Wednesday, January 16, 2019

#22--Barbie Doll & Missing Body Parts

Birch Bay Drive, Birch Bay WA, after Fall storm, 2018
After breast cancer and mangled attempts at reconstruction, I was looking a bit like Birch Bay Drive (where I used to live) after a vicious storm took the road out. My friend Judy was a buoy during the storm, keeping my head above water. But she wasn't a lot of help when the tide went out and it was time to face the damage. No one was. And I wasn't about to take my clothes off just to show folks exactly what we're dealing with here.

Here's the truth, and trust me. I am throw-up-to-look-at ugly. My body is nothing Michelangelo would ever sculpt, or DaVinci paint. Lying through my teeth in front of a mirror with daily "affirmations" contrary to reality is less than helpful, a useless escape into some fantasy land I refuse to enter. Truth? I don't recognize the mangled body I've been left, all torn apart, disconnecting me from myself. What was this stuff from my neck down? Where did I go? Judy and all my other friends had no idea how to help me. But one of my doctors assured me many women feel exactly like this.

Look at it this way, she told me. As we age, time slowly allows us to adjust to a different body. One gray hair at a time, one more wrinkle. A pain in the hip. A kink in the knee. But when we undergo radical removal of body parts, our minds can't process the all-at-once shock. It's a defense mechanism in order to function in the horror. "It takes women, on average, a year or more to begin feeling connected to themselves. "Give yourself time," she said. "It'll happen."

And so I accepted the ugliness and my disconnect.

The other day at breakfast in Skagway, AK, Ken-with-the-blue-coat started talking about when--once upon a time, a long time ago--he was in charge of showing the Red Onion strippers what he was learning at a terrorist class over at the firehall. I butted in and tut-tutted, "My-my-my, but aren't you the regular little Ken doll!"

Doug leaned over and whispered something about a Barbie doll, and my friend Judy, across the table, gave me a look and burst out laughing. "Yea, Brenda a Barbie doll, all right! Barbie with missing body parts, you mean!"

The image of a Barbie with her breasts cut off struck me so funny I guffawed. That set Judy off. Egged on, I cracked up, the guys beside us clueless as to what was so freaking hilarious. "Bet you never thought you'd see the day," wheezed Judy, "when you'd laugh about this!"

"No I did not! Ha-ha," I laughed, giving her a high five. Another high-five.

And just like that, I found my way through the rubble to the other side. My head connected to my body.

Devastation yes, but with friends, finally, a way through the rubble.

Judy and Brenda

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

#21 - The Devil and Divine

Brenda Wilbee and her van, 1985
A FRIEND ASKED on Facebook if any of us had ever experienced God's intervention. I wrote back, sure, all the time. Here is just one of those times.

I used to live in San Jose, CA, and so was familiar with the demonic elements of Highway 9 that wound through the mountain to the town of Felton and Mt. Hermon Christian Writers Conference. In 1978, I moved away from CA--but in the mid-80s drove down from Seattle to the conference using the main drag, Highway 17. Mid-conference, I was asked to take an editor back to the San Jose airport and on my return decided to take Highway 9. I'd missed the beauty of this old road with its majestic dense woods.

I was driving a V-dub pop top camper van at the time and was coming up around a curve to the summit, cliff to my right, and needed to shift gears. My clutch gave out. Having no control over my car, I slid back, off the road toward the cliff. Before I could react, my van stopped. Gingerly I climbed down from the driver's seat and went around to look. All that stopped me from plunging backwards down a steep cliff was one small mossy log. The only log. We didn't have words back then like "shock and awe." But that was me. Shocked. Awed.

Highway 9 CA
I did know I couldn't stand on the roadside, or get back into the van, or walk the nine miles downhill in my pretty pink heels. All three were far too dangerous. I'd not yet started to panic or even had time to pray when a humongous red pickup truck came roaring up from behind, muffler rattling, passed by, and then pulled over to the side. A red-neck vehicle. Rusty, dinged bumpers, guns on a rack in the cab. A big burly man with red beard and bandana on his brow got out.  Dear God in heaven...

I stood numbly while he gave me a nod and took a long, hard look at my right back tire snugged up to the log and then down the cliff to probable death. He gave me a look of surprise. "Someone's watching out for you. And it seems God sent me and my wife to get you safely away. This is a dangerous stretch. Eight women disappeared off this road last week alone."

My knees started to wobble.

"We weren't going to come this way, but something made us change our mind. Get your stuff, climb into the cab with my wife. We'll take you down to Felton and I'll help you find a tow truck."

I hopped in and met another red-neck angel, sent to deliver me from evil. They were as good as their word, got me safely to Felton and arranged for a tow. We parted teary-eyed, all three of us grateful for divine mercies in the dark shadow of evil.

So, yes, I have known God's intervention. Not always, but enough.

Monday, September 17, 2018

#20 - Living Stone

Roy Wilbee standing beside his stone wall
 Let yourselves be built, as living stone, into a spiritual temple.

I WAS NINE when my parents moved to Meteor Ranch, a Christian Camp and Conference Center in Northern California. One of the things Dad did while we were there was to build a fifty-foot rock wall at the end of the swimming pool, and it was a lovely hot summer day when he made the stone plaque to be set into it. My two sisters and I watched as he first tried one thing and then another to create the letters. He finally used medical rubber tubing.

BRENDA WILBEE, 9 years old, Meteor Ranch 1962
“Let yourselves be built, as living stones, into a spiritual temple.”

The plaque was duly installed and remained for more than fifty years after our departure.

At Dad’s death forty-one years later, in 2003, I used photography of that wall for his funeral brochure; something about the wall and plaque has always comforted me, and challenged me. How does one become a spiritual temple?

I didn't realize at the time my mother was doing exactly this. The woman who ran the ranch took in welfare cases as cash flow and didn't trouble herself with their care. I learned for the first time the shadow of evil; how it hid in the light and presented a persona of oozing holiness. She abused and misused the vulnerable, she robbed the elderly, she manipulated those fleeing addiction. She cheated them all, toyed with them all, skewered them all to their weakest points. She was a force of her own. No one stood up to her. I developed a healthy fear.

