to my Sons

Dear Boys,

As Mother’s Day approached this week, I’ve been reminded many times that the last time I saw my mother alive was on Mother’s Day 2010.  A lot has happened in our lives in the two years since then…

Since you are males, you will probably never understand the bond between a mother and daughter.  But you will marry one day and will have to understand and be caring with your own wife and the relationship that she has with her mother.  I hope and pray that I can have a loving relationship with my daughters-in-law too.

As you know, I didn’t have a close relationship with my mother, not so much by choice, but by natural consequence because of her mental illness.  As my mother neared the end of her life though, God made it very clear to me that I needed closure and restoration with our relationship.  The attached manuscript is that story.

What I hope and pray you will see in this story is the same thing I want others to see—how following God’s will for our lives, through the good and the bad, leads to amazing blessings.  I want you to embrace opportunities when God wants to use you.  It won’t be easy.  But that is where the biggest blessings come into play—when we are stretched beyond our comfort zone and have to rely on Him.  He shows up when we lean on Him.  We just have to trust Him.

So as I start on my writing journey, I wanted you to know that is exactly what I am doing.  I am trusting that God is behind this and that He will use it.

I love you both dearly.  I hope and pray that when you look back at your lives that you will remember that legacy that I want to leave for you.  I want you to trust God and follow Him all the days of your life.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

With all my love,
Mom

With my sons on the Seattle waterfront, Mother's Day 2012.

With my sons on the Seattle waterfront, Mother’s Day 2012.

Paying the Gift Forward

If you already own a copy of Journeys to Mother Love, I’m sure you will agree that mothers of all ages can relate to these stories.  If don’t own the book, you can purchase an autographed copy here.

May your Mother’s Day be filled with blessings and hope from the Creator of motherly love, our Heavenly Father.

Mothers-Day-Flowers

The Last Time I Saw my Mother Alive

Mother’s Day 2015 marks the 5th anniversary of the last time I saw my mother alive.  As I approach this anniversary and invite God into my healing and memories of this day, I am struck by the circumstances surrounding that trip back home to Illinois.

Mom & me, first visit back home, November 2009.

Mom & me, first visit back home, November 2009.

Prompted to Visit one Last Time

As I wrote in “Walking my Mother Home,” my story in Journeys to Mother Love, the decision to visit my 79-year-old mother was a difficult one for me.  I kept her at arms-length for most of my adult life due to her mental illness.  The Lord had prompted me in later years to restore that relationship.

I hadn’t seen her on Mother’s Day for decades.  Her stroke ten months prior left her paralyzed and unable to speak.  She had been on hospice for the last six of those months.  The waiting seemed endless to me as my mind would drift to my mother’s suffering 2,000 miles away.

Out of the blue in April 2010 I got a call from a nurse at my mother’s nursing home.  Mom had bruising on her right leg.  It was either a sign of a worsening internal medical condition or uncharacteristically rough treatment by the nursing home staff.  An investigation was underway to determine the cause.  Either way, the answer was not going to be welcome news.

That call was the catalyst that sent me on my journey home to see my mother for the last time.

Not Quite What I Expected

When I arrived at the nursing home to see my Mom on Mother’s Day weekend, I wasn’t prepared to deal with the amount of decline in her medical condition.  The easiest way to describe what I experienced on that visit is to share an email I sent to a pastor at my church after my return.

“Thanks for asking about my mom.  The best I can say about her is that she is stable.  They are trying to keep her comfortable and free of pain.  Her leg is immobilized and will never heal.  They only get her out of bed once a day now—instead of twice—if at all.  She mostly refuses to be fed and is hooked up to a feeding tube.  She’s had that since November, but when I was there then I was able to at least feed her.

It was extremely difficult.  I didn’t realize how much she had deteriorated.  She said my name once.  One of the highlights of my trip was being able to take her only living sibling (a sister) to see her.  While my 50th birthday in November was an amazing day with her, Mother’s Day was quite the opposite.  I’m unsure why God nudged me to go, but I know I gave her some happiness for a brief time.”

My aunt praying for my mother.

My aunt praying for my mother.

Joy and Sorrow

I remember one of the fun things I was able to share with her on this trip was my change of hair color.  My own health condition had improved (chemical sensitivity) and I could color my hair again with a natural hair product.  The last time she saw me my hair was salt and pepper (shades of gray).  This time my hair was a vibrant red, not much dissimilar to her own hair color that I remembered from my youth.  I know it pleased her (and my aunt) to see it.

