What We Leave Behind

Yesterday, I was added as a contributor over at The Mighty, a website that publishes “real stories by real people facing real challenges.” It’s an amazingly honest and encouraging place for people who have disabilities, chronic/rare diseases, or mental illnesses. As someone who has one of the many conditions listed on their site (Multiple Sclerosis or MS), I was thrilled to be able to add my voice to their robust community. If you’d like to read them, please click here.

Seeing my story on their page and reading those of other people whose lives have been impacted by MS, I started thinking about the value of words. Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved working with them, stacking them end to end to make a beautiful sentence or poetic phrase. I love the way certain words sound (Go ahead and say “mellifluous” out loud and fail to enjoy it. I dare you.) And even after 30+ years of using them, I’m still amazed at the way they can morph from noun to adjective (novel), adjective to verb (stiff), verb to noun (grid).

But I didn’t come by this lifelong obsession naturally. Many of my family members are readers, some more voracious than others. But only a few are writers, and most of them are in my generation. I have a few letters and handwritten notes written from loved ones who have passed, each of which I treasure, but there are entire branches on my family tree that have died without leaving a single syllable behind.

I have sermon notes and a short letter from my great uncle James.

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A letter from my paternal grandmother, Betty Lou Hill, given to me just weeks before she died.

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I even have a postcard and a book inscription from Myrl Rhine Mueller, a lady in my hometown who published a book about the history of Greene County. When I was in third grade, I lugged a boom box to her little house, which was down the street from my grandparents’ and conducted an interview with her for a history project.

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But there are no diaries, no journals, and no handwritten notes in the margins of beloved books.

It’s an absence I’m feeling more acutely these days as members on both sides of my family pass away. I can no longer ask Papaw, my maternal grandfather, his thoughts on a current event or hear about the things he had a passion for. He loved to sing. I know that for certain, but I don’t know how singing made him feel or why he enjoyed it so much.

He played a small role in the Civil Rights movement too, but no matter how many questions I ask or how deeply I dig, I’ll never know the entire story.

In the early 1960s, he was the assistant manager of an S.H. Kress & Co. in Memphis, Tennessee. For many weeks in the late summer and early fall, young black students would stage sit-ins at the Curly-Q Luncheonette inside the store. He was given strict orders that if one happened on his watch, he should immediately stop service and turn off the lights. Some time after this, the protesters would get up and leave. It was always peaceful, always respectful, but every time Papaw flipped those lights, he felt pitiful. He was a boy from rural Arkansas—a farmer’s son, dirt poor in every sense of the word—and some of his closest friends were black. He believed in their cause, but because he had a wife and two young daughters at home, he had to toe the company line and keep the job. But he did the one thing he could do: he apologized to each of them as they walked out.

It’s not a big story of great sacrifice or drama, but it’s his. That makes it mine too in some small way, and I love it, despite the fact it’s secondhand and shaggy around the edges.

Our two kids, who we are adopting from the foster care system, already have a lot of holes in their stories. Several members of their birth families were also adopted or given up for adoption, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they came from, who they favor in looks and temperament, who their “people” are. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I do want to leave them a legacy, a heritage of sorts.

There will be notes in my favorite books, so they’ll know why I loved them. There will be journals, short stories, poems, essays, and articles. I want to leave behind an ocean of words for them to swim in—to find me and perhaps, in some small way, to find themselves.

In Honor of a Great Man

For those of you who have been following my blog, you know that my grandfather, Boyce Dale Lindley, fought a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. At 5:42 AM on Wednesday, August 5th, that fight finally drew to a close, and he went to be with the Lord.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 6.00.12 PMI am beyond heartbroken for myself and my family, but I am thrilled for him. I know he stood in front of God’s throne and heard those words we all long for: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” The things we perceive through a glass darkly are clear to him now. Every mystery has been solved. Every tear has been wiped away by Jesus himself, and there is nothing left but joy eternal.

To me, there was no finer man on this earth. Patient, hardworking, loving, kind, giving, and gentle—he set the standard to which I hold all people. And it is likely none will ever measure up.

If you knew him and would like to sign his memorial page, you may do so here. Also, we are asking that in lieu of flowers, people would consider giving to the missionary fund at his church. Specifics can be found by visiting the link above.

I will be one of three people speaking at his memorial service this Sunday, and I wanted to share my thoughts with you here as well. It is my hope that they will give you some idea of the kind of wonderful man he was.

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Writing a eulogy is no small task. How do you even begin to explain how much a person meant to you or how his presence in your life changed everything for the better? As a writer who believes in the power of narrative, I thought it best to begin with short stories, snapshots that would give you all a sense of the man Boyce Lindley was.

I began recalling memories, scrambling to write them down, and then discarding them almost as rapidly as they came. One was too flippant. Another was a family joke that would take too long to explain. A few were much too sad for a “homegoing” like this one. There were moments I remembered vividly, but when I held them up to the light of others’ recollections, I realized I had embellished mine a bit—decorated it with prose-y flourishes that filled in the gaps and made it more satisfying.