I watched her deny twelve-year-old Richie needed shoes; my father had to cut the toes out of tennies to save him foot pain. She stole his birthday money. She made him grow petunias in the roots of a tree and punished him when they wilted and died. She kept him at endless chores, and Saturday nights he sometimes fell asleep buffing the dining room floor for Sunday church. I can still hear the hateful shrill of her screaming only a few nights after our arrival, startling me awake and up out of bed with thudding heart and goosebumps like gravel on my skin. She had him outdoors in the moonlight, bare chested and skinny, hanging up his bedsheets while taking swings at him and brow-beating him with a tongue so sharp it made me bleed in my soul. I hid under my covers. His crime? He'd wet the bed. These things I witnessed and didn't understand. Let yourselves be built, as living stone, into a spiritual temple. A month into our stay, she came after my sisters and me.

DIning Hall Meteor Ranch, 50 years later
Through those double doors she flew 50 years ago
and the tableware flew
Linda, Tresa, and I had just set the tables for the summer's first campers when in she stormed through the kitchen's swinging doors, sails unfurled and raging like a wind out of nowhere, sweeping the tables clean, first one arm and then another, tableware and cups flying. The metallic clattering, the skittering, the dull thud of plastic bouncing, the purple-faced screaming, the shock of it all put my sisters and I into paralysis. Let yourselves be built, as living stone, into a spiritual temple. Our crime? We hadn't dusted the tables. No one told us to. My mother charged in, double doors swinging. That day on the ranch the battle line between good and evil was drawn.

I spent the remaining seven months watching my mother build herself, like stone, into a spiritual temple of protection--though I didn't understand it at the time and not until now. But her love for the afflicted never withered in the face of cruelty. She was a fortress for each man, boy, and troubled woman on the ranch. She lent a listening ear, offered a kind word, gave out special favors. When we didn't feel like going out of our way, she made us embrace the sad and lonely. She sent us on evening walks with blind Uncle Earl, joined us in playing afternoon dominoes with him, using his set of olive wood dominoes from Jerusalem with their shiny brass dots and interlocking pieces. She played tricks on Jack to make him laugh. She made friends with the women. She gave Richie a nickel for every spelling word he got right.  Let yourselves be built, as living stone, into a spiritual temple. 

Roy Wilbee's stone wall and plaque
Dad's Wall 2012
A few years ago I went down to the ranch and, with my son's help, brought Dad’s plaque home. I asked Mum if she'd like to have it.

"Where did you get that?"

"Meteor Ranch."

"Meteor Ranch?” she asked, agitated. “I don’t remember this. Did we live there?”

"Yes, California."

Mum was fading into dementia.  She could hardly see or hear as it was. She shuffled around the house constantly looking for things. A far cry from the woman who’d loved the unloved: the young boys, the old men, the recovering alcoholics.

"Yes, do you remember Richie? You were going to adopt him." I thought this would jar her memory, but she shook her head in frustration. "Dad made this plaque for the stone wall."

“You hauled it all the way up here?”

I don’t know if she remembers dad’s work or not. From time to time, perhaps. And while I'd known it could be a gamble, I was still disappointed the plaque wasn't quite the gift I’d hoped. But reading the words again and remembering what Mum couldn't of the day Dad had created each letter--my sisters and I watching, wondering what they would spell--I finally understood. My mother was a spiritual temple, not only at the ranch but throughout her life, befriending the lost and loving those very few would. Love as solid as stone.

My gift to her suddenly became hers to me. An answer to metaphor I finally understand.

Prayer: Thank you for the living example of my mother’s love for those we tend to ignore. May we all be built, as living stone, into a spiritual temple.

Jack and Brenda riding bareback on Lucky, 1962
Jack Kimble and me with Lucky, 1962
Mum wrote to Jack, a recovering alcoholic, for years.
He called me Brinder. I loved it.

Roy Wilbee's stone wall, 1962

Sunday, January 1, 2017

#19 - Prolog for Possible New Book: Living With Ravens

Painting of Elijah at River Cherith
Once God sent Elijah into hiding at Creek Cherith, a barren and lonely place. "You will drink from the brook," He said. "And I have ordered the ravens to feed you." Sometimes life is lived in the hard places. And waiting on ravens is the last thing we want. Wait. Is it?
I received your biopsy results. I’ve scheduled an appointment for you to come in and talk with me on Monday.”

Most of us can recall a time in our lives when bad news hits like a knock-out punch to the gut, a stunning blow that floods our senses with all the force of an imploding dam, frigid backwater coming at us in a swift noisy din and leaving us unable to breathe, flailing for the surface—wherever the surface might be. I sputtered, “I have cancer.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, you have DCIS.”

I want to point out right away this isn’t a book for the fearless and faithful—like my friend Billi Clem, who met her DCIS breast cancer with gratitude, wonder, and a delightful sense of humor. I’m not like her, more’s the pity, but there are a lot of women who are. They face devastating loss with fortitude. I envy them, but I am not one of them. This book isn’t for them.

It’s for people like me. People who are afraid, who find faith difficult. People who seem to endure one thing after another until it becomes difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel. You see, cancer isn’t my first crisis. Nor is dysautonomia my friend Valerie’s, or macular degeneration Barbara’s. With each new trauma or disappointment, people like us stumble about in familiar darkness of heartache and want, unable to navigate our way to safety while everyone else seems to lead normal lives.

