Going to church again

It’s been a damp couple of days. There was a steady rain for a good part of the day yesterday and into the night. The trees are heavy this morning with the weight of all that water.


Having to stay inside has given me a chance to do what I set out to do this weekend. And so I have. Regrouped that is. Somewhat anyway.

After the past few weeks, helping my parents prepare for the move, Brad home for a visit last weekend, having family over for dinner so he could see everyone … the house was in need of a pick-me-up. Call me crazy, but getting my household back in order … cleaning, scrubbing, tackling the mountain of laundry … restores some of my own sense of calm.

The relatively quiet scheme of my weekend has allowed me to chip away that all that needs doing around here while still finding some time to unwind. Saturday allowed me a chance to write, something I’ve been sorely missing lately. I got to do a little shopping for summer clothes, and go see one of my brother-in-law’s bands play at a coffee shop. (Not one of my brother-in-laws plural. One of the several bands of which my brother-in-law, Kevin is a member. He plays bass and I think it’s pretty cool that he can put his passion to practice so thoroughly!)

I also went to church yesterday, which is something I’ve been trying to get back to regularly for quite a while. I think I’ve finally found a place I want to be. It feels good to be going again after having lapsed for a period of five or so years, give or take the periodic wedding, funeral and “C and E” visits. Actually, even our Christmas and Easter visits had lapsed over the last couple of years. I figured it was hypocritical of us to show up twice a year when we didn’t bother the rest of the year. Besides, when I was a regular church-goer, it sort of bothered me that seating in church was at a premium twice a year. What was the point of going if I knew full well I wasn’t going to continue going.

I’ve gone, I think, five weeks in a row now. My sister and her husband (he of the many bands) had gone for their first time, and afterwards, she extended a casual invitation to join them the following weekend. I said maybe, at first. Then a voice inside told me to just commit. Half of my inability to make a habit of going to church was my dislike for going it alone all the time. Here was a chance to explore a new place with familiar people alongside me. So I did.

I guess it’s considered a mega-church and this particular location is pretty new, maybe a year old. It’s one of several campuses in this area. For years, I’ve seen cars in traffic with these little acronym window stickers advertising the church, which I always thought was sort of weird. Never thought I’d end up going there, but here I am.

My first time in, I was a bit overwhelmed. It’s like no church I’ve ever been in. The building is enormous and beautiful, and I noticed right away that the people there were relaxed and welcoming. There’s a welcome desk, a book store, a whole wing of kids and meeting areas. And there’s a coffee shop where you can buy a cup of your favorite black or froufrou variety coffee to enjoy during services. This is all very foreign for a life-long Catholic, and at first feels a bit uncertain, like… Should we really be drinking coffee in church? Is this okay?

It is.

That first morning, I walked in with my sister and her family about ten minutes before services began. We walked almost to the front, taking seats about seven rows back from the stage. No altar. No statues of saints. No stained glass windows. I know that might bother some who’ve spent a lifetime attending a traditional church. For me, it was neither here nor there. Background music was playing through the sound-system. I recognized it was Jonny Lang. Cool! I looked around me and saw that we were in a massive multi-level auditorium that was quickly filling up. What struck me the most is that everyone seemed so happy. There was much hand-shaking and hugging going on, and every face seemed to be smiling. People were happy to be there.

The services, I’ve learned, always begin with a set of music. This is what really hooked me at first. There are all kinds of guitars – acoustic, bass, even steel. There are keyboards, drums and violins, tambourines and even clarinets. And the voices of the musicians are amazing. Do you ever listen to music and it’s so good you get chills? That’s what this is like for me.

There are several pastors, men and women of all ages. They dress in everyday clothing. No robes or holy garments. They intersperse stories of their own lives into the messages they deliver. Some are married, some maybe not. They make fun of themselves and talk about their own mistakes. It makes me recognize more easily that even though they are church leaders, they are one of us.

The pastors bring the Bible to life in ways I’ve never known. They focus on a few Bible verses and relate them to everyday life in ways that speak to me. I’m actually reading my Bible these days and beginning to understand it. For most of my life, the family Bible, to me, was simply a household decoration.

The messages engulf me. I find myself so immersed in what is being said that I forget everything and everyone around me. Sometimes they hit home in such a way that I feel like my heart is bursting out of my chest. I’m able to contemplate the words and apply them to my own life, discuss them afterwards with others, and feel excited about it! Still … there remains this lingering guilt inside. Most of the time I tell myself that God wants me to meet Him wherever it is I see and hear Him the best. But there’s that occasional nagging doubt. My upbringing taught me that the Catholic church is the only church. I wonder how much I actually care whether the staunch Catholics in my family disapprove of where I’m attending church. Seriously, I think my dad believes it’s better to be a non-practicing Catholic than a Catholic who consciously chooses to worship in a non-Catholic setting. And I don’t think he’s simply set in his ways. I think he’s actually fearful for those who “should know better” and still choose to break away from tradition. I love my dad, but I am not him and his ways are not my ways.

