The smell of coffee is as pervasive as it is effective to wake me up in the morning. Early in life I learned to love it since Maxwell House has a huge factory in Jacksonville, not far from downtown where we lived. It is one of the reasons I love going to Jaguars games, when the wind blows just right, I can smell coffee while watching my Jags play, and I don’t think it gets any better than that!
Growing up in the largest city by landmass meant driving far to get anywhere. It is a city with 7 bridges, and a river that flows backwards. It is a Navy town, it boasts of beautiful beaches, phenomenal hospitals and a lot of people I love. It is my hometown. Hurricane Matthew recently struck Jacksonville, and while it could have been so much worse, it was hard to go back recently and see some of the devastation from the storm. I had knots in my stomach and my eyes welled up with tears because some of that which was destroyed can never be rebuilt. But the feelings evoked by seeing the damage was nothing compared to those I felt when, after leaving a recent Jaguars game, we drove by the corner of 1st and Main Street.
Rushton was taking me back to my car when the neighborhood became increasingly familiar. As much as it had changed, it had not really changed at all. I could sometimes visually see places where I was hurt in a variety of ways, some of those ways I have never uttered to another human being.
We got to my car and on my drive home, my mind went back to the 7 year old me all the way up to the 14 year old me; when somebody finally stepped in and saved me from my living hell. Although I saw a lot of places where we lived and visited, two of the places struck me the most and my watery eyes turned into full blown tears as I drove down 301 towards home.
Food was not always readily available in our house. We got fed at school, and qualified for free lunch and breakfast; but in the summer time, it was a lot of fending for ourselves, often times landing at friend’s houses, or buying our own food with money that we earned from odd jobs. But, there was a community center right down the street and they had a summer lunch program, they would hand out box lunches to kids like us. And then they would make us wait 30 minutes and open the community pool. It was then that I learned to love the water, a love that I have never lost; it always means I am safe; and it always calms me down. Rushton and I passed by that community center on the way to my car and the memories of soggy sandwiches, almost too ripe fruit and warm milk flooded my mind.
Those memories are attached to my mom, who was still asleep at home by the time the box lunches were given out; and, on this day, for once in my life, I felt some resentment in my heart.
I don’t know if it is because I am healing; but lately the forgiving part that has often times been so easy for me isn’t. Maybe it is how I see my friends treat their kids and I see moms in action, or maybe it’s because I have a maternal figure in my life– I don’t know, but I find myself grieving not having a mom even though for much of my life she was physically present. I have oftentimes wondered how I even stayed alive until I was old enough to take care of myself. And I wondered why she didn’t stop having children—2 of the 3 she had were taken from her. But she did have me, and just as that thought process was going through my mind Rushton and I stopped at the light of 1st and Main Street.
I turned my neck as far back as I could to get a good look at the building–the exact spot where my mom and dad met. I know this because it was a bar, and one she visited frequently after I was born.
I just starred at the building and realized that was the place that the God of the universe ordained two people that would connect to bring a child into the world that would be so harmed and so unwanted. This confuses me sometimes and it certainly confused me on my ride home that day. Wouldn’t it have just been easier for God to not bring me into this world? Why would He ordain my birth; I know He knew me before the foundations of the world; I know He knew who my parents were going to be; where they would meet and what kind of parents they would be. As it was getting dark and I was driving home I switched from my sunglasses to my regular glasses and my eyes were almost swollen shut because I had been crying for about 100 miles. It just seemed like random tears streaming down my face to me; but I knew there was something more.
Victims of any kind of abuse want to forget it; we want to run from it; we want to pretend it never happened. But the truth of the matter is, it never goes away. Trauma that is caused by these events is etched into our brains and the innermost parts of our souls. I have spent the totality of my life up until this point trying not to let it affect me; and on the majority of days it does not, but this day was not one of them.
You see, as I starred at that building that day, I also saw a door covered in plywood at the back of the building. I know very well what is behind that door, a dark smelly room filled with traumatic memories for me.
I was older by the time this predator got to me, so it was more confusing and really is one of the 7 that I struggle with the most. My eyes were fixed on that plywood door.
It was ragged, the nails were rusted, and it was somewhat crooked and not covering the entire open space. And as I got closer to home, I realized that the walls I’ve learned to build are very much like that door. All it would take is one too many storms, not unlike the one that hit Jacksonville just two weeks earlier, to blow it all to pieces, and everything behind that door would be exposed. That exposition would be dark, it would be ugly and it would be terrifying. The uncleanliness of it would no doubt make people sick.
And I realized, the exposition of my walls would be no different. And so I decided that the Main thing is to keep 1st things first and continue to get help- trust in the character and sovereignty of my living God. The priority and irony of such is not lost on me as that building of where my life began and where it was so harmed still stands today.
First & Main
Perhaps one of the questions that I get asked the most, especially as it pertains to domestic violence, is “why did you stay so long”. It can be infuriating when people ask me that question, but then I remember to believe the best in people; I try my best to answer their question. While I am writing a book on the entire story, I wanted to write a “special edition” for domestic violence month.
I’m often conflicted about telling my story, because if often times leaving people comparing their pain to mine. I do not pretend to have the corner on pain; all of us have it, some just different than others.