I left her with two physical gifts for Mother’s Day.  One was a bracelet, and the other was a 10-bead bracelet type rosary known as a decade, to replace the lost rosary I gave her on a previous visit.  They weren’t much, but I wanted to leave her with a small memento of my love and our time together.

A teary goodbye, May 2010.

A teary goodbye, May 2010.

Saying goodbye on this trip was much harder than before.  My siblings and I had such a beautiful visit and parting farewell with her on our last visit.  I didn’t understand why God would allow her to suffer like this.  Leaving then in December 2009, I thought her time was imminent.  Now on this Mother’s Day in 2010, I just wanted it all to end—not for me, but for her.

“Please Lord, let her pass peacefully in her sleep and don’t prolong this any longer,” I prayed as I walked through the hallways of the nursing home on my way to the car.  The next time I would walk these corridors would be to meet staff to plan her memorial service after she passed away nine months later.

Beauty from Ashes

My prayer wasn’t really answered as I had hoped.  God did orchestrate a beautiful passing for her though.  My brother Glen and his wife were by her side.  I was able to pray over her through the phone.  She felt my love as she left this earth, and she had it with her those long months as she waited for the Lord to take her home.

When I returned back to Illinois to bury my mother in February 2011, the staff at the nursing home gave me her personal affects.  After residing there for seven years, my mother barely owned anything, and there was nothing of intrinsic value.  One trinket that did make it home with me was the bracelet I bought her for Mother’s Day.  It now resides on my dresser inside the prayer box that holds some of her remains.

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The bracelet is tarnished and broken, similar to how I felt throughout much of my life.  But on that day in February 2011, I felt peace and joy.  Her passing helped me to see that she didn’t leave me a legacy of mental illness as I feared, but one of hope and healing.  That is what I treasure on Mother’s Day and every day since her passing.  God restored beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3) and turned my mourning into gladness (Jeremiah 31:13).

A Love Letter to God

I’m a big proponent of letter writing—for healing, for building relationship, for encouragement, for love, and for getting in touch with one’s heart.  I’ve shared several sample letters to family here or on my publisher’s blog like A Letter to My MomA Letter on Leaving the Nest, or most recently Keeping Our Loved Ones’ Memories Alive.

This post involves a different slant to the letter writing therapeutic tool that I recommend.  It is for our spiritual growth.

letter to godA Delicate Balancing Act in Recovery

In a women’s recovery group that I co-lead, an assignment was recently given to write a thank you letter to God.  The Step Study group was at the mid-point in the 4th Step, where we “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

As you can imagine Step 4 is a painful process.  We are unearthing and writing down the ugly things we’ve done or what’s been done to us in the past.  Scary, yet freeing stuff—and not for the faint of heart—which is why we do it in the structured community of a Step Study group.

The thank you letter to God was assigned to help participant’s look beyond the pain of the past and to see the good side—to assist in balancing the good with the bad.  I was so touched by one woman’s letter that I asked for her permission to share it with my readers.

It is really poetic.  So please read it slowly, like a poem, and let the words gently stir your heart.

A Love Letter to God

“Dear Beyond-belief loving and merciful Lover of my soul,

Words cannot express the magnitude of the blessings you have heaped upon me—and that doesn’t even account for the blessings for which I am oblivious about.  I am left in awe!

Me, a worm, with my ugly sin and unworthiness—yet You purchased me with the blood of Your only begotten Son—so that I may be a daughter of the King of the Universe, to live where the streets are made of gold, the gates are pearly, and precious stones abound.  And I even have a crown, a special name, which is engraved in the palm of Your hand and You rejoice over me with singing…

How can it be that lowly me would be accepted as an heir in Your kingdom?

Truly, eternity is not long enough to thank you for the perfect plan of salvation, the undeserving grace, mercy, love and forgiveness.

Forever in the care of Your loving and gentle arms,
Me”

Lovely, isn’t it?  Where do words like this—words of deep gratitude and awe—come from?  Truly they were Holy Spirit inspired.

Thankful in all Circumstances

In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, we are commanded to “give thanks in all circumstances.”  It is not an easy thing to do.  We have to choose to do it despite how we feel.  It is taking our act of faith to a higher level, and thereby allowing God to work more freely in our lives.

1-thessalonians-5-18

When was the last time you thanked God for the blessings in your life?

When was the last time you thanked Him for the simple pleasures?

For the miracles?

Or for the hardships? (Especially the hardships?)

