Half-Naked and Picking Weeds

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When I was a little girl we had this huge garden running alongside our house on Mockingbird Lane. Mornings and evenings when the heat was bearable we’d pull the weeds and collect our bounty in baskets. I can still feel the prickle of the cucumber stems and smell the pungent scent from plucking the tomato off the vine.

            My sister, Tricia and I labored in our underwear. The sun-browned our bodies to the color of mahogany and we’d moon Granny our bright white bottoms because she’d laugh so hard tears spilled out of her eyes. We didn’t have air conditioning in our home until I was almost a teenager. Daddy clutched the coins and feared a high electric bill. In case you’re unaware, summers in the Tidewater area of Virginia can get extremely hot and sticky.

            We didn’t have a microwave either. Momma feared her children would glow in the dark from the radiation. She was a purist when it came to feeding her brood. Most of our food was homemade for she didn’t like preservatives. While Tricia and I raided our cousin’s house for the Pop Tarts. No amount of begging in the grocery aisle would make my Momma cave.

            “That’s junk!” she’d said. “Do you want your poop to turn green? I’ll bake you a banana bread instead.”

            Momma was a firm believer in the color brown, brown eggs, brown bread, brown cereal, brown poop. She was obsessed with us having a good BM (Bowel Movement) every day. This obsession peaked in her wheat germ phase. As I sat guarding my mashed potatoes like a dog over a bone, and hoping Daddy would hurry up… for all things good and decent in this world… and say the blessed blessing so I could get in a few bites before she came around with that jar of brown granules…splat! It was too late, my potatoes were healthy-matized brown.

            “There! Now you’ll get a good cleaning out,” she’d said.

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            I can still picture Momma clad in a halter top and shorts standing by the hot stove. Her dark hair piled on top of her head, while her brown skin glistened from perspiration, cooking up dinner or canning the cucumbers. Without air conditioning, summer meal preparation was a true labor of love. It probably explains why Momma’s lost the joy of cooking today.

  I suppose my nostalgia stems from just returning from taking care of Momma after her surgery. Time has a way of turning the table. I was the one standing by the stove cooking the meals albeit in a nice cool kitchen.

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             I haven’t written in a while because I’ve gone through an extended season of illness. I had Influenza B, then strep invaded our home, after that a dear friend named Vanessa who’s been battling brain cancer took a turn for the worse, followed by my trip to Virginia to take care of my parents.

            Meanwhile these last two months, I’ve felt half-naked in the scorching heat picking through weeds while they keep popping up through the soil of my garden.

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            Speaking of gardens, we’ve entered the garden season at the farm. The land is plowed and planted. The families on the farm are pitching in, to weed and harvest. We are then going to learn to can the produce in an assembly-line fashion. I’m surprised I’m excited about this, and yes, for all those dirty minds out there, I wear clothes when I garden now. (Farm friends you can thank me later…Ha!) Our last attempt at gardening, we ended up with vegetables rotting on the vine, that eventually sank into the earth and fertilized the soil.

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            Lately, I’ve thought about times we feel like that, the times we feel God out of reach or not answering our prayers, the times we think He’s neglected us, left us drooping on the vine. If only we could peer into the future and see our rotten times just may be the fertilizer in someone else’s life, would we be more willing to allow ourselves to be bruised… to feel neglected? 

            I imagine Vanessa feels that way as she lies in her hospital bed suffering from seizures. There were times my sister Tricia felt as if God left her dangling on the vine during her battle with breast cancer, but her rotten part revived the heart soils of those around her.

 

            The older I get the more thankful I am for the rotten times. I hated my sister’s suffering, but it was through it my husband strengthened in his walk with God. It was through it, we all strengthened our faiths in a God who’s sovereign and holy. My sweet Tricia passed away in the winter of 2014.

            When vegetables rot on the vine, they not only fertilize the soil, but their seeds fall into the earth as well. After the vegetables have been long forgotten, a new shoot springs up from the earth. Lately, I’ve witnessed one of Tricia’s seeds in the green faith of Vanessa.

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( To be continued…)

Chapter 7: December 19th

Chapter 7:

“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Christmas rushed in without flourish or elation. The traditional aromas of a basted turkey, pumpkin pie, and Granny’s potato salad vacated Momma’s kitchen, as multiple containers from well-meaning friends moved in. Perusing the contents one could surmise fried chicken and ham is Suffolk’s comfort food. Regardless, grief robs the appetite.