By the time I graduated from college, my mom died, my favorite uncle died, and I was under a mountain of debt. I drove off the campus of Clearwater Christian College with hope in my pocket and stars in my eyes. The college, and the children’s home before that, did a great job of rebuilding hurts from childhood. Hurts that range from any form of abuse you can name and ultimately being abandoned by my mom–so that she could marry one of my abusers. But May 7, 1994, I drove across the bridge I had driven over all 4 years of college, I turned the radio up, and enjoyed the beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico for as long as I could. I was excited to get to whatever was next; most of my friends secured employment before graduating, I characteristically was not worried about it. I ended up moving back to Jacksonville and living with my sister. I secured a job at my old school, teaching 6th grade Math, Science, History and Bible. I had never been so broke, and had a nice introduction to reality.
I had not been home very long when I met the man I would later marry. We spent every weekend together. He was funny, kind, sweet and loved being on the water, or anywhere near the water. A year after I met him, we moved in together. He drank quite a bit, and I hated that, but that first year, he was all of things that attracted to me to him in the first place. He was a salesman, dressed in a shirt and tie every day–he could not have been more my type.
But something changed.
My first memory of abuse came in the form of verbal abuse. I forgot ketchup at the grocery store. He laid into me like I was the dumbest person ever for forgetting ketchup. Those were the days of the rebuilt Amy, I was so sensitive. I remember putting the groceries away and going up to our room and sobbing into a pillow. His words hurt so much. After I collected myself, I got back in the car and bought ketchup. I didn’t say a word and neither did he; but suffice it to say it went downhill from there. Every time an episode like this would happen, I would shut down and try harder to prevent them. Every time they happened, I was convinced that I had no value. My sense of value was barely there in the first place, and each event slowly took away what I did have.
I could go on and on and tell you each story that I can remember; but the physical violence was bad–yet I tried harder to be a better wife and stop the violence. I often tip toed around things so that I wouldn’t find myself punched in the face, slapped, kicked, and a bunch of other things I do not want to write here. I just kept trying so hard; eventually I realized that I needed to, in the words of Casting Crowns, “stop trying so hard to stop trying so hard”.
I realized I needed to get back into church. He isolated me from most my friends; but I needed to be fed, I was out of church for almost a decade, and it showed too because I had nobody, and even felt like my cries out to God were met with deaf ears. Once I began going to church, I met people that built value in me. I got the opportunity to teach and that met a very specific need for me. I was beginning to stand up to him. Even though some of those times the ensuing abuse was hard, there was something very freeing about standing up for myself. “Please don’t talk to me like that” was a phrase around our house almost everyday. He then began to tell me that I was a bad wife and that I should leave. These comments were often when he was drunk or hung over, but they stung just the same. As the physical violence escalated, we even made a plan for me lock myself in a room when he was mad and by no means was I to open the door until I felt safe. One day, my morning started by being held by my throat up against the refrigerator. I had the coffee pot in my hand, I dropped it and ran for the safe room. I barely got the door locked when he came plowing through it, breaking a few ribs in the process. That was the day he punched me in the face. I immediately went to the grocery store and got something that would take my blood off the floor. In hind sight, I wish I would have gone to the police station; but I was so scared that I could not live without him; and by that I mean financially. We owned a business together and my paycheck came with his signature on it. My car was in his name; he had taken my name off of credit cards and checking accounts. When I got paid, he would give me $300 out of my check; and I got that because I was fulfilling an obligation to a friend.
One day, after he had been drinking, I found him in one of our guest rooms with one of his friends. The next morning, I felt like this was my way out–that if that was the kind of life he wanted to live, there was no judgement but that I wanted no part of it. He explained it away, let me take his Lexus to a Jaguars game and it was never spoken of again. But, as I began to get confidence and self worth, I was standing up to him more and more. One day when he told me to leave, after another physical altercation, I told him that the next time he said that to me that I would leave. I also told him the next time he harmed me, I would also leave. I do not think he believed me, and honestly, I didn’t have a clue how I was going to pull it off if I needed to do so.
I don’t know how much time went by, but one night I woke up with a flash light in my eyes and a cold metal object pointed at my temple. He was pressing the gun so hard that I felt the blood trickle down my face. I pushed him off of me; and since he had about 100 pounds on me, I felt a tear in my right shoulder as he went plummeting to the ground. I grabbed the gun, and went to the guest room, locking the door behind me and fully intending on shooting him if I needed to do so. I fell asleep against the door; when the morning light came in the windows, I carefully walked out to get coffee. He was sitting on the back porch and could not believe how upset I was. Apparently, he remembered nothing. I showed him the spot on my head, I showed him how I could not lift my right arm; and I walked away, fully intending on leaving, but the timing had to be right.
When the timing was right, and it was safe, I left. I had a lot of people that helped me from Jacksonville to Tampa to Toronto. I drove downtown while he was out of town and filed for divorce. As soon as I knew he had been served, I boarded a plane for Toronto in the interest of safety and in the interest of needing to be around family. I was heart broken–in fact I was just broken. I had no clue where I was going to work; I had some money saved up for an apartment but that was it. I returned to the states to sign the divorce papers 21 days later and just like that on March 16, 2007 we were divorced. When it came time for me to get the rest of my stuff from the house, I had already taken my wedding ring off-he had not, but he had by the time I left.
So, the long answer to “why did you stay so long” comes down to one word: value. I did not have it, nor was I getting it from anybody; it was only after I started going back to church that I even sort of realized that I was valuable. It is a struggle to this day for me to remember my value; and I often make stupid decisions based on the false belief that I have none. It was not practical for me to leave, and my brain could not process any of it. I was ashamed. It never occurred to me to call the police or to tell a mandated reporter. While some victims of domestic violence have the strength to do those things, I just kept wishing each time would be the last time. He was my family, as was his family, and I had very little family of my own. But something clicked in my brain the day I did leave. It is part of how I am wired; once I make a decision I don’t go back on it. I have no doubt that my situation was met with many people praying for me; and a God Who provided protection in the way of him not killing me.
