It’s Not That Deep

Dear Hallie,

Today is Mother’s Day and just like every other second Sunday in May for the last ten years, I find myself experiencing a tidal wave of grief mingled gladness. It’s difficult to believe I’ve survived ten Mother’s Days without my mom around to share in the joys and burdens of my own motherhood journey, or without being able to thank her for the legacy of sacrifice and joy she has left for her daughters and her seven grandchildren. While my heart overflows with gratitude that I get to be the “Spaulding Mom”, it sinks with sadness that there are no grandmothers around to share in the indescribable joy that comes with watching you all grow-up.

After a lovely breakfast and worship service with all my favorite people this morning, I retreated to my butterfly garden as I often do lately when tidal waves of emotion threaten to knock me down. It was in my garden just now that your current slogan for life (the one we are all trying to eradicate from your vocabulary) kept interrupting my thoughts. Your throaty, monotone, unimpressed insistence that “it’s not that deep,” is your current way of reminding us all to lighten up a little and soak in the sunshine. Of course, we are all pretty sure you mean these words to annoy us as often as you mean to make us lighten up and laugh.

You were born an optimist, so during your fifth year of life when both your grandmother’s died, it’s not surprising you didn’t hold tightly to the painful memories of suffering and loss that surrounded both of their illnesses and deaths. When you share memories of your grandmothers, they are always full of playgrounds, presents, and dance parties. True to your nature, you held tight to the sunshine despite the years of caregiving and grief that consumed our family (especially your mom) during that season. I know it was as difficult for you as it was for the rest of us, but you rarely shed any tears. You have always had your own way of making sense of and dealing with your losses- mainly avoiding tidal waves of grief at all costs, either by distracting everyone with your antics or by spreading around your contagious sunshine. One evening not long after we’d said our final goodbyes to your grandmas, I was tucking you in for the night when your Nana came up in conversation. You looked at me with somber insistence and said, “can we please not talk about Nana anymore so you will stop crying.” Pretty sure that was just your five-year-old version of, “it’s not that deep!”

Nana died ten years ago at the end of March. Aunt Kellie and I were the only people in the world who realized ten years without her here came and went. I marked it by taking her memory with me on errands she’d have enjoyed. I walked through an antique shop and bought a necklace reminiscent of the heart one she always wore, and a small original Rudyard Kipling poetry book. She didn’t necessarily love poetry, but she did love old books still wearing their dust jackets, so she’d have approved. Next, I went to “Wild Birds Unlimited” to stock up on seed for my feeders in hopes her red cardinals might join in the chorus of bird songs soon. Lastly, I spent a bunch of money at my favorite gardening store. I love the wildflower seed mix in full bloom out back, but every year it gets trickier to know who’s a flower and who’s a weed. After four years one invasive weed officially took over my beloved butterfly garden which had previously been teeming with a beautiful assortment of pollinators and host plants. This spring I have chosen to limit the wildflower mix to a smaller confined space in the garden, and I’ve intentionally planted specific flowers in defined areas making many of the intrusive weeds easier to spot and remove.

Just now in my Mother’s Day gardening therapy session, I set to work watering, pulling weeds, and replanting my Pincushion Flower plant. The first time your words “it’s not that deep,” came to mind was while I was filling the bird bath with fresh water from the garden hose. I rolled my eyes as your annoying mantra was nothing more than a restatement of the obvious. The thirsty ground drinks in the cool water on contact so the only chance for my birds and butterflies to find a drink in this Houston heat is to keep the shallow cement bowl filled. It’s a good thing the bowl is “not that deep” or else we might be unintentionally creating space for those cursed mosquitos to breed. I detest those mosquitoes as much as I detest the invasive weeds that threaten to kill and destroy all that’s meant to blossom, live, and grow.

