Angels Among Us

Angels Among Us

When I began blogging, I wanted to use this avenue to encourage people who are struggling. Having some, well, maybe, a lot of experience in that area I thought I could be useful there. Here lately, I found myself needing encouragement too, a voice to remind me to keep trying, or to help me stay focused on my goals. My Mama used to be the captain of my cheerleading squad; the one who taught me to never give up and to hold onto to my faith. She’d tell me stories about people who kept going no matter what, and sometimes when I was glum she’d break out with that fabulous little song called “High Hopes.” You remember, the one about an ant and a rubber tree plant.

Mama went to heaven on a hot summer night in 1998, leaving behind her devastated daughter to hold on to her memory and her lessons. What she taught me stayed with me, her words reminding me God didn’t give me an off switch, and the fight to survive doesn’t end until your last breath. God gave me a strong will, and Mama didn’t let me forget it, making sure it was embedded in my mind. Her strategy worked until my husband died. All bets are off now.

When Dan died, I learned God sent angels in the form of other widows who could empathize with what I was going through. The first angel I found actually sat across from me at work—I called her just a few hours after I became a new widow; I can still remember parts of our conversation that horrible morning. Two more angels came into my life a few weeks after Dan’s death, and another angel, who doubled as my cousin and who knew all too well about the pain, was only a phone call away.

I now believe God sends us angels during other difficult times too, especially when your mama is no longer with you. Not all of us have or had a good mother. No, not all mothers are the same, but I got lucky there. When I was growing up, she was my mama, my protector, my teacher, the disciplinarian, but when I became a woman, a deep friendship developed.

When the bad times come now, I can no longer get a dose of her wisdom or encouragement. I could use some of those—the keep-at-its, the “you come from strong stock,” and “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Yeah, no doubt some days are darker than others.

However, I am grateful for those angels who helped me during my, so far, darkest period, and since losing Dan, these angels have increased in number. Not all of them are widows.

The last few weeks have been difficult, and I want to hear Mama’s voice. I can still remember the sound of it when she spoke, when she sang, her laugh. I want to tell her what’s going on like I used to do. Knowing that’s impossible, God placed a few more angels around me who are echoing her words, almost like channeling, being the voices of reason, of inspiration, telling me, “you’ve come this far, don’t give up now,” or “He will get us through all things.” On the stormy days, the ones when it seems like lightning is popping everywhere, filling my heart with fear, it’s hard to remember giving up is not an option; sometimes it’s hard to trust in the power of God.

A few of my angels have been busy making me remember what Mama taught me, even though they never knew her. There’s no way they’ll ever know how much their listening to me or texting just a few lines, reminding me to get back up and keep trying or to ignore the junk when dealing with difficult people has meant to me.

I miss my Mama, and though I can’t be with her, I do have strong women in my life; some are family, some are extended family, all of them I cherish. No one can ever replace Mama, but these angels have and are making my walk alone easier.

If people important to you are no longer with you, don’t overlook the angels who’ve come into your life, speaking words of wisdom, encouragement, and strength. Listen to them and stay focused. Most of all, never, ever give up!

To all the mothers and to those beautiful angels in my life, Happy Mother’s Day!

 

 

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A Psalm of Lament

A Psalm of Lament

Some people who read this may not agree with me, nor like what I write in this post. That’s okay. We each have a path to walk, a journey to complete, and our life experiences make up who we are and become. Some of us have trod, or should I say limped down roads filled with ditches and potholes, and we’ve wondered where God is, why did or is He allowing so much pain in our lives.

The pain is real and deep, the discouragement high, the disappointments astronomical. Our tears give away to anger, especially in grief and in particular complicated grief, and we wonder where God is, why He deserted us during these hard days.

If you’re a believer, you may hear it said, often from well-meaning people, and possibly those self-righteous who know or sense you’re suffering, but who want to make the pain go deeper, we should never get mad with God, nor question Him. It wasn’t until I took a class on Psalms while working on my masters in Biblical Studies that I learned people do get angry or question God, crying out to Him, as the psalmist wrote in Psalm 88:14, Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?

My life has not been easy, but it hasn’t been dull either. It wasn’t until after Dan died, forcing me to face significant battles, most of the time alone, that I found myself wondering if God hated me. Research informed me I’m not alone in these feelings, which are usually felt by those who’ve endured or enduring extremely difficult circumstances. Hearing pastors and others comment on anger and questioning added to my frustration, deepening the hurt.