Yesterday’s message absolutely smashed that doubt. It was all about why this church does things the way they do. It’s about finding common ground with people. Different churches cater to the different needs of various people. For my dad, the Catholic church does it. For me, I just felt aimless there. This new church said to themselves, There’s a big group of people out there not going to church. What can we do to bring them here? And so, they made their space welcoming. Many people like coffee in the morning, so they made a coffee shop and welcomed visitors to enjoy their drinks while listening to the message. Eighty percent of radio stations today play pop and rock music. So the church’s music mirrors that style. They play it loud, so those who are reluctant to be heard outside of their own cars or showers, can join in without feeling self-conscious. There are children and youth ministries that provide video games, sports, and other fun activities alongside the message, so that the kids will want to come to church. No one is sleeping in this church.

I look forward to going there each week, and Mark surprised me with his willingness to join me when it’s not one of his work weekends. I even got Jake to go with one Sunday morning. It was probably the promise of going out for breakfast afterwards that convinced him, but it’s a start. This has been a great way for me to connect with my sister’s family as well, and we’ve made it a regular thing to go out for breakfast afterwards. I have the definite sense that I’m adding some real substance to my week with this growing habit. This is a good thing.

I’ve never remembered a particular Bible verse in my life, but yesterday’s message was supported by one I wanted to remember. 1 Corinthians 9:20 – 22. Written by the apostle, Paul, he’s explaining that whatever group of people he found himself among, he did what he could to become like them, so that in their own surroundings and ways, he could introduce them to God. He didn’t insist that people could only find God in a particular setting, through specific prayers and rituals, by dressing a certain way and singing only a particular type of worship music. He brought people to God in their own spaces and routines. One portion of these Bible verses says, I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

That message swept away any remaining fear that going to the “wrong” church would ensure my demise at the end of this life. Here’s the thing. I’m going to church again. I’m seeking God again. I’m excited and maybe more certain about it than I’ve ever been in my life. While some may disapprove, I know this is what’s right for me.

And while I’m talking about my right to choose where and how, or even if I worship, I’m reminded that today in particular is a day to recognize I’m enjoying this right thanks to the sacrifices made by those who have served in this country’s military. To those who have served, thank you!

Leap of Faith

I was raised Catholic, (strictly Catholic,) and still spent most of my life not really getting it. I’ve known people who seemed almost on fire for God. And I never really understood that, although I found it rather fascinating and always thought it would be pretty cool to be that passionate about your faith. But I was never, ever anywhere near having a faith so deep.

I looked for it. I really thought I did. I thought if I put myself out there enough, in the right situations, I would find ways to experience God. When we were regular attendees at church, I got involved. I volunteered to be a Eucharistic minister. Ultimately, I just felt uncomfortable standing in front of the church serving Communion.

I joined a Bible study once. Lamentations. Bad place to start your first Bible study. I was confused and not the least inspired. And the woman who lead the group was deeply knowledgeable about all things biblical. She looked down her nose on newcomers. She left a bad taste in my mouth and I stopped attending when there were still a couple of classes left to go.

I was an RCIA sponsor once. (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – a process  in which a person spends time learning and studying in order to become a member of the Catholic community.) I spent … I don’t know … six months or so supporting a friend who wanted to become Catholic. I attended weekly classes with her and stood beside her as she was confirmed at the Easter Vigil that year. I remember expecting to feel something really spiritual during that mass. It was the culmination of months of preparation and prayer. I expected to feel something tangible as all of the RCIA candidates were baptised and confirmed. But … nothing. I went home that night feeling disappointed. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to see or feel. I just thought I might feel something really amazing deep down inside.

My friend gave me a woman’s study Bible as a thank you gift for sponsoring her. I tried reading it now and then with little success. Being raised Catholic, I was never required to read the Bible. Don’t laugh! That’s true. My favorite joke was made by a priest I once knew. He told the story of a woman who was going to read one of the gospel readings at mass. She asked him how to pronounce a name in the reading because she didn’t want to say it wrong in front of the whole church. He said to her, “It doesn’t matter how you pronounce it. No one will know the difference. We’re Catholic. We don’t actually read the Bible!”

