Life, Faith, and Fiction: Everything is better in writing.
Author: Carrie Sue Barnes
Fiction author and blogger rooted in Midwest America. My debut novel, The Hidden Legacy, is available now on Amazon from Bold Vision Books. Short works of fiction, as well as inspirational reflections, are published on my website "Carrie In Writing".
I am a woman of faith, a wife, a mother, a runner, and a book lover.
A week ago, I snuggled my 5 1/2 year old daughter as she cried through question after question about Heaven and her Auntie Cheryl. When I’d hugged her goodnight several minutes earlier, Annie became teary eyed and said she wished she could see Cheryl. I squeezed her and told her it was okay to be sad and at the same time we could remember the things that made us happy while we were with Cheryl. Her smiles and laughter and hugs. She nodded and kissed me goodnight. Then as I reached her doorway, Annie blurted, “But Mom, all those hugs and smiles and laughs are done!” and broke down in tears.
So we hugged each other some more and both our tears wet her pillow. Eventually the tears mostly ceased and she began with her questions.
How will we find Cheryl when we get there?
Are you sure she’ll remember us?
What does Heaven look like?
And several more.
I did my best and waited until much later to let my sobs out. I tried to share her sadness while also sharing wisdom. But, oh, how far from wise I always feel now.
The next morning, after she was dressed for school, she came to my desk where I’d started my workday.
“Mommy, when you and Daddy go to Heaven, I’ll want to go too, but I won’t get to yet.”
A few more tears. More hugs. How do I explain? How do I accept it all myself? I don’t know, but for her sake and mine, I’m trying.
The next day, these photos were in my Facebook memories. I marveled at the time that passed. How could that Christmas be nine years ago? How could Cheryl be gone almost 5 months now? As I considered these numbers, I thought next of eternity. Nine years – a blip on the spectrum of time. 5 months – next to nothing. Someday… someday that’s what it will feel like too. Until then, it simply feels like too much.
I spent all of yesterday, New Year’s Eve, trying to concoct a meaningful way to spend the final day of 2020. My inability to land on anything had me avoiding most possible activities and instead hiding with my nose in a book for as much of the day as possible. Now, that’s a pretty darn good way to spend a day, but that isn’t what I truly wanted for myself in the final 24 hours of the year we’d endured.
I wanted to conquer an unfinished home project. I wanted to exercise. I wanted to write more of a new story. I wanted… to not feel frozen by the fear that the coming year will look no different from (or worse than) the one ending.
That’s really how I spent yesterday: frozen. My thoughts ran a ponderous path about resolutions and expectations for 2021 and I discovered I was afraid. I am afraid. I’m afraid to make any resolutions that will set me up for further disappointment in myself. I’m afraid to name particular goals only to see the year pass without reaching them. I’m afraid to pin any hope on the expectation that 2021 will be better.
The truth is, I’ve never been gung-ho about resolutions and yearly goals for drastic changes. So I’ve tried to tell myself this doesn’t matter. As the past year has felt different than others in so many ways, though, so does this marking of the new year. There’s a longing for change, for better, that is pressing in on me.
Now, here we are. New Year’s Day. I woke up still feeling afraid to link any goal to the timeline of this year. The certainty of disappointment is a leech, draining my typical optimism and difficult to remove once it’s latched on.
The reason I ended up here, typing up a blog post about plans for the new year while still afraid to make any plans for the new year, is the intuition that I am not alone. 2020 brought me grief and loneliness, undesired changes and scrapped plans. It stole the balance I’d previously (imperfectly) achieved. I feel like I’ve been stumbling through week after week, instead of walking upright with at least a partial view of the path before me. I’m not alone in that, right?
This is the point in the inspirational blog post when I should point out that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7) and that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). That’s how it might have read if I was writing it on other New Year’s mornings. I’d have wrapped it up there, built up by the words of scripture and moving forward with my hope firmly anchored in Him.
It’s ok if you’re not there, if the moving forward in hope part isn’t ready to happen yet. Maybe that’s what I really came here to say. Wherever you are right now, you can work with it. God can work with it. The calendar doesn’t have any say in God’s timeline. I’m grateful for that this New Year’s morning.