But just because it’s satisfying doesn’t make it true. And if there is anything I hope to do for my grandfather today it is to speak truly of him because he deserves nothing less.

There are people I’ve lost after long battles with cancer—my great uncle James, my young friend Trevor Alexander, a bright and promising student named Catie Carter—and remember them well. For each, there are bright, concentrated moments, as golden and gilt as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But for all their brilliance, they are but a scant handful of memories. Bright drops of color on the canvas of my life.

But for my grandfather there are no standout moments, no highlight reel I can play, no bullet list to quickly go through to explain why he means so much to me. At first, this realization caused me no small amount of panic. What kind of granddaughter was I if I couldn’t remember my precious grandfather down to the most meticulous of details? And there was grief too, wedged between my ribs, thick and immovable, because I believed I had somehow lost something in my negligence. That somehow all the years of knowing Boyce Dale Lindley had been rubbed away and faded by time, never to be returned to me.11855673_10153577670751789_6362311139780261916_n

But then I thought about my grandfather and the kind of man he was. He was rarely front and center in our family. That was a task he left to my grandmother, his two bright and vivacious daughters, and his three gregarious grandchildren. No, he was happiest watching others, sitting or working quietly on the periphery—helping when and wherever he was needed. Always there, always in the moment, in a supporting role. You would always find him out front sweeping the sidewalk, whistling to himself, washing dishes in the kitchen, or taking out the endless bags of trash our family seems to create every time we’re together. Thankless but necessary jobs—ones that he happily completed for decades.

There was but one exception to this rule.

At the gaming table, he was a king. He was also our scorekeeper, arch nemesis, and teacher extraordinaire. He was never one to turn down a hand of dominoes or hearts, beloved games in our family. In fact, he played them both like a Vegas-level professional—with remarkable skill and style. No matter how many steps ahead you thought, he had already gone as step or two further. He was man who had no college degree to his name but could manage to complete complicated math problems in his head and remember years worth of sales figures on the spot. As I was fond of saying regarding his talent with the bones, “Papaw could make off a dead dog.” And though he beat you consistently, you couldn’t find it in yourself to get upset—because on those rare occasions the victory was yours, he’d celebrate like it was his own.

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I didn’t spend time with him sporadically, as I did with my beloved great uncle James, or know him for only a few short months, which was the case with Trevor and Catie. Boyce Lindley was there in the hospital when I was born. He swam with my brother and me for hours on end, long after he was waterlogged and ready to get out. He was a part of Sunday dinners, fish fries, church picnics, and cookouts. He was there for the big moments—recitals and holidays and graduations, family reunions, trips to Disney World, and days at the beach—and for all the run-of-the-mill days in between. For 30+ years, this man was an ever-present and influential participant in my life. That’s not the kind of exposure that leaves behind a few bright blobs. No, it’s the kind that saturates everything it touches.

Boyce Lindley is in my DNA yes, but that’s just simple genealogy. What matters more is what he did in this life. That has sticking power. And it’s tucked deeply into the marrow and bone of me.

I am patient because I never once saw him lose his temper. I give of my finances and time because he showed me how important it was to do so. When I am kind, the person on the receiving end has Boyce Lindley to thank for it. I know what it means to be a Christ follower because I watched him do it without fail for 37 years.

Each moment with him was like a drip of bright blue that fell into the clear pool of my heart, gradually turning it from sky to cornflower, cobalt to navy. That’s why I have no standout memories that feature him alone in the starring role. Simply put, there is no dividing line between us, no moment where he ends and I begin. I am thoroughly infused with him—each member of my family and every person who ever had the privilege to know him is too. And in that way, he will live on in and through and even beyond us. So yes, today we’re all blue, but not only with sadness. And that’s a very good thing.

I’m Sick of Praying for People With Cancer…

I know the title of this blog may be a little misleading. I do not mean to say that I’m fed up with people who are dealing with cancer, and I certainly do not want to imply that I am tired of praying. What I am saying is that I pray for no fewer than ten people a week, all of whom are struggling with some form of this disease.

I’ve had enough of it…..Cancer, I mean.

According to the American Cancer Society’s latest data, 1,529,560 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2011. That’s just about evenly split between men (789,620) and women (739,940). For those who have cancer of any system or organ, it is estimated that 569,490 will lose their lives to it. Again, the numbers are fairly evenly split between males (299,200) and females (270, 290). Be aware that this is in the United States ALONE.

Over half a million people will pass away this year because of this malady. Yes, that’s nearly 570,000 people, which is equal to one tenth of the population of Atlanta. Some cases might have been brought on by poor lifestyle choices or work environment, but many more are simply caused by genetic and environmental factors. People who have done their level best to take care of themselves and have shied away from any and all behaviors that can tempt this disease to draw near can feel ill, head in for a visit with the doctor, and come out diagnosed with this disease.