Most people think of Psalms as praises. Taking the course on the Book of Psalms introduced me to the psalms of lament. Psalm 88 hit home for me. As Craig Broyles wrote, “The psalm consistently attributes the cause of the affliction to Yahweh himself, as demonstrated by the many verses that begin with you and your (vv. 5 – 8, 14, 16 – 18) (Broyles, 1999).

Say what?

Have I been so depressed, felt so defeated I thought God was my enemy? Yes, I’m not proud to admit. Did I think God was always punishing me? Yes. Is He going to send me to hell for those feelings? No. I now believe God strengthens us during the bad times (and by now, I must be one tough old bird!), and we learn from each trial things or traits about ourselves useful to us later on down the road.

Life can be hard, with many bad turns. It can change quickly, and sometimes all it takes is a phone call with bad news to destroy your world. Since Dan died, I’ve lost a few friends, and a few relatives turned their backs on me, but they were replaced by new friends and reconnecting with other family members. Out of the bad times have come good times, less stressful and making life more pleasant than I ever thought possible when I was in the midst of my deepest woes.

It’s easy to forget the good things when you’re going through a rough patch, but even then, there is so much to be thankful for each day. One of my high school teachers had a poster on his door that displayed this simple thought, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” Sums it up pretty well, I think.

If you’re struggling with difficulties, trying to keep your faith, stay strong and as the old song says, take one day at a time. If you’re a believer, read Psalm 88. You will see you are not alone. I think God put Psalm 88 in the Bible to let us know that fact. He is still there, still listening, still caring, and always working.

 

Featured Image Photo Credit:  102045603 – 祈るビジネスウーマン © aijiro — Fotolia

Reference:  Broyles, Craig C. (1999). Psalms, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books.

 

© Dee Hardy | Encouraging the Discouraged, 2016. All rights reserved

 

A Christmas Struggle

A Christmas Struggle

The beloved movie, A Christmas Story, is a yearly staple of holiday entertainment for many people. Of course, there is A Christmas Carol with Ebenezer Scrooge and his attitude adjustment. There is also another Christmas tale, not a movie or book, but a brutal reality. It is ‘A Christmas Struggle’ many of us wishes we did not experience.

This Christmas struggle is one of the hardest things in the grieving process I have had to deal with, and in my research, I have not read anything of substance on how to solve the problem. It takes time, sometimes a long time, I guess. Out of compassion, some people recognize it can be difficult for the grieving no matter how many years have passed, and they encourage those struggling to participate in all the holiday parties and festivities. For some of us, we’re appreciative of their kindness, but it does not work.

I loved Christmas. I know the reason for the season, the celebration of the birth of Jesus; nothing changed for me there. I lost the so-called ‘getting in the Christmas spirit’ part, something I excelled in, almost batting a thousand in that area.

Starting early with shopping for gifts, looking for new ornaments, which I loved collecting; the parties at work, sending Christmas cards, getting a tree, real or artificial, stringing the lights and loading the tree down with ornaments; decorating the yard trees, foundation shrubs, and along porch posts with twinkling or chasing lights. I loved every bit of it. I tried the icicle lights a couple of years, which didn’t work out too well, by the way.

Dan fussing about the money I spent, but not hiding he was happy I did all the shopping. Most of all I loved getting together with family and friends and giving them gifts I secretly hoped they loved. Dan didn’t share my enthusiasm for decorating, shopping, and spending money. He tolerated mine. He enjoyed being with family, with Kim, Cindy, Larry, Cindy’s husband, and especially Lucas, his first grandchild. I remember Christmas 2007 well—our last Christmas together. We had no idea. In fact, I was already planning the next Christmas.

Then came December 2008 and everything changed. Dan died on December 1. About two weeks afterwards, his younger brother went into the hospital and later died on Christmas Eve. The sadness of that time has never left me.

Each Christmas since then, has been a major effort with me trying to get through the season. I never thought I would say I do not care during the holidays. Some days I thought hibernation during late November and all through December would be preferable than dealing with the emptiness. I have made a few attempts at decorating over the years, but now I do not even bother. I seldom shop or do much of anything considered Christmasy.

Sadness creeps in when I think about Dan not seeing his new grandchildren, Evan and Emily. They will not know what a sweet and gentle man he was, and he cannot bounce them on his knee or swing them around making them laugh. Lucas is now a young man, and Dan cannot be there to watch him graduate from high school five months from now. In addition, Dan didn’t get a chance to meet Trevor, Kim’s husband. Dan cannot share the Christmas joy with Kim and Cindy and most of all…with me. I miss him.

