Thursday, March 28, 2013

Church Pews, Diet Pepsi, Beards, and Preconceived Notions

Warning ~ this is long. . . . very long.  But I’m writing it more for myself than for anyone else, because I don’t want to forget a thing.  I want to remember everything.

I’m very hesitant to write about my experiences of the past week because of one line that keeps jumping out at me from the Bible.  Matthew 6:4 tells us “Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”  So, I’m going to attempt to describe the last seven days of my life without revealing too many details in the giving, but instead highlighting what we have received.  Suffice it to say that we gave a little, but received so much more.

A little over a month ago, I went on a Facebook fast.  After being glued to the social networking site for five years, I finally realized that it had become an addiction.  In retrospect, the hours I spent on Facebook weren’t all that excessive; I didn’t play games, I didn’t browse my friends’ albums, I didn’t comment that much on other statuses.  Still, I was addicted.  I would craft what I considered to be witty, thoughtful statuses, and I eagerly awaited peoples’ responses.  I craved their acceptance.  I yearned for that little red notification marker to tally up the numbers of likes.  Yes, I was addicted.  The only answer was de-activation.  

In place of Facebook, I tried to fill the time by becoming more keenly aware of the things surrounding me.  I substituted checking my phone every few minutes with observation, taking a closer look at that sky full of clouds, making eye contact with each person I met on the street or in the hallway before nodding and smiling at them, actually listening with full attention to someone speaking in front of me.  Instead of playing around on Facebook at my desk during lunch, I pulled out my Bible and began studying the Gospels in comparison to each other.  I made a chart and started comparing the four books side by side, chapter by chapter (my chart is about 40 pages long!)

In reading about the life of Christ, I started realizing just how much I could be missing just by not being observant.  There are hurting people everywhere; was I even paying enough attention to notice them?  When college students came to me needing some extra help or advice about their schedules, was I really taking enough time to listen or was I simply hurrying them along in order to get to my next task of the day?  That comparison of the Gospels soon became accompanied by a prayer for God to show me what He wanted me to see.
About a week ago, I went to Lifeway Bookstore to buy some gift-books for some friends.  At the counter, the clerk asked me if I wanted to donate a Bible to their community give-away campaign.  “Sure,” I said, assuming that the clerk would keep the Bible and place it in the donation bin.   A few days later, as I stood at the Post Office, mailing the books, I realized that the clerk had placed the Bible in the bag with the books (“coincidence” #1).

The day after buying the books, I flipped the television on at my house and the Dr. Oz show was on.  I’m not a regular viewer, but on this particular day he was discussing the need to “detox” the body in our processed-foods-crazed world (“coincidence #2).  In the midst of this show, he and his guest were discussing the need for us Americans to clean out the toxins from our bodies that are the result of all the processed foods we eat.  They showed the importance of going back to the basics and eating a “cleaner” diet.  At that particular moment, I had my hand in a bag of Dorito's, and I thought, “Hmmm, can’t they just slap the word ORGANIC on here so I won’t feel so bad?”  Soon they started in on the topic I have always dreaded the most – diet soft drinks.  I LOVE Diet Pepsi and Diet Mountain Dew, and I’ve known for some time that I’m addicted.  I could drink 7-8 cans a day and never blink an eye.  Unfortunately, I had been praying for the past week or so for God to show me what He wanted me to see, and I knew that this Dr. Oz program was one of those things.  I immediately began to argue with Him, “This was NOT what I was talking about God!” But I knew that it, like Facebook, was something I was supposed to be working on.  So I quit. . . cold turkey. . . and it was a BAD weekend!  My caffeine withdrawals were awful – a terrible headache that Ibuprofen just wouldn’t seem to touch, lethargy (in the midst of a VERY busy time for me!).  Still, I persisted, drinking nothing but water for the next seven days.

On Monday night, my son and I went to church for the opening night of the passion play.  My mind had partially cleared of the headaches, my energy was getting a little bit better, and we were ready to sit back and enjoy the play.  Seeing some friends in the balcony, my son hopped up to join them, leaving me alone on the church bench.  Just then an odor overwhelmed me, and I soon discovered that it was coming from the pew in front of me, where sat an unfamiliar head of curly, grey hair under a spotted blue cap.  Glancing around the end of the pew, I could see that a long, gray grizzled beard was attached to the face under the cap and that rags were tied around the man’s knee.
It has been my experience, after 20 years in education and 40 years of going to church, that there are two places on this earth that could compete for the “Loneliest Place on Earth” title.  One is a school cafeteria.  The other is sitting alone on an empty church pew.  Having spent many years doing my best to make sure no adolescent ever ate alone, I gathered up my belongings and moved right up beside the unfamiliar man in the pew in front of me.  He never looked up, never glanced in my direction.  During the 10 minute span from when I moved to when the play began, at least five other unsuspecting audience members took the pew behind us, only to get up and move across the church when they got a whiff of the odor floating towards them.  My experience as a high school and college English teacher made getting past this difficult smell an easy task for me, and I sat there pretending that I was a character in a book about the Middle Ages, where everyone, even those of an elite social stature, were bound to smell bad.  By the time the play had started, I didn’t even notice the smell.
All during the first act, I would sneak glances at my neighbor on that pew.  One coat lay beside him, yellow tinged with grease stains.   Midway through the performance, he peeled off layer #2, then layer #3.  As the first act concluded, and the lights came up, I noticed that the man was wearing what appeared to be a work uniform, the kind you may find through a uniform service company, such as Aramark (“coincidence” #3).  His pants were a faded slate blue, far from the crisp navy blue they had once been.  His button down shirt showed signs of a missing name tag patch that had been removed long ago.  Seeing his outfit, I immediately thought of my favorite uncle, who had worn a similar uniform every day of his life as a maintenance man for a fairly large newspaper.  My uncle had just passed away a few weeks ago, so seeing this man in this same type of uniform brought back a flood of memories from childhood.

