Lisa Leaves

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“How can I help you to say goodbye, it’s okay to hurt and it’s okay to cry, come let me hold you and I will try, how can I help you say goodbye”  Patty Loveless—“How can I help you say goodbye?”

There is a southern plantation house in down town Jacksonville that both my sister and I remember living in the longest.  Our mom would pack us up and leave our step dad a few times a year and sometimes we went back to that house, and sometimes we went to new houses.  It was a giant house that was divided into apartments, and several families lived in that house.  It was situated a few blocks from Main Street and that street divided the east from the west—the bad from the worse. We lived in the latter.  Finally, though, she stopped going back and rented this small house,  but in a better neighborhood, and it was a proper house, the first I ever lived in, and certainly the first where I had my own room. Having your own room is over-rated, and I would have done anything to share a room with my oldest and best friend, my sister.
My mom and I stood in the middle of the street as my sister loaded the rest of her stuff in the car.  I didn’t understand why she was leaving; I would later.  She got in the car and my mom turned to go into the house, and I could see tears in her eyes– she had the most beautiful green eyes.  She was doubled over—as she often was– with her hands on her knees trying to catch her breath, no doubt a massive panic attack complicated by smokers lungs.  I was devastated, and this was the first time I remember having to so say goodbye, but I didn’t know how, so I didn’t.
“I watched my best friend slipping further away, I kept on waving, until I couldn’t see her and then through my tears I asked why she couldn’t stay.” Patty Loveless
After my sister left, I was left to house, and I had to clothe and feed myself.  I would check in on my mom before school, checking for the rise and fall of her chest, to see if she was breathing.  Just months later I was removed from her and that is a whole story of it’s own.  How do you say goodbye to your own mom, even if she wasn’t acting in that role—I did not know how, so I didn’t.
 
Several years later, a bunch gathered together in the airport in Charleston, South Carolina.  I maxed out my credit card to take the trip from Tampa to Charleston.  We congregated together at baggage claim.  My cousins from Canada, and me—everyone of us with red swollen eyes and broken hearts. I remember just kind of looking at each other, and without even saying it we all thought “what do we do now?” that was well over 20 years ago and we still haven’t found the answer to that question.
We were there to say goodbye to a giant; that person who makes you a better person by being in the same room.  I loved my Uncle Lloyd, and he always defended my mom; he adored her.  He couldn’t see negative in anybody.
More than anything, though, he loved the kids in the family and was always teaching us something. I can still see him standing in any given doorway, with his arms crossed as he went off on some rabbit trail about world peace or how to drive a car.  He wasn’t a know it all, he was an amazing teacher; and he was interested in so many things; and was amazingly talented at almost everything he touched
He was the first person that I lost to death. So, on that day in the airport, when I was 18 years old, I clung to my cousins, especially my cousin Emily.  It was a first funeral for both of us, I think.  We were stuck together like glue as we made our way to his casket.  We had never seen him in his Army uniform.  He retired as a Lt. Colonel in the Army way before we came along.  He was gorgeous lying in that casket and to some degree we were grateful that he was not in pain anymore; because he had fought the monster that took him, he fought a valiant fight.
I loved Uncle Lloyd so much and I had no idea how I would survive without his voice in my life.  I stood there, at his casket admiring his chest that was covered with medals and ribbons from his time in the Army.  I had no idea he was so decorated, he was just Uncle Lloyd to me.  Standing there, paying my “last respects” (whatever that means)—I just stood there starring with no ability to comprehend that this was goodbye.
We had the funeral and then went to the burial site.  It was hot that day, and we got out of the limo and it occurred to me that he was getting a full military send off—and the tears came again.  I never took my sun glasses off, but tears streamed down my face as the familiar sound of “Taps” came from afar, followed by a 21 gun salute.  How do you say goodbye to such an unbelievable giant?  I didn’t know, so I didn’t.
I returned to college and work and those were good distractions.  Sometimes I think I am still not finished grieving.  Nevertheless, I returned to college and tried to move on with life.  Some of the days were sad but it got better in time.  I was young and had not guilt related to his death; I just didn’t have the skills to say goodbye on that day.
“Sitting with mama alone in her bedroom she opened her eyes and then squeezed my hand, she said ‘I have to go now, my time here is over, and with her final words she tried to help me understand.  Mama whispered softly, time will ease your pain, Life’s about changing, nothing ever stays the same…’” Patty Loveless
 
