Miracle in the Desert

Our recent trip to Phoenix included a profound and inspirational encounter that truly blessed me.  It came unexpectedly in the form of a two-hour conversation on the patio at a public golf course.   It was what I like to call a “God Sighting.”   I asked for and received permission to write about it in my blog.

Kim was my stepson David’s girlfriend.  I don’t recall exactly when we first met, but I know I liked her immediately.  She was very young, tall and beautiful; but she had an endearing sweetness and genuineness.  I thought she was a good match for David.  He was a handful, and Kim was adventurous and athletic enough to keep up, and with a mind of her own to hold him in check.  They had their ups and downs, but she was kind and loyal, and generally a good influence on him. Over time, I really grew to love her.

When David died in a snowboarding accident in 2002, Kim was devastated.  In the immediate aftermath, we spent significant time together grieving. I was heartbroken over losing David and all the other aspects of his life that I would miss – his friends, his future wife, his future children, his future life.  Although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, I was also sorry to lose Kim as part of my life.

As fate would have it, Kim married VJ, who was one of David’s good friends.  We kept in touch sporadically over the years and through these brief exchanges I learned Kim and VJ moved to the Phoenix area and had two little girls; that she had struggled mightily with David’s death for years; and that she and VJ had encountered significant issues in their marriage.  Her most recent message to me, however, was upbeat, and conveyed that through hard work on their marriage, and God’s help, they had emerged stronger and more deeply in love.  We also agreed to meet when my husband and I were in Scottsdale for our Spring Training trip.

Thinking about Kim reminded me of the ripple effect of a death, and how so many lives are changed forever.  There are untold people or ways we may never even be aware of.  With David’s death, I have been mindful of various family members struggling in different ways.  And Kim was another victim of his death.   The last time we saw her in person, the year David died, she was a frightened, confused and shattered young woman.  I wasn’t sure what to expect now.  Would it be awkward?  Would she still be broken after all these years? My expectation was that our role in this visit might be chiefly support and comfort.

On our first full day in Scottsdale, she met us alone at the golf course.  As we walked off the course my heart leapt for joy as she rushed toward us with a huge smile.  She was a more mature, but still beautiful, version of the girl I remembered.

 “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (English Standard Version, Psalm 34:18)

 As the three of us sat on the patio, we caught up on the here and now, reminisced about the past, and about David, and we laughed and cried.  It was not at all awkward: rather there was an easy familiarity. She was keenly interested in hearing about our son (David’s half-brother) and about us. Then she told us about her life in the years since David’s death.

What emerged was the story of a strong, courageous and confident woman who had walked through the valley of death and by faith and determination had found healing, transformation and redemption in her life and in the life of her family.  What stuck me most was her fierce love for her two young daughters, who obviously fuel her drive.   Her eyes light up when she talks about her girls.  She spoke in great detail about each of them and their special talents and abilities.  She is a mother who listens to and notices the individual gifts of each child and finds ways to nurture them.

As Kim spoke of her mother, Patricia, I remembered that Kim shared a similarly strong bond with her own mother.  Patricia is now a source of support for Kim with the girls. In fact, Patricia just left with Kim’s oldest daughter on a special grandma-granddaughter trip to Paris. Kim has surrounded herself and her girls with love and support.

Kim has not lost her sweetness and genuineness.  She spoke openly and lovingly about her husband, the trials they have been through, and the life they have built together.  I can only imagine how complicated and difficult it must have been to work through the issues of having a “ghost” in the marriage.  But they fought for their marriage, and through prayer and effort, they have strengthened their bond.

 “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. “ (James 1:5-7)

Kim, VJ and their girls at the baseball game in Phoenix

Kim, VJ and their girls at the baseball game in Phoenix

The day before we left Phoenix, we met up briefly with Kim at the Dodger’s Stadium in Phoenix.  She was at the game with VJ, her two girls and her parents.  After hearing so much about all of them, I was delighted to meet them.  As we hugged good-bye, it was the hug of loved ones.  Although she is not family in the strict sense, we walked away knowing we will always be important in each other’s lives.

I felt witness to two miracles that day – the first being the divine makeover of Kim’s family and the second being the restoration of Kim in ours.   I thought, too, of how appropriate that this took place in Phoenix, named for the mythological creature that rose from the ashes to fly and soar.