Now, I know the ‘why’ for people who have trouble during the holidays. Nobody has to write it in big letters for me to read between the lines or see through the forced smiles people give to hide their sadness. I can understand it. I have also learned I am not alone. Others suffer in silence because people around them don’t understand how loss can affect them.

I am learning this Christmas struggle takes a long time to adjust to, as rebuilding a life without the person you lost is indeed a long and painful process. A widow once told me, “It’s never the same.” Not only do I see Dan in Cindy and Kim, I also see him in Lucas, Evan, and Emily in their smiles, the way they tilt their heads and so much more. I wish Dan were here to be a part of our lives and to share in the joy of Christmas. I wish. I wish. I wish.

Love comes with a cost because unless we outlive our loved ones, we will grieve their loss. None of us lives forever. Heartbreak is the price we pay for that love. Grieving does not stop after the funeral, after a month or a year, though the first, and I think the second years are the hardest. There is no getting over a loved one’s death—that is just a worn out myth. One learns to live with the loss, the emptiness, the sad moments when the memories flood back.

Some areas are harder than others to adjust to in dealing with loss, and for me it is the Christmas season. I am thankful for my patient family and friends who deal with my lack of enthusiasm during the holidays. I know God is going to get me through this season the same way He has before—one day at a time.

 

Festured Image Photo Credit: Broken Christmas tree bauble in snow © bellopropello – Fotolia

© Dee Hardy | Encouraging the Discouraged, 2015. All rights reserved

The Lollipop Tree

Some people have a tree in the yard connected with special memories. I have one, a Red Dogwood tree, I nicknamed the Lollipop Tree many years ago. Yeah, it sounds silly. My mother bought it for us not long after we moved into our house. This gift has rewarded me every year with beauty; its dusty rose pedals dancing in the breeze in the spring and leaves that turn burgundy in the fall. As it grew, it formed a round shape; its limbs meeting at a point on the trunk, like the candy on a stick of a lollipop, spreading in an almost perfect circle. It has lost some of the roundness over the years, but its beauty remains.

lollipop-Tree_7

Sometimes while sitting in the swing, I look at that tree and remember the day we brought it home and planted it. I also remember what Mama dealt with during her life, yet she still held tight to her faith. Mama went through difficult times—the kind that would buckle Paul Bunyan’s knees. Losing her first child, a baby only eight months old, then nine years later losing her husband, leaving her with three children, ages seven, four, and two, Mama knew pain and heartbreak. Later on, she faced ruin and abandonment of another type.

It is true when bad times come people disappear. Mama made a decision, based on legal advice, she thought would fix a bad situation, but it made it worse. People stopped speaking to her in the grocery store, looked the other way when she came near, not wanting to be seen even acknowledging her presence. None of the people who turned on her heard her cry, or should I say sob, when she hung up the phone after telling my grandmother she made the decision to do what her lawyer advised. I did.

Although she tried to hide it, I believe it bothered her. We were always together, including working on the same machine in a local factory. She needed support—someone to be there, so I went with her whenever she needed me, to meetings, to court, to whatever. Through this and several other problems she faced, Mama taught me this important lesson: “You do what you have to do, face what you have to face, and you do it with shoulders straight and your head held high.” Those were hard years, and I know Jesus taught us we should forgive one another. Forgiving is easy, it’s the forgettin’ that’s hard.

Mama knew how fragile life is. She was a no nonsense person when it came to protecting her children. Much like Toya Graham who went to the Baltimore demonstrations to make her only son go home, to remove him from a volatile situation, Mama would show up unexpected to pull one of hers from a serious situation, chase off undesirables, as well as tell off a few. She didn’t care who didn’t like it. She once told me to consider the lioness for a moment. “The lioness will fight to her death to protect her cubs. Any mother worth her salt will do the same for her children.” True!

Mama taught me her final and most painful lesson without speaking a word.

I awoke abruptly around midnight on a hot August night. I’ll never forget the sound in the house—eerily quiet, except for the soft hum of a ceiling fan. Dan worked nightshift then, and Kim wasn’t home yet (I learned later she and her friends who went bowling had car trouble on the way back). I ran to the front door and looked around the yard. Oh my God, where is she?

