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Brand New Starts

3 Feb

I can still remember the feel of the scratchy rug beneath my body. We sat in a circle on the colorful carpeted ground, our kindergarten teacher reading to us from a storybook. It might have been about farm animals, or red fire trucks, or rainbow fish.

I looked up and saw my dad peeking his face through that narrow, rectangular crack in the schoolroom door. The smile on his face revealed that things were about to change.

He checked me out from school that day. There was a cool breeze in the air that afternoon, an ease and happiness as we celebrated the soon-to-be arrival of my new little brother.

For five years, it had just been me. I was the blonde wild child, having solo adventures with my 1970s-era Mom and Dad. We read and explored and sang music and hiked.

And then it wasn’t just me.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I was used to a rambling elementary school, nestled amongst trees and green grass and rolling mountains on the vista in the distance. And at home, after school, a wide open back yard and a nearby back-of-the-back-yard creek.

Then, at 9-years-old, I learned that people also lived in big cities.

My new school had three stories and no grass, just concrete. My new home was concrete, too—an apartment that was small and different, but somehow also signified adventure.

We drove down interstates, went to the ballet, saw “Star Wars” and “Rocky” on screens bigger than I’d ever seen, walked across a college campus larger than the whole of my prior, much more permanent hometown.

Austin was home for just a year, yet it showed me what ‘bigger’ and ‘more’ and sometimes-but-not-always-better could be.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Thank God she asked to sit next to me on the school bus that day.

A new student at a new school for my first year of high school, I would pull into myself at the cafeteria table, in P.E., on the bus for field trips.

She, too, was new and nervous like me.

But then she asked if she could next to me on that Autumn visit to the Museum of Art, and we talked about (imagine! 14-year-olds talking about) Emily Dickinson and Bob Dylan and Arkansas and Mississippi.

A brand new friendship blossomed that day, and we navigated the world of high school with other new, just-a-little-weird kids. We became soul sisters and college roommates and bridesmaids.

When I came home from school that day and raved to my mother about my new friend Angela, Mom admitted that she had been praying every single morning since we’d moved states away to this new place. She’d prayed for friends, and that I wouldn’t be so sad, and that I’d find my way.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

“You can’t do this! You CAN NOT do this!”

I yelled.

But the yelling only hit the thin walls and bounced off the cracking, yellow linoleum in the small, cheap, perfectly-collegiate apartment. I yelled, then cried, then did it all over again in a sad, unexpected routine.

A marriage, a child, a divorce in a span of time that was really was too short.

The new start from just two years ago–a start marked by giddy grins, and big dreams, and white lace—gone too quickly, maybe gone because it had been too quickly.

I held onto that sweet, blonde bundle (so much like me, so much like him) and yelled again, but this time a bit quieter.

Yelling only works for so long, after all, and I learned to be strong and optimistic and thankful for friends and family.

The apartment walls, the baby, my newfound ‘me-ness.’

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I may have said it looked like something that exploded in “The Exorcist,” but I was totally wrong about the taste of guacamole.

Delicious, divine.

It took me close to 40 years to appreciate the avocado.

I was 27 before I even tried a salad.

And let’s not even mention the fact that I wrongly charred my steaks for way too many decades of my life.

Or that I didn’t really know about wine.

The discovery of something new, something really good on the palate. A small thing, sure, but a small thing that spills over and into other parts of your life.

After all, said Virginia Woolf: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

(I also think the Bible says something in the realm of, “And then God made cake on the eighth day.”)

New food, new appreciation, new enjoyment.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I sat in the hospital room, clutching my little girl’s hand.

I felt hopeless, out of control, angry, overwhelmingly exhausted.

She lay there, listless and drained. But with a small, sweet smile on her face. (“It will be okay, Momma,” it said.)

We received a diagnosis that hurt my heart and scared me so.

A brand new start.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I’m not sure why mountains do things for my soul, but they most certainly do.

I stood atop one once, surrounded by fellow teenagers, our faces shining and our insides burning. We were in love with God.

That was one beginning.

I stood atop one once, by myself, looking down at the ant-sized scene below. There was a camp, and a lake, and a road. I was in love with God.

That was another beginning.