Eventually I stopped attending church. I was burned out. Part of that had to do with the fact that when you get really involved in church, behind the scenes, you see and experience a lot of not-so religious people and behavior. Our church didn’t feel like a place I wanted to be and that in itself was a problem. I was merely going through the motions, and all of the ritual of the mass just made me feel distracted. No offense intended to anyone who finds God in this setting. I just felt blind to Him there. So I stopped going. It’s not that I stopped believing. I just didn’t see what good church was doing me.

For years, I was in limbo, doing little, but periodically thinking, “I should get back to church … somewhere.”

And then last summer, a coworker shared a book about faith and religion with me. And I felt a spark, which actually felt like hope, and also like happy, and often it meant being able to stop worrying, which I’d become pretty good at. Reading that book led to wanting to and actually reading more books, seeking more information, and a sense that I might finally be starting to know and understand God. I often marvel to myself that it took this long for me to begin to grasp this, but it’s also amazing enough that I’ll finally allow myself to keep finding God where I feel Him, not just where I’ve always thought I was supposed to find Him.

Most of the time this feels like an evolution to me. I find myself attempting to be more positive, more understanding, and more forgiving. Or at least striving to be those things, even while I continue to fail at them fairly often. Every day, I remind myself to be grateful, for everything, even the really challenging stuff. And I’m mellowing out in a lot of ways, I think. Sometimes it feels like a light bulb finally went on. But every once in a while a part of me wonders when all of the wonder and optimism might start to fizzle away again and I will go back to the feeling that stale way I often used to feel.

Then yesterday on lunch break at work, the conversation turned somewhat morbid. My lunch mates were talking about what kinds of personal tragedies they were sure they could never endure. Two of them mentioned friends and relatives who had endured more heartache than any one person should have to in a single lifetime. One of them said, “Doesn’t it just make you wonder if there’s really a God?”

It actually kind of hurt to hear him say that. Which is ironic because not long ago, I don’t think I would have been all that bothered. I didn’t offer a response, mainly because I just didn’t know how to respond to that. (I suppose a simple “no” might have done it.) But it was enough to realize that it bothered me. That’s when I knew, I’ve made a leap.

Former Skeptic Finds Peace and Hope

I didn’t come into 2015 with a well planned list of resolutions, only that I mostly intended to focus on maintaining a positive outlook. I’ve mentioned a few times this mental and spiritual shift I’ve felt inside over the last half a year, and positivity seems to be a recurring theme as I try to nurture this change.

As I continue to write, I keep coming back to this thing that I’m feeling. And I suppose that’s because inside, to me, it feels monumental, even though I know that to the outside world it might be almost imperceptible. My circumstances and physical surroundings remain largely unchanged while mentally I’m seeing things from an entirely different and hopeful perspective. Someone commented that, (at least from my writing,) I’ve always seemed to be a pretty upbeat kind of person. I can see where that would seem true. There are things I’m willing to write and those I choose to hold back.

It’s not that I’ve been unhappy my whole life. It’s more like there was this vague but constant sense that I was missing something. And I couldn’t figure out if it was a legitimate feeling, or if I was just a spoiled brat who couldn’t be content with all the comforts and privileges I’d been blessed with all these years. Whether you could see it or not, I had a good sense of skepticism and sarcasm.

And then seemingly out of the blue, it was like, “Oh! It all makes sense now!” Challenges, people, events and circumstances, both those that are discouraging, and the type I willingly embrace, they all make more sense. These days I feel more able to rise to the occasion. I understand hope. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. It’s enormous, yet it’s simple.

Faith. It makes more sense now. The old me kept trying to find it in the ways and places I was taught are the only right ways and places. I had to finally let myself step out of that mindset to understand that God is happy to have me find Him wherever I do. And if that’s not inside the walls of a church, that’s okay. I still feel like my not “having” a church may only be a temporary thing anyway. Maybe, maybe not. But I had to get past the idea that I was going to disappoint others by not doing things the “right” way. Once I finally got past that roadblock, so much fell into place.

It wasn’t really out of the blue. I believe that now, though it seemed at the time like a combination of life’s circumstances, the right people, and well-timed coincidences that brought me to this changed awareness.

Okay, I can’t help but think I sound like a hippie sometimes. I don’t care. I feel great!

