“That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.” ~Walt Disney
When I heard Walt Disney’s quote in the movie Saving Mr. Banks a few weeks ago, I knew that he had hit upon a powerful truth. Little did I realize at the time how much I would need to believe that it was the truth, clinging to hope beyond my human sight.
Since January first of this year, I have been hit with a series of personal losses. My brother, closest in age to myself, died unexpectedly at fifty-eight. The next week, my father-in-law passed away. One of our most faithful dogs, Sheba, died the following morning.
Death is part of the human cycle. I know that. Everyone knows that. But how we die can change everything for those left behind. And how we face life without them, either makes or breaks the order of our universe.
My mother, my childhood friend, my husband, nor my two brothers realized that they would die when they did. Each had plans, things to say and do the next day. But reality took over, and their will was not done according to their plans. Those left behind had to deal with what the situation offered, painful as it was.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of accepting tragic reality. So many things should have happened—but didn’t. Forgiveness and love should have softened hearts. Despair and pain should never have the last word. Too many times, a peaceful death is mere illusion, and we suffer sunderings that rip and tear, rather than breathe new life into our spirits.
So, what then?
Do I fashion a new ending? Write a happier, though fictious scene?
God created human beings with incredible imaginations. Based on His own, surely. Free will still reigns, a powerful force in a world full of ironic caprice. Restoring order, for me, is not about writing a better story despite a sad ending—it means becoming a better person, knowing that I can’t see the end.
I choose where to focus my gaze. Whether I scream at fate or hug a wounded inner-child, no one leaves this world in perfect shape. Scourged by hurts, pierced by grief, alone in confusion, there are plenty of reasons for giving in and giving up.
But what good would that do?
Lessons are learnable: Excessive drink and drugs destroy the body. Isolation and silence tear a soul to pieces. Loneliness is depressing, and despair is deadly. Evil acts bear bitter fruit.
I choose to believe that the end is not the end. I revel in the Grace that animated the positive aspects of those I loved. Gratitude is more than an attitude; it heals wounds so that we can grow new lives in glorious form.
When faced with death, I lift my gaze from the grave and remember the good, noble, strong, decent, kind, and beautiful aspects of the person I knew. I forgive. In my imagination, I do not refashion an idealized version of their lives. I learn from mistakes and hope that through the grace of painful lessons learned, that others (and my future self, perhaps) may be spared a few griefs at least.
The moon now shines through a cloudy sky, highlighting the bare branches of our winter woods. Crusty snow and icy cold made it too risky to go out today. But it was not a wasted day. It was a blessed day. Because I chose what to make of it. And despite sad realities and night falling, this is not the end.
Charles would never be able to look his sister in the eyes again. He stared at the slumped form in the cage and whistled low. It can’t be. But it was. Dead.
Once he had cleared out a nest of mice from the garage, so the irony of failing as a hamster caretaker struck everything but the funny bone.
Three years ago, Robin had been diagnosed with cancer, one that might prove fatal or might go into remission forever. A chancy thing that Charles could not understand even after researching it online till his eyes ached.
This last hospital stay meant that someone had to take care of Henny.
He had said he would.
And he had meant it.
But life got in the way, and he forgot.
Now Henny lay like a petrified rock before an empty feed bowl. Dried crust rings adorned the empty water dish.
Mom’s voice raced up the stairs. “Charles?”
He had to answer. He was in Robin’s room. Mom wouldn’t ask about Henny. Never cross her mind. “Yeah?”
“Dad and I are going now. The hospital said that one of us could pop in for a visit if we get there in the hour.”
No explanation needed. He knew all the restrictions and why he was not on the short list of visitors. “Fine.”
“Bye, honey. Keep an eye on the chicken in the crockpot.”
The front door shut with all the force of a late winter wind behind it.
Charles sighed. He opened the cage and did the needful. Despite the frozen ground, he’d give his sister’s pet a decent burial. It was the least he could do.