When the fears fall silent and I listen closely enough, I can hear the desires of my heart. Though I am afraid to admit them, there are some very particular goals I long to fulfill this year. There are specific changes called for in my life.
I will listen to those desires of my heart more than the fear lodging there. That’s the only resolution to share. Pursuing their voice over lesser noises might be the key to every way in which I can make 2021 better than 2020.
This morning I ran the Lumberjack & Jill 10 Miler in Oshkosh. In the first week of January, I picked several 5k and 10k races to run from March to October. The plan was to build up to this 10 mile race for the longest run I’ve ever done. And then… 2020 got rolling. Every race I’d put on my calendar was either canceled or made entirely virtual… except the ten mile race. I fully expected it to follow suit with the others. Add to that the turmoil of this year, and training for that distance was simply not a priority. Then three weeks ago I decided to try. I decided to see what I could accomplish by race day.
I hadn’t run more than 3.5 miles at a time all year. Often it was less than that. I had given a lot of focus to strength workouts and yoga, which turned out to be game changers. At the start of the three weeks, I ran five miles. End of week one, I ran seven. End of week two, I ran eight. And today, I ran ten. I’d only worked on endurance during my short training weeks and didn’t set a goal for my pace. Endure. That was the only goal. And endure, I did. I ran ten miles. I feel proud and surprised.
I fought tears through the first mile. The six week mark since losing Cheryl weighed on my mind. Sometimes the grief refuses to be put off but I knew I had to keep my energy for the run. I slowed my breaths and focused on everything around me. That brought a new wave of emotion as I watched happy runners finally enjoying a race together. It was wonderful.
I felt strong, which I feel less often in recent months compared to my usual self. On a run is one of the only times I consistently feel like my strength will rebound and I won’t always feel overwhelmed like I am lately.
The first 6 miles were simple and steady. Families cheered in their driveways. The police officers blocking traffic clapped for us and called out encouragemt. I think we’ve all missed the physical aspect of community more than we even realize. At the very least, I have. I’ve never smiled so many times in the course of a run.
The course was fantastic. Fall colors, bridges, wildflowers, stretches of both paved and dirt trails, much of it along the river. I already know I’ll sign up for the 2021 race.
The 7th mile was challenging, then I caught a second wind at the end of it that carried me through mile 9. The entire last mile was arduous. My calves were threatening cramps and my quads felt like jello. I’d already passed the runners I’d pegged as my “I’ll pass you before the finish” people. The final half mile was nothing but a slow jog.
Crossing the finish line was a relief and a few tears of pride came in the seconds afterward. As I stretched, the song “My Way Home” came into my head and my smile returned. My legs may not love me this evening, but I love them for what they accomplished today.
I will write today. I’ve been telling myself this all day. I will write. Whether merely some thoughts extracted from brain to page, or a post to share, or a little story – it doesn’t matter. I only care if I write.
There are parts of me that feel incapable of engaging with the world. They are inclined to hibernate while my efforts and attention are needed where the wounds need healing. I understand the nature of that need well enough to give those parts of me some grace. I’m complacent over the bowing out to backstage for now. Except with this. Writing can’t go.
Today marks two weeks since my sister died.
It took me ten minutes of staring at the space around me before I could write that sentence. I’m not sure how, but it makes it more real than before I wrote it down there. It doesn’t need to feel any more real.
Knowing it’s coming, barring a genuine hand-of-God miracle, did not leave me prepared for the loss. The expectancy only took away the element of surprise, not any of the pain. It felt… feels… far worse than I’d even told myself it would.
*The message from my brother, minutes afterward, letting me know she’d passed.
*Crying into the phone while my husband drove home, then crying in his arms.
*Telling my children and holding them through tears. Watching them watch me in concern.
*The surreal phone calls, emails, and texts about funeral details.
*The changes in my prayers, from begging for Cheryl’s healing to requesting strength and comfort for the rest of us.
*That first hug from a sibling two days later.