You don’t have to be in a recovery program (like Celebrate Recovery) or working through the 12 Steps to exercise your will to be thankful in all circumstances.

Take some quiet time today or one day this week to let the Holy Spirit move you to write a love letter to God.  You’ll be amazed by the gifted writer that is hiding inside your soul.

Thank you Ruth for letting me share your letter.  May it inspire others to see the love of our Heavenly Father in their lives.

Keeping our Loved ones’ Memories Alive, Part 2

In Part 1 of this post series, I wrote about my 3rd annual letter to my mother after her passing, and shared an excerpt.  Does writing a letter to a deceased loved one seem like an odd thing to do?  I wondered that myself.

Chapter 3 is Verna's story.

Chapter 3 is Verna’s story.

I got the idea from Verna Hill Simms, author (Water Under the Bridge) and contributor to Journeys to Mother Love (along with me).  In her story, “Take Care of Your Mother,” she described how she writes a letter to her deceased mother every year on her mother’s birthday.  At the time our book was published, she had written over 30 letters.

Wisdom from an Older Woman

I reached out to Verna, who will be 94 next month, to ask about her annual practice.  We had never communicated in the past, so I was delighted to receive such a timely and thoughtful response to my email.  Here is Verna’s response:

“I write to Mother because she loved getting mail and I do too. I feel it is another way I can keep her memory alive for my daughters and grandchildren. Hopefully after I am gone the letters will be read and perhaps kept. I have a few letters my mother wrote to her sister around the time I was born and one my paternal grandmother wrote when I was 2 or 3 and I prize them.”

“Keep her memories alive!”  Yes, that is it in a nutshell.  Writing to our deceased loved ones is a way of keeping their memories alive.  It is not just for our benefit, but as in Verna’s case, maybe our letters can be handed down and treasured by future generations as well.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

My mother lived her last seven years in nursing homes.  I took up writing letters to her.  She couldn’t easily read them and so the nursing staff would read them to her.  Because of her health, she couldn’t write back to me. (I received a few of my cards and letters to her with her personal belongings after she passed away.)

letterI have a stack of letters from my mother dating back to my days in college.  I have read them from time to time.  I didn’t appreciate them much in my youth, but now I have a new lens—one of a mother whose children are leaving the nest and is learning to let go.  Her letters comfort me, as I see her love for me in new ways.  They keep her memories alive.

My letter writing has also turned to Rosa, Pedro’s mother, in Spain, commencing with the terminal diagnosis of her mother four years ago.  Rosa and I still communicate through the aid of an online translator in our letters across the globe.  These letters keep our relationship alive though 5,300 miles apart.

Unfortunately, letter writing is becoming a lost art.  It is sadly being replaced by short bursts of text messages beeping on our phones!  (But that is a whole other blog post.)

Benefits of Writing a Deceased Loved One

Because I started this practice of writing my deceased mother for continued healing of my mother/daughter wound, there are parts of my letters that are too personal to publically share or pass on to my family.  However, my annual letters are definitely a way to keep my mother’s memories alive.  It is a way to honor her life and her legacy by taking time out of my busy schedule to spend deliberate and thoughtful time with her.

When I asked my therapist about this practice she gave me lots of clarity and insight on why this is definitely a healthy practice, and worth continuing.  Since my mother had a nervous breakdown when I was 6-years-old, I never really got to know her as a person, nor as an adult.  By writing my mother now,

  • I am letting my mother get to know me.
  • I am having an adult conversation with her.
  • I am building my empathy as I see her through the eyes of an adult.
  • I am identifying who I am and learning more about myself.
  • I am having a relationship with her spirit, not the mentally ill woman she was. (It even feels sacred!)

Love to you Mom, and Happy Birthday!

Hearing these things gave me more confidence in pursuing this annual tribute to my mother.  We weren’t close while she was alive.  Her nervous breakdown when she was 35 years old changed the trajectory of our lives, separating us emotionally for the rest of her life.

Don’t Forget

I don’t want to forget her.  I don’t want to forget the legacy that she left me.  So I choose to keep that alive by writing her every year.  More than that, I am writing about it here on my blog, to inspire others to likewise turn healing into hope.

My mother would’ve been 84 last week.  Happy birthday Mom!  It’s been great getting to know you!________________________________________________________________________________

Verna Hill-SimmsMore about Verna: Verna Hill Simms, started her writing career at the age of 80 after answering a small ad in her local newspaper to form a writers group.  She joined the Jefferson County (Missouri) Writer’s Society, saying it has been one of the best decisions she ever made.