So, if you are reading this and you are a victim of domestic violence I would say to you to leave when you feel comfortable doing so. Oftentimes, leaving escalates into more violence. I would say move as far as you can away from your abuser. I did that and have no doubt it is why I am alive today. He sent many threats on my life and I was finally granted a lifetime restraining order against him. That order stayed in place until the day he died. Yes, he died–this year actually. And that grief is grief that I can not explain–but it was real and it was hard. It was difficult to navigate the grief because this was somebody who I vowed to love forever, and while we were divorced part of me always loved him–because I believe love is final–but it didn’t mean that I needed to stay in that situation. I would encourage you to get some friends. Pick the ones that won’t make you feel badly for staying but rather those that will monitor the situation and step it if necessary. Having that support system brings a level of freedom–you are not the only one harboring this horrible secret. Friends are essential to your getting out–I can not stress this enough.
If you are reading this and you know somebody who is a victim, you need to be patient. Statistics are that a victim leaves 7 times before actually staying away. Try to not be angry at the victim, they have enough of that already. Closely monitor the situation and enter into it with law enforcement, do not try to pack her stuff or force her to leave. The decision has to be hers–unless it is truly a life threatening situation, then you act. My friends just watched and observed. The time never came when they needed to get law enforcement involved because I didn’t tell them everything. So, don’t expect her to be truthful with you either. But makeup and clothes can only cover up so much. Observe constantly. Again, you are not going to get her to leave by lecturing her or getting angry with her. My friends would cry at night worrying; I cared about that. And honestly, it was part of the reason I left; they weren’t pushy, they just told me how concerned they were for me.
Domestic Violence has become an epidemic. It hits every part of our being from basic needs to self-actualization. If you have not been there (and thank God for that) it is hard for you go grasp why she stays. Remember, the bruises, cuts and broken bones heal, but what he robs from her soul never returns. Human beings make decisions based on their perception of their well being. When that decision is met with the deprivation of self worth; there is no energy to leave. There is only energy to breathe, and even then breathing in air can seem over-whelming. There are times when she doesn’t want to live because he has taken that will from her. Love her, spend time with her, observe her, and do not judge her. Leaving is complicated, if you are a victim, know that somebody out there understands that. If you aren’t and you know somebody who is, it’s important that you become part of the solution, not the problem.
If you are in a domestic violence situation, and want to get out, even if you have nowhere to go, all states provide shelters. The phone number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Refrain from using your phone to make the call. Most of all, remember, there is hope. It doesn’t need to end your happiness or more importantly your life. It is not simple, it is hard, but you will know when, and you so have it in you to leave. YOU MATTER.
People were parking along the side of the road and walking for what must have been a mile. It was a typical September day in Jacksonville, cooler in the mornings, but still muggy. These people didn’t care though and their clothing was as different as the massive amount of cars parked along the side of the road.
It was Sunday, September 16th, 2001. What felt like the entire city of Jacksonville had come together, to church, to find a reason, any reason for what we all witnessed during that week, perhaps the darkest, in modern history. We managed somehow to find a parking spot in the church parking lot. When we got inside, a firefighter from the Jacksonville Fire Department was directing people to different rooms, because the main sanctuary reached it’s capacity. The rest of the people would watch the service via satellite.
We found our seats up in the very top corner of the balcony. It was the only time John ever went to church with me. I remember looking across the audience and it was like standing in front of a mirror, we were all devastated; and we all came to this place to try to make sense of all of it. We did not know much, but the one thing we did know is we were not only Americans, but we were citizens of the world. We were citizens of a world who were just as devastated as we were; and we all understood that their were plenty of citizens of other countries that died that horrible, beautiful September morning.
The music was filled with Hope. Really, it was all music. The pastor walked onto the stage and the church was silent; almost uncomfortably so, except his silence brought great comfort because it was good to know that even the pastor didn’t have an answer. As it turned out, being together was what we wanted. There were people there from every subset of our society. That day, we were all human beings, with 10 bodily systems, 206 bones, 2 lungs, a brain and a heart that was shattered. There was not a single person in that building that did not realize that our lives and our country had changed forever, it would never be the same. I think that was one of the hardest parts of all of it. The unknown was aplenty only outdone by massive communal fear. We were painfully aware that the America we knew had been shoved to it’s knees. So, American’s did what American’s did back then, we came together as a group of people; a group of people occupying a beautiful, but severely flawed country.
We all know “where we were” on September 11th, 2001. I was in a meeting. One of my employees interrupted our meeting “you gotta come see this a plane just hit the World Trade Center”. John and I looked up at him a little annoyed, as I don’t think the gravity of a statement like that can sink in when you are in the middle of a meeting. We must have given him some “go away” signal, because he shut the door and left. Just a few minutes later, he came back and told me that my sister was on the phone and told him to get me out of the meeting. I followed him and picked up the phone in John’s office where he had a TV. Jeff already had the TV on and flames were pouring out of the first tower; as soon as I picked up the phone, the second plane hit the tower. We stood there shocked. We stayed at the office long enough to see both towers fall; we sent everybody home and turned on the TV. We didn’t turn it off for weeks. As many of you did, we tried to get back to work; that is something human beings are good at, standing back up, even after being sucker punched. There were many discussions as this was opening weekend for the NFL. Many suspected that games would be cancelled as 80,000 people in 15 stadiums around the country seemed like breeding ground for another attack. But, it was decided that they would play football. I will never forget watching the Jaguars that Sunday, I don’t even know who they played or if they even won. All I know is that as our national anthem was played there was not a dry eye in the house. I distinctly remembering standing up in my living room with my hand over my heart. Football brought us together right after we all went to church.
