Today is my sister’s birthday and I woke up with a familiar ache in my heart. Something I’ve learned about grief is it’s not all that accurate to say it gets easier with time. Rather, the spaces between the difficult moments gradually grow larger.
It’s been a good while since I’ve had an especially emotional day of grief, but when it came today, it felt much like so many days crammed into the last three years. Today arrived with the same instantly recognizable longing for my sister–to hear her voice and laugh, to see her smile, to know she is here and will be here tomorrow.
Stepping outside with my Bible as the day began, I spotted the new blossoms in my bed of irises. Somehow their purple and white petals brought my mind round to Cheryl’s red and pink rose bushes. I sat down to read and pray but my thoughts remained unsettled, and I soon found myself standing in front of the flowers again. I caught the odor of lilacs from the bush a few feet away. The first bunches of blossoms had opened and the scent pulled me closer.
Cheryl loved lilacs as much as I do. I gave up blinking away my tears and inhaled the gorgeous scent. In my mind’s eye, I could see the text I would’ve sent with a photo.
The lilacs bloomed for your birthday! They smell heavenly.
How I wanted to send that text.
The tears came and went through the day. I confided in a friend who knows the pain of losing family to terrible cancer battles, and pushing through the workdays despite the distraction of that pain. I glanced through favorite photos and smiled at her smile. Cheryl hovered in my thoughts in each hour, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes in the back. When evening came and my kids were settled at their dad’s for the night, the restlessness crowded me in the quiet of my home. You know, that restlessness that comes with a longing that can’t be eased.
Take a walk.
The suggestion rose over the mental noise. I wanted a walk with Cheryl though.
Cheryl loved walks. I loved walking with Cheryl. I think we all did. Walking with Cheryl meant talking with Cheryl. She rarely pushed the pace because, I suppose, if you were out of breath you couldn’t be talking. Cheryl didn’t do much small talk. A little perhaps, but it’d pass quickly and the rest was spent on the real stuff. That’s not to say every conversation was intense, but every conversation was intentional. Cheryl knew what mattered and didn’t pretend otherwise. She treated time with you as a valuable part of her day. She listened. She drew you out. On a walk was a natural time to do all of that.
As I walked tonight, I thought how it’d be if she were at my side. We’d comment on the proud orange poppies swaying in the dim twilight. Marveling at the sunset, we might voice a scripture verse or worship song brought to mind by the beauty. She would ask questions that got to the heart of whatever burdened my shoulders. Walks with Cheryl were a treasure.
I want another. I want to end it in my front yard where we can smell the lilacs. But I’m thankful the lilacs are here. I’m grateful for each walk that we had. I’m eager for the walks we’ll take again someday.
I know the walks with her have not run out. There’s only more space in between them.
“I want to be with God and receive God and have him in my heart every day all day.”
Annie’s 1st Eucharist is approaching and this was her note written at the end of yesterday’s retreat day for the 2nd graders preparing for the sacrament. Today when we came home from Mass, she and Tim were playing. In the middle of a Lego battle, Tim paused and looked at her.
“I’m so excited for you to receive Communion.”
Oh, the beauty of a child’s faith. That eagerness to encounter Jesus. These two little people have no idea how often they help renew my joy.
The nose of my kayak dipped into the dark water at five-thirty. The five mile drive to the boat launch was a friendly race with the first streaks of color. No matter how many times I watch a sunrise, I am surprised by how rapidly it passes through its succession of colors. When I launched into the lake, everything reached by the light was bathed in a pink glow.
The crisp air of the new day, the mist riding atop the warm water, and the sun’s processional march of color were a breathtaking combination. God makes beautiful places, I thought over and over again.
This lake is edged by several homes, a youth camp, and abundant forest. At that hour, it was silent on every side. I was the only person on the lake and, at least in the first stretch, hardly more than a few birds had yet to break the quiet. I paddled and drifted. Paddled and drifted. The mist was invitingly mesmerizing, but each time I moved further into it, I paused to cease even the noise of my paddle cutting in and out of the water.
The silence was magnificent.
As the pinks and oranges gave way to blue, and the sun crept nearer the tops of the tree line, the bird calls multiplied. When I sat still, I could hear the flutters of wings and creaks of branches as the trees’ residents stirred to life. Before the sun crested the trees, the shadows slid away from the top down.