It could just be this is something that comes with age or maybe I’m just a slow learner. Either way, I don’t care because I love this mental and spiritual place that I’m in these days. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Nothing on the outside has changed, but I’m significantly happier and more peaceful than I’ve ever been. And I don’t want to go back to the uptight person who used to be all too familiar to me. Every day now, I seek to feed this state of mind and spiritual awareness. I’ve found things to read (daily devotions, the Bible, websites dedicated to positivity and enlightenment) that keep me grounded in a better place and help me look beyond where I’m at today. And what I really love is that this all seems to draw like-minded people to me. Or me to them. However it works, it’s happening. And the crazier thing is, most of them are people I’ve known for years. I just never knew this side of them. My relationships with a few people are growing deeper day by day, even though I thought we’d come to know everything there was to know about each other.

When I look back on all the years when I remained in such a stagnant place, I feel a little bit regretful. I’ve always been aware that I was fortunate to have the life I’ve had. But that didn’t stop me from feeling my share of distrust, bitterness and self-pity, or that I didn’t have enough things or the right experiences. Sometimes I look back and regret all the things I could have done, but didn’t do so much better, as a wife, parent, daughter, sibling, friend, employee or whatever. Don’t get me wrong. All things considered, things have turned out pretty well. I just often wonder what might be different had I worked harder at some things – like finished college, been a more patient parent, a more forgiving wife, or forgiven myself for all the things I saw merely as my shortcomings instead of as stepping-stones!

I have to keep reminding myself that I’m here now and that’s what matters. The past can’t be changed. All I can do is live better now, in each moment, as it comes.

I was at the gym Thursday morning with my friend, Erin and we were chatting about goals and resolutions. Hers are better defined than mine, but we’re both seriously working to really ingrain a positive mindset within ourselves. I mentioned that in addition to that, I want to work on being more intentional. When she asked what I meant, I said that I’ve spent my entire life always looking ahead, to the point that I often miss what’s right in front of me. She agreed that was a good goal.

I’ve had our conversation in mind since Thursday morning and have been mulling over how to be more intentional. I often trip myself up in my good intentions by becoming so immersed in the daily grind that forget all else. I was thinking about this as I stepped out of my car into the office parking lot yesterday morning. As much as I love my job, I find it hardest change my old ways there. I was trying to remind myself not to get so lost in work that I neglect to face daily challenges from this more positive mindset. I hate when I fall back into my old and negative ways!

hawk on branch_resizedAs I began to walk across the parking lot, I saw a hawk sitting in the bare branches of a tall tree on the edge of the nearby pond. And whether it’s because a hawk isn’t something I see very often, or because his appearance was so regal, or because I’m more likely to look for signs in my surroundings these days, I stood and stared for a moment before he spread his wings and soared away. He was on my mind all day, to the point that I decided to dig deeper.

I loved what I found when I googled the hawk; the idea that animals can possess a spiritual essence. Spirit Animals. Interesting concept! If you’re a believer in such things, here is what my encounter with the hawk is said to mean.

Hawk often represents the ability to see meaning in ordinary experiences if you choose to become more observant.

Many of the messages Hawk brings you are about freeing yourself of thoughts and beliefs that are limiting your ability to soar above your life and gain a greater perspective. It is this ability to soar high above to catch a glimpse of the bigger picture that will allow you to survive and flourish.

I’m going to choose to take this as encouragement that I am moving in the right direction!

Spirit animals, huh? Do I even want to know what all those squirrels in the back yard are trying to tell us? ;-)

It’s a whole new year and anything can happen

The new year began yesterday as I putzed around the house, tackling a few chores. I contemplated the blog post I was sure to write as a means of ushering in 2015 and pondered whether or not I was willing to document any sort of resolutions. Then Mark surfaced from the lower level and asked, “Ready to go?”

“Go? Go where?”

“Dave and Julie’s,” he responded.

Apparently we’d been invited to go watch football and eat lots of food with other people. I guess Mark mentioned this in passing at one point in the past couple of days, but it had evaporated from my thoughts. Besides, I don’t like or understand football so it was relegated to recesses of my brain.

“When does the game start?” I asked. (Since I’m not a football lover, I wasn’t even sure what team we’d be watching.)

“An hour ago,” he replied. (This is why we don’t put Mark in charge of the social calendar. We’d always be late.)



Scratch blog post-a-day from the list of resolutions! It was never a serious consideration anyway. I threw together a plate of summer sausage and seasoned crackers and off we went. We showed up around half-time and spent the afternoon with friends, watching football, talking football, talking other stuff and playing with cute dogs. It was fun, and the homemade chicken wild rice soup was delicious!

After football, we went to my mother-in-law’s place for the evening. Her cul-de-sac was filled with cars. The rest of the family was already there. And there went any chance of writing a well-constructed New Year’s Day blog post. Still, I continued to think about resolutions. I’m not generally one to make them, but considering that I’ve experienced a pretty significant and positive shift of self in the past six months, it seems worthwhile to commit to continued efforts.