The days and weeks that followed had us all watching the news almost around the clock, especially those first few days as there was some hope for survivors. I remember voicemails from people on the planes being played on the news. I remember our president standing on top of that pile in New York City. I remember this was America where we were ONE. We all understood that we are as different as we are alike; but we are Americans, and while the basic economic unit in a society is the family; we understood we were groups of that unit who just wanted our America back. We understood then and we understand now that we are not perfect. We are far from it. But all of that got set aside for just a little while. We learned (are learning) to live in a post 9/11 America, which for those of old enough understand it is a very different America.
I have had a life long love affair with New York City. I have been there through every phase of the rebuild. Something about that city captures my heart. It isn’t Times Square, it isn’t Broadway; it isn’t 5th Avenue, it’s the people. If you sit on a park bench in New York City, in any given hour you will see a person from any demographic you can imagine. It is a city like none other, that is a fact. Years later I stayed on the top floor of the Marriott Hotel where I could look out of the window and stare at ground zero. There was still white dust on some of the buildings. I stood in that hotel room where I had a 180 degree view of New York City and could not stop the tears as the gravity of over 3,000 people dying right there hit me. That city has a piece of my heart and I don’t doubt that it fits somewhere in my future.
But for today, September 10, 2016, 15 years after that horrible day; my wish is that we could come together again like we did that warm September day at that church. I wish we would love each other like we did that day. I wish we would all remember, again, that we are human beings with 10 bodily systems, 206 bones, 2 lungs, a brain and a heart. Somewhere along the way we have lost the unity of that day, ironic since we pride ourselves on being the United States of America. And that, that, is almost as sad as what I will always refer to as the my darkest day on this planet.
For months now, I feel some sort of tug to “do something” yet, I am paralyzed by what that is because the reality is we all have to earn a living, there are bills to pay, and for me a business to lead. Our country is more fractured now than it has been in my lifetime. I was not around for the Civil Rights Movement. I went to school with kids that looked different from me, and to me they were my friends and part of my tribe. There wasn’t racism in my school in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. Because let me tell you, a white kid was in the minority in my hood.
I don’t know what it will be, but I am determined to be part of the change that will bring us closer to actually being the United States of America. There are millions today and especially tomorrow that will be reflecting on that day. We all have stories after it too.
That Sunday was the first time I had been in church in 10 years. My decade long stand off with God was done; because while America had been shoved to it’s knees, so had I; and I went to the only place I knew. That Sunday, in that church, was a time in history I can pinpoint that my life changed forever. You see, many of those people were there that one Sunday and maybe a few after that; but many went back to their lives, all changed in some way, but not everybody kept seeking answers from God. I did, and, as it would turn out, it was the beginning of the end of my marriage. Going to church meant I was no longer isolated in my own hell at home. But I would find freedom eventually; as did ground zero almost 10 years later.
Every single night of my life I remember April 1, 1989. April Fools Day; the day I should have exited the earth; yet defied all the laws of gravity and medicine.
I was cold. Not unusual for me then and not unusual for me now. This was a different kind of cold though; it was a wet cold, with some warmth on one side of my body. Everybody kept asking me my name, and that was annoying me. They kept asking me stupid questions, like who the president was and what year it was. They kept telling me to “stay with them” as I drifted in and out of consciousness. I was so cold, and it was wet on the ground where I lay; and I could hear cars flying by, somewhere near me. The only part of my body that was not shivering was my left side, I had a strange feeling of warmth and stabbing pain on that side of my body. They had my head, well my whole body really, strapped to a back board and they kept waking me up; and asking the same questions over and over and over. I was annoyed; how many times did I have to tell them my name and why did it matter anyway? And why was I so cold and why couldn’t I move?
Suddenly, I became aware that I was in the back of an ambulance and the sirens I heard scared me; what happened? As I drifted in and out of consciousness I am sure I asked the same question over and over; probably as many times as they asked me if I knew my name. There was a quiet rush to get me into the trauma room and after a series of X-rays on my neck they unstrapped me from the back board. They explained to me that I had lost a lot of blood and that they had to get that under control. I was 17, barely. On the way to the Operating Room they stopped in front of the nurses station and handed me a phone. It was Gayle Dunning. Even though I was under the care of the children’s home, everybody, rightly so, thought it was right and appropriate for them to call the my foster parents and tell them what happened. I remember Gayle’s comforting voice telling me that I was going to be ok and that they were staying in touch with doctors and the home. The nurse took the phone from me and told me we needed to go to the operating room so that they could stop the bleeding.
Stop what bleeding? What happened? Suddenly, I was drifting off to sleep again; only to wake up to more nurses asking me that same question. I asked them what happened, and they told me I was involved in a car accident; one where I had been ejected from the vehicle 150 feet and landed on a guard rail. There was no question in my mind what side I landed on; my left side hurt as it felt like somebody had pierced me with a sword. I also could not move my left leg as the impact of the landing broke my hip. As the surgical drugs wore off, I began to remember more, and suddenly panicked and began asking about everybody else in the van, where they all ok?