God brings me to mountains again and again, to remind me that beginnings aren’t really beginnings. They’re beginnings again.

A brand new start.

Again.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

I (we all) could write a book about the changes, the turns in direction, the new starts in our lives.

The night I met my new husband, the births of my children, the time I learned to drive a stick shift, the first trip out of the country, the first time I lost someone close to me, the completion of my first 5K, the first turning of a page, my discovery of grace.

Life is about those things. Those new things.

Each day is a movement from here to there, from falling down to getting up, from not knowing to understanding, from old to new, from happy to sad, from sad to happy.

At this time of year (the beginning of the year), brand new starts are commonplace. They’re expected, in fact. They’re talked about, often bragged about (then often bemoaned about).

Resolutions, changes, starting overs, vows, promises.

And, as I think about all of those brand new starts throughout my life, I know that they are good things.

We cannot stay stagnant.

And we must embrace the starts, despite how they come to us.

They may be welcome, like those resolutions and changes we celebrate at the new year, during the season of Lent, during a pivotal birthday year (30!, 50!), as the calendar changes from cold to warm again. They are the brand new starts we want and desire.

But they may also come unbidden (an illness, a death, a loss, a challenge), and knock us off our feet. They are not welcome, and we do everything we can to push them away.

Until we realize that they, too, are opportunities. Sometimes even blessings.

Someone (it could have been Bob Dylan, or maybe my mother) once said, “There’s nothing so stable as change.”

It’s so true.

We can’t make it through life without old doors closing, new doors (or windows) opening, maps unfurling, pages turning.

Let’s get started on something new.

On loss, and fear, and teeth, and flowers

1 Dec

train

Three months after Raymond died, I dreamt for the first time of my teeth falling out.

I cupped my hands together, and stared at the pile of silver-capped teeth. They had fallen en masse from my mouth and, as is often the case in dreams, that somehow seemed normal.

When I woke up, it felt very not normal.

It was the first time in my 46 years that I dreamt what I soon realized was quite the common nightmare.

For me, it was strange and uncommon and confusing, but I learned quickly (thanks to Google and plenty of amateur dream chasers) that it really wasn’t. In fact, people everywhere have the dream every night.

And it meant something.

The dropping-out-of-my-mouth teeth represented loss. And, more than that, they meant I was afraid of more loss. The “official” explanations I found said that the dream “highlights your feeling of having experienced a profound loss of something or someone in your life” and “signifies powerlessness, fear and loss of control.”

Looking back, it surprises me that it took that long for that particular dream to invade my sleep. Because loss—despite my sunny disposition, strong faith, undeterred resilience—had crashed into my life and settled onto my couch like it was an old friend (or an unwelcome intruder).

Loss—unexpected, inexorable, ugly—had moved in. Had taken an entire family of friends, my three-year-old cousin, a vibrant best friend with a toddler who needed her, my grandmother, our Raymond.

But I guess Raymond was the one that did it.

I’d had enough, and I finally listened.

The dream fairy crashed into my nighttime, kicking and screaming: “Here’s Greg and Karen! Here’s Haven! Here’s Erin! Here’s Grandma!”

And then she howled, “Here’s Raymond!”

Raymond—my dear, loved, haunted adopted son—took his own life on Christmas Eve, and it was too much to bear.

So the teeth fell out, and piled up.

Loss, it seems, piles up too and transforms itself…mostly into fear.

Suddenly you’re fearful of so much—the things that are rational and the things that are irrational; the bumps in the dark, but also the things right out in the sunlit open; the things you know are happening, and also the stories you create in your imagination; the memories of the past, and the future whatevers that you think might manifest.

It doesn’t make sense, and yet you’re simply afraid of something.

Of more.

Of something more.

My middle daughter told me of that dread, that worry that sits heavily on your chest, as she prepared to sing and play piano at one of the too-many memorial services we attended during this span of time. She understood on some level similar to me.

On a dreary, snowy day, she sang of “beautiful things” that come out of the dust, and I think that must be the message that has to emerge from loss and uncertainty and fear.

A while after my wake-up dream, I dreamt again.

I boarded a train and settled into a cushy, velvety seat bound for somewhere. Outside the window, flowers—yellow, crocusy, open-up flowers—began popping, growing, emerging from the ground.