Like the scene from Charles Dicken’s The Christmas Carol, where an abandoned walking stick leans against the fireplace and a tiny chair is vacated, Tricia’s imprint survived her. The bird in the Black Forest clock she purchased for Mom, still coos every hour. Part of me wished the bird croaked out of respect for the departed, but I know time is a healer, for it to stop in the darkest hour would be torture for a grieving soul. God ushers us through the darkness by allowing the birds to coo, the sun to show up in the morning, and the moon to work the nightshift.

Tricia’s hand-painted ornaments dangle from the Christmas tree. They hold a sacred value now. Years ago, she gifted us with her first attempt, a messy painted Orca for my son Nick. It broke. I’d do anything to have it back now. Why do we hold the relics left behind tighter after the benefactor departs? Maybe we’re holding onto to a piece of their talent… a shred of their spirit…proof she once was.

Mom’s den is full of us. We remain a loud lot, still talking over one another. Albeit her voice is silent, as if one instrument is missing from the orchestra. I miss her laughter and that ever smack on the arm she gave you when she found something funny, which sometimes threw you off balance.

I never suspected last Christmas would have been her last. Looking back, I wish I’d known, for it wasn’t a joyful Christmas for her. Unfortunately, some announcements have to be made.

Tracey (Brandon’s wife) walked into the kitchen. “Tricia slipped out crying. She drove off,” she said. I dropped the pan I was washing back into the sudsy water and snatched a towel.

“I was afraid of that,” I said. “We have to find her.”

An hour later, Mom and I gathered her in our arms, and together we mourned over the opposite directions our lives were taking. Like a moving walkway, she was going one way and I another, while both of us wanted to put on the brakes.

The next day, we stood outside our parent’s house, waiting on Momma to go shopping in Smithfield. A wall of tension divided us, both riddled with our own guilt for the day before.

“Look, I’m sorry for yesterday,” she said. “It’s not that I’m not happy for you and Jay, it’s just…hard you know?”

“I would have felt the same way,” I said.

“It’s just this…while you’re growing life, I’m growing cancer cells. You’re getting ultrasounds while I’m getting PET scans.” She pointed towards my abdomen. “Your looking forward to the day you meet your baby, while I’m dreading the day I’m saying goodbye to mine. You’re looking ahead and making plans, while I’m remembering the past and trying hard to hold onto what I have left.” Her sad eyes pleaded with me to understand.

I’d chewed on the irony of our situation, but I’d never truly digested it until then.

“Anyway, I just need you to know how I feel,” she said.

I shivered. A cold breeze stirred up the dead leaves. One floated on the wind past us. I resisted the urge to catch it, allowing the wind to spirit it away. I pulled my sweater closed at the nape of my neck. Tricia was never bothered by the cold.

“It’s not fair is it?” My voice cracked.

She shrugged. “It’s life, but sometimes it’s hard to take.”

“I want you to know I’d never try to get pregnant. I had other plans for my…Well, I would never do that since you’re…” Suddenly, everything I wanted to say at that moment seemed cruel.

She smiled understanding my struggle. “You can make it up to me.” she said.

“How?”

“Just promise you’ll get really fat,” she said.

We laughed. I should have seen it coming, our traditional jab. The laughter filled me with hope. She’d still love me, though I reflected health and vitality, the very things slipping away, like water through her fingers.

She placed her hand on my baby bump. “You’re already showing.”

“My body just knows what to do by the fourth one,” I said.

Her smile faded as her eyes met mine. “When she comes, I will go.”

Like the quick, feathery touch of a hummingbird across your cheek, for a moment I thought I’d imagined the words; nonetheless, I stepped back as if she slugged me. “She? Wait. What do you mean?”

“I mean you’re going to have a girl, and when she comes it’ll be my time.”

I turned away, so she couldn’t see the pain her words caused me. “You don’t know everything Tricia Baines. Besides, Jay’s track record proves he only makes boy babies.”

She grabbed my arm. “Listen, I know.” She needed me to believe her. It felt disrespectful…shallow even… to argue with someone standing on the banks of eternity awaiting permission to cross.

She looked up at the sky and took a deep breath. The sun shined on her yellowish face and the wind flittered through her short twigs of chemo frizzed hair. “I’m not saying this baby will replace me,” she said. “Of course, no one will replace me.” She laughed. “God just knows you will have a tough time, so He’s giving you this baby to…you know…keep you busy.”

Acceptance filled her voice, like a soothing lullaby. She leaned on her faith for strength and dignity, while I carried the burden of survivor’s guilt, the weight of it left me hunched. I’m sorry for being healthy. Sorry for being pregnant. Sorry I get to see your daughter grow up and your boys get married.  Sorry…sorry…sorry… There was never enough.

