WONDER-FULL Wednesday-The Valley of Grief

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The two people who would have gotten the biggest kick out of this summer hiking adventure are not around for me to tell it to. They were two of my biggest cheerleaders. They always had time for me and loved me with the type of love that instills courage, dreams and confidence.

My grandfather, Baba, was one of the most gentlest, kindliest, intelligent people that I had the privileged to know. He was a chemist, teacher and inventor. His thirst for knowledge was quenched at the library where he was found on a daily basis. And if he couldn’t make it to the library in person, he reached them by phone. He was always researching something and had a questions for the reference desk. Baba was adventurous and fun.  He took us on family mystery rides, taught us all the words to “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch Coconuts”, and watched Cindafella more times that I can remember. I think he passed on his love of PBS to me and whenever I watch Masterpiece Theater, I pretend that he is sitting right next to me with a big bowl of air popped popcorn.(Sorry Baba, I put a lot of salt AND butter on mine.) My grandfather had a country-western DJ company, was the president of his writing club, and was always on the look out for a new project. He approached failure as a challenge to succeed. He left a legacy of education, perseverance, gentle and kind words, mystery and adventure.

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My aunt was beautiful inside and out. She was creative and loved art, poetry and books. Like my grandfather, she was a teacher. Auntie had her degree in education and was a personal trainer. In the 90s, she made a few exercise videos rocking colorful,spandex exercise clothing. She dabbled in modeling too. Auntie was fun and had a great sense of humor. She loved Seinfeld and Toy Story. I can still hear her laugh and see her smile. She was one of those people who came alongside you. Celebrated with you, cried with you, laughed with you, encouraged you. Oh, she was such an encourager! And a leader! People loved to be with her. My aunt was also a courageous fighter. She fought cancer for many years. At the end of her life, she kept her wit, humor and grace until she could no longer speak or write. She never complained to me and always managed to give me a smile.

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Tomorrow marks a day of remembrance. Ten years have passed since Auntie’s passing and some days my grief is as raw and real as it was then. I think grief is like that. No right or wrong way to work through it. It pulls me back through memories. There are moments when I still expect to see my aunt walk through the door or hear her voice as she sings my name -“Shanny-Jean.” So many times, I have wanted to pick up the phone and tell her the latest news or hear her excitement over this hiking trip. I am sure she would have me on some sort of personal training routine for strengthening my glutes and core muscles (complete with the perfectly drawn stick-figures.)

I can no longer hear what my grandfather’s voice sounds like. We have recorded tapes with his voice but if I am being honest, it would make me even more sad to listen to them. He would have loved this hiking trip. Researching all he could about the mountains I will climb and helping me purchase the correct gear. He might have invented some sort of gadget for me to take. Or create freezed-dried humus-his homemade humus was the best.

Even though I can’t have them here on Earth, I carry them with me each day. I see them in butterflies, glass beakers, and in books. What they invested in me has outlasted their breath. They gave me adventure, courage, love of learning, and unconditional love.  I pour those things into my children hoping to leave them a similar legacy that out last my last breath.

They are coming with me on my hike. I am taking this picture in my pack because this is how I think of my grandfather and aunt in heaven. Auntie with her tour book in hand. Baba taking it all in, thinking about the next new thing to jump into. Smiling and laughing. Free of pain and in peace.

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The Long Road Home

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Our journey began at 3:00 am. The house was still and quiet in all rooms except one. In our room, the silence was interrupted by my husband who was gathering the last of our belongings and bringing them down the stairs. Sleepy-eyed and weary, I looked over to my children. They were sleeping peacefully. Their innocent faces looked as though they were dreaming of carefree, happy things. It had been a long time since I had stopped to watch them sleep.  A flood of memories washed over me, bringing me back to when they were helpless infants. Nostalgia brought a bittersweet bite. Time was going by too quickly, the kids were getting older and growing into beautiful young people who no longer fit in my rocking arms or depended on me for their every need. This quiet moment was a gift. I breathed it in and captured it in my heart.