A high-spirited voice brought me out of my daydream, “I thought Jesus had long hair!” As I glanced over I saw a sheepish grin beneath an unkempt moustache and above a grizzled beard. 

“Yeah, me too.  My husband and I have laughed at the fact we have a balding Jesus for some time now.” 

“Well, ain’t that somethin’.  My grandma was one of the most devout women of all time and she always said that Jesus didn’t have no long hair, that we all got it wrong.  She swore up and down that his hair was short, and here y’all got a short-haired Jesus.”
The play that night shouldn’t have even had an intermission, as only one act per night should have been acted out.  The surprise of a spring snowstorm the day before, however, had prevented our church from holding its Sunday night performance, so Monday night’s performance included Acts 1 and 2, thus the intermission (“coincidence” #4).   The man looked over at me and said, “I stopped drinking soft drinks about 10 years ago.  Just didn’t like all the carbonation and all the chemicals” (“coincidence” #5, as I was still feeling the need to “pop the top” of one). 

We continued talking. . . and talking. . . and talking. 

He told me that when he’s ready to sleep, he usually takes two flattened cardboard boxes and lays them on the ground first, before spreading his sleeping bag over them because cardboard does a pretty good job of keeping out the earth’s cold moisture.  He told me that a painter’s tarp can be strung up fairly easily to keep you dry while traveling.  He told me the only bad experience he ever had was in failing to hide himself before he bedded down for the night.  He told me he had met Dr. Jerry Falwell once at Famous Anthony’s in Lynchburg and that he had seemed to be a downright caring fella.  He told me he had come through Barboursville, WV (near my hometown of Wayne) once and had gone to sleep under the stars in what he thought was a secluded place, only to wake up 15 feet from a woman in her housecoat on her deck.  “Liked to have scared me to DEATH!” he chuckled, then he described the sirens of the ambulance and fire truck, which had come at the insistence of the woman, who had declared there was a dead man in her back yard.

We talked. . . .and talked. . . . and talked. . . .

Immensely enjoying my conversation with this man, I selfishly asked him, “Are you going to get to come tomorrow night?”  to which he replied, “Well, I’m actually trying to get to Farmville, VA, so I’ll probably start walking that way after it’s over.” (“coincidence” #6, as we live towards Farmville and work near there). 

Finally he said, “This intermission has sure been a long one!  I believe something has happened backstage!”  Just then, our church’s music director came out, apologizing for the delay, but there had been an issue that had prevented Act 2 from starting right away (“coincidence” #7). 
I started praying during the second act, “Lord, what do you want me to do? Tell me. . . Show me.”  When the play was over, I told him to sit tight, that I was going to find my husband and we’d get him to Farmville.  By that time, numerous other men in the church had approached him, telling him that they would take him to the local motel for the night.  He was appreciative, but politely told them that he had found a ride to Farmville, and that we’d be back shortly to get him.

As we gathered up his numerous belongings that had been stowed in a small room of the church, it quickly became apparent that this man had done and seen more than we could ever imagine.  He didn’t carry bags.  He carried sheets folded and tied into bags.  As he hefted them all up onto his shoulders, we asked, to no avail, if we could help.  He wanted to show us what he looked like when he was walking the road.  Each and every bag had its own place, a home upon his shoulders.  Soon he looked like a branch of green grapes, as his rounded bags fell soundly into place.  He told us about his childhood, how his dad had once been a professional baseball player and had practiced his barbering skills on him and his siblings during the off-season.  He told us that Nashville’s soup kitchens have the best food of any other city because all the country stars donate the leftovers from their big fancy parties to the city mission.  He quoted staunch conservatives, including Sean Hannity and Michael Savage, whom he listens to daily on a transistor radio.  Although he had never been in the service, he knew specific dates of the Vietnam War and had memories of soldiers being treated poorly when they returned.  He described the importance of music in his life, and of his favorite singer, Peter Frampton, and how he had the same problem with thinning hair that our church’s Jesus had.  He told us about his first and only experience with drugs, when he was 14 years old and at a concert.  He said he had decided right then and there that drugs weren’t for him, and that marijuana “I like to spell it out M-A-R-I-J-U-A-N-A,” he said, counting with his fingers, was the most dangerous drug on earth, because it made you want more and more.  He told us he has been on the streets since he was 14 and that he hasn’t been able to stay in shelters for several decades because of a severe allergic reaction to cigarette smoke.