That day, I packed her words away in my heart, and the moment I heard my daughter’s first cry they rushed back. Isabella was born without one push, as if she propelled herself into my world knowing her mission, to save Mommy from sinking into despair. I wondered how God could put such a tender heart in me and expect me to survive the stretch it endured on August 7th, a day of great joy fused with incredible dread of what was to come. Isabella came into my life, as my sister was leaving. For a brief moment in time, two precious feminine spirits met in the physical realm, as if the baton of girlhood was handed off, and the weary one passed on into the spiritual.

Twelve days before Tricia died, Thomas held Bella in front of her, and her eyes focused on Bella’s toes.“I see you eyeing those toes,” Thomas said. “Ya’ know you want to touch ‘em. Go ahead.”

Slowly the back of her cupped hand barely caressed the top of Bella’s foot. It was the last touch Bella felt from her Aunt Tricia and cost Tricia all her concentration and energy to give it. The last bit of love she could muster for an infant she would never know.

True to Tricia’s prediction, Isabella Fawn was born at 4:15 in the afternoon, and Tricia died close to that time, nineteen weeks later.

She didn’t live to see another Christmas.

Far Reaching Branches

There is a citrus tree in my garden, although one would never know, for it has yet to produce a single piece of fruit. One day feeling green, I stuck the roots in a hole and filled in the dirt around the base. Standing back, I wiped the soil on my jeans, and admired my twig, before walking away. That is the extent of the care I’ve given my fruit tree.
“Baby, you do realize you’ve placed a citrus tree in a small corner of the garden. It needs light and space to grow.” My husband said, six months later.
I called the neighbors attempting to find new parents for my tree.
“It’s a good little tree. Won’t be a nuisance whatsoever. All it needs is a yard with plenty of sunshine. It will give you plenty of citrus fruit.” I said.
“What kind of citrus?” A neighbor asked.
“Um…I don’t know. The citrusy kind I guess.”
There were no takers.
Two years later, it grows wildly it’s many limbs spiral over the pavers and back again. I imagine it’s stretching it’s arms out, in attempt to wiggle out of it’s small space, but it’s produced no fruit, for all of it’s energy has gone into the limbs…into the reaching.
Jesus used an illustration of the grape vine when teaching the disciples. In John 15 he said, “I am the true grapevine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.” (NLT verse 1-3)
“Yes, I am the vine you are the branches. Those who remain (abide) in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain (abide) in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned.” (NLT vs 5-6)
There is no real spiritual fruit in your life apart from Jesus.
The vine feeds the branches, and God the gardener takes care to cut off branches that are not producing.
Looking back, there have been times in my life where my branches sprawled all over, I’ve had my attention reaching out to perform good deeds, buying the latest, and performing for the approval of man. I’ve scattered my attention so broadly, I’ve neglected my personal walk with Jesus. Today, I wonder if any of those deeds produced fruit at all.
Multiple times, God has walked the garden of my marriage and chopped away things that produce void. He has taken away relationships that drove us towards materialism. He removed things that have kept us from depending on Him as a couple. With those vast branches detached our limbs point upward, and our hearts yearn for a smaller life…a simpler life. Little by little…chunk by chunk…He cut away the weight that tore our attention away from our vine Jesus.
Our branches unburdened by the useless weight of this world feel true freedom to grow fruit.

True freedom is found only in the will of our Lord.
I walked through the garden this morning, and found my landscapers felt pity on me and cut back my fruit tree. A beam of sunshine shot through the shadows and flittered over it’s crown. We will see if fruit can grow in small spaces.
I think it can.

Personal Application: Are you finding your limbs spreading out over the earth reaching for empty activities, materials, or destructive relationships? A fulfilled, meaningful life is a life attached to the true vine Jesus Christ. If you haven’t accepted Christ, you haven’t experienced true freedom. Today ask Christ to take your life and fill it with Him. Know that Jesus died for you… YOU…no matter what you’ve done…no matter who you are… He loves you, He knows you, and He wants you. He wants to attach you to Him and give you a fuller life, a life filled with promise, hope, and a purpose.

The Right to Life

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; He rescues those whose spirits are crushed.” Psalms 34:18.

