“Denise, get in the car. We are leaving.” Mom shouted to me as she was coming out of the door of our house. I had my Chrissy doll, a Christmas present that had barely left my hand since I rescued her from under the tree. I ran her out to our fort in the woods before racing back to the car. The blue Ford station wagon was always packed full of children. It was my sister Robin’s birthday and we were going out for pizza, a rare treat for all of us.
Grandpa Hershberger worked at The Dover Market snack bar on Friday nights and after our dinner at the local family restaurant, we walked into the market. As we walked up to the bar to order milkshakes, Grandpa ran over to Mom, his face filled with dread.
“What are you doing here? I thought Grandma caught you at the restaurant. Your house in on fire. The fire trucks are there now. Someone drove by and saw the flames coming from the rear of the house.”
“What do you mean? How can that be? It was less than an hour ago that we left?”
“Head home right now. Maybe it was caught in time for them to save the house. Grandma didn’t fill in details.”
I remember my stepfather, Jack, driving very fast racing against time. Mom kept saying to us that maybe we didn’t lose much. But turning on our road, we saw the orange glow from a quarter mile away. The sky was lit on fire and the flames were licking the tops of the trees surrounding the house. The glow said to all of us nothing could be done. Mom got out of the car at my grandparents to look over toward our burning house. She fell to her knees. My mother rarely cries, but her moans and tears of desperation are etched in my memory. “What will we do? Where can we go?”
Grandma held her shoulders. “Betty, of course, you can all sleep here tonight. We don’t have much room, but we will put down sleeping bags on the floor for the children, you can have the middle bedroom. We will sort this out tomorrow.”
“My house. All of our pictures and other things we cannot replace. All we have are the clothes we are wearing.” I don’t think the reality of that statement sunk in with me until days and even weeks later.
The next morning after the fireman sent word that it was safe to sift through the rubble, mom and Jack strolled gingerly over to see the charred remains of our house. My siblings and I stood at the corner of our grandparents house watching as they walked over to our house. Small ribbons of smoke from smoldering ashes float toward the sky and my eyes water. The smell burns my nostrils and permeates the air.
“We will go first and call to you when we feel it is safe. Don’t go into the middle the house. Hot spots are all over out here. Stay around the outside when we call for you.”
She didn’t have to worry. Fear and apprehension grabbed a hold of us. This was like nothing we experienced in our young life. As soon as Jack and mom motioned to us to come on over, I ran around to the back of the house, down the path to our fort. Chrissy was sitting right where I left her. It was blessed reunion and how perfect that I had put her in the fort before heading out for pizza. My sister’s doll was now part of the ash heap. As I looked around at all of our treasures in the fort, I thought these were all the toys we had left. I stayed in the fort until Mom called for me to come. I didn’t want to look at all of our things burned black.
“Kids, I know this is the hardest thing we’ve ever faced, but we will start again. We have to finalize the insurance, but we should have enough to build another house right on this spot. Maybe even bigger than the one we lost. We will rent a house until it is finished.”
“But what about all our stuff?. We won’t get them back, will we? All of our Christmas presents? They’re gone!” I looked at mom with the gravity of the situation, tears welling and this time nothing to do with the smoky air.
“And we had so many new presents this year, didn’t we?, she knelt down to me at eye level. “This was our best Christmas, but there will be more. I promise. Life can be cruel, Neese, it just isn’t fair. We’ll get more toys and clothes, but they’ll be other things. What is lost is lost.” I closed my eyes at the gravity of her words in my 8 years old brain. My heart felt heavy in my chest.
The only other thing I recall about the aftermath of the fire is the donations that poured in from all over our Delaware community. The story was on the local news and a flood of furniture, appliances, kitchen items, clothing and toys poured in through the schools. In a week, we set up in a farmhouse rental with our hand-me-downs. Something broke in me after our house was gone, I became more careful about attachments to things and even people. After all, life can be heartless in who it chooses to burn out, even then I prayed to the One who I was told could be trusted when the waves of loss threaten.
