Seventeen years ago, my Mom died of a fatal heart attack. The melancholy that drifts in around the anniversary of her death threatens to overcome me each year. I decided to take a walk around the gardens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to shake the blues and the dreariness of this winter day. As I rounded the edge of the museum, I was surprised by the peacefulness that swept over me. The 24-foot-tall sculptural head of a girl named Chloe carved by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa summoned my attention. The gray barren branches of the large oak tree behind her stood in stark contrast to her meditational visage, radiant even with closed eyes. Chloe’s powerful pose reminded me of my Mom’s determination to raise her 3 daughters to be strong women. I could always count on her encouraging words whenever life became hard to navigate. She often ended those conversations saying, “Everything will work out, and I’ll be thinking about you. Hold your head up high!” These words have been implanted in my heart, and I often use them to encourage my sons in their own challenges. As I turned to leave, I took this picture that shows the strong presence of the oak tree next to the imposing presence of Plensa’s Chloe. These towering images both represent to me the reassurance of my mother’s words. Her comforting words are as permanent in my mind as the images of oak and marble that spoke to me from that image. Throughout the seasons of our lives, the words of loved ones can anchor us over time and space.
May 16, 2017 means that 15 years have slipped by since my husband David suffered a fatal heart attack while playing basketball with our son Andy at St. Christopher’s School. That day seemed to shatter our rose colored world of happy endings, but the hands of those surrounding Andy, Ben and me made sure that our tragedy didn’t define our destiny. There are no words in our English language that can ever fully capture our gratitude for the shoulders we leaned on or the hands that reached out to us during those darkest hours.
After spending the week-end on a scout hike with David and Ben at a boy scout hike, our friend Briscoe described David in a sympathy note. He wrote about the wonderful campsite that David and Ben had created where “everyone had a great time, and in the center of it all was a big guy with an even bigger heart making people laugh.” These words still ring true about my big-hearted husband who loved and lived life to the fullest. In some ways, he lived more life in his 45 years than many of us can fathom. It makes our hearts happy to know how much love David shared. We have found solace over time in hearing and sharing memories of his life.
We have surely grieved in agonizing ways, but we have found countless silver linings scattered along our way that have kept us moving forward one day at a time. From the first moments after his fall to the cold hard floor of the gym to this beautiful blue sky May morning, we have been privileged to receive glimmers of silver light lining the storm clouds that hover overhead.
The first shimmering silver lights were the first responders who worked on his lifeless body in spite of knowing full well that he might not recover. I recently met the man who gave my husband mouth to mouth resuscitation until the medical team arrived. It is odd that in 15 years, I never had met Brock Lively who tried desperately to revive him. You have to admit that Brock’s last name is interesting given his willingness to step forward to help David. You simply can’t make this stuff up. He told me about rushing over to help Andy and the other boys that huddled over David. Brock said, “It was like everything was in slow motion.” His description summed up our foggy recollections of that first hour.
Although Brock and I had never met until this January, his mother and I were friends through church. I knew that his own father had died at an early age leaving her a widow with 3 children to raise. When Brock and I talked recently, he told me that losing his own father at an early age had motivated him to learn C.P.R. He wanted to give others a second chance at living even though his father didn’t get one. Knowing that he tried to help David in spite of his own loss was a ray of sunshine I hadn’t expected to learn about fifteen years later. Helping others find hope in their stormy times encourages me to write about transforming our losses. My sons and I have helped others face adversity in their lives. Our compassion grew out of our own loss in much the same way as Brock’s.
There are so many connections or silver linings that have given us new directions and full hearts in these 15 years. This short blog can’t contain them all. We want to give you our thanks for lighting our path. Without these illuminations, we may have lost our way in the shadows of death. We know that silver linings really do exist! In memory of David, we hope you will continue to brighten another’s journey! A song written and sung by the Honey Dewdrops named “Silver Lining” inspired my title today. From their lyrics, “You’re my silver lining when it don’t look good, I’m always finding, you’re my silver lining.” (www.TheHoneyDewdrops.com)
After my husband died, hundreds of people came to see me to offer sympathy. After several hours I excused myself from the living room where some still were gathered. I just couldn’t shake another hand or shed another tear because I was exhausted. I fell across my bed as my son Andy came in to check on me. He wanted to know how I was doing. I swallowed hard and replied, “Right now I’m starving.” I asked him if he would go down to the dining room to make me a plate of food from the banquet laid out by my friends on our dining room table. He disappeared and returned moments later with a silver platter. As he sat the tray in front of me, I realized that he had brought me a tray consisting entirely of homemade brownies. I smiled at him as I reached for one of them. He told me that they were really good. It was one of those moments I can never forget. Eating brownies from a silver tray with Andy was a bitter sweet moment of grief. Grieving makes you hungry and why shouldn’t I eat a whole plate of chocolate brownies!