Brittany Maynard ended her life on November 1, by swallowing pills legally prescribed by a doctor. The pills guaranteed Brittany a death with dignity. The first time I saw her on an interview, I rushed to judgement. Who was she to decide to take her life and encourage others to do so as well? It was a cowardly decision. The desire to hold on to one’s dignity was to hold on to their pride.
I have since changed my mind for my sister chose a death without dignity. Her breast cancer has spread up her spine, neck, and all over her abdomen. It is hard under the skin like a rubber armor. The cancer has entered her kidneys, lungs, bones, female parts, liver, and brain. She has lost the use of her limbs, bowels, speech, and for the most part her thoughts. She grunts and moans, and uses uncontrolled hand gestures to tell you what she wants. Sometimes a word or sentence is forced out and her voice sounds like a 90 year old woman. She has no body fat. Her bottom is sunk in, as well as her cheeks and eye sockets. Her skeletal face cast a gray and yellow complexion. One of her eyes seems to bulge in a peculiar way through her half opened lids. She talks to people you can’t see, in a muffled tone you can’t understand.
When I came to see her recently, she yelled, “I can’t believe!” (you are here). I wanted to shout it back, for I shared the same sentiment, I couldn’t believe this was my sister. She leaned in when everyone left the room and laid her head on my shoulder, “I’m so sad,” she said. I wiped a tear from my cheek. “Me too sister… Me too.”
Today, my heart is so heavy I feel the weight of it in my fingers. She wouldn’t want anyone to see her this way. She worries her loved ones will think less of her.
Kim Williams-Standridge (KK) and I stayed with her over night, to give Thomas her husband a night off. She fought me when I tried to change her diaper, and said, “I hate this.” I hugged her, “I know you do, but I am so happy you are letting me help you, it makes me feel good.” Then, as if for me, she released her grip on her diaper. She apologized several times to KK and I, and we were struck by how she still worried about others more than herself.
If I close the story here, you will never see beyond the darkness into the light. Look past the shell of a girl dying in her lazy boy chair.
There are four close girlfriends from her church, in the midst of work, families and Christmas, who give of themselves tirelessly to meet any need. A friend who’s like a sister, puts aside her own broken heart only to pour it out into Tricia’s care. A cousin who buried two of her own children, finds joy each morning nurturing her sick cousin.
There are the stories from nurses who tell how Tricia has inspired them, for she had an unexplainable joy in the midst of a terrible disease. The shock her hospice nurses expressed when she came out of a coma fifteen minutes before her son came home from bootcamp.
I have witnessed a mother who saturates her daughter’s shirt with her tears, as she pleads with the Lord “please take her home.” Morning and night, a father leans his forehead against his daughter’s, as he fervently prays for God’s healing in whatever way it may come. There’s a brother, who still tries to make his sister laugh as he massages her head or moves her legs before work, but as he walks out the door his smile fades and he wipes his cheek.
I have witnessed the strength of a little girl. who sacrifices sleep to help her Dad change and care for her Momma all night, and still goes to school the next morning. Each afternoon she bounds through the door, “I’m home Momma. I love you,” she says, climbing on her lap. Some days there is only a grunt, but when Tricia says, “I love you too!” Peyton beams. “Did you hear that Tammy? Momma said she loves me. I haven’t heard that in a long time.”
There are burly sons who sit beside their Momma, and become gentle lambs as they hold her hand and speak softly to her, their eyes fill with tears.
There is a husband who honors his promise to love her in sickness and in health. Through his own brokenness, he meets her needs day in and out. Each time, Tricia hears his voice, she grunts and throws her arms in the air. He kisses her mouth and cheeks, and tells her, “You are so beautiful. How did you ever want to be with me?” Tricia smiles.
There is a sister who promises, “I love you. I’ll be back soon.” While Tricia throws her arms into the air. “Wait!” she says.
She hugs me tight. “I love you too!” She forces out of her slack mouth.
She wants all of us to know how much she loves us.
I’ve never been so proud. I tell her repeatedly, “I’m so proud of you.” It is like witnessing a miracle. I am a writer, (with all humbleness), but with that comes the responsibility of observation. I have seen the unconditional love of God through a death with no dignity.
In the case of Brittany, I don’t rush to judge her anymore, because a death with no dignity is painful, sorrowful, and slow, but it is also spiritual, humble, miraculous and loving. It takes courage and faith to endure it. My sister has given me this incredible gift, through her I have felt the most intense sorrow and agony, as well as joy and love. Instead of discrimination, I feel sorry for Brittany and her family now, for not allowing God to decide when it’s her time to go. I firmly believe there will be rewards in heaven awaiting my sister for humbling herself before the throne, and allowing God to decide her fate. She kept her heart beating for the possibility of a miracle, and I tell you there have been many… a smile, a word, a hug and kiss, a brush of her hand against a babies toes, hurting women who find joy in nurturing, nurses who feel inspired, a husband who still loves…
A death without dignity allows others to share God’s love, show compassion, and bring light into a dark world. It invites God to lean in close to those who are hurting, and feel His presence.
Tricia will finish this life and in the next stand before the throne without shame. God will tell her, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, for you gave much…you gave all.

II. Timothy 4:3-6
“For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me- the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge will give me on the day of His return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.”