I went to Mama’s room and said, “Mama, Kim’s not home yet. Something must be wrong.” Mama didn’t respond. She lay there, still and silent, staring at something wondrous, at what I’ll never know. I ran over and touched her hands; they were already cool to the touch. The thought came to me, “She’s gone, she’s dead.” I started patting her hands, shaking her thin arms. “Mama, Mama. What’s wrong? Talk to me.” More thoughts, “She’s gone. It’s too late.” I kept trying, “Mama, please, please.” My mind kept saying, “She’s already left,” but my heart refused to accept it. I got the phone and called 911. I tried several more times to arouse her to no avail. I then stopped.

I caressed her forehead, kissed her there one last time, the tears flowed as my heart now believed what my mind was saying—she had gone home. The final lesson: the mind and the heart don’t always communicate. Perhaps I’d known it all along, but it became brutally real that night.

A few weeks before she died, in her final hospital stay, I encouraged her to fight. “I don’t want to lose you,” I said. Mama turned to me and replied, “Someday, there has to be a parting.” That night we had that parting, and the moment the realization hit me, my heart shattered like fine crystal dropped on a stone floor.

With all of the losses, disappointments, and sickness she endured, I knew there was only one song suitable for her funeral—Precious Lord, Take My Hand by Thomas Dorsey. She was tired. She was weak. She was so worn.

Princess Caroline said in an interview with Barbara Walters, “You grow up when your mother dies…yes, you are alone in the world when your mother dies.” I didn’t comprehend what she meant at first. Thirteen years would pass before those words sunk in and struck a painful chord. Today I understand.

Every year I look forward to my Lollipop Tree blooming and the leaves changing color, but nowhere near as much as I look forward to seeing my precious Mama again. She was my confidant, teacher, protector, inspiration, sounding board, advisor, and criticizer when I needed it. My Mama…was my best friend.

Child drawing of her mother for mother's day

Photo: Child drawing of her mother for mother’s day © sirikorn_t – Fotolia.com

 

© Dee Hardy | Encouraging the Discouraged, 2015. All rights reserved

 

Blue Collar Beginnings

Blue Collar Beginnings

The meme I used in my last post is about doing what people think you can’t do. If you’re discouraged about something you want to do, maybe this post will provide a little encouragement.

I started working in a sock factory when I was sixteen. My plan was to earn money for college, then quit. Like John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans,” I ended up hanging around for a few years, seventeen to be exact, as a sock boarder, making good money for a textile worker, but dying a slow death. A supervisor once told me sock boarding separated the women from the girls, the men from the boys. He wasn’t joking. My chance to get out came when a University of Georgia Evening Classes brochure arrived in the mail. A few months later, I enrolled as a provisional student—the first step on the longest and hardest journey of my life.

Most of my classes were interesting, some were treacherous, a few as boring as a blank wall. Being a wife and mother, as well as a full-time worker, I never had enough time to study. Sometimes I woke in the morning with a textbook opened where I left off when I fell asleep, and a new round spot on the sheets in the color of whatever uncapped highlighter that fell from my hand.

There were comments made by others, often behind my back, with, “She’ll never make it,” being the most popular line. I didn’t listen to them. I kept a poem in my purse called Believe within Your Own True Self by Harold F. Mohn, and sometimes I listened to a local church’s rendition of Squire Parson’s “The Master of the Sea” while driving to and from classes. Just a little encouragement on the bad days, and there were quite a few of those.

During the eighties, UGA required students to take Physical Education courses. I signed up for a class, Body Conditioning, which I interpreted to be aerobic dancing or calisthenics. It was running, not jogging, but running. Each class, weather permitting, we ran through adjacent neighborhoods, with me lagging behind, huffing and puffing, side hurting, and stopping to hug Stop signs. Frequently, people would come out of their houses to watch us. I imagine some of their conversations went like this:

“Look at them chaps go,” said spectator one.

“That one trailing behind look likes she’s about to die,” replied spectator two.

Spectators laughed.

That class didn’t end soon enough for me.

I suffered through three math classes, but made it with prayer and the help of three tutors. The only thing I remember from the most monstrous class of them all, Analytic Geometry and Calculus, was that a ‘D’ stood for Done.

My biggest hurdle came with my first required programming class. The programming logic wasn’t soaking into my brain. I had no tutors, nor did I know anybody who could program anything other than a VCR. After driving home from a particularly frustrating class, I sat in the car and had myself a good pity party. I told God I needed that class to graduate, but I was failing, big time. In tears, I begged, “Please God, I need Your help.” I knew my naysayers would laugh and say, “I told you she couldn’t do it.” Worst of all, I would disappoint my family. How could I tell Kim to go to college when I couldn’t handle it myself?