I was back in the office seeing clients after several weeks of break, and I was shifty in my chair. Since hiring an office service, I was not prepared for my initial intakes like I had been as a one-woman-shop. In those initial scheduling calls, I gained a rapport from the beginning so when they arrived I could pull those conversations. I knew more what I was facing to begin with confidence. As I called the woman’s name, a couple stood and followed me. “Oh, a couple?” I assumed.
As they followed, they both towered over me in height, the woman meticulous, slender and her handbag of fine leather. He was equal to her height, but broad shouldered with a blue-collar swagger and appearance. They shook my hand and I detected a heavy Texan accent. They readily sat down, the man resting on the edge of my couch.
His face and agitation in his seat said he didn’t want to be here. After many of these type sessions, I knew men drug here by their spouses were performing a duty, so she will know he loved her enough to try. My break prepared me ready for yet another uphill climb. After ten years, one would think I would stop making assumptions, but I think it’s just part of my nature. I roll out the red carpet of my pedigree, my informed consent, my counseling paradigm and then turn the floor forever back to them with the infamous standard question, “What brings you in today, and I’d like to hear from both of you? Who would like to begin?”
She glanced at him and gave an answer as lovely as her appearance, a tear appearing and rolling down her check. She declared there was disconnect between them, and I assumed fighting that went unresolved, and the desire for better communication.
“Really?” I contemplated. This was going to be a piece of cake. A slam dunk. Then, he began.
“I don’t want to be here, but I came for her. I believe in the concept of counseling, but I don’t see how you can so quickly know what we need an hour here and there.”
He glances over mid-sentence at my bookcase and at my degrees as if looking for any possible means of discrediting me. As if a book would pop out of the shelf or the lack of expertise might give him the ammunition he needs to run straight out that door.
I reach out to engage and he suddenly pours out. Underneath that hard exterior lay a brokenness I hadn’t seen in along time. His heart has been wrenched in two letting me know, looking back wasn’t going to be an option. He dominated our time. He pushed. I pulled. He pushed harder with F bombs and a loud voice. With a slightly curved mouth, I closed my eyes and shook my head. He continued to out pour until he mentioned his mother and never measuring up.
The room fell silent. And I knew immediately this was like a little present right at the end of session. I knew where we needed to go. I comforted the lovely on his arm, and promised we would have more time for communication next time.
As the tall, strong man exited, he grabbed my hand firmly, and he knew I knew. A small piece of his load had lifted.
As I sat back with a few minutes before picking up the next one, I took a long deep breath and wondered how this shift arose out of nowhere. I should know our masks worn are not what lies beneath, sometimes removing it is the bigger fear. I hoped it was enough to encourage them to return with the hopes of lightening the load.
THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION. NAMES, CHARACTERS, BUSINESSES, PLACES, EVENTS, LOCALES, AND INCIDENTS ARE EITHER THE PRODUCTS OF THE AUTHOR’S IMAGINATION OR USED IN A FICTITIOUS MANNER. ANY RESEMBLANCE TO ACTUAL PERSONS, LIVING OR DEAD, OR ACTUAL EVENTS IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL.
I live by the ocean, but never go to the beach. And just admitting this, I know the beach would be therapeutic with it’s calming sound of waves breaking on cue, the smell of sea salt and blue water that stretches to the end of the earth. It makes me feel small like a speck of sand in an expansive cosmos, giving me needed perspective, my worries shrink to a smaller size. Could it be the sticky sand that dirties my car mat, the lack of parking, or the time to drive through traffic that keeps me from going more? No matter the reasons, I want to do a better job taking care of my need to feed my inner-quiet.
As I close my eyes and visualize this safe place, I try to keep my mind present. The breath entering and exiting my body with intention. I sense the waves cracking with water cascading in and out, children running from the foamy residue on the sand, and walkers rushing past with a quick pace. I feel my body and mind relax and none of these thoughts sway me from remaining in the moment. In a Lamaze-type mindset, I open my eyes to look at a focal point in my office. My mind attempts to consider a thought I had over the way I interpreted someone’s reaction to me in a previous session, yet I am determined to drag my thoughts back to my safe place and try to feel my breath. Another few moments passes and as my mind is resting and restoring, I rejoice in small victories of knowing I can do this.