Online classes set Charles’ nerves on edge. There were so many more interesting things he could be doing with his time. He googled hamsters and discovered that there were a few within his price range. No one would know…except Robin, of course. She had a mama-bear’s sensitivity. One whisker out of place, and her eyebrows would rise sky high.
He sighed and drummed his fingers on his desk. How on earth could he replace hamster-love? Clearly, with her frequent hospital visits, another pet wasn’t a good option. A game? How about a craft they could do together? She liked nature walks—he could take her to the park every week. Or a boyfriend? He could set her up with— Charles shook his head. She was only twelve, for heaven’s sake. What am I thinking?
His phone buzzed, and his stomach tightened. Either his teacher or his mom. Nether a welcome distraction. He checked his text messages.
Hey, Sweetie! Great news. They’re letting us take her home today. Just got a few things to finish up, and we’ll all be together again🙂
Get the chicken ready, and Dad will pick up some dessert on the way to celebrate.
Hearts and smiles,
If a national emergency had been declared, and he was being sent to the front lines, Charles’ heart could not have pounded any harder.
From the sound of boots stomping into the living room, hearty laughter, and voices chattering way too loud, Charles knew something was off. He had cleaned up the remains of Henny’s house; her empty cage stood in the corner of his closet, out of sight. He hoped out of mind.
He had changed his dirty shirt and finished his biology assignment—one focused on rodents—only adding to life’s cruel fate.
He sucked in a deep breath and marched down stairs.
Mom was bustling every direction, humming some ridiculous tune in the kitchen, and Dad was helping Robin get settled on the couch. Lots of pillows and extra blankets.
Twelve? She looked eighty. Her sunken eyes peered at him as a smile quivered on her lips. Brave but doomed. He knew it. She knew it. And now she knew that he knew it.
Henny’s slumped form flashed before his eyes, and a lump rose to his throat. He forced it down, strode to the couch, and plunked down beside her. In his fifteen-years on earth, it was the bravest thing he had ever done.
He nudged her shoulder.
She nudged him back. Her smile widening and real this time.
“So, you’ve come back to plague me with song requests, I suppose? Twenty new tunes you want uploaded?”
“Only seven—but I found a game we can play. You just have to set it up.”
Huge, long-suffering sigh. He nudged her again.
Mom called from the kitchen, “Dinner’s ready!” with all the practice of a spring lark. All hell could be breaking loose, but as long as she had dinner ready, cheerfulness reigned supreme.
Dad sprang into action, his arm ready, his hovering presence all that Robin needed to get to the kitchen table.
Eating wasn’t difficult. It was impossible. But Charles managed it anyway.
A Netflix movie—a Jane Austin romance that made Charles and his dad exchange eye-rolls every other scene—and evening prayers completed the night.
Sweating bullets every time Robin offered an inquisitive glance his direction, Charles prayed that she’d forget about Henny until tomorrow.
No such luck.
Ascending the steps, she clutched her dad’s hand and hit Charles square between the eyes. “How’s Henny been? I feel bad, leaving her so long. But I’m sure you’ve taken good care. She’s so silly.”
What does silly have to do with it? She wasn’t a silly hamster. She was a rodent. Nothing to shed tears over. His vision blurred. “Can you wait till tomorrow? I’m really tired tonight.”
She nodded. “Me too.” She slipped off to bed.
Laying in the dark, facing the monsters chasing him down the corridors of his imagination, Charles knew his days were numbered. He couldn’t live through this. He didn’t want to.
After a night of dreams skewered by nonsense nightmares, Charles swallowed each bite of cereal in the same way that a camel manages with cactus leaves. Ignore the prickles and force it on down.
Dad, his protective armor on, patted Charles’ back as he strode into the kitchen. “You doing okay?”
There was no good answer, so Charles simply shrugged.
