Life Lessons from My Dying Dad (part 2)

I was in my junior year of college when I became the dog-mom to my precious Yorkie, Benji. I remember when I brought Benji to show my parents, Dad seemed terribly disappointed. At the time, I was going through a slightly rebellious period where I thought nothing I could do would please my dad, who I so desperately wanted to please. I remember when he saw this puppy, he smiled at first, and then his smile disappeared. He told me that he hoped I wouldn’t get too attached. He said nothing else. It’s been nearly 20 years since that time, and I think I finally understand a little.

Indeed, I did get attached. I loved Benji dearly. When I lost him in a car accident in 2005, I cried over him as if a part of my own self had been lost. And the same happened when my other dog, Austin, succumbed to kidney failure in 2014. I cried more over these dogs than I did over the loss of both sets of my grandparents, more than I cried over the loss of my favorite uncle, my godmother, and more than I cried over the loss of some of my former students and friends who have been lost over the years. I even cried more over these dogs than I cried over the loss of two pregnancies. I mourn the loss, not of the dogs themselves, but the joy that they brought to my life, day in and day out, everyday of their short canine lives.

But Dad cried in a different way. His sadness was a different kind; it was the kind of sadness that comes from years of humble sorrow, regret, and repentance. In the last two years of Dad’s life, every time I saw him, he told me that he wished he had been a better father. Truth be told, I probably have had many days in my life that I wish he had been a better father also. But the greatest lessons Dad has ever taught me were a result of him NOT being a better dad. He taught me absolute forgiveness, that we are not defined by our past, and that even in our lowest moments, we are all connected by our common ability to love one another.

About a month before Dad passed away, he finally began “letting me in” to see some of what he feared and what he wanted to protect me from for as long as possible. He knew the overwhelming sadness I was going to feel over losing him. He knew the grief that was imminent for Mom, my brothers, his sisters, my cousins, his friends, and all he wanted to do was to protect any of us from feeling to enormity of the grief he knew all too well.  He protected us as long as possible, and in the final days, it was me, Mom, and my brothers who were trying to protect him from the pain that we knew was coming. We did all we could to help him comfortably transition out of this world and into his eternal home. We laughed, we joked, we played word games (those were his favorite!), and we loved one another.

Dad spent the first half of his life self-medicating his pain away in an alcoholic haze. The unspeakable things that happened to him in his childhood were out of his control, and he never received the life-giving counseling that he needed that could have saved him from his escape to alcohol. But he spent the second half of his life in the sober realization that life hurts. In his own pain, and through his own recovery, he became the life-giving counselor to other people that he himself never had until irreparable damage had already been done to many people who knew him and had tried to love him in his younger years. He lost many people who were close to him, I think beginning with his brother, Bobby, at a very young age. As an adult, Dad witnessed the loss of both of his parents, his brothers Franny and Charlie, and his sisters Helen and Marlene. As each one passed, he wished he had been a better son, brother, friend— and he tried not to think too hard on all of the clients who he counseled into sobriety who he then witnessed decay into relapse. Instead, he focused on those of us who were here with him, living, breathing, loving, and praying. — And laughing, finding pure joy in each other’s company.

I understand now that the sadness is never going to go away. But my focus is on the wrong thing– I am not sad and crying because Dad is gone. Truly, I know I will see him again someday. I am crying over the loss of the joyous moments he brought to my life. He could make my children laugh like no one else we’ve ever known. He could make my sweet, petite, Italian mother turn into a fierce fortress instantly. He gave her strength that I don’t think she knew she had. He could make me think in ways that no one else ever did. And he made all of us wonder about things that no one else cared about… like, how many clouds are there in the sky today? — Will those birds get the nest built before the storm comes?

Dad could not protect us forever from the pain of loss, but he absolutely taught us the joy of love. ~ “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins”~1 Peter 4:8

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Blink

Close my eyes; life slips away. Open. Blink. Life begins. Exhale—I cannot hold my breath any longer. Open. Blink. Life changes forever. —

Friends, you need to hear, because I need to say— I need to tell you— I have seen life in its most fragile moments, and I cannot comprehend for even one brief second, why, the great God of this universe would choose me to be present in these— in His— miraculous moments. But, you need to hear it, because I need to say it.