Verna’s book, Water Under the Bridge, is a historical novel, published by Rocking Horse Publishing in March 2014.  Her book is mostly fiction, but a lot of the story mirrors the life she led in the 1920s along with her friends.  Water Under the Bridge is available in both paperback and Kindle on Amazon.  For more about Verna’s journey into publishing, click here.

Keeping our Loved ones’ Memories Alive, Part 1

Every year I mark the anniversary of my mother’s passing by writing her a letter.  For the past two years I’ve published excerpts of those letters online to model healing and vulnerability, and hopefully to inspire others to do the same.  Those posts still rank among the most popular posts I’ve written.

JVB TributePreparing to Write

This year’s letter, written on the eve of the 4th anniversary of her passing, was just as hard to write as the few before.  I warned my family days in advance that I would need some time to myself to do this annual practice.  I had hoped to get away and work on the tribute scrapbook I started after her passing, but those plans fell through as well.

My family went out for the evening leaving me alone with my laptop and Zoe, our miniature Schnauzer and my faithful companion.  In the past I had written her about the changes I was going through internally, and the decision I made to take medication for my ADHD.  The latter decision was only possible because I had finally dealt with my fears of medication due in part to what I witnessed in her lifelong struggle with mental illness and psychiatric drugs.

What to Write About

This year, I pondered why I was writing her again.  Was it a healthy thing to do—write a letter to a deceased person?  I knew that letter writing was a good tool for healing.  I used it before in my spiritual and recovery related classes.  But what was the purpose in writing an annual letter?  I sat with that indecision briefly, prayed about what was on my heart, and proceeded to pen my longest letter yet to my mother.  (It seems I had a lot to say!)

Our happy family, before mom’s nervous breakdown, circa 1964.

Growing up without the emotional stability and attachment from my mother has left me longing in many areas of my life.  I’ve gotten some of those maternal needs met through my Sisters in Christ and my long journey to love with my stepmother as well.  Questions still linger though that are specific to my family of origin and what I didn’t get from her.

For instance, my mother spent many years seeing a psychiatrist.  She never shared what happened in those sessions.  I do know it was something that she looked forward to every week.  I’ve re-entered the therapeutic process myself to deal with the effects of my ADHD and to support my son’s similar struggles.  I too have come to look forward to those weekly visits and have more empathy for what my mother must’ve been going through.  I imagine it was her lifeline, as my counseling sometimes feels like it is for me.

Reading my Letter

I chose to read my letter to my counselor and ask her my nagging question:  “Is this healthy?”

She loved my question and enjoys watching how I am integrating the challenges I am facing as I come to terms with my ADHD.  Her response to my question was a resounding “yes!”  She went on to explain how my letters are catalysts for continued healing from my mother wound (by offering my forgiveness) and is bringing great revelation into who I am as a person (and connecting it to my mother).  Those were welcome words to someone who at times feels like I am walking around in a state of disequilibrium.

The main point I finished my letter with was how my mother’s faith changed mine as well:

“The faith steps that I took to minister to you in your final months, and to bury you, gave me such a depth of trust in the Lord.  It brought me back to Him in ways that I wouldn’t have possibly considered in the past.

It led me to Spain (and France), not just to meet Rosa and see the sights, but to pray for His people there.  He prepared me for that and met me there…

Prayers sent heavenward in the French Alps, Sept. 2014.

Prayers sent heavenward in the French Alps, Sept. 2014.

…If I have any legacy or fruit of righteousness that will grow in those countries, you will have it too.  Your faith planted the seeds for me.  I hope you are privy to that now and have a glimpse into what lies ahead for the Church. 

…Thank you Mom for your faith, for investing in me when I was young, and fighting the good fight until the end.  Your story is important.  I pray that in time, I can share it to a larger audience, and that it inspires others to embrace forgiveness and healing so that they too may live with the eternal Hope that comes from Above.

Love,
Ardis”

In Part 2 of this post series, I’ll address other benefits of this annual practice and introduce you to another author who has been doing this for over 30 years.

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    I'm an author, writer, speaker, mentor & mom. I've struggled to find my voice all my life as I lived in the shadows of a mother with mental illness. Thankfully that was not the legacy that she handed down to me. It took a lot of recovery and deep healing work to rise above it.

    I am thankful to God for Making Me Bold in the process. Now I use my writing and speaking voice to help others on their journey to turn healing into hope.

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