Picture of Old Testament Job

Scott Peck had it right when he opened his book The Road Less Traveled with “Life is difficult.” Yet for some, life seems to be more difficult than for others. And here’s the bad news. There are no snappy answers. This is the whole point of Job in the Old Testament, is it not? He’s the most victimized man in the Bible, yet despite his anguished beseeching, his weeping and wailing and wearing of sackcloth and ashes, God did not answer his questions. His friends sure did—citing bumper sticker theology and Facebook simplicities, dishing up isolated scripture that had nothing to do with the whole. A torment unto itself, make no mistake. Until finally God did step in. Not to comfort Job or answer his questions—but to rail at his friends for their audacity and smugness. Which begs the question then, is there hope for the troubled?

Prophet ElijahRemember Elijah? He too was from the Old Testament. He’s the chap God assigned to take on Queen Jezebel and her wicked god Baal, a god who demanded the sacrifice of babies and whose rituals involved eating feces. In a maelstrom of fire, Elijah burned down Baal’s altar; and Jezebel, in a white-hot fury, came at him with all the resources of her arsenal and army. A scary time for Elijah—much like cancer for us, and financial ruin, kids on drugs, betrayal, chronic pain, debilitating disease, divorce.

Elijah ran pell-mell for the desert where God hid him amongst the stony outcroppings of Cherith Creek. There he was, on the “Most Wanted” list, his life in peril, and all he’s got is a crummy little creek in a beastly hot desert. Oh, yes, the ravens. Foul, glossy black things they are, eating nothing all day but road kill. Yet in Elijah’s extreme deprivation and isolation, fear pummeling his gut, the ravens became God’s saving grace. They brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening. Who would have thought that carrion-eating birds would be a man’s only hope of survival? It’s almost offensive. At times it feels offensive. But then, sometimes that’s what grace looks like.

This is the good news. In the tight spots, God sends us grace by way ravens. I know, I know, not exactly what we want. Filthy birds with decay in their beaks. We want “cured,” “livable wages,” “love.” We all have our list. We all want that window when the door slams shut, boxing us in with no way out. And so it’s easy to dismiss the ravens—not even see them—these creative gifts of grace in the chaos of our fear and anxiety and grief. And thus we cover ourselves in sackcloth and ashes as did Job, and we cry along with him, “Oh, that I was never born!”

My mother used to tell me I reminded her of a 1950’s baby toy, the plastic happy clowns with roly-poly bottoms that babies batted at. Easy to knock over—but, with beans in their bums, the clowns bounced right back up. Bat, bob, bounce. Up and down, bobbling around. Oh such fun! But not in real life. Such treatment for real can depress the most spirited of souls. “Life keeps taking a whack at you,” my mother would say, “but you always bounce back.” I used to ask, “But what happens if I can’t bounce anymore? It’s getting harder and harder.” I was in my fifties when I began asking, “What if I break?”

“You won’t break,” she’d say.

But I did break, and I have broken. Cancer broke me.

Living With Ravens: An Odyssey of Fear, Faith, and Grace is my story—the latest episode, at least, in a history of sometimes bitter disappointment. You see, my whole life can be viewed as a struggle between fear and faith—and grace. And so I write for people who can’t be made whole anymore by biblical talking points, bumper sticker theologies, or Facebook triteness. Because this I know, despite our pain, confusion, and grief, despite our illness and in His silence, He nonetheless sends us the ravens when life puts us again in isolation at the lonely, barren shoreline of Elijah’s Cherith.

One day in the parking lot of my son’s workplace, I was again in tears. Cancer’s complications were taking their toll and each visit to the plethora of doctors only served to deepen my despair. Like Job, I was on my knees, wailing, weeping, beating my chest, dressed in sackcloth and ashes. Like Elijah, I was back at Cherith and stuck there—isolated in the beastly heat and dribbling creek of the desert. It can be a nasty business for the beleaguered. How was I to go on? I looked up and saw love and a kind of anguish in my son’s eyes.

“All I want right now,” he said to me, “is to enjoy the day with my mother.”

There it was, a raven in the desolation; divine grace in the wilderness. Suddenly all I wanted was to spend a day with my son. We went out to Marymoore Park where we biked through the trees; we kayaked, too, along the riverbank where dragonflies zip-darted over the water’s surface.

You see, God will find a way to penetrate the evils of this world to give us hope. In my case, to whittle away at the false doctrines of health and wealth to a greater understanding of God’s infinite capacity to inspire awe. The riverbank, the dragonflies. A son who loved me. And in the end, is this not what God did for Job? Inspire awe? No answers to Job's brow-beating questions. No insight into the evils that befall. Just questions of His own. “Who set the stars?” he asked Job. “Who carved the mountains? Who put the leviathan in the sea? Who turns the earth in its seasons and sets the birds on their course?”

Brenda in a 4x6 Jeep
Last summer and in between reconstructive surgeries, suffering chronic pain and uncomfortable disfigurement, friends and I went on an exploring mission in the Canadian Yukon for our boss, taking his posh, brand new ATVs up to Paddy’s Peak. We bounced over waist-high boulders, crisscrossed glacial creeks, wound our way up an old stream bed, climbed steeply to the alpine and a carpet of wild flowers I’d never seen before. Everyone scrambled out, headed for the glacial lake our boss intended to make as a stopping point for new tours out of Skagway, AK. Able only to scrabble the glacial rock with difficulty, I carefully followed. When I finally caught up, Bill hollered over to me, “Well? What do you think?”

Paddy's Peak, YK
I stood fully and slowly turned, taking in the 360° view. I couldn’t speak for the tears in my eyes.

“Who made this place?” God asked in my silence. “Who sheered the cliff face, dropping it 6,000’ to Lake Bennett below? Who cradled the glacier, who empties its icy lagoon? Who guides the feet of the mountain goats and who feeds the artic squirrels? Who sets the breeze to rest the birds’ wings?”

In that moment, overcome by all that God was, all that He created, all that He gives us, all I wanted to do was to bow before God, as did Job. “I did not know my soul could still sing,” I simply told Bill—and turned a corner in my soul.

My premise is that we ignore ravens at our peril. But if we can learn to recognize them, appreciate them for what and who they are, we can then know we’re not forgotten or abandoned on the stony outcrop of our pain. The same God who sends us ravens in our darkest hours is the same God who sets the universe.