That’s because cancer doesn’t care who you are—male or female, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, conservative or liberal. You can be five, fifty, or one hundred and four when it decides to show up at your door. Whether you worship God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the almighty dollar, cancer can and will take residence somewhere in the amazing body the Lord has blessed you with. It is one of the few diseases that knows no prejudice. It has no agenda other than causing havoc in your body and putting a strain on patients and their loved ones.

Who said equality was impossible?

If you divide the projected number of new cases by 365, you’ll find out that, on average, 4,190 people will find out that they have some form of cancer each and every day in this country. Today, 4,190 people will start a journey that will take them from second opinions to treatment options and from offices and work stations to the chairs where they’ll spend hours getting chemotherapy or radiation. For some, there will come a day when their own comfortable beds, covered with linens still redolent of laundry detergent and their spouse’s shampoo, will be replaced by the stiff confines of a hospital bed and impersonal sheets, starched and bleached until they’re brittle and scratchy.

Life as they’ve known it will be over.

For some people, their bodies will be weakened and their immune systems as vulnerable to attack as a village once was to the war machine of Rome. For others, their hair will do an impersonation of Elvis and “leave the building,” so baldy jokes will be made and colorful scarves bought by the dozens. 5K walks will take place, and ribbons of every color of the spectrum will be donned by friends, families, and co-workers to show support and raise funds for research.

For some, survival parties will eventually be held, and the countdown to the one-year anniversary of the happy date will begin. For others, a more somber gathering is the end result as friends and relations are left to try to understand what happened and to breathe a sigh of relief because the person who came under cancer’s tyrannical grasp and fought so valiantly has gone to a place where it can never harm him or her again.

No soul is safe, no system immune. The tongue can play host to it just as easily as the prostate or the breast. The lungs serve as its dwelling place along with the brain, the skin, the colon, the stomach, and even the reproductive organs responsible for creating life. It travels from system to system, organ to organ, as easily as a family station wagon cruises the highways and byways of the nation on a cross-country vacation. No paperwork is required; no border systems are in place to check its progress.

I’ve lost two grandparents to this disease as well as friends and students. I name some here to tell you they were real people with souls who breathed and walked on this earth. They were not numbers or statistics. I loved them all and still do today.

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Betty Hill, my grandmother, loved to watch boxing. She cooked a mean plate of eggs, worked harder than any woman I ever knew, and apparently talked as rapidly as I do.

Leonard Hill, my grandfather, fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II and was a deacon, a Mason, and a Gideon. He loved feeding friends and family, had a fondness for dogs, and was an amazingly generous tipper.

Catie Carter, one of the brightest and most beautiful girls I had the privilege to teach, loved pink and took pride in keeping up with her homework no matter what. She approached everything with humor and love, and everyone who knew her is better off for it.

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Today, people I love continue to fight the cancer in their lungs and their prostates, in their bladders, their blood, and their bones. And I pray. I hate it, but I pray. Why? Because James 5: 13-16 tells me:

Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Praying for someone who is ill, especially if he or she does not get well, is one of the hardest things to do because it’s easy to feel like God doesn’t answer that prayer, no matter how fervently it’s offered. If you’re reading this and you’re angry with God or feel like He’s cruel and unjust, I can understand. I’ve felt the same way.

However, what I’ve come to understand is that God didn’t intend for this disease to exist. He created a perfect world without sickness and death, and it was we who lost it because of sin. What He does is allow it to occur so that those who are ailing, and those who stand by them through it all, can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and attain the reconciliation that comes with accepting Him as Savior. One day, we can all know the glory of the body we were intended to have. One day, we can see those we lost again in a place where separation is no longer a possibility. One day, cancer will be a foreign concept, an impossibility no longer cause for concern. But until then, it is our burden to bear together.

Reader, I serve a Savior who raised a man from the dead four days after the fact (John 11:1-45). I serve Jesus Christ—He who walked on water, who gave sharp eyes to the blind and nimble legs to the cripple, and who, with His death, tore the veil between me and my heavenly Father clean in two, making it possible for me to be reunited in fellowship with Him forever.

As much as I might pray for it, I know God’s will is not that we all be spared from cancer. Some of us will have to walk that road in order to be brought to a place where true healing can occur. When our bodies betray us, our spirits begin the search for answers and find the Almighty had them all along. As one who God allowed disease to touch for His glory, I echo the words of the apostle Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

My sickness led to my salvation, and that is why I would not ask for it to be removed from me were it even possible. My thorn in the flesh made me humble, dependent, and wise in the ways of the Father, and I am well in soul though I am weak in body. So I continue to testify to the goodness of God, to worship He who is already in my tomorrow, and to pray that His will be done in all things.

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If you have cancer (or any other disease that is affecting you physically or spiritually), you are in my prayers. Post a reply, and let me know your story. More importantly, keep fighting! Keep following Dylan Thomas’ advice and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Life is precious, and we have so much to do before it’s over.