We wanted to take him out to eat a restaurant, to which he replied, “hey, unless y’all are starvin’, I’d just as soon go to Farmville Walmart and get some of their things.  They have a lot of organic juices and healthy stuff.  I don’t eat no junk food and no processed sugar.  Have you ever heard of Robert Atkins?  Well, I read his book at a library one time and after that, I don’t eat no processed sugar and other junk” (“coincidence” #8).  Our trip to Walmart lasted nearly an hour, as our new friend carefully evaluated labels, searched for specific brands, and weighed his choices.  I looked at my husband said, “How ironic is it that this man, who spends 95% of his nights sleeping on a cardboard box, is so much more careful with what he puts in his body than WE are?”  He chose some frozen dinners, a box of Kashi cereal, some green tea, raisins, organic acai berry juice, and some other VERY healthy items. 

We learned, in the middle of those Walmart aisles, of his main fear, a fear of developing diabetes.  This fear had hit him about a decade ago, as he remembered an uncle who had lost both legs to the disease.  He said, “Ten years ago, I felt like I was going over Niagra Falls. Going over, over, over.  I knew I was gonna get it.  I just knew.  So what do you do when you think you’re going over Niagra Falls?  You start back-pedaling.  FAST.  I stopped drinking soft drinks.  I stopped eating junk food.  The streets aren’t the place for someone who’s an amputee.”
Through the conversation filled with specific dates and ages, we deducted that he was 52 (during one story, he told us he had been six years old in 1965).  He looked like he was 78.  His mind amazed me.  He knew more and spouted off more facts, statistics, and dates in those four hours than I had ever even known.  We pulled into the Super 8 parking lot, asking him if this was okay.  As I opened the door, he hollered out, “2nd floor, no smoking, if they’ve got it.”  When I approached the desk, one of my college students appeared, grinning, telling me he was the night manager (“coincidence” #9).  Breathing a sigh of relief, I gave him my license, and asked for three nights, second floor, non-smoking room.  I then explained the situation and told him that we had spent the last 4 hours with this man and that we didn’t think there would be any problems, but if there were, he had my phone number. 

We took his bags to his room and told him we hoped he’d enjoy the room and get caught up on some sleep.  It was nearing 11 o’clock, and we told him we had to go, that we had kids and had to get home to them.  The final thing he said was, “Man, y’all some good people.  Some good good people.  I want you to know that I believe that Jesus Christ lived and died for all of our sins and that because of Him, I’m going to Heaven.”

As we left the hotel room, Brian and I just laughed and laughed.  We couldn’t believe our good fortune in meeting this man and how much we had enjoyed the past four hours with him.  On the last evening of his stay, I stopped by his hotel room and left a bag in front of his door that included that Bible that I shouldn’t have even had.  I also left a knee brace that I had hoped would replace the rags tied around his swollen knee.  On a note, I told him that Brian and I were so glad we had met him and that we’d love to meet him the next day to get him a bus ticket to Delaware,  his original destination.  Later that night, he called me, thanking me for the bag of goodies, but declined the invitation for a bus ticket, declaring that he has had problems on buses in the past.  Drivers, he said, often wouldn’t let him on the bus due to the smell of him and his belongings, and he really appreciated the offer but he just didn’t want to go through all that hassle.  I told him how sorry I was that he had experienced that, and that he was really no different than men coming off the Appalachian Trail, to which he exclaimed, “I can’t believe you said that!  There was a lady in Tennessee a few months ago who had thought I had been traveling the Appalachian Trail!” (“coincidence” #10).  He then went into a history about the last time he had trimmed his beard and cut his hair, and I told him that he needed to check out Duck Dynasty, because anyone who was rejecting him based upon his appearance obviously wasn’t in tune with popular culture, because he looked like he could belong to the #1 rated reality show.  (He hadn’t seen it, but luckily it was coming on that night, his last night at the motel, so I told him to check it out.)  Not wanting to take us up on our offer of a bus ticket, he did say that he could use a ride over to the other side of town, where he could easily get on route 15 and head north.  Brian had that one handled, and the last word I got on our friend was this, “He didn’t want fast food breakfast, but we took one last trip through Walmart.  The main thing he got was two jars of peanut butter.  ALL NATURAL peanut butter.”

I am so thankful to have had this experience this week.  It has taught me that we need. . . . No. . . we absolutely MUST. . . . get past first impressions and  our preconceived notions.  I would never have approached this man on the highway.  Honestly, I still wouldn’t stop for those such as him just for the safety issues.  But we need to take a moment to develop relationships with those God plants in our paths.  There’s no doubt in my mind that our encounter with this man was divinely orchestrated.  I’m hoping that one day, he’ll get tired of traveling and come on back down here to Virginia, where I hope he can say he experienced some kindness.

Friday, August 24, 2012


Here’s an email I sent to my college English students yesterday, and I thought I’d share it through my blog.