He loves us.

And nothing else matters.
Paddy's Peak, YK
Not far from the glacier lake, looking down from Paddy's Peak onto Lake Bennett below.
from brenda: if this would be a book you'd find helpful, please let me know.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

#18 - Thanksgiving 2016

This Thanksgiving Day of 2016, I woke to the wind and rain of the Pacific Northwest, thinking about what I am most thankful for this year. I came up with the retro date of August 17, 1969, the day I died and came back. The event came to mind, no doubt, because I'm thinking of writing my own story, and my life is anchored by this watershed moment. It hasn't mattered which way my life has spun out of control in the past, it's always come back round to this. You see, once you meet God--a divinity our limitation of language cannot articulate--you find that life looks and feels differently. If you're interested in reading my author's statement, here it is. I invite feedback.

“A watershed moment. Changed my life.” People say this when something alters their life trajectory and sets them on a new course altogether. Sometimes it’s a wonderful thing. Like for Anne (with an e), when she finds a home at Green Gables. Sometimes it’s a crucible. Like Pip in the Kent marshes, accosted by an escaped convict. Life ruptures with a jerk and a tear, launching us elsewhere. Sometimes watershed moments come more than once in a life time. Sometimes twice, sometimes three times. But for some of us, they come too often and life devolves into a tumultuous thing—wild and undefined, twisting and turning, nothing stable, nothing to count on, nothing to stem the dizziness as we’re tossed off metaphorical cliffs with a roar and a prayer, slammed into corners with no way out. My mother often told me, “You remind me of those fashioned baby clowns with fat round bottoms. Babies bat at them and they tip, but the ballast bounces them right back up. You have such bad luck. But no matter what life throws at you,” she’d say, “you always find your feet.”

I was in my mid-thirties when I started to ask, “But what if I break and my ballast scatters?”

“You won’t."

But I have broken and I did break.

This book is my story, for other broken women. Women who’ve known too many watershed moments and who find landing on their feet painfully problematic. It’s for women who can no longer be made whole by biblical talking points, bumper sticker theologies, or Facebook triteness.

My story is for women who stand in the food bank lines, who come trembling from behind their doctor’s door, who lie beaten at the feet of someone who claims to love them, who endure unspeakable horrors; women kicked in the teeth and around the block, clobbered by greed, oppressed by power, abused by the unrelenting self-interest of others. It’s for those who know life can become meaningless and disappointing and full of pain. My story is for these women because this I know: Despite our pain, confusion, and grief, God sends us the ravens when we find ourselves in isolation at the lonely, barren shoreline of Elijah’s creek, Cherith. He finds ways to penetrate the evils of this world to give us hope and, in my case, to whittle away at the false doctrines of health and wealth to a greater understanding of God’s infinite capacity to inspire awe.

I was once shared some elements of my story to a friend. She interrupted me. “And you still believe in God?”

I do. Because my story begins the day I died. I was seventeen years old. And once you meet God, it doesn't matter what assails. Life always comes back to Him.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

#17: Hard Times Can Teach the Joy of Giving

Taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.  —Hebrews 13:8 (RSV)

When my children were younger, I often worried about the permanent effects our near-poverty might have on them. My daughter Heather remembers being forced to sit alone in a classroom because she didn't have enough money to buy pizza with her classmates. I remember her putting the labels off her friend's cast-off Keds and gluing them onto the heels of her cheap imitations. She also remembers missing social events because my illness or work prevented my driving her to them. All I could do was pray for God's blessing on my children, and that He would keep all of us from bitterness.

This past Mother's Day, I began to see how God was answering my prayer. The first evidence was a lovely bouquet from Heather, who was away at college. It spoke to me of her love and understanding. The other, oddly, was a bill that arrived the same day. It was Heather's monthly reminder from an international charity. How can she afford to do this, I wondered, when she needs every penny she earns for school?

It was then I realized that her painful memories had not been a burden but a blessing. Hard times had taught my daughter the joy of giving to someone less fortunate than herself. I forwarded her bill, grateful that my children were turning out fine. Exceptional, in fact. And I breathed a prayer of gratitude.

Dear God, thank You for all of the abundance You bring when we trust You to turn our very little into so very much.

Originally published May, Saturday 18, 1996, by Guidepost's Devotionals

#16: Twelve Baskets

Originally published by World Vision Today in their Nov/Dec 1986 issue. Illustration by Richard Jesse Watson.

Illustration of a little boy holding bags of bread, by Richard Jesse Watson
WHEN MY EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD SON, Blake, applied for World Vision's 30 Hour Famine study tour to Kenya, I was not surprised. Blake and his older sister and brother had always been concerned about world hunger, and they've sponsored children over the years through various childcare agencies. What did surprise me was the question I was repeatedly asked when he was chosen for the tour: "Why is your son so compassionate?" The first time I was asked, I blurted out: "Perhaps because he knows what it means to be hungry."

When my three children were growing up, we lived off food banks. As the youngest, Blake often waited in line with me, wondering what we might get. Sometimes we were disappointed. "People weren't very helpful this week, were they, Mum?" he'd say. Other times, "Wow, Mum, ravioli!" However, we were always given as much bread as we wanted. It was Blake's job to carry it, and he would trundle up to the car beside me clutching that bread.

Our Christmases were also of charity. The year Blake turned five, we were inundated from all sides: the food bank, the Salvation Army, a friend's church, a fourth grade class, even Safeway. The mounting presents under the tree marked "Boy, 7," Girl, 10," "Boy, 5," and "Mother," overwhelmed my children. Blake's big brother Phil--"Boy, 7"--sat on the sofa and sighed in bewildered dismay. "These people wasted their money. This is too much."