Eventually, maybe an hour in, came another kayaker. When she spotted me watching something on the edge of a little island, she drew closer and I pointed out the Great Blue Heron standing among the lily pads.
She was perhaps around 75, best guess, with a soft voice and smile. She asked how early I’d arrived and remarked on the goodness of enjoying the lake before it was busy with boats and the waves that follow them. She told me about the oldest heron nesting on the lake year after year, whom she calls Grandpa. We watched the heron on the island until it flew off with a whooshing flap of its blue-feathered wings. I wished her a good day as she moved on and I felt a vague sense of what it’d have been like to be there at that moment with my great-grandmother when she was the same age. Something in the woman’s manners had called my Grandma Walcher to mind right off.
I took my time skimming along the curves of the lake. Fish came to the top in clouds of bubbles. Turtles poked their triangle heads through the surface. The birds were musically relentless. Apart from the surfacing creatures though, the water remained flat and still. If I stopped paddling, even in the open spaces, the kayak barely drifted. Shining reflections doubled the views in every direction.
Around seven a.m., I told myself it was time to make my way back to the boat launch. I’d have time to drive home, unload the kayak, and shower before logging into work for the day. With a a bit of convincing, I pointed my boat in that direction.
From behind me, I heard a call of “Hooo! Hello!”
A soft shout coming from my co-kayaker. I turned around and we drew up beside each other.
“If you go back along the trees, there’s another heron. He’s on some dead branches almost all the way to the corner. They love to feed there.”
How am I to turn away from a tip like that one? Getting home could wait. I thanked my new friend before paddling where she directed. I wondered if asking to have tea and cookies with her later would be too odd.
Sure enough, he was exactly where she’d described. Perched, watching and waiting for more breakfast. He was beautiful.
Amazingly, he didn’t mind me one bit as I floated closer. I stopped among the first of the lily pads and sat still once again. Birds called to each other unceasingly. A pair of cranes began making a racket from a distant section of shoreline. I wondered if he was Grandpa, here for enough years to go about his day without concern over the noisy business of others (including intrusive humans in kayaks). Perhaps he was Grandpa, because he didn’t even stir when the morning bugle song rang out from the opposite side of the lake to rouse the campers from their bunks.
Leaving the heron to his morning meal, I did finally resolve to be on my way. That vocal pair of cranes and another heron provided more delightful distractions before I reached the boat launch.
The bird life among the reeds and cattails seemed to double in my final minutes on the water. It was now a quarter to eight, the sun fully up and me due at my desk very soon. Even though I couldn’t stay to sit among more of those birds or watch more schools of fish pop up to the shimmering surface, my joy from the morning was overflowing. It bubbled out in a laugh as I pulled my boat out of the water. I shook my head at all the pieces of beauty I’d encountered in the last two hours. I laughed more, and thanked God again and again.
It was the perfect recipe. Perfect, though we couldn’t have known it before all the ingredients were there.
One small, midwestern town, where family lines run deep even as the population dwindles.
One school with a void where the music and band programs used to be.
One grand idea by an alumnus.
A few dozen eager alumni plus a handful of current high schoolers; all qualified band geeks.
One natural leader grabbing the reins with equal parts optimism and get-it-done practicality.
Nostalgia, added to taste.
When I graduated high school and then left for college in 1999, I was in one frame of mind: don’t look back. I wanted new, more, and different. It took years and plenty of road behind me to appreciate my school age years. I’m still working on it, honestly.
My parents continue to live in Stephenson, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As well, at least a few members of our family have resided within a reasonable drive of our hometown since graduating high school. All seven of us siblings have made it a priority, as life allows, to continue gathering at the home in which we all grew up. So, fully leaving behind my small town roots was never my path, and for that I’m thankful.
In more recent years of this age of social media, I found myself reconnecting with high school friends. It was exciting to discover where our roads took us. Some were surprising and some not. I began to appreciate the memories with these individuals and enjoyed seeing each other’s adventures and families on Facebook and Instagram. Still, I didn’t attend reunions or make a point of reconnecting in person with more than a scant few people.