The winter winds gave us another burst of cold air just as spring arrived this week in Virginia. Just as the golden buttercups beckoned to me, it became necessary to bundle up in my down jacket to gather them in mason jars where they could shine brightly indoors. The yellow ruffles encasing their trumpet faces seemed to smile in spite of winter’s final attempts to squelch their grandeur. I grinned in response to their golden glow knowing that the warmth we feel in our hearts is not determined by the winds that surely find their way to us either.
The ushering in of spring in spite of the bleak gray skies and cold winds of winter reminded me of a celebration of marriage that I attended in January. As the days drew closer to Kelly and Steve’s big day, the meteorologists’ forecast included the dreaded words of “wintry mix” and “blizzard!” Knowing my fear of driving in snow, sleet, and freezing rain, I decided this was now a destination wedding, which required staying in Smithfield, Virginia for 3 days.
Attending a wedding is always cause for merry making, and being snowed in with 200 others sharing in this “wintry mix” of merriment created much excitement and new ways of bonding. The details of the weekend were beautifully planned and implemented by their friends and family while the weather made maddening attempts to dampen our spirits with snow, sleet, rain, and even flooding.
Trying to describe the joys of being gathered together under such extreme weather conditions is hard. A concert dedicated to honor them given by their singer/songwriter friends on the night before their wedding best exemplified this happiness and the connections to one another that we cherish. There was a synergy of hope and abiding love that was given not only to Kelly and Steve but also to each of us who huddled nearby. The musicians filled our hearts, minds, and spirits to overflowing that snowy night. As we left the venue, one of the songs kept rolling around in my mind. This original tune by Karl Werne helped me preserve these memories and inspirations of this destination wedding during the blizzard entitled, “How much love?” The words, which spoke to me from this song, were: “How much love can one heart take? Let’s find it out!” The discovery of the abundance of love that can fill one’s heart was an unexpected gift to us all.
When I returned home after the wedding, the record snowfall of 18 inches greeted me as I tried to turn into my driveway. This required several hours of shoveling between my son and me. The main roads had been cleared but my neighborhood was a winter wonderland of snow-covered homes with icicles draping from the gutters. We were able to make a small enough path at the edge of the driveway where my car could sit until the snow started to melt.
The next morning as I bundled up and began walking my dogs, my neighbor was also walking her dog and said to me, “You’re the first person I’ve seen since we’ve been snowed in!” I paused for a moment as I pondered that thought and wondered how many people I had seen during the blizzard. I’m thinking at least 200 if not more in my mind, but I decided this would be too much to share given the tundra surrounding us. After chatting to her for a few more minutes, my dogs tugged their leads and we parted ways. I found myself singing, “How much love can one heart take? Let’s find it out! Let’s find it out!” The warmth in our hearts is not determined by the winter winds that surely will blow!
My husband David wore tennis shoes most of the time. His favorite shoes were his white leather Converse Chuck Taylor high tops with red and blue trim. He wore them to business meetings, work, church, basketball games, and even to his weekly shopping trip to Costco. One day someone asked him, “Why do you always wear your basketball shoes?” He smiled and said, “They remind me to keep moving forward by taking one step at a time.” The woman who asked this question had a puzzled look on her face. Sensing her confusion David explained, “Sometimes it’s hard to get going at all, but when I look at these shoes I’m reminded to put one foot in front of the other and walk.”