They were all I could see, for miles and miles and miles.

And I didn’t need a book or an expert to tell me (or yell at me) what the dream meant.

The meanings were as clear as day (or as night, in this case):

I’m on a journey.

Things start anew.

Stops don’t mean it’s over.

Fear can’t control you.

We must enjoy the view.

It might take a while (it will take a while), but we’ll get there.

Flowers bloom. They always do.

10 things that keep you from writing

12 Nov

In no particular order…

  1. Fear that you’re not good enough
  2. Too many new ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ trailers
  3. A perceived lack of time
  4. Comparing yourself to others
  5. Facebook
  6. ‘Real’ work during the day
  7. Waiting for the perfect idea to come along
  8. J.K. Rowling is more awesomer than you’ll ever be
  9. I need coffee. I need wine. I need all kinds of other things.
  10. You’re not a morning (or night) (or in-between) person

And a few to get you writing…

  1. Facebook and Star Wars will still be there
  2. J.K. Rowling started somewhere
  3. You can make time
  4. You are you
  5. Your idea is valuable. And it needs to come alive.

The Day I Got My Daughter Back

16 Sep

(I originally wrote this story for AL.com, as the 2012 Alabama vs. Texas A&M game approached. As the game approaches again, I’d like to share this essay with you; it tells what the weekend, and this game, will always be for me and my family.)

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The Day I Got My Daughter Back

As a sports reporter, I live mostly within a kingdom of wins and losses. Things are pretty black and white.

On the eve of the game of the year (a little something called Alabama vs. Texas A&M), this is even more obvious than usual. Fans will live and die with every rush, tackle, reception, fumble, sack and touchdown.

The sports world sees Alabama vs. Texas A&M as an epic battle between two top 10 teams; one is attempting to cement a dynasty, the other is forging its way with the season’s most controversial yet talented player. There are storylines aplenty, and for that reason it’s the center of anything and everything sports-related this weekend.

It’s something entirely different to me.

Game day for the Alabama/Texas A&M matchup will now (and I imagine forever) be known as the day I got my daughter back.

Last year, my husband and I were sitting at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham watching our 8-year-ol d daughter recover from a diagnosis three days before of Type 1 diabetes. While people across the state were praying for AJ McCarron to rally the team back for a late-game win, I was praying that we would somehow learn how to deal with this disease that had tackled us out of the blue.

I was covering a Division II football game days before when I got the call that Sydney had been rushed to the hospital and quickly diagnosed with what used to be called juvenile diabetes. She had a blood sugar of 760 and was in a diabetic coma.

We learned over the next several days what an insidious and life-altering diagnosis this was. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that keeps Sydney’s pancreas from creating insulin; for the rest of her life (or until there is a cure), she will give herself insulin shots at least four times a day.

On the day we were learning all these things (from someone called an “educator,” but who felt a lot—in our sleep-deprived state–like a slave-driver), the Crimson Tide’s lone loss of the season was taking place. Our educator taught us about blood monitoring, and ketoacidosis, and carb counting, and long-term dangers while nurses, technicians and parents of patients whooped and clapped and then wailed throughout the halls.

A few hours later, the staff loaded us up to be discharged.

It was an eerie experience; if you’ve ever witnessed the reaction of the general public to an Alabama loss you will know what I’m talking about.

People’s faces were long; no one seemed capable of smiling; strangers nodded at each other the way they do at funerals.

And yet, here we were … relieved, dare I say jubilant.

Alabama had lost, but we had won.

The rest of the Tide’s season was, of course, a quest to learn from mistakes, get better, stay focused, show character, prove what they were made of. It’s something that all teams attempt to do after a loss.

Our family similarly came up with a game plan. We learned everything we could about Type 1 diabetes. We armed ourselves with the best doctors and the best medicine. We taught Sydney to take charge of her daily life and body. She learned when her blood sugar was low and when it was high; she learned to eat high-protein snacks and drink water all day long; she learned to give herself shots.

To borrow Coach Nick Saban’s favorite word, we learned that the “process” was the thing. Coping with the disease was not a one-afternoon win or loss; it was something that had its ups and downs, goods and bads, challenges and blessings.