I recall that last year at this time, I made myself a Positive Jar with the idea that I’d write down one positive each day and tuck it in the jar. In theory, I should have 365 positive things to look back on by now.

There is actually a grand total of twenty-one written positives in the jar. I managed to write a few, but most of them were contributed by Kacey and her friends, and there’s one from the dog and cat too. Big FAIL on my part! Really, is it ever a good idea to commit to doing anything every single day for an entire year? Even with the best of intentions, life tends to get in the way now and then.

Still, it wasn’t a bad idea. Maybe it was just the wrong medium. I have a blog where I like to document things. Positive stuff could be noted here. Sort of a virtual positive jar. And much more likely to happen.

I used to think that positive thinking was just a trick to encourage ourselves to be more upbeat, and that in the face of real struggle, it had no hope of being truly effective. In the past six months, I’ve learned differently. It started like a little raindrop that turned into a waterfall and me seeking more information. Since then, I’ve been seeking anything and anyone to support this positive change.

Something shifted inside and I’ve come to know that the things I tell myself become reality. If I continuously carry thoughts of worry, I will constantly worry. But if think positively, encouragingly, confidently? Anything is possible. Relationships – even if I can’t make them healthy, I can rise above the strain. Health goals. Career aspirations. All of it is in my grasp if I believe it. I’ve realized that even though I’ve always been a generally upbeat person, I used to carry around a lot of bitterness and blame as a result of any difficult circumstances. But I now see that every experience in life is an opportunity to learn and grow if I look for it. It’s not a mind trick. It actually works. And a positive attitude tends to spill over onto others, in much the same way that griping and gossip tend to be contagious, only this is better.

In the last six months, I’ve come to realize there is a whole world of possibility out there that I never realized was available to me. So it seems that if I’m going to resolve to do anything, it’s to continue down this path. I could cite a lot of other resolutions about health, hobbies, faith and the kind of person I want to be, but these things can and likely will happen as a result of that one resolution. So that will be my goal. Think positive thoughts and anything can happen!

Life in 2014

Tonight, the year 2014 comes to a close. And like so many others, today finds me looking back, contemplating the events of the past twelve months. I wouldn’t choose to do it all over again, that’s for certain. But I’m grateful for the lessons I learned and the opportunities I’ve had to grow.

On Christmas night, after spending the day with Mark’s family at his brother’s house, half of my family drove home in one vehicle, (Mark had arrived late after working his shift,) while I rode in another with Brad. We were talking about the day, how it had gone on in spite of the recent passing of his grandfather, my father-in-law, Bob. We agreed that Christmas didn’t feel quite right and things were definitely quieter than usual among my husband’s very large family. There had been some tears, but also some great memories shared.

Brad commented that it had been a tough year. I agreed. Neither one of us needed to say any more. I know we were both thinking not only about death, but of relationships that had come to an end. Several loved ones had gone from our lives this past year, some by choice, one because his time here had come to an end. I told Brad that as difficult as some of our experiences had been, I knew they’d made each of us stronger in our own way. I said that he might not believe it today, but somewhere down the road, he will look at his life and think how great it is. And he’ll look back on his darker days and realize that were it not for them, he couldn’t fully appreciate the good in his life.

This week, we laid my father-in-law to rest. His wake on Sunday night was well-attended. We barely sat, stopped talking or hugging visitors for the entire four-hour visitation. The number of people coming to pay their respects was a testament to what a well-loved guy he was. The funeral on Monday was beautiful, with each of Bob’s sixteen grandchildren taking part in the mass as pallbearers, readers, musicians, altar servers and gift bearers. As the mass came to a close, the priest commented as to how impressive it was to see a family so involved in the funeral celebration. Not everyone is so fortunate to be so celebrated.

After mass, there was a funeral luncheon and then we drove in the funeral procession to the cemetery. Everyone later commented on the sign that we figured Bob had sent to us – a bald eagle swooped down from the sky and flew over the line of cars. Bob was a lover of the outdoors and nature. The eagle was surely his way of getting our attention and making us see the miracles in the experiences of the past few weeks as we watched his slow departure from this world. It was a sunny day, but the air was frigid. Upon our arrival at the cemetery, we huddled together at the gravesite, first watching the military funeral honors, and then hearing the final prayers as Bob was laid to rest. There was no shortage of tears.