Several months later, David wore those infamous Chuck Taylors to play a game of scrimmage on the basketball court with our son Andy at his school. After blocking a shot, he collapsed onto the floor in front of Andy and the other boys. The stillness of this moment traumatized Andy and these young men as they scrambled to get help for David. Although the details are blurry, the memories of witnessing someone suffering a heart attack cannot be easily erased. While waiting for the doctors to tell us more about his condition, I thought about David’s conversation of putting one foot in front of the other. How would I even move one foot if the unthinkable were to occur? Upon learning that the heart attack killed him instantly, we sank into the depths of despair that sent my sons and me in different directions to find solace for our brokenness.
Instead of putting one foot in front of another and walking, I spent most of my time waiting for the other shoe to drop! The trauma of losing someone suddenly, and knowing that Andy couldn’t forget watching his Dad die changed my role as a mother. The more I tried to console him, the more he pulled away. The darkness that engulfed him pointed me towards finding a doctor who could treat depression. Unfortunately it’s difficult to find the right approach or therapy for an adolescent who faces this disease. While the doctors and I sought to strike a balance between counseling and prescriptions for easing his pain, Andy began to look for answers on his own. Much to my surprise, he found remedies in cabinets and closets right in our home. Our lives became very entangled and complicated as we looked for ways to manage our suffering and grief. It seemed like our family was drifting apart instead of moving closer to heal.
Somehow we managed to keep moving forward against many obstacles during those years. There were times when one step forward really took us two steps backward. Time became our friend and constant companion no matter where our feet landed. The people who reached out to help us gave us signs of hope whether we went sideways, backwards, upside down, or forward. Thinking back to David’s words, I longed for a way to avoid taking one step at a time. I wanted our pain to be relieved instantly. Yet, there were no short cuts to our recovery. Each step took us places that would change our outlook on life forever.
During one of Andy’s recent trips home, he asked me to walk with him around the campus of St. Christopher’s School. It seemed like we had the grounds to ourselves, as it was a cloudy and damp Sunday morning. We wove our way towards the new Field House and gym, which was completed after David died. I could feel my body tense as we stopped to peer inside at the newly designed space. I confessed to Andy that even though it had been 13 years since his death, I experienced anxiety whenever I approached this area of the campus. He said, “Mom this is probably where he played basketball the day he died.” Tears spilled down my cheeks as I took in that he had estimated the approximate place where his father had died. He told me that he found comfort in coming here and standing with me in this space.
I felt goose bumps as we turned towards an outdoor basketball court where two basketballs were nestled together on the sidelines. Andy started to shoot baskets, and I began to rebound for him. So much had changed, but our love for David and one another had remained solid.
Walking further across the soggy grass, we happened to see Charlie Stillwell, the Head Master of St. Christopher’s School, walking his puppy under the tall pines near the cafeteria. It was incredible that we saw him after so many years had passed. After catching up on school news and our families, we talked about our eternal gratitude for his kindness that helped us through some of the most difficult times of our lives. He and the larger community of St. Christopher’s School had given our family guidance, love, support, and stability in extraordinary ways. While looking for a new home after selling ours, Charlie and other colleagues arranged for us to live in a home on campus until we could find a place to call our own. In addition, he helped Andy transition back to campus after leaving for a year spent at another school. Andy, his brother Ben, and I were fortunate to make friends here that stood beside us over the days, months, and now years since losing David.
As we departed, we heard the flapping of wings and snapping of branches overhead. We peered upward to see a large red-tailed hawk take flight and circle above us. In that moment, I realized that we had come full circle in our healing by taking one step at a time. We walked back to our car in silence knowing that our hearts would always hold the tender memories of David who taught us to remember to move forward one step at a time.
I decided to lift up clumps of velvety green moss growing around the roots of the pine trees providing shade on a steamy afternoon with my sister. I was making carpet for the playhouse we were making during our breaks while working at our large logged barn for flu-curing tobacco. The bright “Kermit the Frog” color added cheer to our earthy living room made from branches, twigs, tobacco sticks, potato shaped rocks, and old boards that we found scattered around the dusty road and area surrounding the barn. As we worked, I was constantly thinking of ways to add to our elaborate home under the pines. My mind drifted from the heat and harsh conditions and inspired me to keep going in spite of working long hours as a little girl.