One of my favorite post-diagnosis moments came during an all-star softball tournament in which Sydney’s team played for the 8-and-under district championship. During an early inning, she rounded the bases and headed for home. As she crossed home plate, she found me in the stands and yelled, “Mom, I’m low, I’m low, I’m low, I’m low.”

How the girl had hit a ball into the outfield and made it across all the bases with a blood sugar of 52 I still don’t know, but it represented something to me. It showed me that she was learning, even thriving, and that nothing would keep her down.

Legendary football coach Vince Lomabardi once said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get back up.”

Sydney’s favorite quote about the disease that has changed her life forever is, “Type 1 diabetes doesn’t own me. I own it.”

Our entire family has learned—crazy as it sounds—that this awful disease could actually do wonders; it brought us closer, strengthened our faith, taught us to treasure the really important things.

It taught us that even a defeat could be cause for celebration.

Moment to remember: Wheelchair bound 10-year-old scores touchdown

6 Sep
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(Stories like this make my job one of the best you could ask for. I had the privilege of talking to this awesome family, and sharing this inspiring story.)

Ask Erin Jones about her 10-year-old son, Braden, who is confined to a wheelchair, and she’ll tell you about a simple plan for his childhood.

“We are always going to make sure we find a way to not limit him at all,” she said. “We want to make sure he has the same opportunities as any other child.”

Erin and her husband, Mike, want to make Braden’s life normal, despite the challenge of living with hypophosphatemic rickets, a disease that makes bones weak and often causes multiple breaks.

Jones said that her son’s attitude is always inspiring.

“He has the best heart, the most open mind, the best positive attitude,” she said. “Very seldom does he have an ‘I can’t’ attitude.”

That spirit was on full display Friday night when Braden did something he’d never dreamed possible by scoring a touchdown for a high school football team, in his wheelchair.

In so doing, Braden and Victory Baptist School in Millbrook, Ala. created a moment to remember for the boy and the many fans in the stands.

(Watch the video here of Braden scoring the touchdown.)

Victory football coach Jim Hardy came up with the idea, after he met Braden as part of his Outdoor Friends Forever organization, which is committed to giving children with special needs different opportunities to hunt, fish and do other outdoor activities. Many of his football players volunteer with the organization and had become friends with Braden, who is from Talladega.

He knew Braden was a football fan, so it seemed natural to get him involved with the team.

Victory Christian plays 6-on-6 football in the Alabama Christian Education Association. The school won the state ACEA championship in 2013 and 2014.

Hardy invited Braden to participate in Friday night’s game against Brooklane Baptist Academy from Hueytown, but didn’t tell him about the plan to get him on the field until the game was underway.

He was given a jersey, spoke to the team during pre-game meetings, wheeled onto the field with the team and was asked by Hardy if he wanted to help coach the team.

braden.jpg

“He was so excited on the sidelines that I asked what play he might want to call. He was nervous and wasn’t sure,” he said. “Then, a few minutes later I asked how cool would it be to go on the field? He said he’d want to, but that he didn’t want anyone to tackle him.”

“I got some of the seniors to talk to him, and we reassured him that he would be fine,” Hardy said.

Players and coaches from Brooklane were also in on the “secret” and helped make the moment special by missing tackles and then celebrating in the end zone afterwards.

“We are grateful to the coaches, players and cheerleaders at Brooklane, the fans on both sides and everyone that made the night so special,” Hardy said.

After the game, Hardy said that many players, family members and fans went to a dinner party to celebrate Braden. When he tried to serve food to the guests, Braden stepped in and helped serve alongside him.

“It just took it to a whole other level,” he said. “You’ve got high school players learning what it means to care about others.”

Jones said that the night, and the way Braden was treated, is something she’ll always remember.

“Both teams made it special. They were falling down, getting tackled, and they all celebrated with him in the end zone. To witness his face right then and see the acceptance he felt, was just wonderful,” she said.

“Some people talk to him differently, sometimes he is treated like he’s not normal, but all those players cut up with him, gave him high-fives, treated him like the regular kid he is,” she said. “All of these experiences have helped him come out of his shell. Now he knows he can do so many things.”