Life is too short, but memories make it shorter. I cannot close my eyes these days without seeing so vividly the final moments of my father’s earthly life slipping away. I see his blue eyes suddenly, shockingly awaken from his final few moments of peaceful sleep, as if he is staring into the doorway of heaven itself. It takes his breath away and blinds him. I can almost hear the angels’ trumpets resounding and guiding him closer and closer to the glory of eternity in the presence of God. I am there; I am here, as a witness. And I stand here crying.

And I want so badly to shake this image, because I simply cannot live every moment of every day of my life revisiting the enormity of this one milli-second. Desperately, I desire to see something else in my mind—this time a fragile life enters the world. This precious baby boy, the one who’s mother loved him enough to give him life, against every wish of every other woman she knew in her teenaged world. Don’t make the same mistake we made, they say — to their daughter, niece, grand-daughter, cousin, sister— I hear my own voice shouting the loudest whisper, to my student, to my self, telling her, it really is OK to let this child live inside you, to bring him into this world, to give him a chance that you never had.—Her perfect, precious, living baby boy gasps his first perfect breath as his momma screams out in agony and relief and terror and fear of the future. And I stand here crying.

I remain in limbo between the end of life and the start of life between these two images— memories experienced years apart, and I pray. I pray, Lord, help me see the in-between continuing on, life going on, death not gripping humanity, and birth not terrifying.–

Another other stark image flashes like lightning between the beginning and the end — A neighbor man, 50 years old, horizontal on his couch, his wife hysterically wailing in the background, and I, on the phone with the dispatch operator, hold this quickly-turning-blue neighbor-man’s life in my hands. On Three!— 1- 2- 3— Lift him to the floor. His ribs crack beneath my clenched palms; life begins to pump through his heart. Dispatch says, keep going, do not stop. Do not stop. Do. Not. Stop. Auto-pilot takes over, and I do not stop until the real heroes arrive to take over. Yes, sir, I can drive her to the hospital. We arrive, and the doctors escort the near-widow to her comatose husband, now breathing, still alive, once strong, instantly fragile. I leave the hospital, place the key in my car door. And I stand there crying.

Open. Blink. Life enters the world. I exhale, cannot hold my breath any longer. Open. Blink.—A curly-headed three year-old climbs up on my lap for a hug.

Open. Blink.–My sweet momma, strong as diamonds, grabs my hand a little longer.

Open. Blink.– My husband snuggles a little closer.

Open. Blink. Exhale. — And I am reminded, in the darkest place, at the end of this day, that crying is the first sign of life — life surrendered to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Lord, I surrender.

Life Lessons from My Dying Dad (Part 1)

It has been one week since Dad passed away. He passed away exactly two weeks after receiving a Stage IV cancer diagnosis. The two weeks from diagnosis to death included both the longest days and the fastest moments one could possibly conceive of experiencing. When you hear me say that life can change “in the blink of an eye,” I mean this so literally that it is not even close to funny. “The blink of an eye” is about the time it takes for a doctor to close a door and say, “This is very bad news.” It’s about the same amount of time it takes to witness your loving father exhale his final breath and for his heart to stop beating. It’s about the same amount of time it takes to witness your mother become a widow, and it’s about the same amount of time it takes to suddenly become thankful that the pain has ended forever. While I am working through the pain of losing Dad, I am writing here, because Dad was as much of a teacher as he was human. He was always teaching in various arenas. I believe he would want others to learn from him even in his final days. Please consider sharing his legacy with others by passing the link along to others. This post is Part 1 of I-Don’t-Know-How-Many, but there will certainly be more to come.

Addictions Die Hard
Dad crossed his 34-year anniversary of sobriety on August 18th. Because he was too weak and hurting to attend any meetings, he was not able to receive his 34-year coin. One week before he died, a group of friends traveled from South Carolina to West Central Florida to hold a meeting in his home, to pray with Dad, and to present him with his 34-year coin. This was perhaps one of the most selfless acts of love I have ever witnessed, and it was a true testimony to the life Dad has led for the past 34 years as he worked through his own recovery one day at a time and impacted innumerable others to do the same in this time. But on his death bed, within hours of his passing, Dad asked the nurse to bring him a Sangria and later called me his bartender when asking for medicine to help him calm down and breathe easier. Obviously, no Sangria was being served, and I certainly am no bartender. But, what was shocking to me in these moments was seeing Dad fighting these addictions all the way until his final breath. He told me days earlier that he stopped going into the grocery store even before he was no longer physically capable, because he knew nothing was stopping him from buying “enough Jack Daniels to end all his pain forever.” But Dad had more to lose by giving in to his addiction than he had to gain. Because he remained sober until the very end, Dad enjoyed his final days with my brothers, me, Mom, and his closest friends– and he created countless laughs, hugs, smiles, and memories for us even up until his final day. Because he consciously chose sobriety, he blessed the rest of us in his final moments in ways that we can never forget.