Charity was a familiar thing, and Blake and Phil accepted it as a matter of course. But when they entered school it didn't take long to figure out what their older sister, Heather, painfully understood about living in an affluent society. They stood in the food bank lines and took what they got, while other families simply shopped at the grocery store. They wore mismatched clothing, while their friends modeled Nordstrom's fashions. The constant disparity marked them. Would they grow up bitter? Become cynical? Would they make money their god, striving after material security in order to compensate?

The generosity of strangers held the greater impact. If the world was a harsh place, it was also a good place, and this was not lost on my children. The many kindnesses shown them over the years bridged their schizophrenic worlds of want and abundance. Blake may be compassionate because he knows what it means to be hungry. The fuller truth is that he's compassionate because he's had his hunger met.

The story of Jesus feeding the hungry multitudes with nothing more than a child's small lunch comforts me. Like that child, I  trusted God to take my little and somehow make it enough. What I couldn't figure out was the remaining abundance. Twelve baskets left over? What would that even look like?

The answer lies in Blake's own words, submitted in his application essay. "I want to return the favor now that I'm in a position to help." Reading that, I suddenly recognized my abundance. Blake (and his brother and sister) are my twelve baskets leftover. And the little boy who carted home free bread and ravioli has embraced a bigger task: World hunger. Once a grateful child, he became a compassionate man.

Today, 32 years later, my children still feed the hungry in  more ways than one. One of the most touching acts of kindness I have ever witnessed is of Blake squatting beside beggars in Bejing, rolling yen into their tins and speaking to them while I watched broken souls become human in the light of Blake's compassion. His big brother, Phil, has adopted a little Chinese girl with brittle bone disease.  His big sister Heather has taken in a little girl from Haiti, orphaned by the devastating earthquake of 2010. Compassion is the hallmark of all three.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

#15: Rinse & Repeat--Pray Again

Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you.
--Hebrews 13:8 (RSV)

I've been doing a lot of worrying these days--about my career, about a possible move to Canada, about finances. Each morning I pray for a calm spirit and a trust in God that doesn't waver. I list my blessings like the old hymn tells us:

Count your blessings,
Name them one by one,
Count your many blessings,
See what God has done. . .

But the next thing you know, I'm fretting. I start to list my blessings one more time, but again the worry rises. Why can't I pray and trust God once and for all? I wonder. Why do I have to keep working at it?

"Repeat if necessary." There's the answer, I thought. Shampooing isn't a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And neither is prayer.

As I dried my hair, I thanked God for His message from a shampoo bottle, and I began to pray again: "Here are my worries... And here are the blessings I thank you for: my three teenagers, my work, my family and friends..."

Dear God, it's comforting to know that prayer is "repeat if necessary," and that I can come to you daily, hourly, whenever I need to.

Originally published by Guideposts Devotionals on Thursday, April 18, 1996

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

#14: Learning To Give Appropriately: My Panda Bear

Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. --II Corinthians 9:7 (RSV)

1950's Vintage Panda
Could well have been mine.
Panda was my favorite toy when I was five. That Christmas, the fire department collected old toys for poor children. Even though Panda begged me not to give him up, the voice of my Sunday School teacher quietly argued, We never give God what we don't need. We give Him what we love the most.

My hurt worsened as I rode with my mother to City Hall, clutching dear Panda to my chest. “Go ahead,” said a fireman. “Lay your nice little bear right here.” Numb with grief, I laid Panda on top of a rusty truck. A lady with an orange hat dumped a stack of boys' toys on top of Panda, and I rode home heartbroken. But I didn't cry, then or for years; that would have meant I was selfish, and I didn't want to be selfish.

Ten years later I created a wonderful doll from my mother's scrap bag, with a wardrobe to rival Queen Elizabeth's. I took McCall (I'd created her from a McCall's magazine pattern) with me that summer to my grandfather's beach house. I'm not sure when I took it into my head to give her away, or why, but by the time we reached the cabin I knew I would. And when we found the Pattersons, missionaries home on furlough, also at the beach, I knew to whom I would give McCall--the youngest of the five Patterson girls.

“Are you sure you want to give away your doll?” my mother asked. This time I didn't hear my Sunday School teacher. I heard my own heart, saw the little girl and nodded yes. At fifteen, I'd learned what my Sunday School teacher didn't understand: God didn't require me to give away my heart, just to give from my heart. I had made up my mind for myself, and so I could give gladly and freely.

Sometimes I still grieve over Panda. But McCall? I remember her only with joy. She was given from a cheerful heart, freely and without guilt, so there's no room for regret.

Dear God, help me to know my own heart and mind so that I can give appropriate
gifts that bring everyone joy and none of us pain.

Originally published by Guidepost's Daily Devotionals June, Thursday 22, 1995

Friday, October 28, 2016

#13: Letter to My Granddaughter: The Night Heather Nearly Died

Dear Granddaughter,

The last time we talked, you told me that sometimes you ask your head if you believe in God—then answer yourself “no.” Sometimes you ask and you tell yourself “yes.” You try to see how you feel about each answer. I told you I’d have to tell you some of my stories about miracles and angels. 

But first, I’d like to start by telling you this is a good question to ask, and I remember doing this a lot when I was your age, and many times while growing up. “Head,” I’d say to myself, “Do you believe in God? Do you really believe in God?” And then I’d say “no,” just to see what that felt like. What is it like to not believe in God? I remember even threatening God. 

I was very skinny when I was eleven, and our soccer shorts were so baggy that my scrawny legs looked like toothpicks sticking out the bottom of my big, blue shorts. Worse, the shorts were so enormous that if I moved wrong my underwear showed. The other mothers “pegged” these ridiculous shorts to make them tighter, so my friends’ privates weren’t exposed. My mother wouldn’t. Which left me the only girl with “see-it-all” shorts and feeling embarrassed by my oh-so-skinny legs. Every other afternoon at school we had to play soccer. My friends and I changed in the bathroom stalls. How I hated sticking my skinny legs through the elastic waistband and pulling up those huge, hated shorts. Each time I begged God to make my legs fat. I knew He could do it. I had no doubt. And this was going to be a great miracle, no less than Jesus healing a leper or making a lame man walk. So I’d pull up my shorts and look down. Skinny as ever.