I wish that is how it went down. A little over a year after Uncle Lloyd died, I found myself visiting my mom in the ICU in Jacksonville.  I had gotten numerous calls from my sister telling me to come to Jacksonville because “it was time”—and this was one of the times.  I drove the familiar route from Tampa to Jacksonville.  It was the fall semester of my sophomore year of college.  When I walked into the room I didn’t recognize the person in that hospital bed.  She was not aware that anybody was around—this hospital admission was because she took too much medicine.  I don’t know if she was trying to take her life—that only occurs to me now as I am writing it.  They had given her drugs to counter-act the overdose of whatever she took.  By that time she was unable to breathe on her own and was on a ventilator.  Since she was in the ICU, only one of us was allowed back at a time.  When it was Lisa’s turn, I would go to the floor where all the babies were and stood at the glass, wondering which spot in that room I occupied, just 19 years before.  That weekend, I visited her as much as I could, always with Lisa, except the morning I left to go back to college.
I arrived right before shift change.  The room was dark, and quiet– save the sound of the ventilator pushing air into her lungs.  I stood at her bed and stared at her.  I watched her chest rise up and down, not unlike when I was 14 years old, after Lisa left.
It was almost time for me to leave, the blood pressure cuff squeezed her arm and she winced a little, so it was clear to me that she had some form of consciousness.  Yet, I stood there.  I looked down and she had one hand not attached to something.  I could have grabbed it; I could not do it.  I didn’t say anything.  I just stood there.   No words, nothing, at all, I didn’t know how to say goodbye, so I didn’t.
Just a few months later I got the call from Lisa saying it really was time, and that the doctor needed both of us to sign off on taking her off of life support. So, on December 13th, a 19 year old and a 22 year old signed a piece of paper that took the air out of her lungs; and I would never see her chest rise and fall again.
I returned to college and felt the full weight of grief, and there were times I thought it was going to take me down. I had so many regrets;- chief of which was not telling her I forgave her. I got back to school and almost got kicked out because the grief was oppressive, and I skipped classes.  Instead of getting kicked out, I was sent to “counseling” with Kris DeWitt, who is one of my dearest friends to this day.  I did make it through college, earning my Biology degree, but there would be no medical school for me; those ICU visits ruined me for that.
Just months after graduation, I met the man who would become my husband.  I carried such guilt about not saying a proper goodbye to my mom (and the pure lack of skills to say goodbye to my sister or my uncle) that I did everything within my power to not ever have to say those words, to anybody, anywhere for any reason.  I was 22 years old, and had already suffered such loss.   So I took my hits and lumps for 12 years, all because I was so afraid of loss, so afraid of uttering that word: goodbye.  I think that is why so many women in domestic violence situations stay; it is probably fair to say that women who stay didn’t walk into the marriage without a lot of emotional pain and life experiences that stole her perception of her value.
“I sat on our bed, he packed his suitcase, I held a picture of our wedding day, His hands were trembling, we both were crying, then he kissed me gently and quickly walked away”  Patty Loveless
 
I wish that is the way it went down.  As my sister and brother in law were loading my stuff in a U-Haul on the day I picked up my stuff from the house, he pulled me aside to tell me how sorry he was.  He had tears in his eyes and mine were hidden by my sunglasses. We were outside of our beautiful house so close to the beach you could hear the waves; and as that constant crashing of the waves continued, I only sort of remember what he said to me.
I jumped into one of the 3 cars we decided I would take and I followed my brother in law along that coast-line and with every mile without saying a word, I was properly saying goodbye.
My message to you, if you are a survivor of domestic abuse is this: I understand why you stay I get it.  I really do.  Your brain can’t comprehend how leaving is less painful than staying;—and for awhile that is true, but eventually the pain subsides, over time.  It never completely goes away—at least for me.  But I had people around me that helped me understand that the pain of staying was so much greater and so much more damaging then walking away and saying goodbye.  It hurts no matter what decision you make.  You are saying goodbye to something, with either decision.  From the first time he hits you, the slow and arduous task of saying goodbye to yourself begins and only ends if you decide to say goodbye to him, and start the process of healing.  You have to decide which goodbye you want; nobody else can make that decision for you.
 