 “The ash began to tremble and slowly heave itself upward.  From under the ash there rose up a young Phoenix.  It was small and looked sort of crumpled, but it stretched its neck and lifted it wings and flapped them.  Moment by moment it grew, until it was the same size as the old Phoenix.  Then the Phoenix flew up and away.”   (The legend of the Phoenix)

 I am exceedingly proud of Kim and who she has become.    I am inspired by her example of commitment.  I give praise to God for hearing and answering her prayers.  And I am grateful to have her back in my life.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  (Jeremiah 29:11)

Honoring Losses

“Unresolved loss is cumulative and cumulatively negative.” I was recently struck by these words (from The Grief Recovery Handbook by John James and Russell Friedman).

Right smack in the middle of my current manic phase of retirement, as I was busy throwing myself into the pursuit of new and exciting opportunities for my upcoming retirement years, I experienced a profound and wholly unexpected episode of grieving for past losses.

It started a week ago on Friday, which was my stepson David’s birthday.   He would have been 43 years old, but he was killed in a snowboarding accident in 2002.  I typically don’t make any public mention of him or the circumstances each year on his birthday; rather, my husband, son and I quietly and prayerfully remember him.

David, handsome inside and out, near the ocean that he loved

David, handsome inside and out, near the ocean that he loved

This year, my niece Tamra (David’s cousin), posted a photo on Facebook of David (when he was around 7 or 8) with Tamra and Megan (Tamra’s sister), at their grandparents’ house celebrating his birthday.  Along with the photo was a touching sentiment about David’s birthday and how much he is missed in our family.   This simple act prompted an organic electronic outpouring of remembrances on Facebook, with Megan, Tamra and Kim (David’s girlfriend at the time of his death) my son and I all participating (each of us from a different city) with postings of more photos and memories.  It was a remarkable, deeply comforting and completely unanticipated community experience.

The next day I was scheduled to travel to San Diego by myself for the weekend to visit friends from high school.  I was looking forward to a fun ‘girls’ weekend, but I was still feeling raw from Friday and the long drive gave me time to reflect.  I thought about David and all he meant to me.  I was young (27) when I met my husband, who at the time was a single dad with custody of 14-year-old David (who played adorable match-maker during our courtship).  My subsequent marriage was therefore a package deal, and I became full-time stepmom (at 29) to a headstrong and spirited teenage son.  My relationship with David was one of the most challenging, but ultimately most rewarding, in my life.  With him, I learned to be a mom.  I learned about friendship and love. He could be a harsh critic, but also my most loyal steadfast supporter.   As he grew older, he became a cherished confidante. When my son was born, I wasn’t sure how David would react to a half-brother, but David loved him immediately and fervently. David couldn’t get enough of him and had great plans for the two of them. They would’ve gotten into such wonderful trouble together!

David with his little brother at their grandpa's birthday party

David with his “little bro” at their grandpa’s birthday party

When David died at age 31, he was just coming into his own.   I was looking forward with great anticipation to seeing him settle down, get married, have kids (grandkids!!!!!!!!).   People, trying to be helpful, said things like, “Feel better, he’s in a better place” or “Time heals all wounds” and there’s partial truth in those statements.  My Christian faith reassures me of his eternal life. But the dead don’t grieve; rather, grief belongs to the ones left behind.  And David’s death still hurts. My loss is a future without him.  My son, who is now 20, was 8 when David died.  I’m sad that my son grew up without his big brother – a big brother that would have been his biggest fan and so proud of his accomplishments.  For years after David died, I still looked for him to show up at my son’s sporting events, and when I saw someone that looked like David, my heart would jump and then plummet at the realization that it wasn’t him.  When the phone rang or the front door opened, I had a similar reaction.  At my son’s Induction Day at the Naval Academy, in the midst of intense pride, I felt intense sadness that neither David nor my parents were there.  I’m sad that I don’t have grandkids to help David raise.  He would’ve made an awesome dad.

My Mom, Dad and my Uncle Dick at my wedding in 1988

My Mom, Dad and my Uncle Dick at my wedding in 1988

The closer I got to San Diego, I also became melancholy about my parents.  I was starting to get annoyed at myself for all the drama, but it was rather involuntary and there wasn’t much I could do.   San Diego holds many memories, as it was there I spent my teenage years and where my parents remained until shortly before they both passed away.  For most of my adult life, my parents’ house (later condo) in San Diego was my safe haven – where I would return to visit, to rest, to drop off my son for babysitting.  My parents always gave me the space I needed, no questions asked.  If I showed up and spent four days sleeping upstairs, that was fine with them.  If I asked them to take us to Sea World, the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park (all in the same weekend), they happily complied.  When they both died, I lost my safe haven.