“Alright, let’s go,” my husband said when he reentered the room. I dragged myself out of bed and forced myself to get dressed. My shirt and sneakers felt cold and intrusive. We had a 12+ hour drive to conquer. My husband was anxious to get on the road. He was hopeful that our early departure would help us miss the traffic as we traveled back home.

I woke and dressed the kids as quietly as I could. We tiptoed down the stairs, gently closed the door behind us, and settled ourselves in the van. As we pulled out of my brother’s long, rocky driveway, the shadows of the dark VA woods whispered and waved goodbye. My heart was heavy.

We were leaving my family again. It had been two years since we all had been together. In those two years, there had been babies born, traveling done, and personal growth of all kinds. The several days together were filled with cooking, laughter, silliness, heart-felt conversations, admissions of regrets, and shared hope for the future. My heart swelled when I had held my baby nephew and watched my children laugh and play with their cousins. The happy chaos and noise of 15 people under one roof, was familiar and comforting. It was home.

On the road, I drifted in and out of sleep, thinking of the time with my family and how things have changed.  I woke up just in time to see the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial as sped through DC. Two hours later, I was awoken again by a beautiful sunrise. The light blue sky were decorated by rosy-pink, fluffy clouds and a blazing red, round sun. The day was filled with new hope.

Somewhere around CT, it started. I knew it was more than just exhaustion. My stomach rumbled and cramped. This was not a good time to get sick.  My husband took over the driving but I knew that I would have to drive another leg of the trip. He looked exhausted. I did all I could to push past the sickness.  We had two more hours to go. I prayed and dug into supernatural strength and fierce mom determination.  All I wanted to do was get home.

The highway rolled along and I started to see signs of towns and cities familiar to me. We were getting closer. One last toll booth to go. I slowed the car down and rolled down the window. The toll booth worker was a pleasant looking man with a bristly, white beard, a New England Patriots hat, and a florescent yellow safety vest.

He greeted me with a thick New England accent and said, “Those glasses look great on you!”  For a second, I had a hard time registering his words. Was this man talking to me? I looked like death. My skin was pale as a ghost. Dark circles defined my eyes. My hair was disheveled and shaped similar to a messy bird’s nest. And if he only could see what my insides felt like…

I glanced up at him in a confused state. His easy smile eased my sickness. “Where’ya heading?”

“Home,” I said. “We have been driving since 3:00 this morning.” I hoped that my words would serve as some sort of excuse for my ghastly-appearance that he seemed to care nothing about.

“Where’s home?” he pleasantly asked. There were cars lined up behind us but this toll booth worker seemed to pay no attention to that fact. His smile and focus was on me. I told him where home was.

“Well, you’re almost there then. WELCOME HOME!” The words gave my spirit a surprising lift. I thanked him and he sent me off with another smile and twinkle in his eye.

Two little words,”Welcome Home,” hit me with so much power. Those two little words  gave me what I needed to complete the drive home. Maybe he was an angel. Maybe I was delirious. But that one pleasant person, who chose to spend a few extra moments with a stranger and offered kind words, changed my day.

When we got home, I collapsed in bed and have been here since. The terrible sickness is working its way through our family. Not the fun way to end a vacation.  But the upside to being in bed is the time that I have had to think. Those words of the toll booth worker have been haunting me in a good way. “Where’s home?” “WELCOME HOME.”

Is “home” in the heart of memories brought back by the faces of your sleeping children? Is “home” among the laughter, tears and time spent with family members who you long to see more often? Or is “home” a geographical location? Is is possible that “home” is in all these things?

I think so. I think that home is where love resides. Where memories take hold in your heart. Where people are kind and love you no matter what you look like or what the depths of you hold. I think home is the land you love and the fresh air that you breath. The comfort of a sunset and the hope of a sunrise.

Until, I am among the glory of the LORD and enter my final, heavenly home, I will have many homes here on Earth. Each one bringing a unique sense of comfort of its own. I still miss my family and the days that have passed. But I will rest and enjoy being where I am now. Hopefully, back to the routine of every day life soon. Surrounded by a wonderful husband, children, friends, and a church family who love me and make this “home” a place that I love to be.

“Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.