The phone buzzed. A loud conversation upstairs, Mom’s laughter, and then Mom skittering down stairs with the phone held out. “Jason has everything set, but he wants us to there to make sure it’s what we want. Then he’ll bring it over right after he gets it loaded.”
Apparently, the message made sense to Dad. He nodded, grabbed his coat, and snatched his keys.
Mom leaned in to Charles. “She’s still sleeping. We won’t be gone long. If she wakes up, get her something to eat so she doesn’t try to take the stairs, okay? We’re getting the bed the doctor recommended, so she’ll be more comfortable.”
After an affirming nod, they were out the door.
Silence pervaded the house for the next fifteen minutes. Then the shuffling steps of a very old or very sick person padded overhead.
Charles trotted upstairs and rushed to his sister’s room. But she wasn’t there. He glanced at the bathroom. Empty. His heart thudded as he approached his room. There she stood, the closet door open, Henny’s cage pulled out, empty and forlorn.
“I’m sorry. It was all my fault—”
Surprisingly strong, Robin’s voice warbled across the room to the doorway. “She was three years old—that’s ancient for a hamster.”
But you’re only twelve. Tears stung Charles’ eyes.
She turned and faced him. “I was thinking…maybe you could walk outside and take pictures, text ‘em, then call me, and describe stuff. Then—well—I won’t miss spring completely.”
All through February and deep into March, he sent pictures of Snowdrops, Crocus, maple buds, early, eager bees, and the first Robin to come bob-bobbing-along. She responded with hearts, googly-eyed smiling faces, and other ridiculous emojis that made him laugh out loud.
After the last thaw in mid-April when the temperatures finally rose again, he tread across the slushy grass, box under his arm and a spade in hand. He stopped before the fresh mound. It might take years for grass to grow over the site. He clasped the stained container and, with the aid of his spade, made a small hole at the foot of the grave. He placed the box front and center, then covered it with all the care of an operating doctor finishing a procedure. He patted the earth and leaned on the spade handle.
“Together again, best I can arrange it. Dumb mistake to forget Henny…but sometimes, it’s hard to see stuff.”
A red-breasted Robin hopped close and cocked its head.
Charles knelt on the muddy ground and lifted his hand. They stared at each other for a long moment.
Last evening, my kids gathered on a far section of our land. We traipsed across a rickety bridge over our ever-widening creek to reach it. Sheltered by old-growth maples, full of tall grass, vines, and brambles, it’s a wild bit of land. The kids worked hard to clear a space for a woodfire, which they soon surrounded with river stones. They also placed two inviting benches strategically on the east and south ends. By the time I arrived, the afternoon had waned to evening, and the flickering firelight against the bare, winter trees, set a charming scene. Like walking into a Kinkade painting.
This new year has already hit hard, delving deep into human suffering, physical, emotional, spiritual limits, and the reality of abiding love. Like crossing a rickety bridge, I can’t get to the other side without getting muddy and taking a few risks.
What amazes me in current challenges—everything from family illness to missed mail—is that with an open heart, my trials morph into blessings.
For some odd reason, I never received the bill for our house insurance last month, (or the warning letter, apparently) so the company canceled our policy. I was shocked when I discovered the problem that a simple phone call could have solved. But ironically, my kind insurance agent then went to the trouble to update our info, and now our policy is more comprehensive and cheaper.
Today, my youngest son’s online class hit a roadblock, and I tried to go through the usual communication pathways to solve the problem, but that didn’t work, so I ended up chatting on the phone with his teacher this evening. I discovered a remarkable woman who just got assigned to the job in an overwhelmed system but has the grace and enthusiasm born of a beautiful spirit.
When a family member became seriously ill this week, friends and support personnel proved beyond all shadow of doubt that love and extraordinary generosity of spirit are alive in the world today.
And in my ever-evolving adventure as secretary to Glendale Cemetery, I lost a piece of information and had to check in with a couple of folks to clarify. Did I meet with annoyance and correction? No. Quite the opposite. Kindness and understanding ruled.