Fortunately, in the midst of my gloom, my visit to San Diego was exactly what I needed.   I am blessed to have close enduring friendships from my high school days that provide me with space to be vulnerable.  First I had brunch with my friend Kelly, whom I met in sixth grade, and who is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know.  The rest of the weekend I spent with my friend Celeste, who has overcome great personal challenges with a grace and aplomb that I have long admired.  She is completely nonjudgmental and I’ve always felt comfortable talking to her about anything.  She opened up her house to me and gave me that safe haven I was missing. Being with friends who literally and figuratively embraced me for the weekend, who gave me room to talk and rest, who know me well enough to both challenge and support me, was life sustaining.

As I left San Diego for the drive home, I reflected again on loss.  I thought about how, as we get older, the losses begin to accumulate.  Throughout our lives we experience broken relationships, job loss, divorce, death, empty nest, and, most recently for me, retirement, which signals the end of a career.  I thought about how important it is to pause to recognize losses, to honor them and the attendant grief.   One of the benefits to me of this blog is that writing helps me to identify and process.  More important is the experience of being truly heard by others.  I realized how important the past three days had been, and how God placed key people and events in my path to help guide and comfort me through some unexpected but necessary grief.

I will never be completely “over” grieving my past losses and I will have new wounds to face.  As I head into retirement, I need to be aware of any grief over leaving my career and that phase of my life. But as last weekend reminded me, when I was slapped in the face with unforeseen and powerful grief, I have less to fear from sorrow and loss when I take the time to honor and recognize it, surrounded with people who know me and care for me.  Sometimes in my quest to charge forward, I need to stop and look backward.  And rest for a spell.  Time does NOT heal all wounds.

The Return of the Cookie

My holiday season was bookended by cookies.  In retrospect I aptly titled my first cookie post “The Fellowship of the Cookie”  (a clever takeoff on “Lord of the Rings”) since my cookie-baking activity then burgeoned into its own trilogy.

After my all-day Cookie-Palooza with my friend John (“The Fellowship of the Cookie”), I had another baking day after my son and unidentified friends decimated the molasses cookies.  Due to popular demand, I spent another afternoon baking replacement molasses cookies, but this time I worked alone and the cookies didn’t come out nearly as tasty the second time.  I could’ve entitled that post (had I written it) “The Two Cookies” to follow my Lord of the Rings theme, and to explore why two batches of the same recipe can come out so maddeningly different.  But, quite frankly, I didn’t find that topic all that stimulating and nothing very funny or thought provoking happened while I was baking by myself.

However, the exciting third and concluding installment of my cookie trilogy came on New Years Day, when my son and his friends gathered for an impromptu cookie-baking party in my kitchen.    I might not have written about this as I’m careful not to embarrass my son or his friends or violate their privacy on social media, but to my great surprise, they actually asked if I would write a post (which of course flattered me no end).  Hence, I invent the cookie trilogy as a means to prolong my cookie baking stories and hereby dub this third installment “The Return of the Cookie”.

The New Years Day cookie gathering was rather fluid.  The day before, my son mentioned in passing that two of his friends, Maryam and Nicole, wanted to come over and bake cookies on New Years Day.  My husband developed a nasty cold on New Year’s Eve, so on New Year’s Day he was locked in the bedroom coughing and sneezing. When my son got up at about noon, I asked him about his plans for the cookie baking get-together at 1:00 and he said he didn’t have any.  I asked if Nicole and Maryam were bringing the ingredients or if we would be supplying them and he didn’t know but guessed they would use ours.  He then suggested that I oversee the baking.

I was pretty darn steamed to have all this sprung on me, right?  Au contraire! I was [secretly] thrilled!!! Because this meant I was free to openly spend the entire afternoon with my son and three of his friends (that I adore) doing an activity that I love (baking, of all things).  I could not have scripted a better day myself, but since they conceived it, they would find the whole baking experience entertaining.  Bravo!

So how did it go?   It was beyond fun.  Maryam and Nicole came over first and we chatted and laughed for a while.  The kids compared notes on their New Years Eve activities. Maryam and I discovered a mutual love of the Sound of Music soundtrack and performed an impressive impromptu duet of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”  Then we started on the cookies.   I laid out my recipes and they chose two – shortbread and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

New Years Day Cookie Party in my kitchen

New Years Day Cookie Party in my kitchen

Their friend Jacob joined, as they were finishing up the shortbread dough.  While the shortbread was in the oven, they started on the oatmeal cookies.  Throughout the baking process, they worked together as a team, talking and laughing and catching up.  The four of them had been in the same high school theatre class.  Jacob was a freshman when the other three were seniors.  Now Jacob’s a high school senior and the other three juniors at different colleges.  I loved being a fly on the wall and listening to their easy banter.   I let them do the actual baking, but I provided supplies and washed dishes and cleaned up and was available for questions and emergency consultations as needed.