I have SOOO immensely enjoyed reading your introductions. In fact, I’ve made myself a little cheat sheet with notes about each one of you! (No, I’m not a stalker, but within the art of teaching, it sure helps to know a little bit about your students as well as what they are juggling!) 

One recurring theme that keeps popping up within the introductions is the fear of failure. I just want to shout it from the rooftops, DO NOT FEAR FAILURE!!! EVERYONE fails!  It's how you respond to failure that separates the successful ones from the UNsuccessful ones. Here’s a personal story.

In working on my doctorate degree, I had to complete 60 credit hours of coursework in education, over and above my two master’s degrees. Each master’s degree entailed 36 hours of coursework. I also have a couple of educational certifications (Library media specialist, 24 hours and special education, 24 hours) for which I do not have degrees.

So, by the time I completed the coursework for my Ed.D., I had amassed a whopping total of 180 hours of graduate work in literature and education. (I told you I had been going to school forever!) Having 180 hours’ worth of graduate work is ridiculous. (It’s quite stupid, actually. No one is going to pay you more for having two master’s degrees!) Nevertheless, that’s what I’ve got and most people would look at that and say, “Hmmm, she’s got enough education to know what she’s talking about.”

Well, here’s the point of my story. When I finally finished all of the coursework for my doctorate, I had to take something called a comprehensive exam at Liberty University. This was to be a timed exam consisting of 6 essay questions. I was to take the information I had learned in the 60 hours of coursework (they weren’t holding me accountable for all the Longwood and Marshall University hours) and answer THREE of the SIX questions. Three questions. Six hours. Open book. Piece of cake. Right? 

WRONG!! To make a long story short, I completely bombed the test. I got the essays back via email and they had rubrics attached to them. There were comments (like the ones you’ll receive from me on your essays) scattered amongst the margins of my paper. Now, for those of you who don’t know, Liberty University is a Christian university. The professors are Christians, which means that they SHOULD exude kindness and patience. Well, I guess that my three essays were so bad that those professors FORGOT they were Christians because I received some of the harshest, downright mean/cruel feedback I have ever seen in my life. To make matters worse, I knew that at least THREE professors had graded it. And ALL THREE agreed in their stinging assessment of my essays. 

There were three questions. I had to pass all three. If I failed a couple and then passed one, then I would simply have to re-take the sections that I had failed. Easy enough. Right?

WRONG!!! I failed ALL three questions! I not only failed them, I BOMBED them! According to the rubrics, to receive a passing grade, I had to accumulate a score of 10 (with 25 being the highest score possible) on each question. My highest question received a 5 and my lowest question received a 2. Yep, I had bombed it.

As I sat in my office and read that email and accompanying attachment back at the end of last September (2011), I just cried. I had to quickly pull it together, though, because I had a group of kindergarteners coming in that I had to read a story to. So, I pulled myself together, wiped my eyes, and went out there and gave the best “reading performance” I’ve ever given!

And then I returned to my office. And I cried. And I cried some more.

Then my friend (the assistant principal of the school; we were right in the same place with our doctorates) came in, singing her own Hallelujah song because she had just received an email that she had passed her comps. Now, you talk about pouring salt in someone’s wounds! But I told her how happy I was for her and how I was going to use this experience to “become the person that OTHER people come to when THEY need a shoulder to cry on.” I told her, “I want to be that person who encourages others to keep going when they hit a roadblock because I know that I can do this!”

So, I signed back up for the test, printed off my exam and feedback (a paper that literally looked like someone had bled to death on, with all the awful comments!), and set off to improving my answers. I retook that exam at the end of November. This time I passed. In the nine months that have passed since this experience, I have been able to share my “Study for Liberty’s Education Comps Exam” notes with 4-5 other folks, ALL who have passed their tests with flying colors.

The moral of the story? Failure hurts. Absolutely. Failure does NOT kill. It only makes you stronger. More determined. More motivated. 

Don’t fear failure. Fear unwillingness to try.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Our Week in Aruba

Sometimes life is funny.  I don’t really mean “funny” as in the strange, weird, coincidental funny.  I mean FUNNY.  Laughing your head off, stitch in your side, soda burning as it comes out your nose funny.  Sometimes I get the feeling that portions of my life serve as a sitcom for the folks in Heaven, and they are just up there laughing away at some of the situations we encounter. 

This past week, my life has been FUNNY, and all I can do is sit back and laugh. 

Several months ago, my husband and I decided that we were going to do something a little different for our vacation this year.  Having joined the millions who descend upon Myrtle Beach every year, we thought we’d change it up and take our children to Aruba this summer.  Not surprisingly, neither one was very excited about this Aruba trip, as they have both gotten used to having friends accompany them on vacation.  

Months went by and we never pursued the Aruba trip.  We still had the condo booked, and I still had it on my Outlook calendar, but we never got our passports and we never booked our flights.  Finally I cancelled our condo, opting instead for a week in Orlando.  Our week in Orlando was fun, but it wasn’t the Caribbean. 