I considered your infamous words a second time as I began pulling the unwanted weeds out at the root, and I smiled with gratitude for weeds with roots “not that deep.” It really is easy to identify the unwelcome growth on the cultivated side of the garden where boundaries are clear, and every flower is known by name. In no time at all I found and removed any new growth that might be a threat. On the side of the garden teeming with interwoven wildflower sprouts of all sorts, it’s much harder to know who is a friend. I’ve learned to identify the Mercury weed that wreaked havoc last year, and today set to tearing any trace of it out at the root. I’m thankful the Mercury weed does not have roots that run deep, and as long as I’m diligent in tending the garden that weed will never be able to destroy this sacred space again.

Once more your insistence “it’s not that deep,” entered my conscious mind as I discovered the little Pincoushin Flower plant did not look so great. Upon closer examination it was clear the hole I’d originally dug for this plant was not nearly deep enough, and the dirt I’d packed around the top of the plant had been washed away by last week’s torrential downpour. I set to work digging a little deeper and packing the topsoil a little tighter, making sure all the exposed roots are now safe and secure underground. That poor plant was “not that deep”, but it should have been!

Please keep reminding us that we are all so prone to make too big a deal out of things in life that really are “not that deep.” Keep making us laugh, keep reminding us to be grateful, and keep spreading your sunshine everywhere you go; even as you trust the Lord to daily fill your cup to overflow with living water and satisfy your every need.

But sometimes realize there are weeds growing in and around you that are important to tend to. If you let them take root and grow out of control, they can kill that which the Lord means to blossom, flourish, and grow. A choice that seems small, insignificant, and shallow might end up destroying everything you love and have worked hard for (or at the very least landing you in another Saturday detention!)

And finally, you need to know there are some things that really are that deep. Grief, friendship, love, joy, family, faith, justice, truth, beauty. Dig deep, and then let these things take root down in your soul. Let them matter to you. Let yourself feel them. Let them blossom, grow, and flourish. Let them change you.

I realize I can be a little too sentimental sometimes, and you are not the first to try to convince me “it’s not that deep!” Your Nana would regularly tell me to “stop making a thing out of nothing,” even as she’d strive to make the hard things in life feel light and spread her optimism and sunshine around everywhere she went. If she were here today, I’d want her to know I’m learning to hold lightly the things that really are “not that deep,” but other things, (like my love and gratitude for her) run far deeper than she ever knew. I would want to tell her that her brief beautiful life did matter, and it matters still as her legacy lives on in the lives of her children and her grandchildren. Hallie Lousie, you share much more than just your name with your grandmothers. Their legacies of hard work, sacrifice, joy, and gratitude live on in you, and their connection with you really is “that deep!”

Love,

Mom

The Rain

Dear Kori Jane,

Twelve years ago almost to the day, you and I  were  heading to a little neighborhood carnival right by our home that we had passed that morning on our way to church.  It was nothing fancy, just some hand painted wooden games set out on card tables and a bounce house or two, but no party no matter how big or small has ever escaped your notice.    It was a couple of weeks before your fourth birthday and you were long overdue some fun quality time with your mom. When you noticed the gathering again on our way home, and through excited squeals begged to go play, I couldn’t say no!    After dropping your Daddy, your baby brother, and your baby sister off at home we headed back to see what exactly all those balloons, tents, and bounce houses were inviting us to. 

I circled some field a few times and ended up parking a good bit further than I wanted, but the joy and anticipation on your face as you bounced towards the crowd told me that nothing was going to ruin this day for you- certainly not a long walk to the entrance. Well almost nothing. Just as we finally crossed the threshold of the carnival (or the fair-never did find out for sure what it was) the first rain drop fell. I looked up and timidly kept walking forward, but when we reached the first booth the skies which had been completely clear just moments before opened up and a torrential down pour began. Within seconds people everywhere were running for cover. Booths, tents and bounce houses were being taken down at record speeds, and without a thought I grabbed your hand intending to start the long trek back to the car but at a much faster speed. You pulled in the opposite direction, and began to adamantly insist that we stay and play. It didn’t take me long to convince you there was no more fun happening as we were both standing in the middle of an ever-thinning crowd completely drenched to the bone- the rain had changed everything- in a moment.