Day after day I begged. Day after day my legs stayed skinny. I had to leave the bathroom ashamed of myself, looking like a stick girl in balloon shorts. I wished I could die. One day I got desperate. “If you don’t make my legs fat!” I told God, “then I won’t believe in you anymore!” Trouble was, I knew that if I threatened God, it meant I believed in Him. You don’t threaten someone not there, do you?

This is when I slowly began to learn that believing in God—or not—isn’t so simple as asking the question in my head. It’s a question you have to ask your heart. Where you feel things, not think things. 

I want to tell you how I first came to feel God, not just think about Him. I was six-and-a-half years old, younger than you. The month was December, many years ago. I actually have many stories I can tell, and will if you’re interested, but this one I’ll call “The Night Heather Nearly Died.” First, though, we have to start the day she was born. It was December, remember, and it was cold. I woke up in the dark, before sunup. My father had just ruffled my hair and was standing in the starlight coming through the window. “You wanted me to wake you…” 

I sat up, sleepy but excited.

“You’re going to the hospital with Mummy?” I asked. 

 “Yes. Auntie Grace and Joan are here.” 

Auntie Grace was my mother’s aunt. She liked to tell us stories from Scotland, where she was born, and my sisters and I—Linda, Brenda, and Tresa, me in the middle—liked to her speak in the old Scottish brogue, especially when she recited Bobby Burns, my second favorite poet, or Robert Louis Stevenson, my favorite. Joan was our boarder. She taught Grade Two at Viscount Elementary two miles from our house and she lived with us. It was her rent money that bought our eggs and eventually a piano.

I said, “It’ll be a girl.”

“We’ll see.”

He tucked me back into my cozy, warm covers, Tinsy Winsy and Laura Lee (my sock monkey and baby doll) tucked in too; and I drifted back to sleep. I didn’t know as I fell into sleep that my whole life was about to change. Not in big ways. No, I’d still go to my same school, I’d still have my same friends. But my life was about to change in such small ways I wouldn’t notice for a long time. You see, Heather (this was her name) was born to die. She lived only three-and-a-half years, a little gift from heaven, but she brought with her, for me to see, miracles. And these miracles, each time they happened, made my heart grow more and more aware of God—to the point that even when He didn’t do something I wanted, like give me fat legs, I still believed in Him. I couldn’t help it.

Heather was born with an enormous hole in her heart—a pretty complicated and important part of your body to be so damaged. I will give you a quick lesson to help you understand. The heart is a crazy maze, but it’s divided into two basic halves with a wall between. The halves are called ventricles. One ventricle has blood without oxygen; the other with. Half our heart, then, is full of used-up blood, we’ll call it blue blood, and not much use. The other is red, full of oxygen, and from this ventricle it gets pumped, thumpity-thump, to our ears and toes and everywhere in between. Heather was born with such a big hole between these two ventricles that she hardly had a wall at all. So what happens where there is no wall between the two pieces? The blue and red blood gets all sloshed together and watered down. No one can survive very long like this because we all have to have oxygen, and we have to have lots of it. Think about when you run. The longer you run and the faster you run your heart begins to beat harder and faster, too, right? And then you start breathing fast. Pretty soon you’re panting. Then you’re gasping, sucking in the air. Why? Because your heart needs to get oxygen quickly to your muscles so you can keep running. For Heather, life became all about getting enough oxygen. 

So many miracles happened right there in the hospital, right there at the start of her short life, and many more along the way. Being only six and stuck at home, I never saw them. Just heard of them. But no one had to tell me they were miracles; this was obvious. Here’s the first. My mother and father, your great-grandparents, were getting her dressed to bring her home. They had no idea she was so sick. And apparently she looked just like me and I was anxious to see her. My Uncle Stan was there too. He was learning to be a doctor and had come by my mother’s hospital room to say goodbye, and probably make fun of my father for now having four girls. No boys. I was actually pretty happy about that. The only boys I knew were at school and they were unpleasant. All of a sudden Heather turned blue. Uncle Stan, being an almost-doctor, saved her life. So this was the first miracle: my uncle being there, my uncle knowing exactly what to do. But it was also bad news. This is when they figured out her heart was not properly formed. My mother came home crying. And I didn’t get to see Heather. Not for a long time. 

She was ten days old when she had her first heart surgery. Dr. Shaw, her surgeon, didn’t think she would live. But she did, another miracle. She had to remain, though, in the hospital. Her heart had to pump way too hard to get the oxygen she needed. Thumpity-thump, thumpity-thump. Thump-thump. The slightest alarm, even crying, would be too hard on her banging heart and she’d die. 

To help her get more oxygen and ease her heart a bit, Dr. Shaw put her in an oxygen tent. They have better ways to give people oxygen now, but back then all they had were plastic sheets to drape like a tent over peoples’ beds. Then they pumped oxygen into the tent. Here Heather lived for weeks. My mother and father told us right away she’d probably die, that Dr. Shaw warned her that Heather might never learn to speak, to sit up, certainly never to walk—because she might not be able to get enough oxygen for her brain to properly grow. None of these things happened, so you can see that little miracles began, helping her grow. For she did learn to talk, to sit up, even to walk—if we held her hands.

She was one-and-a-half when I first remember her coming home. She’d just had her second heart surgery and was so weak no one believed she’d make it. I remember the day well. I was coloring in our bedroom where I could watch through the window. I saw our car Betsy turn into the driveway. And I remember my father crossing the porch with Heather in his arms, wrapped in blankets, me running to the door to let them in. Dad whisked her indoors quickly, allowed us one small peek, cautioning us to be quiet as he quick-walked her to the back bedroom where they had set up an oxygen tent over her crib.