Later, we all gathered at my father and mother-in-law’s home. We opened sympathy cards, collected money and wrote bank deposits for all the money given in memoriam. We divided responsibilities for the writing of thank you cards, and then together, we ate leftovers from the funeral luncheon. Ties were loosened and shoes were kicked off. A card game went on at the kitchen table while the great-grandchildren pulled toys out of the closet in the den. Three-year old Mitch pulled me by the hand to come race Matchbox cars with him. I willingly agreed. He stopped just before releasing his car at the top of the curving, roller coaster-like track that one of the older kids had pieced together. Mitch clutched his car against his chest for a moment and turned to me saying, “I love you Auntie Terri!”

My heart swelled as I realized just how lucky I am, to be where I am in this world, to be part of a family I don’t often enough stop to appreciate. “I love you too, Buddy,” I said. “You’re my best friend,” he added. (I’ve got to hang around little ones more often! They’re so good for the ego!)

Later, as I sat in the crowded family room amongst so much of the family, I looked upon the Christmas tree that had gone uncelebrated this year. I looked around at all of us, milling around the house, talking, laughing, playing, arguing … and it felt for a moment like so many Christmases that had gone by. Except I quickly remembered it wasn’t Christmas we were celebrating, and one very important person was now missing. I thought back just a few short years ago, when we all gathered, every year in this house to celebrate Christmas Day. I remembered how often I had wished for less chaos, more quiet, and maybe the chance to just stay home instead of rushing, dressing up and playing nice, making food for a feast and feeling exhausted by day’s end. And I realized I had sometimes wished away the very thing I was now missing so much.

There was much hugging that evening. There were still some heated words – due in part to exhaustion and grief, I’m sure and if I’m honest, because that is just sometimes the personality of this family. Even death won’t put a stop to it. But I have a feeling that strong emotions and personalities won’t freak me out so much anymore. I had a heart-to-heart with my younger brother-in-law, whom I’d been feeling at odds with for a while. And it resulted in understanding and forgiveness (and more hugging.) And before my little family went home for the day, I hugged every one of my in-laws. As I said goodbye, I told each one of them that I loved them. Yep, even the sister-in-law I’m not always so sure even likes me. And there were tears in her eyes as she hugged me right back. And believe me, that is not something I would ever have done before. It would have felt beyond weird. But that day, the words just came out of my mouth without a care and the hugs just happened before I could really think about them. Because if I learned one thing from my father-in-law’s passing from this world, it’s that people aren’t perfect and never will be. We’re going to hurt each other time and again, and we’ll find time too, to be happy with each other. And the time to let people know that they are important to me is now, while we’re still here.

The events of this year have opened my eyes to the fact that life and people aren’t perfect. They never will be. It’s how we were designed. And that’s okay. I haven’t taken many photos at family gatherings in recent years. I realized this while sorting through my collection, looking for pictures of my father-in-law for his wake and finding few from recent years. At some point, I decided that too many of my photos just look chaotic, out of focus, destined never to be displayed in a photo frame for anyone to see. Or maybe I’ve been out of sync with some family member and refused to take photos out of spite, not wanting to remember those hurt feelings. This year made me realize that the chaos and feelings both good and bad, are what it’s all about. Everything seems to soften with time anyway, and like I told Brad, the dark moments tend to make the good ones that much sweeter. Those posed, perfect photos aren’t what’s real anyway. Between Kacey and me, we managed to snap a few photos this Christmas. They’re far from perfect, but somehow, they’re perfect.

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I’m grateful for all that has transpired in 2014, and I’m looking forward to whatever 2015 holds for me.

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

Christmas is upon us. And we’ll be missing my father-in-law as we celebrate this year.

On Sunday, the entire family was called to hospice to say goodbye to Bob. He was struggling and earlier had communicated to one of his daughters that he didn’t think he could take much more. Mark and I joined the rest of the family in Bob’s room as we quietly gathered around his bed. His daughters were circled around him, holding his hands and praying with him. His breaths were coming too far apart. There were so many tears as  we all watched and waited. The minutes and hours ticked by as we alternately took turns coming and going from the room. There were too many of us to all be there at the same time.

At one point, I went out to the great room to sit and exchange comfort with other family members. Mark’s mom was there too, when one of the nurses came out to talk. She told us that Bob had stabilized and it seemed obvious he wasn’t going anywhere that day. She suggested that if anyone wanted or needed to go home, they should do so without guilt. She recommended that when anyone of us did leave, when we said goodbye to Bob, we might tell him that if he wanted to go while we were away, it would be okay. She said sometimes a dying person just needs to know that it’s okay to go.