“Just as I think I have this mastered, the discipline leaves me.” This is so much harder than I often share with my clients.
Oh, to escape from my past regrets or future worries that are creeping in on me. I know my day will go better, if I can remain here for just a few minutes. I turn my inner thoughts from the ocean, and see Christ above me with open arms. I yield my arms to Him, knowing that today I am not in this alone. He will be here with me. I ask Him for his presence and His leading in my life as I trust him with my clients. As I sit, I find I do not know what direction to take things, and He gives me words. Words I need. The comfort that I have in all of this is He has been with me hundreds of days and showed up in ways I could not have predicted. I am confident, He will be here today, as He has in the past. Protecting this time to find the quiet within my own soul is key. The quiet others don’t even get that they need. Perhaps today they will sense it in me.
I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.
Life-lights are special people that touch others with varying degrees of brightness and warmth. They accept others, come alongside when encountering loss, and shine brightest when hard conversations are to be had. They see our flaws yet react with compassion, sharpening our edges, anticipating our needs with a deeper purpose.
Though we encounter life lights everyday, we have a limited number bringing depth to our life. The younger me disbelieved such a person could exist. Then, I met my husband, Greg, whose light is continuing to shine brighter with each year. Now, I believe he was mine before I met him. These life light stories are written to strengthen you and bring an appreciation of the lights God has shinning in your life.
Greg’s Own Get Away
“Didn’t you have reservations for the Boathouse on Isle of Palms, Denise?”
Greg asked in a way that was a bit disappointed. He depended on me to make the reservations, and his anxieties went up when the valet refused to park our car. It was Mother’s Day and there were no tables left on the island, or so we thought. I had planned for our church small group to enjoy a night of fellowship, and we were scrambling to find an open table. The phone buzzed and Janet had a place held at Sol, a few minutes away. “Let’s all head that way to see if we can get those seats!” I was relieved that we had found a place to land when the first call-ahead seating plan fell apart. Greg’s stress faded when all eight of us were
conversing over and looking at menus.
Dave, sitting next to Greg struck up the question, ‘How would you like to go fishing, Greg?” Greg loves to fish, and I am sure he thought maybe fishing on a large vessel offshore. Dave was asking this of a man who rarely takes a vacation and never a “guy” trip. I observed Greg’s reaction and I could see in his eyes a glimmer of hope.
“We are talking 2 ½ weeks in at a pristine, Canadian lake at the only private property in the middle of a preserve.”
Greg’s eyes grew even larger, but soon dropped thinking I just don’t see how that would be possible, but I knew amazing when I heard it.
Like Dave, Greg had grown up in the Ohio Amish corridor, and ever since we had begun in small group, his eyes had been set on Greg to be his next man-cave dweller. And I thought it was my charm that kept him coming back to our church small group each week.
“Denise, did you have a rumspringa?” Dave teased after dangling the Canada fishing carrot in front of Greg’s eyes. During our regular Sunday night meetings, Dave found out we were both from Amish background, and I had regularly given Dave a hard time about some of his habits that made it hard on his lovely wife Jane. Turnabout was fair play.
“What are you saying? Me, rumspringa? Rumspringa is the time when Amish teens sow their wild oats before taking the vow to join the church. The vow meant game over. “Well, if I did, Dave Mathis, I won’t be spilling my guts to you!” In my younger years, I wasn’t close to acting Amish.”
As the dinner was ending, Dave stepped aside as I was gathering my things, “Denise, you need to make this happen, he needs to take me up on this, it’s a chance of a lifetime for someone who enjoys fishing.”
My heart was stirred because I knew at that moment, Greg was going to Canada. Here we were in the middle of a remodel with my front room torn down to framing, my house was in the continual disarray, and life shows up to derail our house renovation project from getting completed, again. But what I was learning in this redo was that the house didn’t own us. We continued to live balanced which meant breaks, detours, and family coming first. It didn’t make any sense for Greg to up and leave the country for most of June, and I knew about day three I was going to regret it, but I learned a long time ago to listen to that small still voice inside of me agreeing with Dave.