Pity party done and long story short, the next day I called a woman I knew who worked in the company’s corporate office and told her about my situation. A few days later, a programmer in our IT department helped me understand the logic in the practice program I was struggling to compile. With his help and a lot of prayer, my grades went up, and I passed the final.

Six months later, I quit working in the sock factory, so I could attend day classes and finish my degree, which I completed fifteen months later. I never boarded another pair of socks. My life-changing journey took a little over seven years.

Whatever it is you’re striving for, don’t give up. Got naysayers? Use their negativity like Red Bull to give you the energy to keep going. Run into roadblocks? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you have to work harder than the others, do it! Just don’t ever give up. No matter how long it takes or how hard it is, it will be worth it when you reach your goal.

 

© Dee Hardy | Encouraging the Discouraged, 2015. All rights reserved.

And the phoenix rose from the ashes…

Happy New Year! I am not sad to see 2014 go, no more than I was unhappy to see 2013 disappear. These have been destructive years, of both the inflicted and self-inflicted type, with a few highlights here and there, blessings, or moments of extreme happiness. I woke up on this first day of 2015 with two questions. The first one to God, yes, I’m a believer, and I make no apologies for it. I asked Him, “You see my messed up life—what are You going to do about it?” The second question was for me, the same question, but slightly modified. “You see YOUR messed up life—what are YOU going to do about it?”

Before my husband died, every day was a new beginning, a chance to start over and never, ever give up, no matter the circumstances. It was that attitude that helped me through difficult times, including being married with a young child and disabled mother, working full time in a sock factory while commuting to Athens, sometimes four nights a week to attend night classes at the University of Georgia. In addition, for most of my life, there were people I could take care of:  my mother, helping her with cooking when many teenagers were enjoying being typical teenagers, Dan and Kim—people who needed me, making me feel like I had a purpose. Mama died, Kim grew up, went to college, and moved away, leaving Dan, and me alone; empty nesters, enjoying life as he began his well-deserved retirement. His health deteriorated, and my focus became doing everything I could do to keep him alive and happy. I failed.

After Dan’s death, my purpose in life changed. So used to taking care of others, I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I shoved the grief off to the side, so I could handle the seemingly never-ending cycle of problems. The first four years I managed to keep things together and accomplished a few goals: improved my health by leading a healthier lifestyle, I completed my MBA, which kept my mind busy, and I went on two happy and unforgettable trips to Europe with Kim. Then things started to change.

My Mama used to say, some people would cut your throat and laugh at you for dying to protect themselves. I finally realized there are people who will never respect me or value my presence. In their eyes, I’ll always be second-class no matter what I do or achieve. There are selfish, mean-spirited, condescending jerks who masquerade as decent human beings everywhere, including in workplaces and churches, social media, male and female, all races, and religions. We all deal with them. The trick is not letting these germs and parasites define your self-worth.

I messed up there. Despite being raised by a widow, I didn’t understand that being a widow meant being vulnerable. For the first time I measured myself by other people’s yardsticks. In addition, I foolishly looked for comfort materialistically to help fill the emptiness, which isn’t possible, by the way. I stopped taking care of myself, stopped taking my medications, my weight ballooned again, along with my problems. The attitude that got me through most of my life dissipated, replaced by discouragement and a severely tested faith. I crashed and burned, sinking into unchartered territory, for me, at least, convincing myself there was no hope.

Kim and I attended the Fleetwood Mac concert in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Before they began singing “Gypsy,” Stevie Nicks gave an inspiring speech. Below is an excerpt:

“So, the reason I’m telling you this very long, drawn out story is…if you have a dream and you believe in it and people will always say….no, no, no, you can’t have that, you have to do this or go that way. If you believe in your dream, don’t ever let anybody stand in your way and tell you can’t do it……Just focus and say this is my dream, this is my world, and I’m doing it.”

Her words slapped me in the face. I used to tell people this all the time to encourage them to make changes if they weren’t happy with their circumstances. If I could do it, they could too. Stevie Nicks hit me over the head with my own sermon. I will never forget that moment.

I love the capital of my state: Atlanta. Her symbol is the phoenix; the mythical bird consumed by fire, and then rose from the ashes. Atlanta rose from the ashes after the Civil War. It’s my turn to rise from the ashes. As I start this journey, I pray God will give me the words to encourage other burned out survivors to renew their strength too.

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© Dee Hardy | Encouraging the Discouraged, 2015. All rights reserved.