When we finally got to the car, I could not tell where the raindrops ended and where your tears began.  It would not be the biggest heartbreak of your life, but I’m pretty sure it may have been the biggest thus far.  Or at least it is the first big heartbreak I remember, but that could be because I was struggling with processing a heartbreak of my own that day.  Well, as we joined the other cars in a race to get out of the crowded, wet field that had been transformed into a parking lot, your questions began.  You have always been full of questions.  Not the “but why” or the “what happened” questions but the deep, thought provoking, meaning of life kinds of questions.  There has always been a deep hunger in your soul for beauty, truth and meaning.   A passion for life like no other child I have ever known.

Through your tears you asked me “Mommy, why did God let it rain today?  Didn’t he know that we were going to have so much fun?  Didn’t He know that there was so much to do?  Why did He let it rain? Why?”

I tried to give you a little pre-school theology lesson and explain just how much God loved you, and how rain is one of the ways He shows His love and His strength.  I started to quote some bible verses about how He “provides rain for the earth” and how He is “a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm.”   I desperately wanted you to understand that God is good, and that He can be trusted even when the rain messes up our plans. That in fact He is the only thing this side of heaven that can be trusted.  But I quickly realized that you were still too young to understand all that quite yet.  You were not mature enough to see beyond your own little reality, and your ideas and plans for that moment were the only ideas and plans that you could fathom being good.  So I opted instead to let you ask why, while I started making promises of greater joys yet to come- other fairs and carnivals and even a world where all the princesses live that would blow those old bounce houses and wooden bean bag toss games out of the park.  And then we stopped and adopted a baby-doll who needed a new home from our favorite thrift store, followed by sharing a snow cone at the little blue snowball shack that sits in the parking lot of said thrift store.

By the time we got home you were back to your creative, passionate, playful self and ever ready to make up a game or put on a show for any willing audience.  The only hint of sadness left was the sadness you felt for the other baby dolls at Family Thrift who had not yet been adopted.  But for me, it was time for my daily visit with my sister.  Aunt Heather, diagnosed with terminal cancer eighteen months prior, had been moved to a hospice facility near our home.  Because she was so young and otherwise healthy, it took the cancer much longer to destroy her body than any of the doctors expected.  It was an impossible 18 months watching her slowly die, and the last two months were especially difficult as she desperately tried to hang on for dear life.  That day when I got to her bedside, she was in a particularly deep sleep.  When I pulled her beautiful long black hair out of her face and straightened her covers she did not even flinch.  So I sat down in the large arm chair by her bed, looked out the window and ever so quietly whispered the word “Why?” 

“Oh, God, why?”  “Don’t you know how young she is, don’t you know that there is so much fun still to be had?  Don’t you know how busy I am with three kids under the age of 4 that need me- why do I have to be here watching my sister die when she should be helping me teach them how to live?”

“Why cancer? Why suffering? Why sadness? Why death? Why?”

And even as I was still gazing out the window, asking my questions- the pelting rain started again just as suddenly as it had at the fair several hours before.    And with the rain came the reminder that He is “a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm.”   God is good and He can be trusted even when the rain (or the cancer) messes up our plans, and in fact He is the only thing this side of heaven that can be trusted.  And then I knew that like you, I too am not yet able to understand the whys.  I struggle to see beyond my own little reality, my ideas of what is right, and my plans for today.  I knew from my earlier conversation with you that asking why was just part of the grieving, but even in my asking and grieving the Lord too has made promises of greater joys yet to come. 

Two days after the rain ruined our plans, Aunt Heather got to see the promise of greater joy completely fulfilled as she took her last breath on this earth at the age of 31.

When I was a young child I remember thinking that real people don’t die.  People on the news or in movies sure, but not people you know in real life- and especially not people you love.   When I was in the fifth grade, my Uncle Jimmy died, and I remember that was my first funeral and the first time I felt real genuine grief.  Like the tangible grief that you carry around everywhere you go, even though no one else can see it.  By the time you were in fifth grade, you had already grieved the loss of four people that you loved.  Your Aunt Heather, a teacher at your school, and both of your grandmothers.   I do not have to tell you that you had two of the most amazing grandmothers that ever lived.  My mom was more like a second mom to you, and no doubt your favorite person on the planet.  We would laugh because most of your friends mom’s were closer to Nana’s age than mine, and often people thought she actually was your mom.  She was young, beautiful, and never ever lost her child’s heart.   Daddy’s mom was the perfect Grandma- broke all our rules and was the only other human I’ve ever known to have as much energy as you- which meant that she would get on the floor and play with you until we demanded you both go to bed.  She spoiled you rotten and loved you to pieces. 