Leaving requires some things of you that you have to decide to use.  It takes an internal fortitude that only comes when you realize how valuable you are. For me, this message of value rang true by close friends, my faith and my church.
Saying goodbye is so hard.  I just watched my cousins bury one of their very best friends.  I stood in the back of that funeral home and watched the two of them say goodbye to their friend.  I sobbed as I watched both of their bodies physically respond to this impossible task they had in front of them.  I didn’t know what to do, but I was grateful that they understood the importance of saying goodbye.  Closure, moving on—with pain that will subside after awhile; it won’t always feel like this for them; but for now it hurts.
Death forces our hands on saying goodbye to people who have left us.  The task of walking away from your life; somebody who says they love you;  is hard as well, with the difference being that person can still hurt you.  There is so much pain, such much sorrow, it is difficult to understand unless you have been there.
So, I will end by asking a question and I encourage my readers to do the same.  How can I help you, to say goodbye?

Chapter 26: Guard Your Heart

 

I felt somebody grab my hand and when I opened my eyes I saw the sweet nurse kneeling by the bed and she began to push my hair out of my eyes. Not very long after she woke me, I heard a crash of people come into the room and for the first time, I heard the words “code blue”.

 

It was summer of 2006, and I was in Baptist Hospital in the cardiac intensive care unit (CICU) I wasn’t afraid at all—though world- class doctors were confused as to why a 34 year old was under their care. I was safer in the CICU than I was at home. I was careful to cover the bruises and had conjured up a story that made sense; but I was afraid they would ask and what they would do if they figured it out; they never asked. I woke up the next morning attached to more machines than I had remembered but was comforted by the slow and steady sound of the heart monitor. I joked with the nurses that the oxygen monitor on my finger reminded me of ET. Only family was allowed to visit, so only Lisa—he would not come, perhaps it was because they would figure out the bruises–I can’t be sure. He didn’t like hospitals. The blood clot that sent me to the hospital had moved to my lung and until it dissolved they kept me in that hospital room that over-looked the St. John’s River. I loved seeing the helicopter come in and out, and said prayers for the passengers of the helicopter each time.  By the time I was released from the hospital, I had checked out of life and really didn’t care if I lived or died. When they released me from the hospital I knew going home was more dangerous than the CICU, and there would be nobody to push buttons or announce “code blue”—and there would be no team of people rushing into the room to save my life. I was going home to a husband who claimed he was shaken up by my brush with death and promised to change. The physical condition of my heart was finally reflective of the shattered emotional heart that I could no longer hide. In those moments in the ICU, my mind would go back to the time I made the decision to let this person into my space, my heart—the one that wasn’t even whole to start with—and I wished that I could go back in time.

 

By far, one of my proudest accomplishments in life was earning my college degree from Clearwater Christian College. There are a number of reasons that never should have happened, but a lot of people made sure it did; and for that I am still grateful. Soon after graduating, I headed back to Jacksonville because I was convinced I could go “home” and that the 8 years I spent in Tampa were good, but Jacksonville was home and so I headed north—leaving behind so many people who loved me and was responsible for that walk across the stage in May on 1994. As I drove north, I still remember the excitement—and I fully understood that I had the rest of my life in front of me; and I was convinced to show the world that all the things that happened up until that point would not define me—and that I would make my mark on this world and refused to play victim, period.

 

Like all new college graduates, I had no money. In fact, “broke” would have been a relief. So, I moved in with my sister, and that was a sweet time and a time for me to spend with my niece and nephew whom I barely knew. It wasn’t long before I got a job teaching at the same school I attended before leaving for the children’s home. I taught 6th grade, and it was a lot of fun. But, I had no friends in Jacksonville and I knew I needed to make my own friends and begin to engage in the community if I were to have a social life.

 

It was because I didn’t have a social life, I stayed home with Matthew and Kayla a lot. One Saturday night, I decided this had to change and before I knew it I had signed up for an online dating service. I swear to this day, I was only looking for friends.

 

I remember the hot August day I drove across the 3- mile bridge for my first “date” with a person who described himself as a Christian and a professional salesman. I was a little nervous, but not really, because I was then as I am now, not afraid to chat with anybody. I ordered the same thing he did—and to this day I cannot eat a chicken caesar salad. He claimed to be a Christian, and that was good enough for me; and before I knew it I was fully involved with him, breaking every promise I had ever made to myself—and giving away my morals like they were candy. I did not see violent tendencies in him when we were dating but I certainly saw warning signs. Less than a year later, we were living together and that is when his true colors began to show. I was so sensitive and he was incredibly verbally abusive. I could tell you story after story of the times he railed into me for little things like forgetting to buy ketchup at the store or the time we were on vacation and he shot a gun in a hotel room. Yet, I still married him. And I bet you are wondering why.