Xmas 1960: Out of the oxygen tent
For a long time we weren’t allowed into our parents’ room without permission. We had to scrub our hands with Fels Naptha soap, a wicked soap that stung. But it killed germs and we couldn’t afford to get her sick. What would her heart do then? So Linda, Tresa, and I were happy to oblige. But mostly, at least at first, we just peeked through the door. We had to be careful, though; no bursting in. We might startle her, and her heart might take a lurch it couldn’t recover from. Sometimes I just wanted to spend time with her, and so sat on the floor in the hallway with a pile of books, looking in. My mother made Heather some pretty butterflies out of candy wrappers, and hung them near her bed. She liked to watch them, her eyes moving but her body very still. “Hi, Heather,” I’d say, which meant of course "I love you," and I'd eagerly wait for her small smile. Each smile seemed to be another star God set in the dark night of my sadness. Miracles each. And this is when I began to feel God. These little miracles of my sister’s life.

Even outside the room we had to be careful. No loud noises. Not that we had to whisper, but no yelling or squealing. No hollering. Just everyday voices. I used to wonder why people criticized my parents. It wasn’t fair, they said, to burden us big girls—Linda, Tresa, and I—with a baby’s frail life. We shouldn’t have to live with death just down the hallway from our bedroom. This is when I began to understand that when people think with their heads without paying attention to God in their hearts, they can become very mean. They stuff their heads with too many rules. They have too many bad habits in the way they think. They think they have the right to tell other people what is right and wrong without ever having to understand it. Because didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to come unto me?” The sick ones and the healthy ones? No one would ever say Heather shouldn’t be at home if they understood that God is very real near death.

Heather in her bathinette
Heather blossomed in the sunshine of our home, like a little flower. In time she learned to sit up, to talk, and, delightfully, to sing—a breathy sweet voice that floated through the house like bird song. Our mother, your great-grandmother, began taking her outdoors on sunny days and, on Heather’s good days, let my sisters and I push her gently in the baby swing. When she gave Heather a bath in her bathinette out by the clothesline, sheets drying in the sunshine, we were allowed to pass the Ivory soap to her and help dribble water over her pale blue skin—skin as delicate and translucent as a poppy open to the sky. It hurt me, though, to see her scars; two zipper-like marks that ran around her rib cage, one under each arm. I’d distract myself by showing her how to wiggle her fingers in the water and make a splash; and I’d wonder at the her courage. 

By two-and-a-half she could pull herself up and walk alongside the couch. If we let her hold onto our fingers, she could walk across the room—though it took a lot of work and her blue lips would get even bluer. How she came by her shiny black shoes I don’t know, but Linda, Tresa, and I didn’t begrudge her the kind of shoes we would never be allowed for ourselves. “You might scratch the piano bench!” our mother said. But as much as we hated our Buster Browns—shoes so ugly and uncomfortable and so heavily toed that we had to stick our feet, when buying a new pair, into an X-ray machine to see where our toes were—we took pleasure in our little sister’s good fortune. Shiny shoes for a little girl the doctors didn’t think would ever walk. I admired her for making them liars. I was seven years old. And I understood that prayer was never a waste of time. And God grew more real in my heart with each passing day as she grew stronger.

Heather in my blue snowsuit
When she turned three it was winter and Mum pulled out my old blue snowsuit, one I’d worn when I was little. And while it was she or Dad who dressed Heather, I was allowed to mitten her hands. I loved to tuck her wee blue fingers into the mitts. “Three little kittens, have lost their mittens, and can’t tell where they are,” I’d sing. “Oh, mama dear, we greatly fear, our mittens we have lost.”

“What!” I’d cry, “Lost your mittens! You naughty kittens! You shall have no pie!” and Heather would smile, stronger now. I lived to see her smile, her chapped lips always so blue.

She had a bedtime routine. I might be busy doing cutouts, or playing a game with my other sisters, or coloring or reading to myself, but I found comfort in her schedule unfolding around me. Her jammies on, she first had to have her blue may-he-dun, then her pink. Once, when Auntie Grace was visiting, she got it backwards. First pink. What a hullabaloo. I had to rush into the bedroom and explain the error, praying that Heather wouldn’t die in her upset. She didn’t. Another miracle. After her “may-he-dun,” Heather had to be carried about the house, shutting all the cupboards and drawers, making sure everything was tucked into its place and put properly to bed. Jamie Boy, our canary, had to have his birdcage draped. The kitchen counter had to be wiped clean. Finally, sitting down on the yellow rocking chair, our mother had to first sing a verse of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and then two verses of “Silent Night.” Once Mum tried to shorten the routine but Heather cried, “No, no, shepherd’s cake! Shepherd’s cake!” It took awhile to figure out, but eventually Mum caught on and settled back in and sang the second verse of the Christmas carol.  “…shepherds quake...” We thought it was funny.

The routine became mine as much as Heather’s; and her stints at the hospital left the house empty and I didn’t sleep well and I rattled around with a hole in my own heart. When she returned, the house filled back up and I shut my eyes at night to a peaceful world.

Christmas 1960
Heather in her baby table with Linda
In March after Heather turned three in December, our brother Tim was born. He wasn’t much more than two or three weeks old when Mum decided to give him a bath in Heather’s old bathinette, set up next to the big plate glass window in the kitchen. Heather was feeding herself in the baby table over by the fireplace. Mum had just set our baby brother onto the rubber hammock stretched across the water, and was testing the temperature with her elbow. He was kicking and cooing, slurping on his fists, when something hit the window with a terrific thud, followed by a hailstorm of glass. A bird hurtled past my right shoulder, bounced off the table beside me and landed with high terrible squeals, wings flapping, onto the raised hearth across the room right next to Heather. She nearly came out of her chair in shrieking terror as the bird flopped and bounced.

Mum ran for Heather so fast she slammed her hip against a chair and nearly tripped over the bird now on the floor. She snatched Heather up, still screaming, unable to take her eyes off the bird and twisting in Mum’s arms to see. Mum rushed her to the other end of the house, exiting through the laundry room. My own heart pounded. Heather was going to die! Her heart, I knew, wouldn’t be able to withstand such a thing. 
My mother must have asked me to take care of Tim. Have you ever seen a baby littered in glass?