A vision runs through my head these days. It’s not so much about me seeing eye-to-eye with everyone, but rather, all eyes seeing with the same glorious, God-centered vision. There is a bridge that takes us over murky water and into the wildlands of our human experience. It’s in shadows that firelight has the most play. Against cold pain and despair, a noble act brings the human family closer, sharing the warmth of love’s fire.
Christmas—the birth of God as human being. What a concept!
For my kids’ generation, I have to translate it in terms of an alien coming to Earth, revealing Himself as the seed of human origin. We are more likely to believe in aliens than angels these days. But, be that as it may, the human experience, despite 5000 years of conversations with God and 2000+ Christmases, our life-on-earth journey remains much the same. We are born, we live, and we die.
As I consider this unlikely year 2020, amid all the changes and challenges of our fast-paced technological developments, social and political upheavals, a contracting world amid an expanding universe, pandemics, increasing information, and diminishing trust, I have chosen to focus on what really matters to me.
Family, home, community, my critters, and the little piece of Earth under my care, given by God, offer my life purpose and meaning. Joy even. The happiness of service, becoming a part of more than my petty self, my particular needs, my thin view.
Each day, I attempt to manage my daily-do, taking care of those within my family and community sphere. But the larger world matters, too. In that respect, I have been blessed to interact with three generous stewards of God’s life and love. I am sure there are many others as well.
The mystery of Christmas, for me, is not so much that God became human and offers us Eternal life with Him in Heaven—He being God, that perfection is reasonable, even expected—but that despite our faults and failings, our petty selfishness, we humans can and do respond with generous spirits, in imitation of the God who made us.
To join with fellow human beings who so love the world that we offer our lives, in big and small matters, in monetary offerings, time and talent, heartfelt conversations, prayer, solace, nobility of spirit, courage, anonymous kind acts, speaks to a humanity that can rise and grow beyond our worst tendencies, our weakest links, our nefarious faults.
This Christmas season, I choose not to focus on our many problems or the murky swirl of an uncertain future, but rather, I lift my gaze to God in gratitude for His presence among us and for my fellow human beings who live in generous, noble love. Nowhere do you shine so bright as in these dark days. May your light continue to shine in the coming months and years, and may the Good God who created you for Eternal life, offer you the strength and hope to persevere, come what may.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” – John 3:16
The future bewilders me. I never know what’s next. I should be used to that by now. But no. I make a plan and then watch it swirl into oblivion shortly after my first sip of morning coffee.
Since I’m off much of social media, I have more time. So, I create more projects. Fun stuff. I’ve done some rather inventive cooking, started reading the works of Thomas Aquinas, strolled about the landscape, and learned to edit pictures I’ve taken around the homestead.
I’ve also read chapters of my novel Last of Her Kind to upload on Audible, only to discover that I had some of the settings wrong. Frankly, I’d rather wrestle a hyena than a computer. My sons attempted to untangle my techno-mess, hoping to maintain my delicate grasp of sanity. They did so, laughing at my handwringing fright that my work would slip into a cyber blackhole. It didn’t. But I’m firmly convinced it could have.
In the process of trying to comprehend the Audible world, I somehow put my book up for narration, and I got an audition notice almost immediately. Surprise!
At first, I thought, rather huffily, I’d just plead short-term insanity and let the narrator know that I screwed up and added my book by mistake.
Then I took a shower. And heard a voice. “Do both.”
It took a while to decipher what my brain, the Collective Unconscious, or the Voice of God was telling me.
Now that I am beginning to see the Audible light, I can narrate my books correctly. But rather than finish Last of Her Kind, perhaps I’ll start with something simpler, one of my non-fiction books or my short stories.
I decided to listen to the audition. It was pretty good. Back and forth, the narrator and I emailed, and then we had a conversation on the phone. I soon realized that there was more to this whole thing than a book narration. Human interaction changes everything.