“Greg, I want you to work out the details and go on this trip,” The words dropped from my lips as we got into the car. I heard them with my own ears, but couldn’t believe I was saying them. Since living on Congress Street, I had never stayed in the Charleston house solo and just the thought made me feel a sense of dread. Two weeks sounded like such a long time. From time to time, things went wrong at the house. There was always the inner-city crime thing, and the air conditioner breaker thing, the front room security thing, and my mind was going on and on with reasons this was so crazy to encourage Greg to do the man thing in Canada for two weeks. Did I fail to mention the 30-year anniversary thing which would happen just days before he left? This would even mean postponing any kind of trip to celebrate as a couple. What’s more, I don’t think in the 30 years of being together we had ever spent 18 nights away from one another, nothing more than an extended weekend or week-long work trip.
“It would use up all but a week of my vacation time, Denise, I am not sure committing so much time to something for me is the right thing to do, thought it does sounds pretty fantastic.” Greg knew the sacrifice I would be making because our time off for the rest of the year would be limited. The guilt didn’t last long when he was considering days on a clear, untainted lake in Ontario.
“I will ask Tommy if he can live without me for two weeks, but I am not going to get my hopes too high.”“You need this, Greg, you need to get off the grid and not have to think, unwind from all your projects, from our Freedman’s, and maybe even from me.” I threw myself in the mix to get a rise out of him. He reached over and put his hand on my arm and shook me. We both laughed. We were bonded to each other like two pieces of glued wood, but even they could use a healthy dose of separation from time to time. “Talk to Tommy to see what he can do to make it happen.” As much as I depended on Greg, Tommy, his boss, was worse than I ever was.
The next day, I got Greg’s text, “Tommy agreed, Denise, he making it happen, looks like I am headed to Ontario for the better part of June! Can you handle that staying on Congress St? Are you sure you want me to do this?”4
Mustering all the bravery I could muster I texted back, “Sure. It’s time I grow up, don’t ya think?” The idea of spending nights at the cottage. How had I become so needy and unsure that I couldn’t spend a few weeks alone. My brow tensed at the very thought. Perhaps it was all that we had been through in this inner-city neighborhood. Little by little, the neighborhood was becoming safer and I knew our neighbors. After Greg left, a few PJ days with a good book were beginning to sound like my own personal retreat. All this what if thinking was keeping me from the benefits of a house completely quiet. He continually gives of himself everyday to be sure I am well cared for, and in the end I got back a very relaxed and happy hubby! We all need time to grow in our passions, to breathe deep whatever that might look like to you. Give this gift to your spouse. As hard as it was to release my need, it strengthened both of us.
I do not remember a time when I could honestly say, I am pleased and at rest at where God has me. A gnawing ache inside of me, a dissatisfaction for holding my end of this bargain with my Creator is in the forefront of my mind. I outwardly espouse tranquility, but inwardly, I know it is a facade so others will not know the truth. To you I am confessing, it is this continual drive to fulfill a self-inflicted timetable, my secret agenda of things to do. Those I encounter are placed on the list. Its how I must manage my life, and sadly it includes those I am closest to. The more I wrangle with finding this space for inner-peace and rest, the less I am finding time for it. As I take my own professional advice and put on the brakes, my anxious thoughts increase within me. I look in the mirror and see the lines on my face appear, life is passing so quickly. Surely by now things would level off, and there would be more time. I make plans for a week, a weekend, a day, just an hour, no, even a moment that I can release the bombardments of my agenda and these shoulds….
I should be spending time in study
I should be having quality moments dedicated to just my spouse….
I should be cultivating my close friendships….
I should be eating healthy….
I should be exercising more….
I should be writing an hour a day….
I should be reading a book a week….
I should make the day better for someone else….