A hundred diamonds of light. Shimmering edges. A kaleidoscope of winking yellows and glimmering whites. A baby in a bath of shards, unthinkable danger. A blast of panic hit me, making me dizzy with fear. What if he moved? I lifted a chunk of glass off his cheek. Dear God, don’t let him move, don’t let him move. He stared up at me, his gaze somewhere behind me. No longer did he kick or slurp on his hands. He waited, as if he knew something was wrong. Quickly, I plucked off the bigger pieces of glass, working my way down his little body no bigger than a sugar sack. The flecks of glass couldn’t be picked up, or brushed—they’d scrape his skin.

We weren’t allowed to pick him up, my sisters and I—but I did. I tucked my hands one by one under his arms, gave him a little shake and took him hanging like a puppy from my hands to the utility room, where I set him into a basket of clean, stiff white diapers, freshly folded. He had survived with just one wee scratch on his ear lobe. A thin red line of blood. I realized Heather wasn’t crying anymore. Had she died? The quiet was so deep in the house. Through the kitchen door I could see the bird, a grouse my father later told me, lay dead in a ruffled heap of feathers. At the sound of Mum’s footfall coming down the hall, I whirled. Her smile sent a breeze through my heart! My both agreed, two miracles. She didn’t scold me for lifting Tim.

A few weeks later, in a day full of rain, Tim slept in Heather’s old pram (a kind of buggy babies used to sleep in) in front of the kitchen fire. Mum was sewing at one end the table. Linda, Tresa, and I were maybe playing a game like Sorry at the other. Maybe we were coloring. I don’t know what Heather was doing, but she sat on the floor nearby. Suddenly she Heather scooted across the room on her bum and pulled herself up the pram. I stopped to marvel at her struggle. Breathless, she reached in and took Timmy’s hand and tucked something into his palm. I went over.

“Look! Heather just gave Timmy a nickel!”

I thought about how beautiful life was.

But it wasn’t very long afterward that I awoke in the middle of the night, frightened. Something wrong. Horribly wrong. I crept into the hall. At the far end, light slipped through the crack at the bottom of my parents’ door, making an eerie glow over Mum’s polished floor. “Daddy?” I called nervously into the dark. “Daddy?”

Heather, taken about the time the she
nearly died in my father's arms. 
I crept down the long hallway, cracked the door a couple of inches. He sat on the edge of the bed, right there by the door, holding Heather—and her oxygen mask. Masks were used when oxygen had to be given quickly and in high concentration. They looked like a rubber cup with a hose attached, the hose going to the oxygen tank, attached to a gadget on the top. The tank was round and skinny, not as tall as a kitchen counter and as round as a small plate. When you turned the tank on, oxygen rushed from the tank through the hose to the rubber cup—which was supposed to be held over someone’s nose. Trouble was, Heather was afraid of the mask. To keep her from panicking—and her heart from racing too hard and killing her—my parents had to hold the rubber cup two inches from her face. Precious oxygen escaped but it couldn’t be helped. This was not the first time I’d seen Heather take one of these “spells, ” but it was the worst. Fear had woken me up. I could taste fear on my tongue, like something metal and sharp.


He looked up.

“May I come in?”

He nodded and motioned me to sit beside them. The bed sank a little under my weight, Heather startled. I reached over and took her fingers, happy that my touch instantly calmed her. At the end of the bed, Mum paced. Back and forth in front of the dresser she went. In front of me stood the oxygen tank.

In the terrible tension and rushed tiny gasps of my sister, I became fascinated by the gauge needle slipping closer to the red empty mark. I gave Dad a running commentary. Finally he said, “Brenda, it would be better to pray than chatter.”

I let go of Heather’s fingers, shoved my hands down between my legs and bowed my head. I’d been caught pretending she wasn’t dying. But she was. I did know this. And I knew that if she didn’t regain her breath within minutes, before the oxygen was gone, the sun would rise without my sister in its light. Frantically I prayed. I begged. I watched the needle sink into the red zone, like the spinner in the Shoots and Ladders game my sisters and I played. I reminded God of the grouse, how it came through the window, and how he’d let her live. Do it again. Please, I implored. Please. The hiss of the oxygen tank suddenly sputtered out. I slid my eyes sideways…and smiled. My little sister’s lovely translucent skin held the soft faint pink of sunlight at dawn.

Dad let me kiss her. She slid her eyes to look at me, too weak to smile. “Hello,” I said.

What I meant of course was “I love you.”

This was the night Heather nearly died. I knew in my heart I had seen a miracle, my sister living instead dying. I'd prayed that the whole wonderful miracle of her life would not end. Not yet.

If you start thinking with your head, you can find all kinds of things to argue about. You can say she was lucky. You can say it was my mother’s prayers. You can say that it just wasn’t time for her to die. You can say a lot of things. But I didn’t think about it at all. God woke me up to pray. And Heather was saved.

She died a few weeks later. I wasn’t there. She was in the hospital, where she’d had her third heart surgery. At three in morning, tucked into her oxygen tent, her red plastic monkeys strung from one side of her bed to another, her stuffed animals beside her, her heart just stopped. 

So you see, even though God didn’t let her live forever, and even though I’m sad she died alone, and even though I miss my little sister every day of my life, I am happy for her short life. Because of Heather, I spent three-and-a-half years knowing God in my heart, for I watched him take care of her, take care of my little brother, and I watched him take care of my parents, never letting them get discouraged by the mean things people said.

So, yes, there is a God. We can never find Him by asking our heads, though. We can only truly find Him when we feel Him. When listen to what’s inside us.

Me, Great-Granny, Auntie Linda, Auntie Tresa,
Great-Granddad, Heather
in Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada, 1960
I have many other stories. If you want, I can tell you those too.