Nana- age 53- and her four grand babies, two days before she went to Heaven.

Eventually in the midst of all the rain and storms that kept disturbing our family’s plans, you stopped asking questions and started writing journals, poems, and stories instead.  In fact, when you woke to learn the news of Nana’s death you did not ask a single question or shed a single tear.  You went to your room and you wrote a poem.  In the days and weeks that followed, I could not contain my tears and your lack of tears made me wonder if you were even sad at all- that is until I would stumble upon your writing.  I realize now that even at the age of 8, your thoughts were far too deep and your pain far too real for you to express without the help of a paper and a pen. 

Probably by Kori Jane age 8

Probably walking on water.

Probably walking through walls.

Probably laying on clouds.

Probably already bowed to Him.

Probably shaking His hands.

Definitely loving Heaven.

While I am walking on land.

While I am swimming though waters.

If you were me you’d understand- RAIN.

Not the kind of rain that falls from the sky.

It is when tears fly by.

Once again the line between the rain and your tears was blurred.  But your words even then assured me that despite your grief you were trusting in the promises of far greater joys.

There is no doubt that you understand rain.  The way it changes everything in a moment, the way it hurts and heals, the way it grows us and grieves us. How it can be both devastating and beautiful all at the same time.

You have certainly watched as it has changed me.  It’s no wonder that your tears no longer easily flow when you have grown up watching your mother’s tears flow far too easily.  In many ways you’ve had no choice but to grow up quickly. That first Christmas after both of your grandmas died, I was still trying hard to pick myself up off the floor, and figure out how to do holidays as the 32 year old matriarch of our family. But you were determined this would be the best Christmas ever starting with a spectacular lights display in our yard.  With your usual passion and flare you were tearing into the boxes that Daddy had dutifully brought down from the attic which were filled with decorations and lights.  You were handing out jobs to each of your three siblings and both of your parents, ensuring that not a single part of the yard was left bare.  As I was watching the lights go up, it became obvious to me that like usual, your big, bold, bright ideas were being executed without much planning or forethought.  That coupled with Daddy’s lack of designer instincts was stressing me out. The tree he was wrapping ran out of branches, so he decided that he would stretch the lights to a neighboring tree leaving a single strand of lights floating in mid-air between them.    I snapped and I said some unkind things to Daddy. I won’t go into details about the volume or tone of my voice- or the specific unkind words that came out of my mouth as that is not the point of this story!   The point is that you followed me to the wooden bench swing in our side yard and without speaking a word, gently sat down and placed your hand on my knee as I stared out into space allowing my tears to flow freely.   When one your siblings came to ask me a question you would answer for me as I continued to just stare off unable to find words with which to respond.  And when Daddy came over to kindly inquire as to what exactly he had done to upset me so much, you intuitively answered him by saying “Daddy, don’t you remember that Nana always hung the Christmas lights.”   After a while you drug me inside and insisted that we get busy on the Christmas Tree.   You were ten.  Wise and compassionate beyond your years-no doubt a wisdom and compassion that only can grow where there has been a lot of rain.

This month you will be sixteen and last month you went to yet another funeral.  I was so thankful to hear you mumble the question “why” when we told you that Grandpa was so near the end.  I worry sometimes that all the rain will make you angry or cold.  That you watching me through all my years of grief and tears will just be another storm for you to endure on your journey.   But when you asked why you had to loose someone else you loved- why you had to go to another funeral- why you had to be the only teenager you knew without grandparents.  I knew that all the rain had only made you stronger and more alive.  I knew that you did not really need an answer- just time and space to grieve and maybe a reminder that there are promises of greater joys yet to come. 