Most of the family went home with plans to come back at various times so that someone would be with Bob around the clock. Mark and I stayed a while longer, along with his mom and youngest brother. Kacey brought us some dinner and after eating, the five of us sat in the room, watching Bob rest. Eventually, Mark suggested that I go home with Kacey while he stayed with his mom and brother. I had things that desperately needed doing at home, and so I agreed. Before leaving, I leaned over Bob and took his hand. He looked up at me as I said, “Bob, Kacey and I are going to go now. We love you.” He moved his hand in acknowledgement.

I’m so glad I told Bob I loved him. I always got along just fine with him, but he and I weren’t affectionate in the way where we would express love for each other. I never had any doubt that he loved me too. But it was never said, only assumed.

On Monday afternoon, Bob passed away.

I had just returned to my desk after lunch when Mark called me at work to tell me Bob was gone. He was sad but calm. We made plans to meet at home and go to the hospice together to meet his family. Mark’s mom, two of his sisters and his older brother had been with Bob when he passed. He had not been alert or responsive all day. They had been sitting in the room with him, just watching him slowly breathe, when they realized the last breath had come and gone. Bob left quietly, without a struggle or obvious pain. I am so grateful for that. Mark was so afraid that his dad’s passing would be traumatic. Instead, it was very peaceful.

The hospice staff was wonderful. Such compassionate people they are! In addition to the tears shed for Bob, I think there were some as a result of having to say goodbye to the people who so lovingly took care of Bob.

After everyone had come and said their last goodbyes, we were all gathered in various clusters in and outside of Bob’s room as Mark’s sisters packed up his personal things. In the hallway just outside the room, there are windows overlooking the trees surrounding the hospice property. Mark pointed out a cluster of deer on the edge of the trees, looking toward us, flicking their tails and bobbing their heads now and then. More than one of us surmised that Bob had sent the deer as a way of telling us he was just fine. He always loved the outdoors, and in his later years, continued to buy deer hunting licenses, but never loaded his gun when he went out into the woods. There’s a corn crib in his front yard at home, just for the deer.

Sunny, another member of the staff told us that the deer always come when it’s someone’s time. They seem to know, and are always there at the time of a patient’s passing.

I continue to be in awe at the miracles that occurred during these last few weeks as Bob made his way out of this world. He seemed to come back from the brink of death several times. Family divisions were healed. And I came to believe in life after death in a way I never have before.

On Sunday, as Bob was struggling so terribly, I was sitting in his room with the others. We had agreed not to talk. It seemed to be what Bob wanted. So I prayed. I prayed that he wouldn’t hurt and I prayed that he wouldn’t be afraid. And I was thinking about his best friend, Howie and how he had come to Bob a few days earlier. I was imagining him being there to walk along with Bob as he left this world. I wondered who else might be there to meet him and it occurred to me that if I could choose someone to welcome Bob to Heaven, it would be my Grandma T. Just a random thought. My Grandma T loved everybody, and everybody loved her. If I could send someone to help make Bob’s journey easier, it would be her.

On Monday, as we waited in the great room at hospice for the mortuary staff to take Bob’s body away, a volunteer came in to play piano. She played a song or two before I realized she was playing How Great Thou Art. Most people know that song. Many of us love it. It was my Grandma T’s absolute favorite and she used to play it on her piano. I think she was speaking to me through that song, saying, “I got your message, honey girl, and I came to welcome Bob, just like you asked.”

As many have recently reminded me, those of us left behind will be sad for a while for our own loss, but where Bob is now, it’s a huge celebration. And I truly believe it.

Not a Bad Year

Mark and I squeezed in a bit of Christmas shopping last night ahead of our nightly visit to his dad in hospice. As we drove, I was feeling a bit reluctant. We had been to see Bob the night before and his breathing sounded so labored. He’d startled from his sleep a couple of times, waking with a fearful look on his face and grasping at the air before settling back against his pillows again. A nurse had come in the room to observe and listen, and her concern was evident. I was downright scared, having a hard time staying put in the room, afraid I was going to watch my father-in-law die in front of me and not knowing if I was strong enough to deal with it. When I mentioned this to Mark last night, saying I wasn’t sure I could go back, he insisted his dad was only snoring. But I know that to some degree, Mark (understandably) only sees and believes what he wants to where his dad is concerned these days.

Mark looked over from the driver’s seat as we headed to the hospice facility. He asked if I was going to be okay, and I said yes. I said I’d just walk out to the hospice’s great room if I didn’t think I could handle watching and hearing Bob struggle for breath again.

We were almost there, driving under the lights lining the dark highway, the bright lights of oncoming cars shining in our eyes. We were quiet for a moment and a series of thoughts flashed through my mind. We’ve both been doing some heavy thinking lately.