Money Matters More Than it Should
When Dad initially went to see a doctor because he had started showing signs of illness that were extreme, he was immediately worried about the cost of the new medication that his doctor wanted him to start on. Later, when the hospital diagnostic imaging made it clear that Dad had very little time left to live, he was again worried about the cost of involving hospice care. When Dad was still coherent, he wanted to be sure Mom and I knew how to access all of his financial information. He broke down in tears as he told Mom that he was truly sorry that there was nothing that he was leaving her. He told her that there is no money, no insurance, no pot of gold anywhere, just his Social Security income that would become hers. Of course, Mom already knew this, but admitting this to his wife, who he felt was deserving of life’s every luxury, was difficult for Dad to admit and say out loud. Making this spoken confession to his wife, I am convinced, was more painful to Dad, than hearing the terminal diagnosis from the doctor. Dad was relieved when he found out that hospice care would be provided free of charge through Medicare, and this was perhaps the only reason he was willing to accept their service.

In the immediate days following Dad’s diagnosis and immediately after his death, a small handful of close family members sent small checks to mom to help pay for whatever she may need it for. Mom would never ask anyone for money, but these gifts have been greatly appreciated and have helped to alleviate some of the immediate financial concerns that we have had. Even so, it hasn’t been enough. The coming months are going to bring too much uncertainty. Mourning for our father, and Mom mourning for her husband will bring a level of grief we have never dealt with, compounded by financial stress for each of us in varying degrees— I cannot fully express this, except to say that stupid money matters way too much more than it should. I can also say that my husband and I will do whatever we can to be sure that our children will not be in a similar position at whatever time it may be that we are called home to heaven. — And I offer my sincere thanks to those who have contributed to helping us out in this area. For those of you who may be reading this who have family that could potentially be financially impacted by your untimely death, please do them an enormous favor and take out even a small life insurance policy. Paying for final expenses has the potential to create a financial crisis for your immediate family. Your loved ones should not have to worry about this. Please, give them the gift of financial stability if it is at all possible for you to do so.

Lane Graves, In Memoriam

Lane Graves, In Memoriam
By Krista Mallo 6/18/2016

It’s been a week, little one.
All across America
Deep within the gated communities, inside the two-car garaged, white picket-fenced, ADT-secured, single family homes,
Puffy-eyed, half-sleeping, middle class mommas awake in a cold sweat panic,
blindly shuffle through the darkness-
Listening intently at the just barely open bedroom door–
the door that encloses behind itself sheets, bed ruffles, self-sticking wall decorations-
All images of Mickey and Minnie and Goofy and Pluto-
Just to hear the half-silent sleeping sigh of the baby that so easily could have been you.
All across America, middle class mommas hold your Momma tight, hug her, will never leave her, suddenly and forever love her.

Teacher Dreams of a New Day

I would so much rather

spend my days—

speaking and writing and traveling—

—instead I stay grounded, anchored.

I am teaching–

—and learning—

His ways— and yearning

for a day that will come— like lightning— unraveling—

Me, so much sooner than I realize- I will be reaching

the everlasting promised land—

No longer dreaming of the days where I would rather be

— no, instead— I will hear and taste—bow down— breathe— inhale— His glory.

A Walk Through the Dark

I am not your pastor,

not your preacher,

not your mother,

not your wife–

By the blood of Christ,

I am your sister.

And I love you.

 

This is my story.

This is your story.

Together, this is our story.

 

Last night, I cried out to God, our heavenly Father–

I said– “Father! My God! My Lord! I need you to hold me!

Hold me in your arms!

Never let me go!”

 

But my eyes would not open wide enough to see Him in the darkness of the night.

Alone and desperate, I could not find my own way,

I was lost, so deep within the Valley of the Shadow of Death,

That I–did— fear— evil,

His rod and his staff– they terrified me!

 

I looked high; I looked low; all I could see were the shadows of doubt–

And I did fear evil–

 

This was not the path of righteousness I set out to follow!

My God, My God, I cried out– Why have you forsaken me?!