Thank you Kori Jane for helping me understand rain, for teaching me to dance in the rain, and helping me find the rainbows and flowers that the rain leaves behind.  Flowers which include your profound wisdom, tender compassion, intense passion and gentle strength.

I love you forever!

Mom

Charm Bracelets

Dear Hallie,

When I was in the fourth grade, I sold enough Girl Scout cookies to win the custom-made, sterling silver, James Avery, puppy dog charm. This was back when the awards were special enough to motivate the selling of a ridiculous number of cookies. Turns out the hours of door-to-door selling followed by more hours of door-to-door deliveries were well worth it. That year my mom, your Nana, made significant sacrifices to buy me my very own James Avery charm bracelet, which as you know I still wear with pride.

When your older sister was born, Nana was given her own James Avery charm bracelet by her best friend Lonnie, which she added to upon the birth of each of her grandchildren as a way to brag about them everywhere she went.  When her first granddaughter turned six years old, Nana deemed her ready for a charm bracelet of her own, and so continues the family tradition of charm bracelets. 

You were only four years old when your nana was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so not yet old enough to have received a bracelet of your own. The ten months that followed her diagnosis remain to this day some of the most challenging of my entire life. But those days of juggling four young children amid hospital visits, chemo treatments, and watching my own mother wither and fade were eventually replaced with days, months, and years of grieving her death.

Before her final breath, your Nana found things to pass on to each of her four grandchildren.  To you she passed on the charm bracelet she wore on her own wrist.  Some of the charms were removed and given to the rest of us- each of us graciously accepted the charms eager to carry pieces of her with us everywhere we went.  But to you she left her bracelet, and on it a single letter H molded in beautiful cursive script.

H- for Hallie- a name that the both of you share. Of course, your name and your bracelet are not the only things that you got from your Nana- you also got your stubbornness, your playfulness, your strength, and your unique ability to mesmerize and delight young children.

On your sixth birthday (instead of the customary bracelet) you received your second charm. It was a little sculpture of the American Sign Language sign for “I Love You,” and it was given to you by Daddy’s mom- your Mamaw.

As you know, Mamaw was born deaf, but what you likely do not remember is that she spent every minute of the last 8 years of her life pouring herself into her grandchildren and finding ways to speak love to them without ever speaking a single word out loud. That was right up until one month after your sixth birthday when your Mamaw joined your Nana in heaven.

The next few years saw the addition of more charms. Uncle Randy (your Mamaw’s brother) supported your love of sports by adding a basketball.  Your older brother wanted you to know that you were the princess of the family, and he gifted you a castle charm. Your sister thought it should be made clear that she was the oldest among you, so she gave you a charm that declared you the middle sister.

In second grade you befriended a little boy in the medically fragile class at your school named Beau. Although Beau is nonverbal and wheelchair bound, you managed to learn his language and grow a beautiful friendship with him that continues to this day. His mother has become one of my dearest friends, and she never ceases to remind me of the forever impact you have had on her and her amazing son, simply by becoming his first and his best friend. As 5th grade ended, and you and Beau would no longer be attending the same school, his mother gifted you a charm that depicts a young boy and girl with clasped hands to be a forever reminder of your special friendship.

A couple months later, Hurricane Harvey dumped 51 inches of rain on our city.   Since you rarely took your bracelet off, you knew exactly where it had been left the night of the storm. We’d intended to make a trip to the mall that day to have your new charm soldered on, but instead found ourselves stocking up on bottled water and non-perishable food items in anticipation of the storm’s landfall.  So, after canoeing to safety the following morning, you quickly recognized that your charm bracelet was still in our car under 6 feet of water. After the floods subsided 14 days later, we sported face masks and held our breaths as we crawled around the soggy slimy suburban in search of your bracelet which was never found.

Of all the many, many material things that you lost in the flood, this one hurt you the most. It hurt me too, and when Beau’s mom heard about the bracelet, she set out to make it right. She penned a letter to Mr. Avery himself telling your story- the story that your bracelet used to tell. The story of two grandmas that you only vaguely remember, the story of your friendship with her son and the story of all that Harvey had stolen from you.  And in response to your story, Mr. Avery replaced not only your bracelet, but also every one of your lost charms. Beau’s mom decided that your bracelet needed to tell this part of your story as well, so she added a tiny canoe charm to your collection.