As I fired off questions to the nurses machines began to sound alarms as my heart rate jumped and my blood pressure plummeted. Suddenly, there was more darkness, more sleep, more confusion; and lots of doctors and nurses standing over me when I became conscious again. They explained to me that everybody else was fine; most walked away without a scratch, including the driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel. One had a knee injury and another a concussion, but I, by far, was the most injured. We were in Woodbridge, VA; just 25 miles south of our final destination of Washington DC; our senior trip. They told me that I would be in the hospital there for several days. I could not walk, I could not move my left side and there were tubes everywhere on that side of my body. It hurt to breathe; and Gayle wasn’t there; Mom McGowan was rushing there from North Carolina; and I cried, not because I was in pain, but because I wanted a mom. It was scary; it was lonely; and I was very aware of how lucky I was to be alive.
I asked if I could speak to my mom. Breaking all Florida laws, they called her and let me speak to her. Since abandoning me at 15, the state had a mandated no contact order until my 18th birthday. Apparently, the hospital didn’t care; because as Gayle frequently called me and Mom McGowan rushed to me, the hospital staff realized I was not going to be ok until somebody could calm me down. Calling my mom was their last ditch effort to make that happen. I had not spoken to her since she left me. Her voice was shaky as was mine. I was heavily medicated for pain; and I only had some lucid moments; but the one I had with her that day on the phone is one that I will remember forever.
At the time of the accident, I had been at the children’s home for almost 2 years. It had become home to me; and I was well on my way to becoming a productive member of society. Kids at the home were there for various reasons. Some were there for behavioral issues, others, like me, simply did not have anybody to take care of them. The Dunning’s did what they could, but it was never meant to be a permanent solution. They knew it and so did I. While I did not have the behavioral issues some of the kids had at the home, I had needs that could only be met in an atmosphere where significant amounts of time could be invested in me. The Dunning’s had 3 children of their own and were in leadership of a thriving church. They knew they couldn’t possibly provide what I needed; and I will always be grateful to them for placing me in the home. The home (specifically Mom McGowan) did have the time and resources to pour into me; which was just love and constantly building me up–teaching me who I was–a precious daughter of the most high God. They helped me work through the 14 years of abuse and neglect that occurred before I entered the home. Mom McGowan quickly become a maternal figure in my life; and she saw something in me and whatever that was she fostered. As it would turn out, I was one of the last group of kids that Mom and Dad McGowan had direct contact with as they retired not long after I graduated from high school. So for that whole day in the hospital while she and Dad rushed to VA from North Carolina, I constantly asked to speak to Gayle and Mom McGowan. I still don’t know why I asked to speak to my biological mom; but I did and that conversation was a game changer.
The accident happened not long after spring tour. Touring the country singing in churches was an experience to be had for sure. It was difficult to not be in a constant state of revival with God; kind of like that feeling that you have when you come home from youth camp. We often got off tour fired up for things of God, and many of us giving things over to Him that we could never understand; thereby refusing to become bitter; but better because of the things that had happened to us. That particular tour was a time when some weirdo was predicting that the rapture would happen that year. Only some of you will understand this; but in those hell, fire and brimstone preaching days, we all got “saved” 2,321 times. After I understood what it actually meant to be “saved”, I began to have a heavy heart for my mom. I did not want her to spend eternity apart from me, and I wanted her to know the peace of knowing Jesus. All throughout that tour, every time we would sing one particular song (“Whatever It Takes”) I would pray and tell God that whatever it took to please help my mom get saved.
I didn’t know how or if He would answer that prayer, but on April 1, 1989, I believe He took me up on that prayer. As I held the phone to my ear my hand was shaking as much as my voice. I told her what I prayed; and what she said next is what gets me through tough days even now. “Would you put somebody on the phone that can help me know what I need to do to be saved?”. I remember literally dropping the phone. By that time, Mom McGowan made it to the hospital and she picked up the phone and led my mom to the Lord. A day I will never forget. There were not enough drugs in the western hemisphere to make me forget that day.
These days, I have to lay on my right side as my left still hurts when I lay on it. There are scars from the guard rail that remind me of that April Fools Day. It was that day that I learned that I was a fool to believe that God needed me to do anything; but yet He chose to answer my prayer and bring my mom to Him. I would love to say that life with her was perfect and redemptive after that day; it wasn’t. We had to go back to our no contact order; and my next communication with her would be months before we had to take her off of life support.
When her last day on this planet came, I remembered that April Fools Day where satan lost and Jesus won. I can’t wait to spend eternity with her; where nothing that happened on this earth will matter. A broken hip, some gashes, cuts and bruises was a small price to pay to be able to spend eternity, in perfection, with my mom; the one I always just wanted to love me. That day, she learned of Perfect Love; and I am so grateful.
We sat out on the rocks and had a picnic over-looking the ocean. I was still mesmerized by mountains and ocean; it was summer and I was wearing a sweatshirt. I had been invited into a sacred place into his heart and mind. I knew when he took me to Maine to see where he grew up, we were serious. He loved taking me to all of his childhood memory spots, and, I loved every bit of it. A passion for anything near the water was something that we shared. That day, we were at Sommes Sound, and I carved our initials in a tree there. As it would be, we would spend almost every summer of our marriage up there. We left Florida after July 4th and returned home after Labor Day– for football season, obviously.