The weeks of summer came and went.  We made other plans, thus forgetting about Aruba.  Last Saturday, as my husband and I crawled out of bed, I noticed that my phone light was blinking.  Emblazoned across my screen were the words “CHECK IN ARUBA.”  Yes, I had remembered to cancel our condo, but I had failed to remove our trip from my Outlook calendar.  What a cruel trick my Outlook account was playing on me, as I was preparing to go to a body of water.  Not the Caribbean Sea, but the James River. 

Yes, we had signed up to go canoeing with our church, a trip that would consist of three splendid hours rowing between the glorious banks of the James.  This trip turned out to be a fun-filled day shared with wonderful people, and we had a great time.  But I had to laugh when I woke up that morning, my Outlook calendar alerting me with “CHECK IN ARUBA.”

The days of the past week went by quickly, with everyone in my family working, practicing the various sports they play, and preparing for school.  It wasn’t long before I forgot all about the fact that we were supposed to be in Aruba.  Friday night, we got a call from our daughter, claiming she couldn’t get her Jeep started.   After picking her up in the darkened parking lot (she had been sitting in another friend’s car while waiting on us), Brian quickly decided that he needed some daylight to work on the Jeep, so we headed home, resolved to return to the Jeep in the morning, when it was light enough to see.

Feeling somewhat like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day,  I woke up Saturday morning to another Outlook message flashing on the screen of my phone.  This time, it read “CHECK OUT
ARUBA,” and I laughed, thinking, “Well, at least we’re checking OUT and not IN.  What else can we compare to Aruba today?”

The day proved to be crazy, and we didn’t return to the parking lot where the Jeep had been parked until that evening. 

When I saw that the Jeep had been parked not ten feet in front of Rachel’s Jeep, I had to laugh, thinking, “We are really on Candid Camera, Heaven’s Edition, because I know that the sitcom is going on right now!  Out of ALL the parking lots in Lynchburg, out of the HUNDREDS of parking spaces on Timberlake Road, the Jeep was parked right in front of Lynchburg’s own Bahama Sno Shack, which once again served as reminder of our defunct Caribbean vacation. 
One of the greatest gifts that God has given us is a sense of humor.  I love to laugh, and I am confident that the events of this week, combined with the reminders from my Outlook calendar have provided a good laugh for those onlookers from Heaven.


Friday, July 27, 2012

And Along Came Keek.

Just when I thought I had it all under control, along came Keek. 

I thought I had been doing a pretty good job of staying on top of all the social media outlets my children use.  There used to be Myspace.  Then Facebook.  And Twitter.  Then a brief Tumblr period.  And Pinterest (which I think most teens quickly decided they could live without!) Then Voxer. And Instagram.  As a self-professed nosey mother (often accused of being over-controlling by my now 17-year old), I have always had the policy of “If you’re gonna use it, you’re gonna agree that I am the keeper of the passwords, passwords that I will use in the event that you’re momentarily deranged, thus posting inappropriate things that may come back to haunt you.”  Such a policy has worked well for my family for the past seven years or so.  I’ve never had to assert my password power to change/delete potentially damaging things, thank Heavens, but I would  have and still will, if necessary.   (I’m definitely not one of those “I respect my kids’ privacy” type of parents.  Sorry, world, I know it’s not politically correct.  But I will spy on my kids.  I will stalk them online.  I will use every outlet available to gather information about their friends.  Besides, I’m 39 years old and I still don’t have privacy from my mother!  She’s as “up in my business” today as she was in 1991! And I wouldn’t want it any other way.)

And now along comes Keek – video sharing with friends.  WONDERFUL, I say sarcastically.  So glad to see that there’s ONE more site to learn, ONE more site to monitor, ONE more site to see kids acting crazy on. 

My Granny used to always say, “If your teenager doesn’t hate you at least once a week, you’re doing something wrong.”  Well,  I think I’ve got that one under control, because I’m sure mine meets that weekly quota!  I am most definitely not my children’s friend.  YET.  I hope to be one day, but not now, not when they need parents, not when social media has created so many pitfalls on their pathway to a successful future.  Not when so many teenage girls are using their bathroom mirrors as camera lenses for their string bikini poses in hopes of getting triple-digit likes.  Not when so many teenage boys are proudly posting the number of kegs that will be at Friday night’s get-together.  Not when so many teenage girls are bragging about their sexual conquests right on the Twitter newsfeed, so similar to what teenage boys once did in locker rooms years ago. 

No, for now anyway, I won’t try to be their friend.  Instead, I’ll learn how to use Twitter and Voxer and Instagram and Keek and whatever else comes down the social media pathway, all the while thinking “what comes around goes around” and wondering what kind of crazy sites they’ll be learning when they have teenagers.  (Okay, let’s be real.  I’m going to be one very nosey grandma in the FAR distant future, so I suppose I should switch the “they’ll” to “we’ll” in the preceding sentence!)