Last month your cousin Emilie turned six. While Nana was not here to celebrate the birth of any of Aunt Kellie’s babies, I was determined to continue the charm bracelet tradition in her memory. This is when I first noticed that you were not wearing your bracelet. Your cousin Emilie was on her way over, and I wanted to make sure she understood the significance of this right of passage so I told everyone to get their bracelets on.

Immediately I knew. I wish I could say that I responded with grace as you fell apart right in front of my eyes, but I was so upset. So as the story that you had been holding inside for more than a month came bursting forth, complete with tears and trembling, so did my own frustration. How could you lose your bracelet again? How could you not tell me? Why suffer alone bearing this burden by yourself when I may have been able to fix it had you just told me when it happened? Am I really that scary? Can I not be trusted?

Without a plan, you assured me that you were going to fix it.  Perhaps you were still determined to find it at school despite the strong evidence that it had been stolen. Or perhaps you were going to take odd jobs or sell some of your things to try to replace it yourself. More than likely you were trying to push the thought of it as far out of your mind as possible, and just hope that the problem would simply go away.

I finally calmed down, and then just assumed that you would be getting a new charm bracelet for some future birthday. We would start a new collection, which of course would never include the charms or the meaning that your other TWO bracelets held.

That was until last week when I had to stop by your school to return your brother’s laptop. Ms. Julie greeted me at the front desk with her usual enthusiasm and infectious smile.  As we were saying our last goodbyes for the summer, she asked if I needed anything else. Here is the conversation that followed:

“Oh yes, I just remembered- any chance Hallie’s bracelet turned up?”

“Oh Ms. Spaulding, I’m so glad she finally told you! She showed up in tears the day it was stolen, and we spent the rest of the afternoon and the weeks that followed playing detective together. She told me how special it was to her! She told me about her grandmas, and about the flood. I kept encouraging her to tell you it was missing, but I think she was just so certain she could fix it on her own.”

And just like that I understood. In a moment I knew exactly why you did not come to me for help!  And before I could even think about what I was saying, these words tumbled out of my mouth, and landed on the front desk lady-

“Isn’t that what I do every day!” I blurted out. “I am so determined to fix my own problems…to fix myself, that I refuse to go to the One who has all the fixes and answers I will ever need.  I hide from the One who knows me best and loves me most.”

Hallie, you hid it from me because you cannot possibly comprehend how much I love you, or how much I want to help you. You hid it from me because you overestimate your own strength, and you underestimate how much you still need your mom. You hid it from me because you want my approval, and somehow think that I could not love you despite all your imperfections. You hid it because you cannot comprehend the fact that I know you better than anyone, and yet I love you more than anyone- bracelet or no bracelet! 

Ms. Julie and I shared a moment and a tear. And then she reminded me that it happened to be the last day of James Avery’s annual “buy two charms get a bracelet free” sale.

I got into the car and drove straight home eager to replace your stolen charm bracelet with a brand spankin’ new shiny one!

I will never forget the look of confusion on your face when I told you where we were going. I will never forget your insistence that you would pay me back no matter how many times I told you that it was a gift- that you owed me nothing- that it brought me such joy to do this for you.  And I will never forget the tear in your eye when you asked me why I was doing this for you?

It’s because you are my child Hallie, and I love you.  I’ve always loved you, and nothing you do is going to make me stop loving you.  I want what is best for you, and I delight in giving you good gifts, tending to your wounds, and meeting your needs.  I want you to trust me, and next time you face something hard I want you to come to me with it.

And may the tiny sterling silver cross that we added to your newest charm bracelet last week serve as a reminder that His grace is truly free and that He can always be trusted. And I pray that you will fully understand now (as a twelve year old girl) what it took you losing two charm bracelets for me to fully understand- because we are His children, He delights in giving us good gifts, tending to our wounds, and meeting our deepest needs.

Third times a charm!

Love,

Mom