There were never altercations there. It was 90 days of pure bliss. We slept with windows open and drank coffee on the porch in the mornings where the temperature would often dip into the 40’s. We had some deep conversations on that porch on the corner of Summit Street in Northeast Harbor, Maine. He would laugh at me because I was constantly cold wearing a spreadsheet the entire summer while he lived in shorts and a tee shirt. After morning coffee, I would work until noon while he packed us some version of a New England lunch. Usually, a lobster or crab roll with all the fillings. We would causally make our way down to the harbor and take our dingy out to the boat in the middle of the harbor. Sometimes we would just sit on the boat as the beauty of that harbor is hard to ignore. Other times we would navigate the lobster traps (and by “we” I mean “he”) and take the boat into the sound. I learned to set our fishing polls and was on watch as we fished for Mackerel. After many, many times of being rescued by him I stopped freaking out about taking the fish off the line. Sometimes we would take the boat to Able’s Lobster Pound where we sat outside and watched them pluck our food from the ocean and cook it. Other evenings, we would take our golden retriever, Trevor, down to the docks to play and swim. He loved to catch rocks in his mouth and often looked like a sailfish jumping in midair to catch a rock; weirdo dog.
At sunset I almost always found myself at the Sound, sometimes by myself and sometimes with him where we cooked out and relaxed. He would tell me stories of his childhood and it was hard not to be happy because he clearly missed those days. He was at home there. And, he was the very best version of himself there; the version that attracted me to him in the first place.
Every year, I would pick up a rock and put it in my suitcase. After 10 years, I amassed more than 10 of them. The rocks usually lined my desk-as they served as reminders of good times. Many times after an altercation at home, I would lock myself in my office; often on the floor sobbing with my head between my knees. The line of rocks would always be in my line of sight and I would stare at them through my salty tear filled eyes. They represented hope that he could be that person at home too.
One of the first conversations I had with Crissy was about this beautiful state over a thousand miles to our north. It was Christmas time and when she told me that she was going to Maine, we immediately had something to chat about–well, that and football. As time passed and the Loughridge family became mine, I had many opportunities to go up there with them, but always in the winter time and 3 hours south my peaceful memories of him. Until last week.
I wasn’t sure how it would affect me, if at all. I halfway planned a trip to our peaceful spots, but did not make it up there; and that was probably a good thing. When we arrived into Portland (after a 26 hour train ride) the cool night air smacked me in the face. I did not feel the sting I was prepared to feel. I had already donned a sweatshirt on the train; and I was tired–but I wondered what the 4:30am sunrise would bring; as that was definitely one of my LEAST favorite memories of Maine. The first night I slept better than I had in years, it could have had something to do with the open window in my room and the cold New England weather; but more probable it was recovery sleep from the 26 hour train ride. The first morning was a lazy morning, and I really didn’t make it to any part of the coast line until a few days into the trip.
We had plans to go to a New England clam bake out of Booth Bay Harbor. When we pulled into the parking lot, I looked out into the harbor and there was no sting. Only peace. Granted, this was not the same harbor as any of the harbors on Mount Desert Island where our house was; but it definitely was familiar enough to remind me of peaceful, loved filled times with him. We boarded the boat to go out to Cabbage Island for the clambake. And I was fine. Memories did come rushing back; but it didn’t hurt. At all. We arrived on Cabbage Island and grabbed our table–overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with a view of the crew cooking our food, straight from the ocean and not unlike that lobster pound we so often visited. Still, no pain, no sting, nothing. When our food arrived, I schooled the others on the proper way to eat (or not) New England clams. He loved those clams and I always gave mine to him. I tried one and remembered why I gave them to him. It was beginning to hurt a little. We finished our food and I went my separate way for a bit.
I found a small part of the island where I could be alone because as every minute passed by I was building up tears to match the number of the seconds of those minutes. I needed to find a spot; one where I could just let it go. It wasn’t sunny outside, but I left my sunglasses on as I only found one spot where that wasn’t crowded, but there were still people. I starred out at the ocean and memories flooded my head and I just let the tears come and just like those days locked in my office, I starred at the ground filled with New England rocks. The rocks that represented peace. I used my foot to move them around and the tear drops finally began falling on my jacket. I bent down and picked up a rock. The rocks always had to be flat; and as soon as I found one I remembered he taught me how to skip those rocks across the water. I was never very good at it. I decided I would try it. I wound up my arm as though I was pitching the perfect strike and sidearmed the flat rock and it smoothly skipped across the water like I had never been able to do before. It was as if my brain was remembering the lessons of rock skipping with him standing behind me correcting my form. I think part of his physical closeness to me had more to do with his fear I was going to fall into the water more than helping me skip the rock across the water! I still can’t fault him for that as this day I almost fell on those rocks; which would have surprised not a single soul!
When my phone buzzed that the boat was loading and that I needed to head back I wiped the tears from my face and bent down and grabbed another rock to take home. We boarded the boat and all stood on the bow of the boat taking in some of the beautiful coast line we didn’t get to see on the way out to the island. I was still fighting back tears but my sunglasses hid them and nobody was really talking to me; so it was a good time for me to reflect on this important step in my healing. I was pleased that being there affected me like it did. I know that sounds weird, but it meant that I could process that pain in a healthy way. I held the rock in my hand as I starred out at the beautiful houses on that coastline. Under my breath I articulated to God, my feelings of my hope– hope that he is at peace now. Just days before my trip I knew that he was put into his final resting place in the place he loved so much; the place where he was the best version of himself; the place where we had peace. I clinched that rock, the one I planned to take home, as I let my arm dangle over the rail of the bow of the boat. Crissy stood to my right and Glenn, Shannon and the boys to my left. Crissy stood silent as she was processing some of her own stuff (I had that too) and Glenn and Shannon chatted away. We could hear the boys chatting it up with other kids on the boat. All of that was in the background though, as I stood there thinking about dropping that rock into the water, thereby letting go, again.