Often, in our permissive society, we parents are too engrossed in our own lives to truly pay attention to what’s going on in our children’s.  We all are susceptible to this.  It’s often much easier to say “Yeah, go ahead” than to go through the lengthy arguments that inevitably proceed a “no.”  Be that as it may, however, the Bible is clear that we parents are responsible for helping our children become good decision makers.  In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.  So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.  But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.”  (Matthew 18: 3-6)

Like it or not, we parents ultimately have a lot of responsibility in guiding our children’s choices.  I sure don’t want that millstone around my neck!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Luke's Story

In the spring of 2000, something so miraculous and amazing happened to my family that there could be no doubt it was the hand of God.  I’m going to warn you.  This is long.  And involved.  And loaded with medical jargon.  But most importantly, this entry reveals a situation in which, despite all rational explanations, God entered into a situation and took control.

About two weeks before Luke was born, I experienced some extremely high blood pressure.  My ob/gyn had warned me of the risks of toxemia/preeclampsia and told me that if I ever experienced any headaches or dizziness, I should come to his office immediately.  I was a high school English teacher at the time, so he also wanted me to have my blood pressure checked daily by our school nurse.

On Tuesday, March 28, 2000, I had a dizzy spell after teaching my first period class.  I went to the nurse, and she told me to get to my doctor’s office right away because my blood pressure was 164/112.  After obtaining  a similar reading, my doctor decided to send me over to our community hospital in Farmville, VA in order to induce labor.  After only five hours, Luke was born.  Brian and I got to hold him for just a few seconds before the nurse wheeled him away to clean him up.  A few minutes later, she came in and said that he was wheezing just a little bit, so she had put him under some oxygen.
That night, the nurses considered his “singing” noise significant enough to call in our pediatrician.  Arriving at the hospital around 10 pm, Dr. Dionisio said that she believed he just had some fluid in his lungs, which could have been caused by such a fast labor and delivery.  To be on the safe side, however, she wanted to run complete blood work and perform a spinal tap on him to check all of his fluids.  Luke did not improve at all in the 24 hours that he spent in Farmville’s hospital (a hospital that did not have an intensive care unit for infants, but only an incubator).

On Wednesday, March 29th,  Dr. Dionisio said that it was time to transfer him to another hospital.  She wanted to know if we preferred going to Richmond or Lynchburg, so we chose Virginia Baptist of Lynchburg, since it was only 35 minutes away.  Brian and I learned that a transport team would be sent from VA Baptist to take Luke there in an ambulance.  My doctor then discharged me so that Brian and I could run by our house before heading for the hospital.  We came home, picked up a few things, and were on our way.  Just before leaving, our pastor met us and followed us to the hospital. 

Luke finally arrived at VA Baptist about 2.5 hours after we did.  We were instructed to go to their NICU (neonatal intensive care unit).  The neonatologist on call came to speak to us and indicated that they had done x-rays, and it just looked like some fluid was on Luke’s lungs.  He said that they were going to continue his oxygen, then look at his blood levels in a few hours.  The family and friends who had gathered there with us left, and then Brian and I tried to get some rest in a parenting room.

We then got some bad news.  Luke’s condition was much worse than what Dr. Willinger had originally suspected.  He came in and told us that Luke’s lungs just were not functioning the way they should, and they were going to try to treat him with “suffactin,” a soap-like substance that opens up the lungs.  This is poured directly into the lungs, then the lungs should open up and begin doing what they are supposed to do.  

Unfortunately, this did not happen in Luke’s case.  Over the next couple of days, the doctors and nurses gave him three treatments of the drug, and during this period, everyone there was absolutely wonderful to us.  Brian and I spent nearly 48 hours continuously crying, wondering why this was happening to our baby.  We would sit by Luke’s bed and watch him struggle with every breath even while hooked up to the breathing machine.  Honestly, I struggled with thoughts of jealousy and even anger at the other infants in the NICU, many of whom were addicted to illegal drugs because of the poor choices their mothers had made during pregnancy.  In all cases, THEIR babies were doing 95% better than mine, even though I had done everything the doctors had told me to do during the nine months.

On Friday, March 31st, the doctors were ready to take more aggressive action on Luke.  Another neonatologist (known for being a bit more radical than his fellow colleagues), took us into a private room and told us that Luke had a 20% chance of survival if he stayed at VA Baptist.  He said that we needed to go to a Level III NICU, which would be a research facility, such as UVA, MCV, or Duke.  After giving us some literature on the treatment that Luke would need, Dr. Magesky started explaining the ECMO machine, or artificial lung machine.  At one of these hospitals, Luke would be placed on a machine that would serve as his heart and lungs for approximately two weeks, while his heart and lungs healed.  When we got to the hospital, there would be a team of surgeons standing by to insert two tubes into his heart.  All of his blood would leave his heart, go through the machine, pick up oxygen, and travel back to the various parts of his body.
Although this sounded like a radical procedure in 2000, the life expectancy of infants on it were pretty good.  Without it, Luke had a 20% chance of survival.  With it, his chances increased to 80%.  Of course we were ready to try the ECMO.  Unfortunately, however, it was not without risks.  Dr. Magesky told us that the very serious risks were:  (1) stroke, (2) bleeding from the brain resulting in brain damage, and (3) AIDS or hepatitis resulting from blood transfusions.  He also told us that there was one treatment that they could try at MCV that would come before the ECMO.  With this treatment, Luke’s lungs would be filled with Nitric Oxide, in an attempt to open them up and jumpstart them.  Brian found this funny since it’s a variation of the chemical put in carburetors.  Dr. Magesky warned us not to get our hopes up for this treatment, however, because it had a success rate of only 10%.