Apostle Paul says life is a race, we are to press for the mark, looking toward the finish, which I assume is the proverbial porch rocker when my body and brain say “no more”. Obviously, in spreading Christianity, Paul felt the pressure to keep ministering to those he met along the way in the face of true opposition, the Christian faith’s spread to the Gentile world rested on his shoulders. Now, that is an agenda. My small corner pales in comparison, but I still feel its weight. I would like to think a noble motive fuels my productivity. I am often asked, “How do you get so much done?” I am not sure myself, and wonder why I cram so much into a day. Yet, I intend to take time to come apart so that I might fight another day.
A new friend said with insightful acuity, “Denise, you have a great deal of anxiety.” I smile at these words. They have no idea. You see, I should be culling out some moments to be quiet….
Shine your unique light today.
Our Saturday started with the rumble of a thunderstorm. We were rushing to spread soil across the back of our lot, finishing a French drain before our deck frame is started. As we felt the drops, we rushed for the house. We barely made it before the bottom fell out. Our plan to lay the ground work was thwarted, again. Our historic Charleston renovation has lingered on and on, and we are both rather impatient to live in a complete house. This type of interruption tends to put us both in a bad mood from frustration, but it cannot be helped.We were planning to attend a neighbor’s open house art drop-in after our work was done. With our newfound schedule change, we made our way over earlier than planned. The main artist featured, Warm Glass by Keller was displaying his hand-blown and painted ornaments and jewelry regularly available in a shop on Church Street near the famous Charleston market.
I was amazed at the quality of his workmanship in each of the displays and found several one of kind pieces to keep and share. As an added bonus, we walked around their house, and were equally impressed with the quality of workmanship in the house design. The homeowner is a local architect and his dream for this house, which doubled as a neighborhood store in its earlier life, was impressive. His attention to detail with an open ceiling making the space feel large, the exposed rafters and original fireplace restored, and the respect for the history of those years added depth and warmth. My favorite feature was their terrace highlighted by glass and multiple lighted doors along the western exposure. The space felt inviting and from that direction, Congress street and our home were clearly visible. My heart swelled, how far the neighborhood has come in the 5 years that we lived here.
After making the neighborly introductions and deciding on our purchases, we both walked down the street to visit Mrs. Rebecca, a elderly neighbor. Her daughter was visiting from New York City and we hope to connect with her, exchange our contact information, so her daughter could call on us to check on Mrs. Rebecca should she have concerns for her mother. As we visited with them at their front gate, the drizzle stopped, and the sun came out. I could see Greg wanted to get back to building the foundation of our deck. We moseyed home, and I decided to sweep our sidewalk facing Congress Street. As I was gathering up debris and droppings from the city’s Crepe Myrtle, planted along the front of our house, a young man came around the corner just past the artists’ open house. His face showed such relief to see I was out. A part of me thought, “Oh, no, he is approaching me.” I was upset. “Now what?”, I thought. My lack of compassion wasn’t as obvious on my face, but it was my lingering attitude.
“Are you Mr. Greg’s wife?” the man stepped closer into my space and extended his hand.
“I am, how can I help you?”
“Ma’am, I am homeless and in such a bad way this morning.”
“Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat? Some water?” The walls that were up began to come down. I could see he was hurting.
“I am that, ma’am, and that’d help me. But I could use a bar of soap, and a facecloth to wash up, and I need to wash my clothes.”
“Let me see what I can get together for you. Wait here.”
“While you look, let me help you finish sweeping.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have to…I’ll be back in a minute.”
The gentleman insisted on taking my broom and he started where I left off. I hurried inside and quickly scrambled around for a few items from my pantry. I found protein bars, tuna, and beef jerky and a bag of cheese crackers to help him diminish his hunger. I grabbed a bar of soap, a washcloth and hand towel, clean socks and a T-Shirt. I came out with a few singles and change robbed from Greg’s change jar held together in a sandwich baggie and a plastic bag of the other items.