I had a firm grip on it. I wanted to take it home. I really wanted to take it home. It would remind me of why I loved him; why I married him; why I stayed. Yet, I knew that this could serve as my goodbye. My final goodbye, almost like if I were standing at his grave. So, slowly my fist loosened and finger by finger I let go of the rock and dropped it into the Atlantic Ocean. And I can’t be sure that my words weren’t spoken aloud as I watched it drop into the water. “Goodbye, I hope you have found eternal peace, the kind of peace that is magnified by a factor of 10 that we had in this beautiful state where you were born. I hope you have found it. And thank you for introducing me to this beautiful place. Goodbye, and it is my sincere prayer that you are resting in peace”.
I had to look over towards Crissy she was the only one that I didn’t mind if she saw the tears. I don’t know if she did or not; but that rock drop represented something huge for me. My unclenched hand was still hanging over the boat; and I had no desire to jump overboard to get the rock; very similar to real life–there is no desire to go back and grab anything. Doing that is as ludicrous as jumping over that boat to get that single rock. Like the rock, all of it is all buried under beautiful cleansing water and tears. I walked off the boat, thankful that I could reprise those memories and remember him in his home state in the most positive way possible.
The drive home was quiet at first and conversation turned to some present day challenges. And for the first time, maybe ever, my hand was open, not clinched to what was; it was open to be filled with NOW, and I am so grateful. I didn’t bring home a rock but I did come home with a little piece of a healed heart. One day I will make it to that tree with our initials in it; and when I do, I will, with perfect form, skip a rock across the water in memory of him; the version of him that I loved.
My heart has room for new adventures as I have symbolically dropped the rock into a vast ocean never to be found again. The wounds are only scars now, healed only by time, tears and God. As far as that state where we always found peace, I will enjoy it for years and years to come. I will never be there and not remember him; but I will always remember the rock drop on that boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean–and I will always find peace there.
The weekend had finally arrived. The one that took 140 text messages– scheduling around work, gymnastics, volleyball, bowling and school. But, we finally pinned down a date and some of my tribe and I began our girls weekend celebrating birthdays, two of whom having hit the fabulous 40. We stayed at a hotel with a lazy river with a 1,200 square foot room with all the bells and whistles; the kind that made us forget we were in the center of Orlando, Florida.
If you are a Floridian like the 4 of us are, you visit Orlando as much as humanly possible. It is (or was), the “Happiest Place On Earth”. We did absolutely nothing for the entire weekend. We cooked and stayed in the room except for the hours spent in the lazy river; and with each lap we had random conversations with people from all over the world. Some of them were like us; from big cities in Florida–who just needed a respite from the rat race.
Orlando has a way of making you feel like you have been transplanted to another planet. Nothing bad happens in Orlando; unless you have a vivid memory of being scared to death on a rollercoaster, stung by a bee, sat in traffic or had to relent to heat and go inside. Everybody loves Orlando, right?
I woke up early in the morning of June 12th and,out of habit, picked up my iPad and checked Facebook, email, and Twitter–because one can’t go a whole 8 hours without doing that. It is a horrible habit of mine and on this particular middle of the night check in, I wished I hadn’t. The news was still developing and the number of fatalities just kept increasing. I finally fell back asleep, but not after having felt like cold water had run through my veins as I have many former students and even some friends from college who live in Orlando. I was too groggy to even grasp the news of another mass shooting; much less in the the city of the house that Mickey built.
Later that morning when I was awake for real, the news was still pouring in with suppositions of why it happened and gun control people were already burning up their social media accounts and even more up in arms about it being a gay club that got hit; but mostly my observations of others were that of my own, people everywhere were stunned. This happens in other cities, big cities, NOT the happiest place on earth! The over-whelming majority of people were simply asking the same question “why?”.
Some tried to answer-with bad timing, I might add. Experts have probably figured it out on some level, but not a level our minds can comprehend. Folks have their opinions and they are free to them; but in reality 49 people died by the hands of another human being; regardless of whether it was a target on people of a different sexual orientation than their own, or if the killer was a terrorist from Alaska or mentally ill. I don’t think anybody really knows “why”–and even if we did would be be able to understand it anyway?
These things are becoming far too common in our world. I find myself not even looking up when I hear on the news that there has been another tragedy in the country I love so much. Now, it’s more about “how bad is it” versus “O my God, how could this happen?”. Taking the lives of another human being defies logic; it confuses our hearts; because we aren’t built to understand these things. We aren’t supposed to kill our own; we aren’t supposed to hurt our own; but we do–and we still don’t know “why”; or do we?
It didn’t take long for me to pick up my phone and check in on my Orlando people; and I found out that Facebook now has a feature where your friends can check in “safe” when in an area of tragedy. Strangely comforting; but a sad little algorithm. Once I heard from almost all of them the very next thing I did was pick up my phone and texted my Disney buddy as news had broken that the killer had cased Disney properties as well. Such senseless, mind boggling events are so hard for me to grasp-some more than others, but this one hit me hard. And that question traveled from my brain to my heart, and it is still branded there, why?