We learned Friday evening that MCV’s transport team was on its way to pick up Luke and should be at VA Baptist around 10 pm.  At 7:30 pm, Brian and I went down to the cafeteria to try to eat a sandwich.  We would be making the two hour trip to Richmond too, so we decided to try to get some energy.  When we had just sat down to dinner, Brian’s pager went off and we got the scare of a lifetime.  It was the NICU, so we left our food on the table and ran upstairs.  As soon as we entered the NICU, we knew something was terribly wrong.  There were about eight people standing around Luke’s bed with several machines that we had never seen before.  (He was already hooked up to around eight machines at that time).  Dr. Magesky came over and said, “Your son has me very worried.  He’s in a death spiral.” 

Those words will stay with me and Brian forever.  At that point, Luke’s heart rate had risen to 200 beats per minute and his blood pressure had dropped to almost nothing.  The specialists believed that either one of his lungs had burst or that part of his heart had burst.

At 8 pm, after hearing this devastating news, Brian and I went into the parenting room, where we dropped to our knees and prayed for one hour straight.  Neither Brian nor I have ever prayed as hard as we did that Friday night, from 8-9 pm, but I am convinced God granted us a miracle.  At 9 pm, we went back into the NICU, scared to death to see what we would find.  There was just one nurse by his bed, who said, “Come on over; he looks good!”  Dr. Magesky came over and said that he just couldn’t explain what had happened, but Luke had stabilized tremendously over the past hour.  All of the xrays and tests they had done on his lungs and heart showed that nothing had burst or collapsed.  MCV’s ECMO team was still on its way.
I can’t explain it, but from this point on a peace came over Brian and I about Luke’s survival.  We knew he was going to make it, no questions asked.  We were prepared, however, to do whatever was necessary for him to survive, but we knew at this point that we would be taking a baby home with us.  Unfortunately, we also knew that the lack of oxygen to his brain during the first 24 hours of his life could possibly have an enormous negative impact on his life.  We braced ourselves for the possibilities of mental handicaps, blindness, etc.  We just didn’t know what we would be dealing with down the road. 

The transport team arrived from MCV.  It included five people:  a doctor (who was on fellowship at MCV, becoming a specialist), three nurses, and a driver.  (Luke had two very expensive ambulance rides during this first week of life!) The doctor looked like she was about 17 years old and spoke broken English, but she was wonderful, as they all were.  They explained that the most dangerous period was going to be in the ambulance, since critical infants could die with the slightest amount of movement (which was the reason why they brought an ambulance and not a helicopter; helicopters experience too much turbulence).  We told that that we would meet them at MCV, since we had been warned several times during this whole ordeal not to attempt to follow an ambulance.

Around 12:30 am, we all left for Richmond.  We left first, then the ambulance past us, and we could see the little incubator in the back.  About an hour later, the ambulance passed us again.  This kind of worried us because we had not seen it on the side of the road, and we thought that they may have had to pull over to stabilize him or something.  We finally got to MCV at 3 am.  The doctor said that they were getting the ECMO team prepared and should be ready for surgery in a few minutes.  One of the nurses came in and said, “You all made really good time.”  Brian told her that the ambulance had passed us twice, and she replied, “Oh, we had to stop and get gas.”  We got a big chuckle out of that, since they had to stop for gas while carrying a critically ill infant.  It’s kind of nice to experience laughter through the tears.

At MCV, Brian and I got to go into another parenting room and lay down for a few minutes.  One of the neonatologists, Dr. Manali, came in and told us that Luke’s blood pressure had her very concerned and it looked like they would be proceeding with the ECMO.  Luke had been on Nitric Oxide in the ambulance, and it looked like his oxygen levels were improving, but they were all afraid that his heart would just ive out.
At 5:30 am, we got yet another knock on our door.  We were expecting to go out and see Luke hooked up to the ECMO machine and to watch all of his blood going through it to get oxygen.  Thankfully, we got a pleasant surprise.  With the entire ECMO team on hand, all the surgical supplies out by the bedside to cut his arteries and put the tubes into his heart, Luke decided to “start behaving,” as the nurses phrased it.  His blood pressure stabilized, his heart rate came down to normal, and his blood oxygen readings improved.  The pediatric cardiologist laughingly said that Luke just didn’t like him and didn’t want his services.

From that point on, Luke improved tremendously.  The doctors continued the Nitric Oxide, and he was weaned away from everything within a week.  Brian and I finally got to hold him when he was eight days old.  According to hospital policy, he should have been moved to a step down nursery, but those NICU gals decided they liked holding him and decided to keep him right there.  So by the time we brought Luke home, he was very accustomed to being held 24/7 (a practice that we continued, of course!)