The shortbread cookies were magnificent.  They were cooked just right and the buttery flavor superb.  In fact, the kids clearly did a better job than I since I badly overcooked my shortbread two weeks ago.   There were high-fives all around and a shared sense of accomplishment.  I don’t think any of them had done much baking before and it was fun to see the excited look of discovery on their faces.

The four of them worked like a well-oiled machine

The four of them worked like a well-oiled machine

Then the timer went off for the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.  My son had been placed in charge of the beaters, and after creaming the egg, sugar and shortening he’d voiced some concern with the consistency (i.e., lack of creamy-ness).  When the cookies emerged from the oven, they looked odd (fixed in the same hard ball-shape as when dropped onto the cookie sheet).  We each simultaneously tasted a small sample and were collectively relieved and pleased with the taste…warm and sweet and oatmeal-y….. and then KA-BOOM!  We were all slapped with a powerful surge of SALT.  We suddenly and concurrently needed water, and fast. We almost did synchronized gagging and spitting.

During our post-mortem on the oatmeal cookies, we realized that a miscalculation of sugar content had occurred.  Rather than the 1-¼ cups of packed brown sugar the recipe called for, only ¼ cup was added.  (I personally blame this on my mother-in-law’s handwriting on the recipe card.)

In any event, given the level of brainpower and applied education assembled in my kitchen, it’s not surprising that a clever fix was quickly identified.  I believe it was Maryam who proposed that, rather than a taste problem, we simply had a branding issue on our hands.  After some discussion, and great deal of laughter, it was agreed that we had not made bad-tasting oatmeal cookies; rather, we had produced awesome oatmeal pretzel balls.  Pretzel balls that taste really good with beer.  With that, the entire endeavor was declared a huge success and the kids each took home a sample of the shortbread cookies.  Unfortunately, re-branding notwithstanding, the oatmeal pretzel balls were left behind.

Since my son was leaving the next day to head back to college, the good-byes were heartfelt and poignant as the kids spoke wistfully of not seeing each other again until next summer.  But before they took leave, they decided to make cookie baking at our house a New Years tradition.   Looks like I’ve added two new traditions to my holidays and they both involve cookies and good friends.  And I couldn’t be happier.  Here’s hoping that next year we indeed have “The Return of the Cookie!”

The Fellowship of the Cookie

Among the things I miss most about my former work life are a few really good friends.  After working closely with some of them for over 25 years, I find myself yearning for that day to day contact, sharing the up’s and down’s of each other’s lives, and working on projects together.   When I retired, I had no doubt that I would stay in touch with my closest friends; however, I underestimated the loss of that daily contact.  It takes effort to set up lunch dates and even phone calls when no longer coworkers.  In my ideal fantasy world, I would have my own office where I would see my pals at the beginning of each day over coffee and at the end of the day to share our stories.   Sometimes we’d also have lunch.  (The time in between I don’t really want to do any work; hence, this is my fantasy world.)

Which is why last Sunday I was in heaven.   I decided to invite my former work group to my house for a holiday multi-tasking party.  I reckoned since I’m not working, I’d decorate my house early and we could bake, wrap and address cards together.   I remember being under such stress this time of year, with much to do, and my idea was to provide a festive environment where we could complete tasks together.   As it happened, because it is such a busy season, only my good friend John could join me.

The backlog of cookies that formed with just one oven!

The backlog of cookies that formed with just one oven!

But, oh, did we have fun!  John and I baked cookies together.  For SIX hours.  We planned our recipes during the course of the week and coordinated our ingredients.  On Sunday morning, we plotted our cookie strategy and then made adjustments to our project plan (oops, we forgot to take the 14 sticks of butter out of the fridge to soften) and more adjustments (oops, we hadn’t read the part about chilling the dough for several hours).  We helped each other by holding bowls and spatulas and measuring ingredients.   And we made SIX recipes together.  We talked and we laughed and we invented inside jokes about our baking adventure (“those damn pecan balls!”).   During the course of the following week, we texted gags to each other about our cookies.   Very little of our conversation was about work.

After six hours of baking, displaying the fruits of our Cookie-Palooza

After six hours of baking, displaying the fruits of our Cookie-Palooza

In some ways it was just like the old days working together on a joint project.  But in other ways, it is a delightful new relationship that transcends our work history.  By carving out a block of time for our friendship (my husband watched football in the other room while we worked and John’s partner was visiting his mother) we underscored its importance in our changed circumstances.  We did more than bake cookies together.  We created new memories and a new tradition for our friendship.