 

Banging my fists upon the earth, face crusted with dirt and sweat and tears and despair,

Finally, I gave up.

Stopped fighting.

Exhaled.

 

Surrendered.

 

Lord, My God, My Father, take me where you must.

This

This

This is not the path I saw in the light of day.

You have me here in this place,

in a place I never knew, never saw,

never wanted to know, never, Lord, never,

was this supposed to be–

 

But you alone are God, and I surrender.

 

Suddenly, as if by some flash of lightning, I was there walking with James.

And I understood that James had come to walk beside me.

 

As we walked along the way, he spoke to me–

He said, “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.”–

 

Seriously?

 

“Because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

 

Really?

 

As he spoke, all I could I think was that he must not know–

How could he possibly know?–

The road I traveled was paved with anger and addiction, alcohol, and anxiety, and

And

And all those things I dare not say.

 

Lost in my own mind,

I heard him whisper,

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father, who does not change like the shifting shadows.”

And I doubted that He could even be speaking to me.

I used to have some very good and perfect gifts–but they are all gone now– my friends- they were good, but they’re gone now.

My mom- I loved her- she was so beautiful, so tender, so loving, once upon a time, she was so good– but that fairy tale didn’t have a happily ever after ending–

and she’s gone now too.

 

He must not know, I thought–

He must not know that this road I traveled

Was the road less traveled by–

And it was paved with sexual perversion and pornography and pain

And fear

and failure after failure after failure–

 

As we walked, he talked, and I, still trapped in my own mind,

I watched my feet and thought, how can these be the feet of Jesus?

I saw my hands, and I knew it could not be true–

These hands, my hands, below these wrists,

these scarred wrists with wounds so deep no ink could ever cover–

 

These are the hands of Jesus Christ? The Messiah? The Savior?–

 

These hands are not worthy,

I knew in the darkened depth of my decaying soul,

I knew my sin ran too deep,

Too raw,

Too real,

Too far,

Too wide,

To be covered by the blood of the lamb,

 

I was too lost to be resurrected to new life in Christ–

 

I felt the searing condemnation from the enemy below,

And I believed the lies,

The sinister lies,

From that curséd snake–

I shouldn’t be here.

I cannot be your teacher– after all, not many us should be teachers–

 

But Oh! How sly!– that the enemy would take the words of my Father and twist them, and turn them, and burn them, and beat them into the bloody mess I thought I had become–

 

I suddenly was shaken,

James took me by the shoulders,

uplifted my soul, and spoke once again–

 

As the Lord Jesus Christ delivered the gift of grace that was not of myself but of God–

 

This time, there was no whisper.

This time, the veil was torn. Tables turned–

 

This time, I could see, and I could hear

And I could feel, and

I could taste,

And I could smell the glorious victory–

As James repeated, “Get rid of all the filth and evil,

And humbly accept the Word planted in you, which can save you.”

 

And the Word planted in me– spoke this truth to me last night:

 

You were

 

And

 

I was

knit together in my mother’s womb,

Created in the image of God,

made for His glory,

by His glory,

Saved by His grace,

Delivered from evil,

Risen to new life,

Empowered by the Holy Spirit,

 

I am–

You are–

loved by the Prince of Peace,

The most high Priest,

Savior, Redeemer,

The Creator of Heaven and Earth,

The LORD of all Creation,

The King of Kings,

The eternal– the Great I AM.

 

And I heard the voice of the Lord, my God, my refuge, my rock, – resounding from within–

 

MERCY

TRIUMPHS over

JUDGMENT.

 

_________

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An Open Letter to the Teacher Planning to Quit

Please do everyone a favor, and quit quietly. Your very loud, fed-up, I-cannot-take-it-anymore letter of resignation will be counterproductive. If you shout from the social-media rooftops all the atrocities present in public education you will not only state the obvious, but you will also denigrate a system that has, in fact, been one of our nation’s greatest success stories.

Since you do not know me, allow me to provide a bit of background. I am a mother of four children, all of whom are homeschooled, each of whom follows a completely different program of education (This is called differentiation and individual education plans in the school system. Since one has a serious chronic medical condition, you could say that she has the equivalent of a 504 plan for accommodations). I have 15 years of teaching experience (6 in the public schools), and I have held a Professional Educator’s certificate for 15 years. My Masters degree is in Education, and my PhD will also be in Education (completion is expected in 2019). I currently teach English at a private college. I do not have 150+ students, and I do not teach six or eight periods each day. Actually, I only have about 60 students, and I teach only one or two courses per day, depending upon which day of the week it is. I teach only four days per week, and I never deal with parents.