Today’s to-do list outlined teaching, writing, making dinner, and a walk in the woods. That was the plan.
Real life involved conversations centering on Royal family dysfunction (Not mine!), discovering the possibilities of a new electric griddle a friend sent our way, a surprise editing assignment, a conversation with a woman who is now my book narrator and no longer a stranger, possibly a friend. No walk, though I did sneak a peek at a poem and read a short story to my youngest daughter that made my heart swell with the power of words to reclaim my scattered, disorganized soul.
A new mom texted that her whole life is now centered on her baby girl and making her home her little church. I just put a few humble Christmas cards in the mailbox. One of my daughters made a delicious dinner, and the kids and I chatted about nothing much around the table.
It’s dark now. I have a hot cup of chamomile tea at hand, the woods stove sends heat swirling about the place, a ladybug is doing aerobics on my computer screen, and life has definitely not gone according to plan.
But then I realize; all I really wanted to do was love my way through the day.
Stupid mistakes left Trix cold. Her own especially. Who on planet Earth was responsible for spelling? And could she find a legal precedent for killing the nameless perpetrators outright or would it have to be a clandestine affair? Though surely, she’d had a good portion of the world’s fifth-graders in her corner.
Was it her fault that few human beings could state her name without topping it off with an “ie,” turning her name into a bunny meme, or that grey was spelled with an a on one side of the Atlantic and with an e on the other? What demon-possessed people to care—much less sing-song their way through a quarterly review, insisting that she better shape up or—
The words had been left hanging. Just like that. An unspoken doomsday “Trix End.”
Trix stomped through the grocery store, huffing through her mask, which only fogged up her glasses. Lord have mercy. Would the trials of the year never end?
Head down, shoulders at ear level, she maneuvered her cart through the seafood aisle, blinking at the prices. She mumbled to herself, though visions of serving shrimp with some-kind-of-undetectable-poison-and-watching-her-bossy-boss-slip-to-the-floor-dead flashed through her mind.
Glowing lava rocks exploding from an active volcano had nothing on Trix at that moment. She grimaced, keeping her eyes wide so that as far as anyone reading a masked expression could figure, there was a smile under there somewhere. She faced Brenda, one of the homeschooling moms who sat behind her at Mass. She had polished a small mittened-hand wave to good effect. “Hey, Brenda.”
“So, are you going to the Winter Fun Event on the town square on Sunday?”
Rolling her eyes to the ceiling, Trix mentally consulted her calendar. She had to teach school all week, an editing project was due on Thursday, her dad had slipped on the ice, so she wanted to drop off some chocolate panaceas on Friday. Saturday, she’d charge into battle against the encroaching spiderwebs, dust bunnies, and household scum that managed to accumulate when her back was turned. Sunday remained her shield against overwork and flippant insanity. “Well, I’m not sure. I’ve got a lot going on. And besides, is it safe?”
Attempting to avoid a maniacal expression, Trix hid her grin behind her mask. The “Is it safe?” comment usually stopped every conversation cold. She glanced aside at the rows of frozen foods. A suitable location, indeed.
Even behind her they-all-look-alike mask, it was obvious, Brenda’s face fell. Her eyes dimmed. Her joy-spark snuffed.
Geeze! Who cares about Winter Fun? I have my sanity to keep track of! Isn’t that more important!
Trix tried to cool the use of mental exclamation points, but her heart sank to her chilled boots. If Old Scrooge could see her now, he’d embrace her as a fellow frozen-soul.
Good soldier and honest Christian lady who kept faith with all sorts of happy thoughts, Brenda squared her shoulders and drowned whatever sorry-reality haunted the depth of her eyes. “No problem. I was just asking. You’re right to be careful. Just sometimes, you know—” She glanced aside, definitely not seeing the delightful array of frozen yogurts. “You’re doing well. That’s all that matters.”
Trix’s icy heart started to drip.