 

Recently, a young lady I know sent me an email in response to my blog. She told me that she had been in an abusive relationship for a year and could relate to the things she read in my blog. I was angry, at first, when I got her email. The last time I saw her she had her whole life in front of her and headed to college. The similarities were bone chilling. My heart broke as I read her story and some of the journal entries she chose to share with me. And this little project, this blog that you are reading, took on a whole new meaning and direction for me. How do we stop this? The scars from domestic violence are not temporary. I was willing to accept it for myself, because in my mind I was broken to start with—but this precious young lady has great parents, she wasn’t abandoned and this person she met hurt her; and she is damaged and that made me incredibly angry. So, I wondered, “what can I do?”. I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I am hopeful that the readers of my blog will also ask themselves the same question; how can we stop domestic violence? I still carry a constant reminder of that man who lived to hurt me and to please himself.

 

It has been 7 years since I left. Yet just a few weeks ago I was connected to heart monitors, again—and found myself lying on a hospital bed—after having failed a stress test on the treadmill. I don’t remember the trip from the treadmill to the bed, but I do remember opening my eyes and telling them I was ok, because I heard them say the words “code blue”—and I wanted them to make sure they could keep that cart wherever it was and far away from me. I started talking to them—I can’t be sure of what I said, but one thing I knew for sure was that they needed to keep those paddles away from me.   I recovered and they let me leave and I walked the hallway to the waiting room where some friends were waiting. I had a choice, in that moment, a choice to give up or a choice to fight and unlike that day in the CICU in Jacksonville, I decided to fight. I knew what the doctor was going to say on my follow up appointment; because I knew what happened.

 

Shortly after moving to Clearwater, the doctors finally figured out why my heart was not well. The broken condition of my heart was a combination of a genetic defect in a heart valve attacked by a virus as a result of violated marital vows. You can imagine how difficult that is to process. The people that promised by vow or responsibility to protect me –collided in the center of my heart—and they broke it and I will live with that for the rest of my life.

 

So on the day not so long ago, when I failed that stress test, I knew why. They threw around possible treatments, including heart surgery and medicines. It was though I was back there, in the CICU, where I had a decision to make. I was sad, I am sad but we finally landed at a treatment for this flare up—one that requires me to stay home from a trip that I had planned; one that requires me to stay home on July 4th; one that requires me to stay on lockdown while they treat the virus in my heart by suppressing my immune system. I am grateful the choice isn’t surgery; but I am justifiably angry that I am still affected by domestic violence.

 

But then, I remember that precious young girl, and I wonder how many more there are like her. And for that reason, I write. For that reason I beg you, if you are in a domestic violence situation to get out. If you think you can wait it out, you are wrong. People say I am brave for writing these blogs, and while I am grateful for that compliment, it doesn’t describe me at all. I am writing this blog, many times after avoiding it for weeks, to get a message to anybody who can avoid the consequences of domestic violence—some of which they could suffer for a lifetime.

 

Every time my heart beats and I feel it skip, or it races or I am hooked up to an EKG, my mind goes back to those times, especially the first time, when I could have walked away. Sometimes my mind goes back even further to that day, that day I met him for the first time; I knew better. I am reminded of a verse I was taught as a young child that I ignored when I decided to wrap my value around another human being. The irony of this verse is not lost on me.

 

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” Proverbs 4:23

 

So, on this July 4th—Independence Day—I am reminded of the day I did walk away from him; my own independence day, if you will. As I prepare to take the next dose of medicine for my heart, I am reminded, again, how important it is to tell you to guard your heart. My heart, though healing from the emotional pain; will always be damaged as a result of this person who tried to ruin me. It may not be that serious for you—but please let my story stop domestic violence in your circle of influence.

 

That day in 2006 when half of Baptist Hospital was in my room working on me to get my heart started again I was angry at them; I wished they would have let my heart just get the rest it so obviously needed. Today, so many years later, I am so glad my heart is still pumping blood and I am eternally grateful that it is bursting with a desire to tell this story so that we can make a difference in a world that so often is not kind. The words “Code Blue” always send chills through me because now that I realize that I am valuable, I realize how much I want to be alive today. And for that reason I will spend the rest of my life fighting this fight—the one that tells you that you are worth it. You are so valuable. You are so precious. You do not need to find value in other people. You are made in the image of God—you have a heart just like His—so full of Grace, Mercy, Truth and Love. And that, my friend, is the true heart of the matter.