But my job still has stress— I still have to make lesson plans, typically for four preps per semester, and for the past three years, I have had at least one brand new prep each semester, which means I am constantly having to find new resources and make new lessons. While I may not have to shuffle my way through Common Core, I do have deans and accrediting agencies to consider. While I may not need to meet with parents for conferences, I do have additional student advising duties which take up most of my out-of-class time. The remainder of my work day consists of meetings to fulfill the responsibilities of various committees. From the moment I arrive on campus, until the moment I get in my car to go home (because, frequently the advising sessions carry on out to the parking lot), my day is spent in ways that I would not necessarily choose. It is somewhat stressful, no doubt. — But this is what I signed up for; this is the trade I made so that I could do what I love to do, what God has called me to do, and what I know I am created to do— TEACH.

You are probably not called to teach. You, the one who has only been working in a school for a few months, maybe two or three years, or maybe even you who has been leading various classrooms for 20 years or longer. I say it this way— that you have been working in a school— rather than TEACHING, because there is a difference. I have seen the ones who show up everyday with no passion for their subjects, no love for their students, or sometimes both. If you are one of these, then you are not called to teach. So quit. Find another job. You will, of course, love anything more than your current job.

But, please, for goodness sake, leave quietly. Do not do attempt to start the latest Resignation-Gone-Viral social media blast. Everyone already knows that the school system is facing many uphill battles right now. Everyone knows that Common Core is causing major headaches, that teachers are upset about the evaluation process which is clearly unfair and illogically evaluating them based on students they never saw oftentimes. Everyone already knows there are mounds of paperwork, disrespectful students, unsupportive parents, and overbearing administrators.

So, there is no reason to further denigrate the school system that also provides hundreds of thousands of meals to hungry children everyday, the system that provides supervision and structure for the children of broken homes, experiencing trauma or abuse at home, or merely facing the battle of surviving with very few resources. Instead, try to remember that the same school system that you are begging to depart from is the same school system that provides the opportunity for upward mobility to impoverished families. You have been teaching in the school where a child will discover what he wants to be when he grows up. You have been teaching amongst a group of people who have been looking to you for guidance about their uncertain futures. You have failed now to manage your stress in a manner with which you are comfortable, and you are still standing in front of the people who stress you out the most. But these people, these children, these teens, these young adults— they are the reason you are teaching— UNLESS they aren’t.

If you are not teaching for the love of teaching, for the love of your subject area, or for the love of the students, then you definitely need to quit. This is not the job you signed up for. You signed up for summers off and winter break. You signed up for a guaranteed salary, and you signed up for free healthcare. You signed up for a workday that ends at 3pm, no weekends, no holidays. You did not sign up for the job that would stress you to the max and then demand more. You did not sign up for incessant questions, continuous quality improvement plans, action research, intervention plans, individual education plans, 504 plans, parent conferences, and student attitudes that do not always align with yours. You did not sign up to be the difference in someone’s life. You did not sign up to take on more than you could handle, and you certainly did not sign up to learn to be flexible and adapt to new standardized curriculum every year. You did not sign up to watch other people’s children struggle to read. And you certainly did not sign up for tutoring sessions during your lunch break. You never thought the day would come that students would claim to have neglected homework assignments in order to care for their drug-addicted parents. And you certainly don’t believe the girl who claims she couldn’t write the essay  due today because she was babysitting her 2 young siblings yet again.

When my children attended public schools, you were their teacher. You were nervous when you found out they already knew how to read before they arrived in your class. You would need a new lesson plan, and that terrified you. Then, you were the teacher of my best friend’s little girl, and you did not believe that a 6 year-old could have anxiety, so you called the mother a liar— to her face— and your principal backed you up. You were the teacher who declared to a parent in my presence, “There is something WRONG with your kid!” You were the teacher who refused to recommend my friend’s child for the IB program, because “although she is smart enough, she probably wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure.” You were the one who made parents question their own ability to raise a child. You were the one who expected Common Core to go away, so you didn’t pay attention when you were supposed to be learning to navigate the new requirements. You are the one who is making the rest of us look bad. You are the one who is failing the children. Yes, the system needs improvement, but it is not the system that is broken. This is not your calling. So, please, find what you love somewhere else. But go quietly.