Her mistake hit Brenda like a bullet train. She burst with contrition. “Oh, I forgot. I said Trixie—and you hate that. Sorry. I mess up names all the time, so I use those stupid mnemonic-things to remember. But I still manage to—” Gripping her cart with dejected humiliation, she aimed for the meat and cheese aisle.
Her cheeks flushed, Trix swallowed a chunk of ice. She stopped Brenda’s cart. “I’m heading to the candy aisle to find something chocolatey for my dad. Want to come?”
As they turned into the next aisle and at the sight of Brenda’s tear-filled eyes, Trix snatched a box of cocoa off the passing shelf. “You want to stop by for a cup Sunday afternoon? We’ll both need warming up.” She grinned right through her mask.
The lake before me runs at an even pace with ripples breaking against the rocky, wooded shoreline. November trees adorned with crumpled, brown leaves shiver in a cold breeze. Evergreens standout, their pine branches waving as if to salute distant friends who never get any closer.
This should be a forlorn landscape, but I sought it out. It’s too muddy to take my usual walk, but my soul craves the sympathetic poetry of natural beauty. Fishermen aren’t crowding the pier this time of the year, though a red car just pulled up, and a man heaved a pole and a bucket from the backseat.
I recently disconnected from my main social media sites. A death of sorts, pulling the plug on a life support that often drained more than fed. I pondered this move long and hard, making several weak attempts to control my online habit with organized lists, determined parameters, and even a few complete breaks. But like a dysfunctional relationship, I kept going back in the hopes that things would be different. Not this time.
Mists of rain turned to heavy drops, and the red car just drove away. Undeterred birds chirp with wild abandon. Crows caw their raucous opinion. Whatever the matter might be, I haven’t a clue. Territory issues? Food source contestants? Perhaps they’re just trolling as they fly by.
2020 has proven to be a heck of a year on many levels. It started out weird when two of my boys, acting as altar servers on New Year’s Eve, fainted on the altar. No explanation. They just fell faint twenty feet apart, at nearly the same moment, for no known reason. They were embarrassed; I was worried; the congregation was confused. Not an auspicious beginning to the year. But it proved accurate. I’m still worried, and now the whole world is confused.
COVID, shutdowns, national divisions, an entangled world, environmental concerns, massive debt, 61+ million aborted humans, 39% divorce rate, (Give or take, depending on your source) relationship dysfunction, collective guilt, heated controversies, out of control rage, and no-end-in-site-isolation, make for an anxious population and an uncertain future. God knows what 2021 will bring.
And there lies the reason that I’m sitting in a cold car on the lakeside, facing a bare woods in late November. The same reason that I disconnected from my social media sites. There is more to life than the clickbait that bots are determined to show me or the hurt, fear, and frustration of a world slipping wildly out of control.
I have to stand on a firm foundation in order to step anywhere. I need nurturing soil to grow. I’ve been thrashing about in the deep end of madness for a weary length of time. God has been generous enough to hold me up, but I suspect that he’d like me to head for shore.
Rain patters on the car roof, a comforting sound, as long as it doesn’t become a deluge. It’s only noon, and though the clouds make for a dim view, I can still see through the tangled woods and across the rippling waves.
My human existence is more than making online “friends” and connecting through a few words before moving on. My brain wasn’t made to filter so many images, the cacophony of opinions, a swirling sea of conflicting realities. My heart doesn’t beat well to the tune of ghost relationships, scammer fakes, or an inundation of offerings. I can’t enjoy any post when I’m drowning in a raging sea of alerts, dings, calls, texts, all flashing pay-attention-to-me notices throughout the day.
God. Family. Home. A rolling lake. Strolling through a November woods. Falling rain. A beautiful poem. Heartfelt words. A couple of inspirational biographies. Sitting in the living room, knitting. Sharing meals with friends and family. Stories enlivened with kids’ laughter. Quiet moments in prayer and gratitude.