Among the best of my high school memories are the band memories. I loved band. There were only a few high school classes or programs I’d say that about, and band might be at the top of the list. So, when I was invited to join a Facebook group a few months ago called SHS Alumni Pep Band, my curiosity was high from the start.
The idea came from my old friend Ron. He’d recently learned that the Stephenson schools are now without both a music and band program. It saddened him, as it did all of us discussing it on the group’s page, and he proposed that we bring back the pep band for homecoming night of the varsity boys’ basketball season. The delightfulness of the idea was apparent, but could we do it? Was it even practical to try? Did any of us remember how to play? With ample brainstorming and reminiscence, enough people committed to the plan and there was no looking back.
I found myself signing on for my first hometown event in 22 years, and the closest thing to a high school reunion I’d yet to experience.
The level of interest and the reach of the appeal was fascinating. We became a group spanning five decades of graduating years. Literal generations in the same ensemble.
A couple months out from the homecoming game, we scrambled to find usable instruments and resurrect our dormant skills. Scott, a fellow ’99 graduate who lives in Stephenson again with his family, jumped on the tasks of digging up sheet music for each instrument and dispersing them online for all of us. He reserved the band room, now set up for Spanish classes, so local alumni could practice together.
I took my saxophone in for a tune up (aka to make it functional again) and borrowed a former bandmate’s extra alto sax to start practicing in the meantime. Later I found out my instrument, used when my parents bought it for my older sister before handing it down to me, would cost several hundred dollars to repair. The repairman was frank about it not being worth the investment. I’m still sad over not playing that saxophone again but thank goodness for my friend’s loaner.
Relearning the old pep band standards felt like a montage of comedically inspiring efforts. It was slow to start but eventually my fingers remembered what they were doing and my lungs built up a smidgen of endurance. It took a little longer each practice before my jaw started aching.
After a few weeks, I still doubted I could play the songs with other people. When it worked out to be in Stephenson for one of the Sunday afternoon practices, I loaded up the saxophone and arrived at the high school with all sorts of nerves. However, it only took stepping through the door of the old band room for those nerves to change to joy. We warmed up our instruments and greeted each other enthusiastically. I felt that coming-home feeling that belongs to the rare pieces of youth made up of only good things. Whatever that piece might be for you, for me it was band.
What I got a taste of during that practice was in full force on homecoming night.
The gymnasium was filled to the doors. Where typically only half of the bleachers are pulled out to hold the fans, this time every section was packed with people. That alone set the tone for the alumni band. There was a hint of stepping back in time to the games of our own high school years, when it was unheard of to only fill up half the gym. The entirety of the band seemed to adopt an unspoken mission to answer the excitement of that crowd with generous enthusiasm in our songs. Personally, my children’s eagerness to see their mom play in the band was contagious. I was thrilled to watch my family’s proud faces as they spotted me on the bleachers.
In the end, I think we thoroughly surprised ourselves. We were somehow all members of the same band despite our widespread ages. Playing together felt natural. The presence of our beloved band directors – teachers who remain favorites in countless students’ hearts – challenged us to hit the right notes… and roll through the notes we missed.
I can’t summarize everyone else’s emotions from that night but all of mine were tethered back to gratitude. As I write this a month later, that is still what I feel more than anything else.
For the crowd’s call for more songs after the game finished. For hugging my band directors. For blooking around from my seat on that bleacher and seeing friends. For the reminder of the greatness of a small town, and the celebration of the gift of music to a community and school. I’m grateful for all of it and for playing a part in it.
After the game, many of us trekked out to Belgiumtown Bar & Restaurant, a country tavern a few miles off the highway with delicious food and the friendliest bartenders around. They stayed open hours past their normal closing time and we savored minute after minute of visiting over drinks, laughter, and old favorites on the jukebox.
The reconnection of that night with the friends, the town, and myself filled my soul with good things. There’s no mistaking the value of it in this (and every) era of our lives. I hope very much that each person who played in the band or attended the game that night received a share in that goodness.
One of the things my kids have taught me is to believe I’m worthy of admiration. For all the years I can recall, I’ve felt like a pretender whenever I received recognition, whether big or small. I felt like an impostor or a fraud as I thanked anyone for a compliment. I wondered how long it’d take for someone to figure out my actual abilities and charms, or lack thereof.