As I began to think about that a little more, I was reminded of sitting in that 1,200 square foot hotel room with my friends just one weekend before; chatting like close friends do–conversations that included just about anything you can think of on the spectrum of conversations and maybe a watching a little Auburn World Series softball. And then, like this group of friends tends to do; our conversations went deep. And when I say deep, I don’t mean solving the world’s problems deep, I mean a safe place to share and get past the all too familiar cliche’ Christianity, and sometimes examine all the things we have both learned and taught about our faith.
We are all at an age where we can look back and thank God we are not 20 anymore, but young enough to avoid “traps” if you will. We are at the age where the hard part should be at least subsiding. That part of life where you are not maxing your credit cards out, you own a home, the friends you have are the friends that will sit on a porch with you one day in a rocking chair talking about “when we were…”. The “sweet spot” age as I like to call it.
It is also an age where you probably have not been able to avoid seasons of suffering. And everybody in that room have the stories that God is writing for them. All 4 of us don’t have to dig very deep to uncover unimaginable pain; suffering; or confusion. As we were talking 2 of them expressed gratitude of how God protected them; in a very specific way. And without even thinking and for the first time ever in my life, I said to my friends “then why didn’t God do that for me?”
You could have heard a pin drop and they all 3 looked at each other and wondered who was going to speak; these 3 friends are part of a group of people that have picked up the broken pieces of my life post abusive marriage–countless surgeries, hospital stays and, of course, Crissy had a front row seat to a complete nervous breakdown. I always felt that asking that question was of no import. It doesn’t matter, it is done, let’s move on; let’s pretend it never happened. So, to say that they were stunned that those words came out of my mouth is an understatement; and I was equally as surprised. I later apologized to them for throwing that question out there like that as I know it was awkward for them; but that early morning Facebook check on June 12th brought that same huge question to the forefront of my mind. I, along with the rest of the world are asking, why?
That night, none of them gave me any sort of Christian cliche’ answers, in fact for the most part they all just starred at me (and for that I am grateful). I wanted the words back; but it was too late and certainly the question was a reflection of something playing in the background of my mind. Their response to my question, I think, painted a perfect picture of our world right now. We see people with blank stares. We see tears, buckets and buckets of tears. We see anger, enough anger to run a nuclear power plant. We see people with opinions and solutions, albeit not as simple as we would like. We see fear; crippling fear. And all of those things; all of them are just versions of the same question I had for my own pain and trauma, “why”–can anybody just tell me why? And why did some people live and some people die? Why didn’t God chose to save all of them? Why couldn’t the killer be captured and punished instead of taking the cowardly way out of his actions? And of most import, why are we now living in a war zone?
The answers to those questions seem simple to some; but we all know it’s not that simple. Or is it? Just like my question in that hotel room with some of my closest friends; sometimes it is just beyond human comprehension. All week, I have watched as the story continues to unfold, and the tears don’t stop, I didn’t know anybody that was killed; but it doesn’t stop me from me asking the question; and so I do.
The truth is that question, or my question, may never be answered on this side of heaven. And somehow, we have to be okay with that. It doesn’t mean that we don’t take action; it doesn’t mean that we don’t attempt to figure out even a portion of that giant question. And everybody will try to get the answer to this question in the way they always have; and for me it lands me before my God Who I do not understand; a God I (sometimes) I think has forgotten me; a God Who has a history of walking the entire world through unimaginable suffering. A God of Hope not only for eternity but for here, the “land of the living”. But…I have to live here, on earth, so, what now?
Our next actions are going to be be hard; as is the realization that we don’t live in a safe world. There are scars that will remain; and we can hope that those scars will teach us something and help us answer the giant question with just three letters. It would be sad if these tragedies didn’t produce something that will remain after we are gone; therefore, it must serve as a call to action for every single one of us.
The reason behind your question or mine doesn’t matter; it’s a valid question; and it is a right and a healthy question. And while we may never get answers, may the question spur us into responsible action to be citizens of the world; doing the best we can to take care of each other and not harm others whether it be in a story like mine; a story like 49 people in Orlando; or countless others over the last two decades. Our most important responsibility is to figure out how to keep asking the question without fighting each other.
As for me, I am alive; I wasn’t shot in a mass killing. But the trauma in my life sometimes feels like an ambush. It sometimes feels like it is never going to end; but I still want to know “why did you do it for them and not me?”. And my “them” I don’t just mean my friends in that room, but for versions of redeemed protection stories all over the world. I imagine the family members of those that died in the Orlando shootings are feeling a little like that right about now.
While I began writing this so that people across all faiths would read to the end, the responsibility is not lost on me to tell you that our only Hope is not here. It is not found in gun law reform; understanding sexual orientation; or understanding straight up evil. It is found in the only One that died so that this whole world could live. Hope, that is the answer. Hope, in the land of the living. Because of that Hope, we have Healing, healing in the land of the living. My friend’s starring at me and not giving me some sort of canned answer brought some healing to me that night. And while Christians cling to Jesus during this dark time in our history, we do not pretend to understand and we have the same emotions that everyone else has. We do not pretend to have an earthly answer to this question; this universal question to all suffering….why?
Most assuredly, I (we) may never get the totality of the answer “why” in Orlando, or even my own version of the biggest question in the world. Until then, I will not let go of the out stretched hand that holds the reasons WHY.
“I know down here I may not understand, I won’t let go of the outstretched hand, for it holds the reasons why”. 4HIM