Growing up on a tobacco farm in a place called Clover gave me the perfect setting for my imagination to wander wildly. Climbing apple trees and pretending to fly planes, digging holes to make swimming pools, putting on plays behind sheets draped over the swing set, crawling underneath the quilting table and grabbing pieces of chalk to draw with, dressing up our cats and strolling them as our babies in the old cane stroller in our attic, collecting clay from the creek to make an assortment of items, playing dress-up with the old clothes found in my Grannie’s trunk, or adding more squares of fuzzy moss to our playhouse could occupy me for countless hours.
As I grew older and recognized that more and more was being demanded of me in helping run the tobacco farm, I began to study harder in school to make certain that I would never work that hard physically again. While getting my grades up and juggling my working schedule, I placed my playfulness on hold until I was enrolled in college. My flair for creativity shifted to writing college essays. For me, an education meant freedom from farming. I would be the first person in my family to go to college. My father had quit school in eighth grade to make certain his family kept their family farm in spite of his dad’s failing health. His strong work ethics had been instilled in me and led to my academic success.
While striving to be successful, I began to listen to others’ voices more than mine. This desire to please others would ultimately leave me feeling less than capable to choose a career path where my natural gifts for creativity would flourish. In spite of a strong desire to be a professional singer, I became an elementary school teacher. Teaching first graders was good for me because I could make up lesson plans and decorate the classroom using my vivid imagination and artistic tendencies. Seeing children struggle with learning led me to becoming a school counselor for a few years.
My priorities shifted when faced with colon cancer at forty-one. Sitting still for 16 chemotherapy treatments gave me the impetus to journal. I realized that choosing to live fully meant being myself. The little girl who found soft velvety green moss emerged with her strong voice and creative ideas once again. My passion for helping others and vision for inspiration pushed me into faithful actions towards ministry.
Finding my sweet inner creative child was a gift that quickly faded. Just as I was learning to play again, my husband died while playing basketball with our younger son and other boys at school. The irony of this life-changing event threw me into a depression. While the pile of grief books began to resemble the self-help section at a bookstore, I wondered if I should write a book sharing stories drawn from this tragedy.
Thirteen years later while flying home from Montana, the woman seated in front of me turned around and said, “You should write a book.” I was stunned to hear her say the very words that had been rolling around in my head like a hamster on a wheel since losing my husband. During the long flight, she had heard me sharing stories that can’t be made up with the passenger seated by me. In introducing herself to me, she handed me her business card.
Upon arriving home, I decided to do a Google search on Laura Munson, the author named on that card. My heart raced as I wrote her a note inquiring about the Haven Writing Retreats she leads in Whitefish, Montana. Two months later I boarded a plane heading to Montana seeking the keys to writing that book. Under the tall pines draped in snow, the soft green velvety moss emerged on a sunny afternoon and a little girl found her courage to share her stories. Listening to one’s heart opens the doors to creativity!
18 years ago, I learned I had colon cancer. I felt stronger knowing that others were thinking of me and praying for my complete recovery and wholeness from this disease. Even when I was too sick to meditate or pray, I could feel the warmth of their loving thoughts wash over me. I was introduced to an Episcopal priest named Rufus Womble who changed the way I prayed for my own recovery and reshaped my spiritual practices for life! I am so grateful for the time I spent with him, and the lessons he shared with me.
Lately my heart has been heavy with the weight of the anniversary of my husband’s death less than a month away. Even though it’s been 13 years since he so suddenly left us with a fatal heart attack while playing basketball with our son Andy, the budding blossoms of trees, shrubs, and flowers usher in my melancholy and deep yearning for the life we shared as a couple. That fated morning started like any other warm spring day with white pedals bursting forth on the dogwood trees surrounding our home, birds singing, mowers humming in the neighborhood, coffee brewing, newspaper spreading out on the kitchen counter, kids rushing to get showers and dress for school, bees buzzing, dogs barking in the distance, flag flapping in the breeze over the front door, white puffy clouds darting across the blue sky…. but ended in the deafening sounds of emergency vehicles summoned to the gym where David collapsed to the brown rubbery floor with young sweaty boys including Andy watching hopelessly for signs of movement in his lifeless body. It’s a day forever etched in our memories filled with echoes of sirens signaling in a shift in our view of this season of spring!