In their earliest years, children are blunt, honest creatures. This applies to the positive and negative alike, as there is no natural filter between their thoughts and their tongues. As much as this exposes us adults to harsh critiques and awkward commentaries from our little chatterboxes, it also pours over us the soul-saturating water of honest praise. Their compliments are pure. Their admiration is authentic. What else could be right but to accept the gifts of them? To BELIEVE them?
This lesson hasn’t squashed the voice that whispers I’m a pretender. Now there’s a contradictory voice though, and it sounds a lot like my children.
My collection of author-life experiences is limited. Growing, thank goodness, but still limited. It could be my lingering newbie status that makes the events of last Tuesday so edifying. Or maybe, no matter how long I’m on this adventure of establishing myself as an author, the shine will never wear off opportunities like these.
After dropping my kids off at school, I rushed up the rainy freeway to Manitowoc for my first radio interview! I walked into the building eager but nervous. Craig at WCUB 980 AM set me at ease though. Once we got rolling, the nervousness evaporated and I felt only the rightness of donning my author hat as I told listeners about The Hidden Legacy. You can listen to the podcast of my interview here. I wasn’t embarrassed while listening to it afterward, so I’m calling it a genuine win!
The primary reason I had the opportunity to interview on WCUB was to promote my author visit to the Manitowoc Public Library on that same day. That’s right! I didn’t have to remove that author hat after the interview. I kept it in place as I spent an hour with readers at the library. In the previous months, the library quite generously acquired about twenty copies of The Hidden Legacy and chose it for September’s “Morning Book Talk.” Rendering me both humbled and proud, I was told by the facilitor of the group that all twenty copies were checked out! I still can’t state that without grinning.
Ten individuals who had read the novel, along with Therese (the wonderful and helpful facilitator) and me, enjoyed a thorough discussion of the book, as well as my writing process. It was a dynamic, non-stop conversation that was the stuff of legit author-life. The group had numerous questions for me (we didn’t even touch the prepared discussion questions), and it was a special privilege to hear a few of them share their favorite parts of The Hidden Legacy.
I’ll wrap up this joyful post with a thank you to WCUB 980 AM and Craig on “The Breakfast Club” morning show for the chance to interview. An even bigger thanks goes to the Manitowoc Public Library for their ongoing support of authors and their promotion of literary arts.
I made a lot of plans for August. Confidently, I planned. It all seemed so reasonable. It felt good.
#1 was returning to a fitness routine. After four weeks, the mild back injury I’d been not-so-patiently waiting to heal was cleared up. I joyously began easing back into running and strength workouts. I set a goal to exercise in some manner every day of the month of August.
Secondly, I set up a giveaway to celebrate the anniversary of the release of The Hidden Legacy. I pledged to readers to spend the week sharing tidbits about my experiences in the past year.
I plotted (pun intended) novel-writing plans.
I signed up my son and myself for a 5k fun run.
I bought tickets to attend a concert this week with my husband.
I planned. And God said, “Nope.”
Sometimes my plans align pretty well with what He has in mind. Other times, God shakes His wise head and plays the divine intervention card.
This time the card came in the form of appendicitis and an appendectomy. What started as (supposedly) some bad indigestion warped into terribly painful stomach cramps. After a full night of sickness of which I’ll spare you the details, it took until Saturday morning to identify that the pain was gradually intensifying on the right half of my abdomen. Cue the alarm bells!
Urgent Care, E.R., surgery, recovery, and now home, thankfully, sans appendix.
I won’t pretend I’m not frustrated. Or disappointed. Or sad. This simply isn’t how I wanted the last weeks of summer to look. When I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself though, I remember that my sister had surgery on the same day and it’s her fifth hospital stay in a month. I remember that unlike the woman screaming in pain on the other side of the E.R. exam room but insisting she couldn’t have painkillers due to a past addiction, I’m able to control the pain with strong medication. I remember that I have a husband who will do anything for my wellbeing, and a large family who rallied in prayer for me all weekend. I remember the Cross and the holy wounds. I remember this is minor and temporary, and “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthenyou” (1 Peter 5:10).