He was off, and regardless of his words, I saw the thankfulness on his face. The simple bag of items lightened his burden and sense of hopelessness. He must have been by in weeks past, and Greg helped him when I was inside or on a errand. What touched me most was his face when he came around the corner of Senate Street, I saw the look on his face. He knew if Greg were out, he’d have compassion on him. Seeing him head down the street with a lightness in his step, I knew the storm was put in my path, upset my morning placing me on the front sweeping the sidewalk at just that moment, something I rarely do on a Saturday. It wasn’t a coincidence. I came back into the house, sat in my chair, and suddenly I was weeping. Greg had come in for a drink, and saw me falling apart and keeled down next to me as the story poured out.
My friends have homes in gated communities to insulate themselves. And where we live, the struggle is real, walking down our sidewalks daily. My tears as I sat in my chair were screaming, stop complaining. The house isn’t done and some of the issues are tiresome. But my basic needs are met. A clean bed, healthy food, a warm shower when I need to clean up are all part of my every day life. And more than that, my family and friends love me enough to take me in should I need help. I have a job and my husband takes care of me. I am rich in what matters most. Today, I was in the right place at the right time for this young man suffering at the most basic level, his unwanted visit made me take a step back. So it rained today, and the deck was postponed. This house will eventually get done. The sun came out, in God’s time. And more than that, I can count on it coming out again tomorrow.
|I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.|
Nicole rang my cell mid-day. I asked the client I was sitting with in therapy to pardon me, and pressed the button to answer, knowing this could be our grandson’s arrival. She called the night before to let us know her contractions were coming fairly close together. She was overjoyed and yet concerned. Our son was driving her to the doctor. If they admitted her, they would call in the extended family troops. I encouraged her that many have gone on before her. Take heart. It was hard to believe we were about to be grandparents.
I catch the sphere of emotion that descends on me from the brief interchange and file it away. I enter back into my office making apologies for disturbing the client’s session. Our children depend on us, too, for emotional comfort and I knew accepting our daughter in law’s call was priority. I return to quiet and was as present as I could be under such circumstances. I gather my thoughts to continue treatment. This was an emotional week for me.
As I rejoice in a new life being brought into our world, I got word of another dear one passing on just days earlier. Hattie, my best friend’s mother lost her battle with cancer. The last visit I made during her convalescence, Hattie asked me to look after my friend and her granddaughter. She was an example of an invested grandmother. She picked her granddaughter up from school regularly, worked on homework, participated in supporting her at swim meets and piano recitals. I knew her loss was going to be hard to grieve.
Hattie was born into the greatest generation. A godly woman whose belief system was strong and defined. I envied her resolve. And for years, I comforted myself in her style of a defined faith. One that fit within the boxes that I had been taught.
As I listened to the pastor preach her funeral, I had grown into living a grace-filled approach to life, valuing truth and listening to the Spirit’s leading. The pastor encouraged us to cease depending on religious ritual to be a good Christian, rather strive to develop the inner-quiet of contemplative worship. The doing of deeds while valuable is more about me, the inner-quiet about a reliance on God’s leading. The pastor’s words seem to slip over the tops of many of those sitting in the memorial pews, however, I perked up in my seat and listened intently. It was not what I had expected to hear that afternoon at this memorial. It spoke to my heart about a life well-lived. Hattie, an elegant lady, loved the Lord and walked with Him daily. As I fiddled with my bulletin, I imagined her stepping into eternity with full sight, while we remain looking into a cloudy mirror filled with mystery. We will miss her, my dear friend and her daughter most of all.
The Lord brought to my mind my own mother, born the same year as Hattie, her steps slowing and her memory fading a bit. I wondered how long I have to enjoy her laugh and hear her stories. She, too is of that great generation and I realized one by one they are marching on before us. I must come face to face with my own mortality as I am soon stepping into grandmotherhood with the arrival of my grandson. I am overcome. This precious, new life is coming to us. My sadness and joy were intermingled.
My therapy session comes to a close. Before I continue on with sessions, I take a moment to hit the contact for mom. I wonder if she is napping in her chair or putting together her puzzles. I hear her pick up the phone. “How’s you’re day, Mom?
I am only hours way from me becoming a grandmother and I am wondering how I got here. It was just yesterday I held his father in my own arms. As excited as I am, I just needed to hear your voice.”