*Gathering with my sisters to arrange photo displays. Looking into Cheryl’s face through the years and milestones of the past.
*Writing a eulogy and sobbing through a different part each time I practiced aloud.
*The visitation, with its combined acceptance and avoidance of whichever moment will be the last of looking upon my sister face to face.
*The funeral, which managed an almost equal balance of sadness and beauty.
*The burial, which shook me and stripped away any lingering surreality.
Each was a brick to solidify the reality of Cheryl being gone.
On Tuesday the 18th, Cheryl told her doctor and her husband that she was finished with treatment. She signed the papers for hospice care in her home.
On Wednesday, my family visited her. We sat beside her bed, hugged her, held her hand, and conversed as much as we could. Sentences formed slowly as her eyes drifted shut between words, but we talked. I wish I could package up that visit in a vacuum to preserve without any faded or forgotten bits.
On Friday the 21st, with family gathered around her bed, she released her last breath and went to Jesus.
Tuesday evening, after receiving the update that she’d begun hospice care, I went for a run through my town. The sunset that evening was beautiful. Soft, pink sky with orange-streaked wisps of clouds. I remember feeling so angry about it. I was angry that, with all the awfulness of that day, the world dared to be beautiful. I was angry with myself for still noticing that beauty. It did not seem right. It took until near the end of my run, when I stopped beside the river in town to reconsider things. I leaned against a tree, cried, and realized how right it was after all.
Cheryl never stopped seeing God’s hand in this world. She saw reasons for joy and gratitude. His love, generosity, and care remained true and detectable to her. Even in the lowest times, when she felt distance between her and God, the awareness of his presence in this world did not leave her.
Right now, I’m most aware of pain. I see it in people’s faces. I wince at casual harshness from one to another. I wonder what this or that person is keeping to themselves behind an unaffected expression and ordinary words. I read between the lines of guarded social media posts. Then there are the unguarded ones, exposing their wounds and admitting their pain, and I’m reduced to tears once again.
For several months now, I’ve had a terribly hard time singing along to any songs. It doesn’t seem to matter what the song may be. There is something about the enlivening that comes from singing aloud. It cracks through my precarious grip every single time. A week before Cheryl died, I heard one I hadn’t heard before: MercyMe’s “Even If.”
God, when you choose to leave mountains unmovable, oh give me the strength to be able to sing, ‘It is well with my soul.’
MercyMe, “Even If”
This song has stayed with me through these days. I plan to sing along sometime soon.
The white letters flashed but Hazel did not step off the curb. Her feet held fast. She lifted her mug of coffee to her lips, staring at the sign.
Other pedestrians did. They hustled over the white paint of the crosswalk. One caught Hazel’s elbow with his swinging arm, then threw an apology over his shoulder. The contact sent a shot of hot coffee through the cup’s lid, nipping like a flame against the roof of her mouth. The pain jostled Hazel out of her trance.
She stepped to her left, exiting the stream of on-foot commuters. The sign was already flashing it’s contrary orange message and Hazel swung her gaze away. She narrowed her eyes, locking in on the glass door of the building across the road. Her destination. They faced off – Hazel and that door – while cars passed between and pedestrians refilled the sidewalk squares beside her.
Hazel knew who would win. She’d been in this battle before, more than once. The door always won.
Hazel saw the word in her peripheral. She ceded the stare down but did not obey the sign. This time, she closed her eyes.
With the darkness came amplified noise. Footsteps, conversations, tires against pavement, and the rattles and squeaks of vehicles. She searched for one sound, just one that could take her elsewhere and summon light into the dark. It was a technique she learned last year, when the panic was at its peak. She tried to remember the last time she’d needed to use it. A month? Two months? The question was a distraction, so Hazel returned to the sounds.
She found it. A swishing, as soft as a cotton dress moved by a breeze. The blank darkness of her vision began to break. Like a photo developing, the image spread. The sound became part of the whole.
Hazel stood, not on a city curb, but in a field. The wild grass reached her thighs. She stretched her fingers out to brush them across the tips of the grass. The space continued to fill. Cornflowers dotted the field, brilliant blue under golden light.