Luke had been on numerous prayer chains during his hospital stay.  I have emails from numerous cities, states, and even countries.  Our next hurdle after getting him home was determining just what effects the lack of oxygen had upon his cognitive abilities.  We asked prayer warriors to specifically pray for him in this capacity.  We would have relied upon God’s faithfulness to help us through whatever problems may have been in Luke’s future, but we continued to pray for complete healing.  The doctors had told us to expect a minimum of three years’ worth of visits to the Children’s Hospital of VA in order to assess cognitive deficiencies and how to deal with them.  Well, needless to say, Luke passed all the tests with flying colors and was officially discharged from all future tests when he was 10 months old.  God had truly blessed us with more than we could ever imagine.

When you go through an experience such as this, the last thing you want to think about are the finances of it.  But ultimately the bills will start piling up.  We had three different hospitals, two different ambulance services, and countless specialists, all billing separately.  Just when we thought we were juggling our part of them all (they all totaled around $100,000, so our part was around $20K) successfully, we received devastating news from our insurance company.  Because the Nitric Oxide was an experimental treatment, our insurance company decided not to pay for ANY of the treatment received at MCV.  We were looking at astronomical bills totaling close to $75K.  By some amazing act of God, MCV decided to write Luke off as a “teaching project” and “educational experiment.”  Now, I understand that Nitric Oxide is widely used on infants, covered by insurance, and even available in Lynchburg.  That’s good news, but our experience truly serves as a reminder that God does answer prayer.  God has something special in mind for him, and my prayer for Luke is that he never stop until he discovers what that is.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Who the Heck Is Sue Heck?

Sue Heck – socially awkward 14 year old on ABC’s The Middle; habitual failure at everything.

Sue Heck is my hero.  Her whole-hearted optimism in the midst of a sea of failures forces even the most cynical of viewers to tone down their sarcasm, lower their all-too-cool guarded façade, and let this geeky teenager into their hearts.  I have yet to hear of anyone (blogs and forums included) who does not love Sue Heck.

Before you think I’m delusional, let me assure you that I do realize Sue Heck is a fictional character and does not actually exist.  Be that as it may, I think we can learn a lot from her.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Sue’s character is the fact that she’s completely oblivious to her own social awkwardness, despite the best efforts of her older brother Axl, who constantly reminds Sue of her own lameness, nerdiness, and weirdness. 

I wonder how many of us would have what it takes to be a good parent to Sue?  How many of us could set aside our own desires for living vicariously through our children and truly give Sue the support she needs to just be Sue?  As her mother, would I be emotionally secure enough to be seen in public with her dressed in her favorite strawberry sweater?  Or would I be trying to change her, trying to make her fit in with the rest of the crowd?  These are hard questions to answer, especially in today’s world, where it seems that we as parents experience such exhilaration through our children’s lives.  If your child was perfectly happy with being a badly-dressed, socially-awkward failure, would you still offer that child the same love you give your good-looking, athletic, popular kid?

I’m so very thankful that my own parents could.  And did.  While I will not claim that I was such an extreme case as Sue is, I definitely could be placed down toward the negative end of the adolescent popularity scale.  Yet, still my parents loved me unconditionally.  My parents encouraged me.  They never saw my name on a varsity (okay, not even a JV) sports roster.  They never saw my name on a class officers list.  My name never appeared on a homecoming ballot.  I never made straight A’s.  I never had the privilege (yes, this is sarcasm dripping from my lips) of attending the parties hosted by the popular kids in high school.  I’ve never appeared in a high school drama production. My picture was omitted from my 11th grade yearbook, and I can guarantee you that no one at my school even noticed. 

Even in the midst of all these negatives, I was a happy teenager!  My parents never made me feel like I was less of a person because of these things (even though they both could truthfully answer an affirmative YES to many of those items above, as they were BOTH popular, athletic leaders in their schools during the 1950’s. Thankfully, they did not automatically expect the same out of me!)

All in all, if MY parents had relied upon ME to relive their youth, they probably would have died of boredom by the age of 50.  Thankfully, they didn’t depend upon me for that.  Instead, they taught me valuable lessons (lessons that I hope and pray I’ve instilled in my daughter, who is so close to entering the world of adulthood herself).  One such lesson involved Al Bundy and began when I was around 14 or 15.  We all know that the subject of boys becomes very important in the lives of 15 year old girls.  Often young girls run the risk of being completely infatuated with the popular athletes of their schools. 

Through the character of Al Bundy, my parents taught me to look past the athleticism and good looks of such boys, for a good number of them grow up to become the Al Bundy’s of this world, who waste away their adult years reliving the glory days of the past.  (Remember Al Bundy’s famous line?  “I played high school football.”)  Now, as the mother of a very pretty teenage girl, I’m more thankful than ever for that lesson, delivered at the expense of Al Bundy, for now she has the common sense to look beyond the popularity façade, picking and choosing her dates wisely (even though I would prefer she not choose any at all, at least until after college!)

Ultimately, I believe that we can learn a lot from Sue Heck and her parents, who love her unconditionally despite her failures and disappointments.  When you think of encouraging your daughters to choose their dates based solely upon popularity, just remember Al Bundy!