“It’s been a bad year,” I said to Mark, thinking not only of his dying father, but about my parents and their struggles with age and health. I was also thinking about our kids. Both Brad and Kacey experienced broken hearts this year, as each saw the end of a long-term relationship.

I’m grateful that Kacey appears to be moving on so remarkably well, but worries about Brad have been heavy on my mind, even though almost six months have passed since he broke the news to us. He didn’t suffer a mere break-up. His engagement ended. They’d been living together for several years and shared a dog. And when she moved out of the apartment, she left a lot behind. Their joint lease didn’t end until the end of last month, but she had yet to come claim her belongings and still had a key to the apartment. She would be graduating from her program this month and most likely moving to wherever it is she finds a job.

Brad expected her to come clean out her belongings by the end of the year. When I asked what he wanted for Christmas, he told me, “Tupperware. Pots and pans. Kitchen utensils.” He joked that we might buy him furniture. He was certain that he would soon be left without the necessities of daily living, because so much of what fills the apartment was hers. My biggest fear was that she would take the dog. Although Brad had made it clear he didn’t intend to give up the dog, she was just as insistent she would not either. Custody of Dacotah has been a big question all these months. Dacotah has been Brad’s constant companion and comfort as he’s begun to rebuild his life. I’ve worried endlessly that he would suffer even more heartbreak if he lost her too.

Mark and I have each tried to talk to Brad a few times in an attempt to help him protect himself as best as possible, not only with Dacotah, but in the division of their “stuff.” But he didn’t want to talk about it with us. His time with his family, he said, was a time to forget about all the hurt and pain. He’s an adult, and we knew it wasn’t really our business if he didn’t want to talk with us. Still, I wanted to protect my “boy” and make sure he could keep his dog. I could help him regain new belongings, but I knew I could never replace Dacotah if he lost her.

This week finally saw the day we’d all been so worried about, and all I can say is I am grateful to his ex. Brad called Mark yesterday and told him it was done. She took only her bare necessities and left the rest for Brad. She left her key on the counter and sent him a message saying everything else was his. Most importantly, she left Dacotah. I know she loved that dog every bit as much as Brad does, so I know it wasn’t easy in the least for her to walk away one last time. As much hurt as has come from this break-up, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to her for that last act of generosity.

All of those thoughts went through my head in the span of a few seconds as Mark and I made the short trip to see Bob. And I corrected myself out loud to Mark. “It hasn’t been a bad year. It’s just been a challenging year.”

“It’s been a good year,” he agreed. “With a lot of challenges.” He was right. If I count all of the blessings of the year, they would far outnumber the bad things.

A lot has been proven to us this year, to me especially. I’ve experienced a transformation of self within the last six months that brought with it an explosion of faith, hope and belief like I’ve never known before. This came almost out of nowhere, and I’m not entirely sure why it happened when it did and to the extreme degree that it did.

Actually, I do know why. I’ve been looking for it for years and my eyes and heart are finally open. It doesn’t matter why or how. All of those years of struggling to find what it is I really believe – even whether I believe – are behind me. And now I know. I had to get past the idea that I had to believe and practice faith only in the way and in the places I’d been brought up to believe were the only options. And once I’d cleared that tremendous hurdle, it was all so clear.

Almost overnight, my sense of skepticism disappeared. The lack of self-confidence that I’ve carried around all of my life to some degree has almost melted away. The tightness of constant worry I’ve always felt in my chest? Gone. (Most days!) We’ve had some pretty tough experiences this year, but I feel like we’ve climbed to the top of a mountain. I no longer hope that my family is strong enough to handle adversity. I know it. My sense of doubt is quickly disintegrating. My ability to believe in other people comes so much more easily. Amazing how different people look when you believe in them instead of doubting them. I’m astounded too at how easy it now is to know that if I want something in my life, I only need to believe it’s possible. And I’m impressed every day, how often like-minded people cross my path.

Before we walked into Bob’s room last night, I said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t be afraid. And when we walked in, his breathing still sounded very labored. But he was sleeping, and somehow seemed more calm than the night before. We didn’t stay too long before we left to take Mark’s mom home and head back home ourselves. It’s always hard walking out of Bob’s room. I never know if he’ll be there for us to visit another day. He’s going to leave us soon, but I know he’s going to a better place. I know it! Bob told Mark the other day that he’d visited with his best friend Howie. Howie passed on a couple of years ago and I now know he’s let Bob know that he’ll be there to greet Bob and walk with him when Bob is ready to let go of this world. This whole experience is helping me to know that people in our lives will come and go, and we’ll be just fine.

Meanwhile, I am ever so much more grateful for the simple good things in life.