An ache crept into her bones. Hazel found it both painful and comforting. She longed to pick a handful of the flowers, to touch and hold them with more than her imagination. She’d clutch them as she skipped home. Mama would accept them with the grace of a queen receiving precious jewels.
“Thank you, my little Hazelnut. They are as beautiful as you.”
How many times had it gone that way?
The field began to fade. The sounds of morning in the city rose with a crescendo. Before it was fully gone, while the blue flowers still speckled her vision, Hazel breathed in the air of that field – of home, and twilight, and security. It filled her up.
Up the road from my childhood home are Parabola Trees. That isn’t their proper name, of course. My siblings and I dubbed them as such when I was in junior high or younger. They used to be quite ordinary, common trees, on the edge of an ordinary front yard along an ordinary country road.
Then it was noticed that the trees were growing beneath the power lines. In fact, the leaves at the top of the trees might have touched the lines if they stood on their tip toes. Something had to be done. Instead of trimming the whole top of each tree though, the powers-that-be decided to cut out the branches most directly beneath the power lines. The result was a deep and vacant U in the center of the tree. An upturned tunnel. Thus the name, Parabola Trees. It proved a lasting solution, as that empty space has never filled back up with new growth.
It feels a bit like my sister’s cancer is sawing into our family like they did to those trees. Core branches being cut out. The threat of creating an empty space that cannot regrow.
A daughter, a sister, an aunt, a grandmother. A friend. A giver. Core branches.
It also feels as if our prayers for a miracle are like begging the city workers to stop sawing and then petitioning them to move the power line rather than trim the tree. It’s a petition that’s difficult to expect to succeed, rendered even more unlikely if the workers were already as far along as the cancer in the cutting.
We petition anyway. We ask, and we believe in our cause. Reaching out to everyone we know, we encourage them to take up the same petition. We are certain there is power in the numbers dedicated to the cause. We keep asking, and we keep believing because, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).
We know that if He chooses, He can move the power line and leave the tree intact.
It’s Cheryl’s 54th birthday today. I enjoyed some time with her and others in my family for the first time in months. Celebrating with her today, praising God that she reached this birthday, leaves me longing for certainty that she will reach the next one and the next and more.
I’ll wrap up these thoughts by sharing what I wrote in Cheryl’s card today, repeating to myself again that we do believe.
Happy birthday, Cheryl. You are a warrior in the truest sense, fighting relentlessly with faith in your battle and hope in the success of it. We love you and we believe in what the Lord can do.
Sometimes you have to sit down with a cup of tea and lemon cookies, pretending the table that stands in your kitchen was still in its former home. You have to see your grandmother sitting across from you at that table, her table. Her hand is holding yours besides the lazy susan that always stood on that tabletop, filled with jams and butter and spoons and honey. Sometimes you have to hear her ask if you’re ok. Sometimes you have to admit you’re not, as her warm, wrinkled fingers squeeze yours.
I’m doing some self-caring this afternoon. It’s been an angry-sad, sad-angry day. One of those where it’s hard to tell which is the stronger emotion. The yoga mat is coming out as soon as I’m done working. I’m promising myself I will sit down to relax with my husband after the kids are in bed, no matter how many dirty dishes need washing.
I think the best thing my husband has done for me in this hills-and-valleys journey through my sister’s cancer battle is encourage me to feel whatever I’m feeling. No pretending it’s better than it is, or pushing to change those feelings.
I’m feeling them. The feelings lead to thoughts. Before I started typing this, I was thinking about lilacs. Lilacs are the flower and the scent most intimately linked in my mind with the women in my family, including my grandmother. And my sister Cheryl. Then I thought about how another association they both share in my mind is birds. Birds outside kitchen windows, in feeders and houses and garden baths.
My thoughts are rambling now and so am I.
Those hallmarks in my memory are set for life, I believe. I also believe they were lovingly picked by God to be The Beautiful in amongst The Difficult when I think of these dear women.
My hope is to call to mind the former more often than the latter.